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Two songs from The Muppet Movie
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Why write a blog post somewhere nobody has published in five years, in a new WordPress interface where you recognize… yeah, nothing? Where somehow you can’t even upload a JPG or PNG file you downloaded from another site “for security reasons” without converting it first? Or get paragraph tags or linebreaks working inside blockquotes? (Really? On Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s own World Wide Web???)

Because sometimes there is no other place to put such things. There is no other place where you want to put such things.

I bought a new laptop late in 2020, one of the new Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Pros that was announced just after the election (which was also my birthday). It is easily the best laptop I’ve ever used, let alone owned. I’m typing on it now. (It doesn’t have enough ports; otherwise, it is as perfect a machine as has ever existed until the next one comes out.) Buying that laptop started something for me: a new round of investment in myself after a long period of being fearful and dormant. And shortly after I bought it, I covered it in Muppets stickers.

I’m hardly unique in loving The Muppets; we’re past fifty years of Sesame Street and even longer of Jim Henson’s earlier creations, meaning just about every living generation has been touched by those special creatures one way or another. But the Muppets are a talisman of something I try to guard in myself: tenderness, exaggerated emotion, a desire to experience the world as something new, an urge to creativity and renewal, a fear of rejection, and a sometimes desperate need to be loved in a world where love is often in short supply.


The most famous song from The Muppet Movie is the opening number, “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s sung by Kermit the Frog, as played and performed by Jim Henson himself, and the conceit in the movie is that Kermit is playing and singing the song alone, on a banjo. This conceit is quickly abandoned, at least aurally; a whole orchestra comes in, turning a dead-simple children’s song into something swelling and cinematic. It’s three minutes long, and sung by a puppet, performed by someone who, for all his unbounded talents for voice and performance, can’t really sing. But I think it’s the greatest song ever written for a film. (A surprisingly competitive category!) It’s really worth watching, as many times as you can.

Here is a story about the writing of “The Rainbow Connection.” And here are the lyrics:

[Verse 1]

  • Why are there so many
  • Songs about rainbows
  • And what’s on the other side?
  • Rainbows are visions
  • But only illusions
  • And rainbows have nothing to hide
  • So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
  • I know they’re wrong, wait and see

[Hook]

  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[Verse 2]

  • Who said that every wish
  • Would be heard and answered
  • When wished on the morning star?
  • Somebody thought of that
  • And someone believed it
  • Look what it’s done so far
  • What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing
  • And what do we think we might see?

[Hook]

  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[Bridge]

  • All of us under its spell
  • We know that it’s probably magic

[Verse 3]

  • Have you been half asleep
  • And have you heard voices?
  • I’ve heard them calling my name
  • Is this the sweet sound
  • That calls the young sailors?
  • The voice might be one and the same
  • I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it:
  • It’s something that I’m supposed to be

[Hook]

  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[End/Outro]

That’s the whole thing.

As a child, I was taught that this song was about hope in tough times — a rejection of cynicism, an attempt to uphold on the threshold of the Reaganite 1980s something of the idealism of the 1960s, from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the antiwar movement, only somewhat looser and more adaptable (if also more inchoate). The song also had a religious element to it: something of my mother’s highly adaptable (and thoroughly idiosyncratic) Catholicism — a belief there was a magical, spiritual universe both separate from and pervading the one we could see. The Rainbow Connection was not heaven in any proper theological sense, but it was the heaven my mother believed in. And, I think, that she still believes in.

And it is those things — insofar as it “is” anything but a sweet song with a good melody — but it’s also something else. And as you get older, and continue to deal with grief and heartache (as I have, many times), and are dealt reversals and disappointments, the other meaning of “The Rainbow Connection” becomes insistent and impossible to ignore.

It is a song about what you can and can’t believe in after a life filled with missed chances, casual cruelties, and dead family and friends. It’s a song shot full of the melancholy many of us remember most clearly in our own childhoods, an ache to your bones that has never gone away. It is every heartbreak you have ever had, every injury suffered to your body, mind, and pride. It is how you think about friendship and community when your community is broken and your friends are all so very far away. It is not about a cohort of happy dreamers, or lovers. It is about how you care for your child inside when all your illusions are gone. It is the last illusion you keep, because without it, you would have nothing left.

The questions “The Rainbow Connection” asks are genuine questions, with a more ironic edge than Kermit places on it in the song itself:

  • “Who said that every wish / Would be heard and answered”? Really ask yourself: who?
  • “Somebody thought of that / And someone believed it.” Who thought of it? Why have any of us ever believed it?
  • “Look what it’s done so far.” What has it done? Have you actually looked? Where are we? All these years of struggle: what were they for? And what have they done?
  • “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing / And what do we think we might see?” What are we looking for? How would we even know it if we saw it?

