I’m late to the Steven Universe party the entire Internet has been having since the show first debuted after Rebecca Sugar departed from Adventure Time to start her own thing. I meant to watch it—I really did—but time got away from me, and as of a few months ago, I still hadn’t seen a single episode. Some shows ambush you out of nowhere, and you find you just can’t stop watching. Other shows are introduced by a friend, and you watch it as a favor, slowly getting Stockholm-ed into loving it. Steven Universe is the first show that walked up to me (metaphorically, or course), made friends, and invited me over for ice cream and music and a cool, chill house party.
I was introduced to Steven Universe by fans of the show at conventions, whose cosplays of the characters were my first meeting and greeting. Next, I started seeing fan art. Then, as fate would have it, I was attending a convention and saw that there was going to be a Steven Universe panel, and I attended. Part of the panel was devoted to the music and the important role it plays in the SU fandom. They had me at “singalong.” I heard the music, watched a few clips, and figured out that the show is not only about rock ladies from space defending Earth, but also about people who play, create, love, and appreciate music. The Crystal Gems even join together in fusions after performing dances to music! Ladies and gentlemen: sold!
What better medium to bridge a communication gap between an alien warrior woman technically made of rock and the human rock (and roll) musician she is falling for romantically? What better way to express the fears and worries of a human girl who thinks she’ll never be a good enough fighter to protect her friend, while also addressing the issues of her teacher, whose devotion to a loved one she misses dearly is clouding her judgment? Whether you’re human, alien, or in-between, music is used as a form of expression, entertainment, and as a bonding activity throughout the show. I’m going to discuss just a few of my own personal favorite uses of music in Steven Universe; there’s no way I’m going to be able to cover all of them—the music is woven into the fabric of the show, and taste is subjective—but here are some of my favorite musical moments in Steven Universe!
1.) “Do It for Her” – from episode 58, “Sworn to the Sword.”
Music and Lyrics by Rebecca Sugar
Vocals by Deedee Magno Hall and Grace Rolek
Arrangement/instruments by Aivi Tran and Steven “Surasshu” Velema
This episode starts out on a musical note, with Steven on his ukulele and Connie on her violin, hanging out and playing a duet together. They call it a “jam session,” and the song they make up is actually literally about jam—preserves—that they’re going to eat when they’re done playing music together. How completely adorable is that, anyway? When Steven’s jam-covered snack is menaced by seagulls, Connie springs into action, using her bow as a sword and commands the seagulls to, “Go back to your masters! Tell them we’re not afraid of your kind!”
Connie confesses that she would love to learn how to properly swordfight, and Steven suggests that Pearl could teach her. It seems like an excellent plan, until Steven starts feeling uncomfortable with Pearl’s level of intensity and how she is conflating her success in teaching Connie with her own grief over having lost Rose. When he overhears Pearl telling Connie that in battle, she doesn’t matter, only Steven matters, he tries to intervene. Things work out well, but not until after Steven and Connie demonstrate their own unique style of fighting, where Steven uses his shield to cover them while Connie fights.
The song, “Do It for Her,” is a duet between Pearl and Connie that takes place while Connie is learning to use a sword and serves the purpose of revealing some surprising thoughts of Connie’s while delving into Pearl’s past in a way that is sympathetic and invites the viewer to engage critically. When Pearl sings, the “her” is the departed Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother. When Connie sings, the “him,” is Steven, her best friend. Several times, it is clear that Pearl is out of line, especially when she sings, “Concentrate! Don’t you want him to live?” But … then there are lyrics that reveal that Pearl’s active grief for Rose, her battle-trauma, and her lack of self-worth.
Deep down you know
You weren’t built for fighting,
But that doesn’t mean
You’re not prepared to try.
What they don’t know
Is your real advantage,
When you live for someone
You’re prepared to die.
And lyrics like:
Everything you have,
Everything you are,
You’ve got to give …
On the battlefield,
When everything is chaos,
And you have nothing but the way you feel,
Your strategy, and a sword,
You just think about the life you’ll have together after the war
And then you do it for her.
That’s how you know you can win.
You do it for her –
That is to say,
You’ll do it for him.
All of this reveals information about Pearl to the viewer that they did not previously know—that her devotion to Rose may have been more one-sided than it seems, that she’s not “made” for fighting—what is that supposed to mean? (In later episodes, this is explained.) Not to mention the whole thing about the chaos of battle and how envisioning a life with Rose after the war was what got her though everything, only to have Rose fall for a human musician and give up her physical form to bring her son into the world. Pearl is bitter, and now we know why.
Meanwhile, Connie reveals some of her own insecurities and concerns:
Deep down, I know
That I’m just a human.
But I know that I can draw my sword and fight.
