Tastemaker is a recurring feature in which Strange Currencies contributors share stories of the events, experiences, and cultural artifacts that helped in shaping their musical tastes.
The spring of 2019 will forever hold a special place in my heart: the Phillies, for a time, had been sitting comfortably in first place in the National League East; Pixies and Weezer were in the midst of a mind-boggling co-headline tour; and I was preparing for the promising summer ahead. In the midst of MODA Center concerts and AP tests was the 2019 Spring National High School Journalism Convention in Anaheim, California. Included with four days of lectures centered around journalism was a day spent a little less than a mile away at Disneyland.
My day at Disneyland was far from the first I had spent there, but it was the first since I had developed a sort of obsession over it. Spurred on by online forums, YouTube videos, and podcasts, my appreciation of the finer details of “Disneyana” started to outpace any sort of love for the rides or characters most people think of when they go. It’s the kind of love for something that only the most dedicated – or bored, if we’re being honest – nerds can get to.
For any of those who have ever visited, it may not come as a surprise that the main thing that brought forth my curiosity was the music of the park. Growing up with a basic Disneyland compilation on my iPod, songs like “It’s a Small World” and “Grim Grinning Ghosts” quickly would populate the soundtrack of staying up late at night, absentmindedly looking for an excuse to let the otherworldliness of childhood nostalgia wash over me.
However, these windows into my past would turn out to become some of the most important doors to my future endeavors into “Mid-Century Kitsch” music. The background music, or loops, that are heard around the park are full of hidden mid-century-influenced gems that fully embrace some of the more campy elements of their genres. One of the best examples of the area loops is the “Adventureland Suite” – a roughly five-minute-long orchestrated piece, that while holding back on some exotica elements, builds the sense of escapism that defines mid-century kitsch.
The most iconic, and obvious, example of Disneyland exotica is none other than Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Inconveniently sitting right next to the bottle-necked entrance of Adventureland, The Tiki Room most likely was the first exposure many of us ever had to exotica music. The 17-minute-long show bounces from singalong serenades like “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” and “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” to more atmospheric pieces like “The War Chant Suite.” It’s because of this air-conditioned room full of mechanical birds that I was able to find the right angle to approach exotica. It was easier to “let in” the illusion that Martin Denny created in his works, because I already had a contemporary piece from that same era that I knew by heart.
Before we move on from Adventureland – and exotica – I just wanted to briefly mention how much visual representation of exotica there is in Adventureland. From attractions like The Jungle Cruise and Indiana Jones & the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, to the newly-opened Tropical Hideaway food court, Disneyland’s Adventureland stands as the greatest “real world” testament to exotica as a visual platform.
Moving north, literally and metaphorically, we find Frontierland. Not as green or as crowded as Adventureland, Frontierland is home to the western sounds of the 1950s. Walking around the fictional mining town of Rainbow Ridge, you’ll hear everything from a runaway mine train, far off gunslingers, and a lonesome guitar playing cowboy. Like the rest of the park, Frontierland leans heavily on the subtle use of a music loop to draw guests into the immersion of being in a 19th century mining town.
While mostly known for being the “wildest ride in the wilderness,” Frontierland’s premiere attraction, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, is host to one of the best loops in the entire park. Played mostly while waiting in line, Big Thunder Mountain’s area loop contains some of the best original music made for Disneyland, as well as some fantastic versions of western standards from the 1950s. While all of them are great, the real standout track, “Roamin’ the Lawless West,” particularly feels like an instrumental straight off of Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
While standing in line for Big Thunder Mountain, you might notice a scaled-down western town just beyond the final turn into the main loading station. This set piece is a remnant of Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, the original premier attraction in Frontierland. Closed in 1977, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland was a slow-moving train ride through multiple western-themed set pieces; the last of which was the awe-inspiring Rainbow Caverns. Rainbow Caverns would grow into the Disneyland mythos, due in part to the little that we actually know about it. Other than a few promotional photos, all that is left from the once beloved caverns is a small tribute in the ride that replaced it, and the otherworldly soundtrack that gives Russ Garcia a run for his money.
Moving on from the world of yesterday into the promise of the future, our voyage into Tomorrowland brings us once again to the music of the past. Unlike Adventureland and Frontierland, Tomorrowland has lost some of the original mid-century flair that once welcomed guests into the world of tomorrow. But almost constant redesigns and Star Wars overlays haven’t stopped websites like Sounds of the Disneyland Resort from preserving truly fantastic music from some of the best attractions of the past. One such example is the loading platform loop from the old People Mover. Not quite as spacey as the works of artists like Joe Meek, The People Mover loop perfectly captures the feeling of optimism about a rapidly approaching future.
Another lost classic is the original score for Tomorrowland’s “E-ticket” ride, Space Mountain. Not only was this piece my first introduction to space age pop sounds, but it was also one of the first surf rock songs that I remember hearing. A dramatic orchestra accompanied by a heavy use of sci-fi effects is abruptly interrupted by an extremely solid performance by none other than the King of Surf himself, Dick Dale. I think this soundtrack shows just how thin the line between mid-century kitsch genres can be, but isn’t that just part of the charm?
Not all of the music of the future is lost to the past. One of the most iconic soundtracks in all of Disneyland still preserves some of the original promise of a moving future. I’m of course talking about the main theme for the Disneyland Resort Monorail. Much like the People Mover theme, the Monorail soundtrack lacks the feeling one might automatically associate with the space age, but it captures the sense of optimism that so few corners of American culture had. The minds behind the creation of Disneyland always seemed to be more interested in the promise of the future – as opposed to the adventure of the future – and while I think some more adventurous feelings would’ve fit nicely, it’s hard to argue that their vision wasn’t fulfilled when you hear the soundtrack of the Western Hemisphere’s first monorail.
While our tour of some of the best mid-century kitsch music that Disneyland has to offer is coming to a close, the one attraction that kicked off my obsession with the park has yet to be discussed. Struggling to find a place to fit it in, I’ve decided to save Pirates of the Caribbean for last, simply because it’s the best. Not only is it the best ride in the park, not only does it have the best smell in the park, but it has my favorite mid-century kitsch composition ever. It’s so simple, that most people probably don’t even hear it over the boats crashing into each other, but the song – marked only as “Queue Loop” on Sounds of the Disneyland Resort – somehow captures everything I love about Disneyland in one immersive piece.