And if not this, then what? What are the alternatives? Lie down and die? Give in to the world’s cruelty and cynicism and make yourself a part of it? Tranquilize yourself and wait for something to change? Could we even do otherwise? After all… it seems like most people genuinely can do exactly that.

Seen from this perspective, The Muppets are not childlike or naïve at all. They are advancing a powerful critique of how we live and what we believe, and how we’ve come to settle for so much less than what we are capable of. There is a utopian element to “The Rainbow Connection,” but it turns out to be a very slight one. A Minimum Viable Utopia, if you will.


The other song that matters the most to me from The Muppet Movie (which, like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Prince’s self-titled album, was released shortly before I was born) is Gonzo’s “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” And this song, too, has multiple layers that are worth unpacking.

Here are the lyrics:

Verse 1:

  • This looks familiar
  • Vaguely familiar
  • Almost unreal yet
  • It’s too soon to feel yet

Hook:

  • Close to my soul
  • And yet so far away
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

Verse 2:

  • Sunrises, night falls
  • Sometimes the sky calls
  • Is that a song there
  • And do I belong there

Hook:

  • I’ve never been there
  • But I know the way
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

Bridge:

  • Come and go with me
  • It’s more fun to share
  • We’ll both be, completely
  • At home in midair
  • We’re flying not walking
  • On featherless wings
  • We can hold on to love
  • Like invisible strings

Verse 3:

  • There’s not a word yet
  • For old friends who’ve just met
  • Part heaven, part space
  • Or have I found my place

Hook:

  • You can just visit
  • But I plan to stay
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

[End/Outro]

This song is somehow even simpler than “The Rainbow Connection,” but it wears its ironies farther out on its sleeves.

The obvious (although not literal) reading of the song is that Gonzo is not talking about any past he remembers, or even really a future he’s waiting for, but about the love and newfound family he’s discovered with his friends now all around him: the Muppets to whom he’s singing the song. Again, as a child, this is what I was taught without having to be told, and for the most part, it’s what I believed.

The second, more critical take on “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is that it is a profound confession of abandonment and loneliness in Gonzo’s formative years. It is the absence of anything like the heartsoaring love he is stumbling to find words to describe, and his very early and extremely keen awareness of that absence, even before he knew there was hope of anything different. It is less about loss (you have to have something before you can lose it, technically) than lack.

And while you could say that Gonzo is realizing now that he’s found what he’s long been looking for, the fact that he still puts it in the future tense suggests that he’s still feeling something lacking, either in his companions or in himself. He still feels incomplete, blown apart, alone and lonely, en route to something he does not have and has never had, does not know and has never known — something that he can only describe or define by its absence. A negative theology.

You could take this a step further and say that what “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is really about is the fact that such a place does not exist, has never existed, and if it waits for anyone, it does not wait for the singer. Gonzo — Tim Carmody — is so irreducibly damaged by what has happened to him, so thoroughly alone, that he can only think of love and belonging as a return to a paradise he’s never known and will never in his lifetime see.


The trouble with all of this is that sometimes the impossible happens.

Here I’m going to invoke another important text from my childhood, but I won’t take any time to explicate it, because I can talk about baseball (and specifically, this single plate appearance) forever.

It is hard to talk or even to think about miracles, especially if (like me) you have long since relaxed the God hypothesis. The 18th-century empiricist / skeptical philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.

The trouble for Hume with miracles is the trouble for Hume with all knowledge (including very basic relationships of cause and effect): the evidence to genuinely believe in miracles is always lacking. It falls apart given the tiniest bit of criticism — and yet, people are inclined to believe in miracles anyways.

In fact, people all over the world, at every age and in every walk of life, may be more inclined to believe in something impossible they believe they’ve witnessed themselves, alone or in a small group, than an ordinary event witnessed again and again by millions of people. Aristotle, too, understood, this irony, writing in the Poetics that (translations differ, but here is the gist) “the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” And if you can keep God’s hands off the probable impossible, so much the better.

The world Gonzo prophecies in “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” that Kermit imagines in “The Rainbow Connection,” is not supposed to exist. It is an illusion, an impossibility, even if it remains a necessary one. And yet: sometimes, somehow, after you have already set aside your own eligibility for such things, and doubted their real existence for others or their cameos in your own past, you nevertheless, to your own total astonishment, find yourself back there again.

On Saturday, February 6th, I moved back to the city of Philadelphia. I made my nostos, not to the city where I was born (Detroit, which will also always have my heart), but the city I chose when I was 22, and where I spent most of the important years of my life. I am back. I am home.

You can just visit / But I plan to stay / I’m going to go back there / Someday

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