With my short existence,
I can make a difference.
I can be there for him,
I can be his knight.
Connie is starting to think about the differences between humans and the Gems. She knows that her own human life is a short blur compared to the nearly immortal Gems, and this passage reveals to me that Connie has started wondering about Steven’s lifespan and how she may end up nothing more than a memory—and she how she wants to make that memory count.
In short … the feels. Right in them, all the way around. In this episode, music not only entertains the viewer and accentuates important points, it also provides backstory, context, and character development all at the same time.
2.) “What Can I Do For You?” – from episode 61, “We Need to Talk.”
by Rebecca Sugar, Jeff Liu, and Ben Levin
Vocals by Susan Egan and Tom Scharpling
There is so much here in this song and the flashback that houses it. It provides us with a brief vision of Rose and what she was like, and it gives us some detail on how the Gems begin to interact more and more with humans. Greg is in his “Mr. Universe” rockstar-on-the-edge-of-fame phase, and he’s young, handsome, and still has his hair. The Gems are shown wearing some hilariously ’80s-looking clothing. When Pearl and Rose fuse, their fusion is wearing a leotard and legwarmers. Visually, this cue is another reminder of the differing lifespans between Gems and humans.
In the flashback, the Gems look the same, only their clothing changing, but Greg looks younger than the bald, heavier man we know and love from the series. Some of the Gems are playing in Greg’s band, and this shows another way in which music is a regular part of the Gems’ lives on Earth. Amethyst playing drums is just somehow so perfect for her boisterous character. When Rose and Greg sing, “What Can I Do For You,” together as a duet, it’s more than just Rose showing up during band practice and hearing what they’ve been working on. It’s more than Greg showing off for the big pink lady of his dreams. The line means different things to each character.
Greg has no idea what he could possibly do for this woman. He’s in awe and feels small in comparison. Rose is drawn to Greg in ways she does not yet fully understand, and she’s trying to make sense of it. There is something that being in Greg’s presence is doing for her that she has never felt before in the same way. Pearl’s jealousy during this scene is painfully obvious. The other Gems are embracing friendship with Greg and participating in his music, but Pearl’s involvement is centered around Rose.
3.) “Stronger Than You” – from episode 52, “Jailbreak.”
Music & Lyrics by Rebecca Sugar
Arranged by Aivi & Surasshu
Sung by Estelle
This one has layers. Like an onion. But not THAT Onion. ;-) That kid is super weird.
Garnet’s character is voiced by British singer/songwriter/rapper Estelle, and this song is an opportunity for her to step into the limelight and show us what Garnet is all about. In this episode, the Gems and Steven have been captured and are imprisoned on a hand-shaped ship at the mercy of Jasper and Peridot. So, layer number one: famous musician plays the character doing the singing. Music is built into the fiber of this show—Estelle is not the only musician/performer to play a role on Steven Universe. Susan Egan, who is the voice of Rose, is a famous Broadway actor, and Rebecca Sugar’s favorite musician Aimee Mann provided the voice for Opal, the fusion of Pearl and Amethyst.
Back to “Jailbreak”: Steven comes to in a cell and is able to escape. He finds Ruby, and they hear Sapphire singing somewhere in the cell block. Ruby, nearly in a panic, runs off to find her. To make a long tale a bit shorter, it turns out that Garnet has been a fusion all along. Ruby and Sapphire are in love and they live together, fused as Garnet all of the time. It’s a double reveal—Steven didn’t know, and neither did the viewer. Fused into Garnet once more, they take on Jasper to the tune of “Stronger Than You,” and the incredible badassery of Garnet is summarized in the lyrics of the song.
Commence layer number 2.
She is confident:
This is Garnet.
And I’m never going down at the hands of the likes of you,
Because I’m so much better.
And every part of me is saying “Go get her.”
The two of us ain’t gonna follow your rules.
Come at me without any of your fancy tools.
Let’s go, just me and you.
Let’s go, just one on two.
She is in love, and in fact, made of it. She’s the physical embodiment of a healthy relationship and how love overpowers evil:
Go ahead and try and hit me if you’re able.
Can’t you see that my relationship is stable?
I know you think I’m not something you’re afraid of,
‘Cause you think that you’ve seen what I’m made of.
Well I am even more than the two of them.
Everything they care about is what I am.
I am their fury, I am their patience,
I am a conversation.
She is fiercely protective:
‘Cause I am a feeling,
And I will never end,
And I won’t let you hurt my planet,
And I won’t let you hurt my friends.
The above lyric also reveals important information about Garnet’s character. She is not from Earth, but she considers it her planet. Her protective nature extends from caring for Steven and her few human friends to caring about the entire planet to the point that she now considers it her home, as well.
