Setting the scene: A woman is lounging in a garden tub, bubbles tickling her chin and warm water caressing her skin. The aroma of scented candles delights her nose and the flicker of their flames delights her eyes. Music is piped through speakers on the vaulted ceiling.
Seated on the edge of the tub is a small child, playing with a ball of hot pink Moon Sand. (This woman, a mother, has learned not to expect her tub moments to resemble a Calgon commercial past a point.)
Presently, the sound of The Stylistics wafts from the speakers–“People Make the World Go Round.”
…But that’s what makes the world go ’round
The up and down, the carousel
Changing people, they’ll go around
Go underground, young man
People make the world go ’round…
The young child playing with pink Moon Sand at the edge of the tub says absently, “Mommy, is this singer a man or a lady?”
The woman soaking in the bubble bath tub is used to discussing the sometimes mis-match of sound-of-voice and gender-of-singer with the child: No this is a man his name is Prince; yes this is a lady her name is Toni Braxton… “A man.” The child considers, still shaping the sand into bowls and snakes.
Then the child says, “Mommy, the man singing this song sounds a little like Mrs. Puff. You know: From SpongeBob SquarePants.”
A movie version of the scene would at this point feature the sound effect of a record player arm being ripped from the LP spinning on its turntable.
The Stylistics. Mrs. Puff from SpongeBob. The Stylistics and Mrs. Puff from SpongeBob?
This is a juxtaposition that the woman is now compelled to consider. First of all, a closer listen to the lead vocals verifies that, yes, it does sound quite a bit like how SpongeBob’s boating instructor would sound were she to croon about the state of the world. Second, the woman knows, with a sense of both whimsy and loss, that she will now forever listen to this Stylistics classic with the image of an animated puffer fish in a skirt superimposed on the audio.
Part of being a woman who does not live in the magical world of Calgon commercials involves reconciling such juxtapositions, reframing them such that they sit comfortably in her world. So she reflects how Black music has had a long tradition incorporating all manner of popular culture–including cartoons. There is, for one, the Woody Woodpecker laugh in the Michael Henderson novelty tune, “Wide Receiver.” Parliament, the Gap Band, George Duke, and many others have incorporated nursery rhymes, television commercials, and Bruce Lee films into their lyrics and music. And the Jackson 5 were at one time animated. And Michael had a pet snake.
The woman relaxes back into the warm embrace of the tub.
“Yup,” she says calmly. “It sure does sound like Mrs. Puff.”
At which point a small glob of pink goo plops into the water near her right knee. She dives her hand beneath the fragrant bubbles and fishes it out, handing the now slippery ball back to the child perched on the edge.