Photo courtesy of PBS
Feist on "Sesame Street" in 2008
"Sesame Street" Turns 50: Remembering The Series' Greatest Musical Parodies
From Feist's "1234" to Norah Jones' "Don't Know Y," here are 10 parodies of other people’s songs that the fantastic songwriting crew at "Sesame Street" have lovingly made their own through the years
The two most enduring and unshakable attributes of "Sesame Street"'s 50 years on the air have been multicultural unity and education in the creative arts. And it was music that’s proven to be the quintessential conduit connecting these two primary factors in the program's half-century of success throughout its entire run on television.
Whether it was the creative use of analog synthesizers at the beginning of the very first episode aired on Nov. 9, 1969 to the Pointer Sisters’ pinball song to the guest appearances from such superstars as Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Cher, Cab Calloway, Chaka Khan, Linda Ronstadt and so many more on through to the numerous GRAMMY Awards the show's music department has won over the decades, music has always been the nucleus that keeps the power charged at 1234 Sesame Street.
But perhaps the most appealing aspects of the show’s lifelong love affair with recorded sound has been the virtual songbook that’s been created through the years of Sesame’s world famous song parodies—utilized to put a child-friendly and educational spin on a current hit song of the day.
Here are 10 parodies of other people’s songs that the fantastic songwriting crew at "Sesame Street" have lovingly made their own through the years.
"Two Princes" by The Spin Doctors
"I happened to be watching television one day and as I flipped through the channels I saw Peter Sellers on 'Sesame Street,'” recalls Spin Doctors frontman Chris Barron to the Recording Academy about the band’s appearance on Episode 3450 in Feb. 1996. "'Classic,' I thought, and I watched the rest of the segment. Peter Sellers was followed by Aretha Franklin, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Bruce Springsteen. I called my agent and asked her to call them and see if they wanted Spin Doctors. They got right back and said they'd love to have us.
"Standing on my mark with Telly, the Muppet, I confided to him that I had never worked with puppets before. He put his paw on my forearm, leaned it conspiratorially, and said, 'To tell the truth, neither have I.'"
The show has an amazing creative department who came up with the 'cooperation' version 'Two Princes.' When we arrived on the set, I tweaked a few of the lines to make them sing a little bit better. Standing on my mark with Telly, the Muppet, I confided to him that I had never worked with puppets before. He put his paw on my forearm, leaned it conspiratorially, and said, 'To tell the truth, neither have I.'
You can see that I’m laughing at the beginning of the clip as I walk on camera. I’m very proud to have been a part of that show. Not only because of the great people who have also made appearances, but to be a part of some of the greatest educational programming ever, not to mention, 'Sesame Street' was a big part of my childhood."
"Happy, Furry Monsters" by R.E.M.
It’s hard to really pinpoint what makes this "Sesame Street" version of what many R.E.M. fans consider the group's biggest sonic faux pas so wonderful upon its premiere on Episode 3829 in 1998. Maybe "Daysleeper" from their then-new album Up didn’t jibe with the Muppets. Perhaps it was all centered around that Muppet version of Kate Pierson of the B-52's. When we asked the men themselves, however, this even shinier, happier version of their 1991 hit single had always made sense as a "Sesame" song.
"We might not have done other songs with the Muppets but that one fitted," Mike Mills told the Sun in 2016. "They had already rewritten it as 'Furry Happy Monsters' and we said, ‘All right, why not?’ It’s not as if we were tarnishing its legacy.” That same year, Michael Stipe told NBC's Willie Geist, "It was a song written for children, and it’s still enjoyed in elementary schools around the world as far as I know.
"1234" by Feist
In the Aug. 22, 2019 edition of the New York Times, Leslie Feist spoke at length with writer Melena Ryzik about how her 2007 indie-pop smash "1234" has become more renowned among preschoolers than hipsters in the decade since the tune received its Muppet makeover in 2008 on Episode 4161, the first episode of the show's 39th season that year.
"Do you mind, my 3-year-old has watched it 7,000 times," Feist told the Times in regards to the countless instances she’s been stopped by parents for an autograph. "And I say yes, but I always joke: You notice me because you’re a grown-up—the 3-year-olds are really only interested in the puppets. And without fail, the kids are just sort of looking at me like, who is this weird lady in the airport?’"
But the proof is in the viewer numbers on YouTube. As it stands at press time, the "Sesame" version of "1234" has 281,064,113 views, while the original is capped at 13 million.