And, layer number 3. Another interesting fact about this song is that when Sapphire is singing in the cellblock, the tune of her song is the same tune of the chorus of Stronger Than You. While Ruby may appear to be the hothead of the relationship, the calm, collected Sapphire is strong in her own way. Her song is what helped Ruby find her so they could re-fuse and could also be seen as a form of heckling Jasper, who was clearly annoyed with her for singing. Perhaps my favorite scene in this episode is when Steven expresses concern about having made a good impression on Ruby and Sapphire, to which Garnet replies that they already love him. Aww, man. Square Mom may just be best mom. Even though I love Bird Mom and Fun Mom, too!
4.) “Haven’t You Noticed (I’m a Star)” – from episode 69, “Sadie’s Song.”
Composed by Rebecca Sugar
Arranged by Aivi & Surasshu
Vocals by Olivia Olson
We’ve addressed songs that further character and plot, songs that serve as a meet-cute for an unlikely coupling between a rock lady from space and a rock-loving human man. How about songs that are just … songs? Like we have songs that play on the radio and people cheerfully bop around to? That’s a thing in the world of Steven Universe, as well!
Steven happens to overhear Sadie singing and is surprised to realize she’s a really good singer. She tries to play it off and says that the song she’s singing is cheesy, popular, and anyone could sing it, but that she does know all of the words somehow. Does that sound like a familiar experience to anyone else? Yeah, that describes my relationship to any number of Taylor Swift songs just about perfectly. I don’t LOVE Taylor Swift music. I mean, I don’t love it on purpose. It just kind of happens. You wake up one morning and realize that you know every damn word to Shake It Off , and you don’t know exactly how it happened, but you suspect the radio and your friend who totally made you listen to Taylor Swift.
Well, that pop music experience exists in the world of Steven Universe, just like it does here in real life. So, how does that make it meaningful to the story? It’s part of good world-building. It makes Steven’s universe (pun totally intended) stronger and more real to the viewer. It gives us something else in common with the already-easily-identified-with characters who inhabit Beach City. I like Taylor Swift, and it kind of sneaked up on me, just like Sadie likes the pop star who sings that song, and probably just realized it. The lyrics walk a fine line between being a Taylor Swift song and making fun of one, while remaining respectful.
I can’t help it if I make a scene,
Stepping out of hot pink limousine.
I’m turning heads and I’m stopping traffic,
When I pose, the scream and when I joke, they laugh.
I’ve got a pair of eyes that they’re getting lost in,
They’re hypnotized by my way of walking,
I’ve got them dazzled like a stage magician,
When I point, they look, and when I talk, they listen, well,
Everybody needs a friend,
And I’ve got you and you and you.
So many, I can’t even name them,
Can you blame me? I’m too famous.
Haven’t you noticed that I’m a star?
I’m coming into view as the world is turning.
Haven’t you noticed I’ve made it this far?
Now everyone can see me burning.
And yes, it’s sung by Olivia Olson, who is more famous for her role on Adventure Time, where she also plays a character with musical aspirations: Marceline the Vampire Queen. I will always remember her as Joanna from Love, Actually first! Olivia Olson, you are the reason I will never be annoyed to hear “All I Want for Christmas” played in the mall. Ever.
5.) “Strong in the Real Way” – from episode 20, “Coach Steven.”
Music & Lyrics: Rebecca Sugar
Instrumental Arrangement & Piano: Aivi & Surasshu
Vocals: Deedee Magno Hall, Zach Callison
When Garnet and Amethyst fuse to form Sugalite against Pearl’s advice, they get a little too excited and do some considerable rampaging, which Pearl must then put a stop to on her own. Meanwhile, Steven is starstruck with Sugalite’s strength (we know he does respect a good Giant Woman!) and is inspired to get stronger, dragging Sadie, Lars, and Greg along with him.
I love Pearl in this episode. So often, Pearl can be insufferable when she’s convinced that she’s right, but in this case, she actually was right and has to save the day. Knowing what I know now about Pearl after some of the more recent episodes, this one is even more meaningful. She really wasn’t made for fighting and strategy; she chose them and worked at them until she excelled. Whether Pearl is your favorite character or not, that’s still something to be respected. I think I love her just a little bit more knowing that she struggles with bitterness, thoughts of inadequacy, and jealousy on a daily basis. In that way, I think Pearl might be the most human of the Gems, even if she would probably deny that herself.
The lyrics of Strong in the Real Way reveal Pearl’s unwillingness to face the uglier parts of her heart:
Why do you have to look up to her
Aside from in a literal sense?
Don’t you know that a power that big
Comes with a bigger expense?
And can’t you see that she’s out of control and overzealous?
