Movies

Why The Backyardigans’ “Castaways” Was Destined for TikTok Fame

The 2006 song had all the ingredients for a 2021 viral hit.

A big pink animal in overalls surrounded by an animated thinking-face emoji and the TikTok logo
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images and Nickelodeon Animation Studios. 

In an unexpected turn, TikTok’s newest hit sound has become a 16-year-old song from The Backyardigans. Or is it unexpected? On Wednesday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher examined how TikTok recently drove the song from the old Nickelodeon children’s show all the way to the top of Spotify’s Viral 50 chart. In this transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, they chart the rise of “Castaways” and explain how its sudden memeification mirrors broader trends on the platform. 

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Madison Malone Kircher: We’re going to take this as chronologically as one can with the caveat that TikTok, by design, really does not like that.

Rachelle Hampton: No. They hate chronology. But we can somewhat trace this back to one woman on TikTok announcing that Backyardigans is on Paramount+.

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Kircher: This series from @swagsurfff starts in early March. The “Castaways” video is from the beginning of April. So this trend has been a-brewin’ for some time now, a nice slow build.

Hampton: Before we get into the May rise of “Castaways,” we have to do a little background on what exactly The Backyardigans is, for our audience who isn’t familiar with the immaculate flavor of The Backyardigans.

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Kircher: I am mostly familiar with The Backyardigans because I spent one summer as a very lackluster babysitter for a five-year-old, and you know what buys you some time so you don’t have to engage with a five-year-old? Several episodes of the Backyardigans.

Hampton: Oh, I would say same—I wasn’t babysitting because it was my little brother—but I spent a lot of time as a lackluster older sibling who didn’t want to actually babysit him, so I just put on Backyardigans. I could probably sing most of these songs from memory, given the opportunity to.

Kircher: This is the opportunity to.

Hampton: I lied, I’m not going to take that opportunity. Anyway, the show started in 2004. It lasted for four seasons and ended in 2013. I think the most important thing about the show is that it was created by a Black woman named Janice Burgess, and I’m just going to say, I really feel like the bops, the flavor, all come down to the fact that a Black woman had the major creative hand in this.

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Kircher: The show was on Nickelodeon. It stars a tiny pink being who’s not of this earth. She’s a unique creature, and that is her name too: Uniqua. And her little gang of friends, as I mentioned: a kangaroo, a moose, and—I’m really testing my memory here, there’s one more—a penguin. There’s a penguin.

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Shout out to Evan Lurie and Doug Wieselman who wrote the music and lyrics for these bops. So as we mentioned, the timeline of the show airing lines up perfectly to the childhood of most Gen Z’ers—an era where young millennials or middle millennials like Rachelle and myself would have seen this show passively. We weren’t actively it’s consumers.

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Hampton: But it was always around. If you had younger siblings, if you babysat, you would probably be familiar with the concept of this show and the Backyardigans theme song at the very least, which means that it has all the perfect makings of a TikTok sound, which are: ubiquity, catchiness, simplicity, and the endless ability to be remixed and covered. This gives us the current moment we’re in, where every third video on my For You Page is just people doing something to Castaways. Something, anything, everything—all of it is “Castaways.”

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Kircher: In case you haven’t experienced that particular joy, we’re going to create a little FYP experience—that’s “For You Page” in TikTok parlance—right here on ICYMI, starting with probably the most simple of the options, which is just a straight up clip from the show that has been liked a million times on TikTok.

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Kircher: If that’s not your vibe, there are covers. There are covers of covers. We’ve got indie-pop.

Kircher: We’ve got bossanova/jazz.

We’ve got 9th-grade choir kids.

Hampton: We’ve got Black church.

Kircher: We’re just getting started. There’s a TikTok I really love just absolutely roasting the Backyardigans.

Hampton: And because it’s TikTok we also have to have dances. So there are a few dance routines, all set to the “Castaways” theme song, but the ones that we’re talking about are made by two very popular TikTok dance accounts. They are the Basement Gang, who are three Canadian boys who dance in their basement. It’s very self-explanatory.

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And then there is Aust & Mar, who are two dancers who just dance to every popular TikTok sound basically.

And both of them have over a million TikTok followers, which is really important in terms of how far this sound is going. Once the really big accounts start hopping on a trend, you know that it is indeed popular and also probably about to be on its way out.

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But there’s also some interesting representation TikToks. People seem fully convinced that these anthropomorphic animals are also people of color. And to be quite honest, yeah: Uniqua is a Black-ass name; Pablo, people are saying he’s Latino or indigenous; Tyrone, I’m sorry, that’s also a Black name. So there are just a few TikToks in this vein of being like, “These characters who are saturated pink, and blue, and orange—they are people of color.” And these TikToks are not wrong. I’m just going to say that. I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that.

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Kircher: The bigger question here is why did this happen? What about TikTok was the perfect medium for the rise, the return, the rebirth of The Backyardigans?

Hampton: The triumphant return of Uniqua was brought on by the fact that—as I’m sure most people who have used TikTok before know—TikTok is a bit of a nostalgia factory.

Kircher: That’s true. The sounds that often go viral are new songs that quickly become ubiquitous or remixed older songs that already have some ubiquity. Rachelle and I—two people who never watched the show as children—know all of the words to “Castaways.” It hits that second category. The Backyardigans renaissance actually reminds me of a time in March when Out of the Box—a ’90s and ’00s children’s television show on the Disney Channel hosted by two lovely souls, Tony and Vivian—had its moment. Tony’s daughter joined TikTok, and it all transpired to Tony and Vivian singing the show’s closing number together on TikTok, and I was very tickled.

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Hampton: I just cried. Of all the pandemic reunions I was forced to consume, this was the only one I really wanted.

Kircher: Truly, and I didn’t even know it. But it speaks to the idea that the captive audiences on TikTok span an age range. What we’re trying to get at is that TikTok is not just that new fucking app that young kids use. Everybody’s on TikTok right now.

The West Wing has also had a bit of a TikTok renaissance, and I think it’s for the same reason that the Backyardigans has: that there is a generation of people using this app who know that show intimately and therefore are ready for the interpolations of it as comedy, as dance routines, as thirst, you name it.

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Hampton: You brought it home, and I’m going to bring it home even further: This is why Harry Potter is so popular on the app. It’s a specific generation—and Twilight. They both have very large fandoms on the app, but it’s not fandoms in the way that you expect it to be, where it’s somewhat rabid, somewhat uncritical. It is mostly people who engaged with it when they were much younger and have a certain nostalgia for it, but also fully acknowledge that it was not great. They’re halfway making fun of it—especially in regards to Twilight, it is mostly all jokes—but they’ll also fight you about it. And that is the perfect description of the TikTok nostalgia that has become the app’s bread and butter.

Kircher: Yeah. We’re all sitting there ready for tiny microdoses of the helluva drug that is feeling kind of old and a little bit wistful.

To hear the rest of the episode—including 60-second summaries of recent internet sagas about a failed live-tweeted romance and an alleged celebrity “throuple”—subscribe to ICYMI.

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