"Wrong" by Waylon Jennings
"Sesame"'s first foray into movie theaters with 1985's "Follow That Bird" indeed teemed with heavyweight cameos by such comedy legends as Chevy Chase, John Candy and Sandra Bernhardt. But for young music heads, it was the appearance of the late, great Waylon Jennings as a truck driver who picks up Big Bird along the way, and the two sing a duet together on a song called "Ain’t No Road Too Long" written by the songwrtiting team of Jeff Pennig, Jeff Harrington, and Steve Pippin with additional vocals by Gordon, Grover, Olivia and the Count.
But it was in 1990 when Jennings made his official debut on the Street, appearing on episode 2850 to perform "Wrong," a song from the country great’s then-new album The Eagle, retooled to encourage Big Bird to build a properly standing block tower. Waylon and Big Bird puppeteer Carroll Spinney became pals, with Spinney going on tour with Jennings in the early '90s, where he'd make a cameo as Oscar the Grouch, the other main character he controlled. "It was more like rock 'n' roll than country," Spinney told the Muppets-based blog Tough Pigs. "And when we were in Nashville, he asked me to have Oscar ask him, 'Hey Waylon, what's the best thing about Garth Brooks?’ And then I’d answer him, 'He ain't here!'"
"Just The Way You Are" by Billy Joel
"You hear the song and then you get the piano," Billy Joel assures Oscar the Grouch when he guest starred on Episode 2533 alongside actress Marlee Matlin, mere months removed from her role as a member of the cast for Alex Cox's 1987 Joe Strummer-soundtracked masterpiece Walker. That was the deal the Piano Man set for the Grouch in order to let the beloved garbage monster keep the keys, and Oscar then begrudgingly sat through Joel serenading him with a sweet version of his 1977 hit ballad "Just The Way You Are" as Matlin translated the lyrics in American Sign Language.
Joel's appearance in 1988 came at a time when he had installed a bit of a moratorium on "Just The Way You Are," following his 1982 divorce from first wife Elizabeth Weber. But given he had a little three-year-old Alexa Ray Joel was undoubtedly an avid viewer of the show must have surely cajoled him into changing his tune.
"Don’t Know Y" by Norah Jones
“You came!” smiled Norah Jones to the Letter Y after leading a chorus of all the surviving members of the original "Sesame Street" cast through a welcome song that brought in HBO's 50th Anniversary special on Veteran's Day weekend 2019. It was the perfect little cherry on top of an already impossibly endearing segment that lovingly harkens back to her first appearance on the show on Episode 4081 in May 2004 when she serenaded Elmo with a vowel-friendly version of the song rewritten by longtime "Sesame Street" songwriter Christine Ferraro. "I was supposed to meet my friend today, the Letter of the Day," she told Elmo before breaking into the song. "But Y never showed up." Then they start reflecting on all the "Y" words they know until the penultimate letter in the alphabet finally showed up.
"Hold My Hand" by Hootie & The Blowfish
Even the most ardent Hootie hater cannot help but get the feels for this insanely sweet reworking of their biggest hit, effortlessly rewiring it into a song about—what else?—practicing safety when crossing the street. "I don't know how that came together, but it was really fun," recalls guitarist Mark Bryan, speaking to the Recording Academy. "And they re-wrote the lyrics, not us. We were working off of an instrumental track so we had to re-sing everything, backgrounds and all. On set, I got to pop up through Oscar's trash can, and sit in Big Bird's nest. Literally felt like a little kid."
"There was a palpable magic being on the set of 'Sesame Street' that morning, even as an adult," adds Hootie's chief songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Jim Sonefeld. "It was only slightly dulled by the physical state I was in after another late night in Manhattan. This was a big stretch to have someone change our lyrics this drastically, especially after three self-penned platinum albums. The only reason we did it was the special place in our hearts we all still held for 'Sesame Street.' I remember the producers being grateful for our willingness and ability to adjust to the new lyrics so quickly. They did not have the same level of thanks after seeing our acting skills."
"Barn In The U.S.A." by Bruce Stringbean And The S Street Band
This farm animal singalong from Episode 2991 in 1991 highlights the talents of "Sesame Street"'s longtime in-house lyricist Emily Perl Kingsley, who worked on the show from 1970 to 2015 when she retired having one 21 Emmy Awards for her efforts through the years. As one YouTube viewer commented, this version of the Bruce Springsteen anti-war anthem has a little darkness on the edge of its town in this version led by "Bruce Stringbean And The S Street Band" featuring performances by such Sesame power players as show songwriter Christopher Cerf, the Voice of Elmo himself Kevin Clash, Elmo's World creator Jim Martin and Avenue Q puppeteer Rick Lyons, among others. The song would also be featured on the Children’s Television Workshop album Sesame Street: Born To Add.