I’m telling you for your own good, and not because I’m—
Jealous. The word she couldn’t say was “jealous.” It’s hard to admit when you have an ugly feeling inside, especially when it pertains to people you are supposed to love and care for. Pearl is having a hard time admitting that she is jealous of Steven’s fascination with Sugalite’s raw, physical strength.
When she says that she wants to inspire him and be his rock, my heart breaks just a little bit. Steven is the closest thing she has to Rose, and Pearl definitely considered herself to belong to Rose, swearing fealty like a medieval knight.
And I want to inspire you
I want to be your rock
And when I talk
It lights a fire in you.
The song is just so quintessentially Pearl. It embodies her salty attitude (strong in the REAL way), her fears, and her genuine concern. When Steven sings with her, their harmonies are beautiful, and it isn’t difficult to imagine that Pearl is seeing Rose in Steven to some degree.
These have been my top five, but there are so many more! I honestly don’t dislike any of the music from the show, and the more I watch and rewatch, the more things I discover to love. Under the category of honorable mention, I have to mention three more favorites: “Love Like You,” “Like a Comet,” and “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart.”
“Love Like You” is gorgeous, and I’m still trying to figure out whose thoughts are represented by the lyrics.
There seem to be multiple opinions in the fandom on whose point of view is represented. Anyone from Rose to Lapis to Garnet has been suggested, but I have not found any conclusive word from the creators confirming or denying anything. I’m leaning toward Rose, because she was the one who fell in love with a human and had to figure out how to navigate that when fusion was not an option, but that’s just my own opinion.
If I could begin to be,
Half of what you think of me,
I could do about anything,
I could even learn how to love.
When I see the way you act,
Wondering when I’m coming back,
I could do about anything,
I could even learn how to love like you.
“Like a Comet” is one of Greg’s songs from his younger days as Mr. Universe, the rising rockstar.
So many of his hopes and dreams are caught up in the lyrics of this song. Greg wanted to be a star. He made excellent rock music, but he met Rose, and that was that. He’s a man who knows what’s most important in life, and he gave up that dream to pursue the only thing he truly needed: love. That’s the overarching theme of Steven Universe, that love truly is a powerful thing and possibly one of the few things true darkness can never defeat.
Some … say I have no direction,
that I’m a light-speed distraction,
but that’s a knee-jerk reaction.
Still this is the final frontier, everything is so clear, to my destiny I steer.
This life in the stars is all I’ve ever known,
Stars and stardust in infinite space is my only home.
How true is that? Greg found his home with a space-lady, and then their space-son and their friends who are also from space. His words are hauntingly prophetic: he DOES seem like a directionless buffoon at first, but that’s a snap judgment. There’s more to him than that, and the line about him being a light-speed distraction? That’s how Pearl sees him: a short-lived human, insignificant in the long lifespan of a Gem.
I want to end with a few words about “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart.”
Like with “Haven’t You Noticed (I’m a Star),” the lyrics and title walk that thin line between making fun of a particular type of music and being that type of music and yet manage to be insightful rather than dismissive. The scene in the episode “Laser Light Cannon,” where Steven and Greg race to the beach with Rose’s Light Cannon to help the Gems save the day, Beach City, and possibly the world, remains my favorite in the series. Steven puts one of Greg’s old recordings into the van’s sound system, and the song plays while they drive painstakingly slowly, dragging the heavy cannon behind them. The powerful Gems stand on the beach, trying and trying again to stop the impending danger, and true help arrives with a beat-up van, a washed-up rock musician, and his half-alien son. The song was clearly written for Rose:
I know I’m not that tall
I know I’m not that smart
But let me drive my van into your heart
Let me drive my van into your heart.
I know I’m not that rich
I’m trying to get my start
So let me drive my van into your heart
Let me drive my van into your heart.
And if we look out of place
Well, baby, that’s okay
I’ll drive us into outer space
Where we can’t hear what people say
I know I don’t have a plan
I’m working on that part
At least I’ve got a van
So let me drive my van into your heart.
He’s saying that he isn’t all that, doesn’t have much, but anything he is and has is for her. For that song to be playing when Steven and Greg towed the cannon to the beach was almost like a form of closure. The Gems see, to their surprise, that Greg came through for them when it mattered. Greg gets to feel that perhaps he was finally “enough” for Rose and the Gems, and Steven gets to help in a real way and learn a little bit more about the mother he never got to know. And hey, like Greg told Steven, “If every porkchop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs.” It takes all kinds. We’re not all perfect porkchops, but we’re often good enough just as we are. If the power of love (romantic, platonic, familial, etc.) is the main message of Steven Universe that the music within the show helps to convey to the viewers, then the secondary message is that perfection is subjective, and that’s important.
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