It is one sad day in Bikini Bottom. The creator of the most beloved cartoon of its generation has passed away. His creation was a simple one, a kitchen sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. It is hard to imagine that such an absurd premise would have a lasting impact on society, but it did.
Stephen Hillenburg was more than just an animator. He was a man with a deep passion for the ocean, and it was this trait the primary motivation that made him create the character of Spongebob Squarepants. When it premiered in 1999, it was an instant success, and as the years passed by, its popularity continued to grow beyond anyone’s expectations. Many have tried to figure out just what made the show so iconic. For years they have failed to notice that the answer can be found in the delicate nature of the character’s conception.
Spongebob has left a cultural impact on almost every member of my generation. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, man or woman, or from another country. Everybody loves Spongebob and knows who he is. As my generation grew, the more we have come to see how big of an impact he truly had. For years his name has been mentioned on every corner of social media. References and quotes from the show are part of our daily vocabulary. The fondest childhood memories many of us have involve Spongebob in one way or another. Much like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Homer Simpson came to define a part of their respective generations, the little yellow sponge from under the sea will forever be engraved in the hearts of millions.
What made Spongebob so special can be traced back to its creator. The sense of wonder and amazement that the character of Spongebob had on everything he did is a direct attribute to Hillenburg. It is a set of emotions that has come to define the character and its popularity. Despite all the negativity my generation is prone to exalt, Spongebob is the one bright spot, the one glimmer of hope and fun that has remained inside our souls through all the negativity.
Perhaps Hillenburg’s impact can best be appreciated through a song that has become synonymous with Spongebob: Ocean Man. Written and performed by the band Ween, it tells the tale of a man in a state of glee and contemplation as he gazes at the ocean with optimism and child-like wonder. The song was used as the end theme for The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, in the scene where Spongebob fulfills his dream of becoming a manager. Many fans see this moment as the spiritual end of the show.
The song invokes a deep nostalgia to many of its listeners. Its arrangements, soothing chord progressions, and relaxing melodies are strong enough to leave many in tears as they take a trip down memory lane. Part of what makes the song so enduring is its length. At only 2 minutes and 7 seconds long, it feels as if a short trip to the happiest place on Earth was taking place. It captures the essence and tranquility of the waves to perfect pitch. You can feel the breeze and see the ocean in all its splendor throughout the entirety of the tune, and when it ends, you are left gazing into the wonder that is life.
With Hillenburg’s passing, the song now takes on a new significance, a new meaning. It now celebrates the life of a man who took his passions and made them accessible to millions with animation and storytelling, and who created a cultural icon for all the right reasons. Stephen Hillenburg is now the Ocean Man. May his memory live on as the waves of the sea.