"Letter B" By The Beetles
Many "Sesame Street" viewers might not immediately know the name Richard Hunt without Googling. But they will most certainly know many of the beloved Muppets he had voiced in his all-too-short life after succumbing to an AIDS-related illness in 1992. Scooter, Janice, Statler, Beaker and Junior Gorg from "Fraggle Rock" were just some of the characters he portrayed through the years. But one of his truly best works just turned 40 this year when he captained an insect beat group called The Beetles through a rewiring of the title track to the Fabs' 1970 swan song to celebrate everyone's favorite first consonant in the alphabet. You can really hear the Harry Nilsson influence in Hunt’s voice as he sings as well, allowing the song to seamlessly survive ear appeal beyond the visual aspect, giving light to his immense talent taken from us far too soon.
"Don't Take Your Ones To Town" by Johnny Cash
One of the more harrowing gunfighter ballads in the Johnny Cash canon is the cautionary tale "Don't Take Your Guns To Town" from the Man in Black's 1958 LP The Fabulous Johnny Cash. But in 1991, Cash saw his classic tune retold on Episode 2982 into "Don't Take Your Ones To Town," penned by in-house lyricist Christopher Cerf. The "Sesame Street" version finds Big Bird playing "Birdie-Big," a cowpoke who counts to 1 all over town in lieu of Cash's warning until he meets the Count and the Countess, who teach him to count higher.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys Tribute Concert To Feature Performances By John Legend, Brandi Carlile, St. Vincent, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, Weezer & More; Tickets On Sale Now
Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded lineup that also includes Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Pentatonix, Lady A, and many others.
A few days after the 2023 GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy, along with Tenth Planet Productions and CBS, will present A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys, a special tribute concert honoring the legendary, GRAMMY-nominated music icons, the Beach Boys. Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded performer lineup that includes GRAMMY-winning artists and past and current GRAMMY nominees including Beck, Brandi Carlile, Fall Out Boy, Hanson, Norah Jones, Lady A, John Legend, Little Big Town, Michael McDonald, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, Pentatonix, Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Take 6, and Weezer, who will all celebrate and honor the Beach Boys’ everlasting music and impactful career.
A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys will air on the CBS Television Network and will be available live and on demand on Paramount+ at a later date. More info on the event is below.
Wednesday, Feb. 8
Doors: 5:30 p.m. PT
Concert: 6:30 p.m. PT
6801 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Ralph Bavaro/NBC via Getty Images
Listen: Get Jolly With New Holiday Music From Dolly Parton, Phoebe Bridgers, Pentatonix, Alicia Keys & More
This year saw several new holiday albums and singles from artists of all genres, from Backstreet Boys to Gloria Estefan. Get in the spirit with this festive 30-song playlist.
As we're all stringing up colorful lights and scrambling to buy last-minute gifts, music shines as the one constant in our lives amid the rush of the holiday season.
Some playlists have been bursting with holiday music since early autumn, with releases such as Dolly Parton's "A Smoky Mountain Christmas" dropping back in August and Joss Stone's Merry Christmas, Love releasing in September. Since then, several more holiday albums arrived, whether they were new projects from artists such as Alicia Keys and Thomas Rhett or polished deluxe editions from the likes of Reba McEntire and Norah Jones.
Beyond releasing albums, many artists have also found their holiday spirit by releasing festive singles. Remi Wolf brings her bubbly personality to warm covers of "Last Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland," Dan + Shay remind us to throw a "Holiday Party" with loved ones, and Phoebe Bridgers shares her annual holiday cover, this year a rendition of the Handsome Family's "So Much Wine." And even stars such as RuPaul, Jimmy Fallon and Ryan Reynolds surprised with holiday singles this season.
Groups such as Pentatonix and Backstreet Boys joined in on the fun with their own cheery holiday albums, and Gloria Estefan and her family capture the joys of love in a snowglobe on Estefan Family Christmas. Collaborations sparkle with holiday magic as well; Ingrid Michaelson and A Great Big World team up for "It's Almost Christmas," and Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande perform "Santa, Can't You Hear Me" in a thrilling live version.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.