“Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?” asks the legendary Mr. Rogers at the beginning of an auto-tuned video that appeared on YouTube earlier this month and has since logged over 5 million views.
Tapping into deep wellsprings of memory, this unusually compelling mash-up of the wisdom of Mr. Rogers has been finding new and old audiences for the much-loved host of PBS’s long-running Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, even though the real Fred McFeely Rogers passed away almost a decade ago. “Mr. Rogers was a leader in creating inventive television programming for kids. We wanted to pay tribute to that while doing something that would put him back on the cutting edge,” says Jason Seiken, PBS’s Senior VP for Interactive and the founder of PBS Digital Studios, the network’s division that was launched last October, focused on developing original online content.
The “Garden of Your Mind” video was created by John D. Boswell, a musician and video artist based in Seattle who is known more commonly by his YouTube username Melodysheep. Boswell, who was initially inspired to start creating auto-tune videos by the political web series Auto-Tune the News when it debuted in 2009, distinguishes himself from others working in the genre by “focusing on a theme, something bigger than just auto-tuning words.”
In January, Boswell got a call from PBS. They had seen a similar mash-up video of Carl Sagan that Boswell had created for his educational science music video series called "Symphony of Science." As it turned out, Boswell was a major Mr. Rogers fan, and he had actually independently considered creating a mash-up video of Mr. Rogers for some time.
PBS sent Boswell a selection of Mr. Rogers clips organized by topic to get him inspired. Boswell began working on the Mr. Rogers video the way starts a new piece, by watching a strong sampling of the source material. This time, Boswell watched eight episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As he watches, Boswell identifies clips he likes and writes down their timecode, before organizing them digitally. Through this process, the video’s theme and message start to emerge. Next Boswell establishes the chorus, which must have a direct correlation to the message of the video. Boswell says that for this video, the themes he identified: creativity and imagination, were woven in easily since Rogers deals with them so much on his show. With the chorus and theme in place, he begins to eliminate clips that won’t work within the context of the video, winnowing down his selection the way a sculptor crafts his art from a block of stone. Boswell, who was a musician before he was a mash-up artist, has his keyboard by his computer and begins to write music for the piece, starting with the chorus, as he finds the clips. After fine-tuning and final editing, the piece is ready to go live.
Other mash-up artists often use their auto-tune pieces to poke fun, highlight ironies and hypocrisies, or present their own fantasies. Boswell tries to stay true to the ideas and personality of the figure he is auto-tuning. “It’s a strange art form…You’re so limited by what you can do that is fun, but at the same time, stays true to the message.” Mr. Rogers is known and beloved around the world as a children’s icon. One can easily imagine an artist in whose hands Mr. Rogers might not be safe. But PBS wasn’t concerned about what might happen with the video. Seiken and his team had confidence that Boswell’s appreciation of Mr. Rogers would lead to a respectful and yet still intriguing video artwork.
Yet neither PBS nor Boswell could have anticipated the overwhelming response the Mr. Rogers video has received. In additional to millions of views, the video seems to have struck a chord with young and old fans of Mr. Rogers. The repetition of lines like, “Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?” and “It’s good to be curious about many things…” and “You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind…” give the video a hypnotic, exploratory, sensory-altering feel to some very basic questions about life.
From the PBS perspective the auto-tune mash-up made progress in two key directions, “We wanted to take some risks, be a little daring, experiment, and shake things up a bit.” Seiken says, “We also wanted to reach an audience that we knew was out there, people who grew up watching PBS, but had since drifted away. We knew in order to reach them, that the element of surprise would be our friend.”
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on PBS for 33 years, concluding in 2001, just two years before the Rogers’ death. To many fans, this short video has the feel of bringing him in a new way. The video has also garnered praise from those close to Rogers including David Newell who played delivery man Mr. McFeely on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Rogers’ widow Joanne, who described herself as one of the video’s biggest fans.
PBS has moved quickly to build on the video’s momentum. Last week PBS released a free MP3 download of “Garden of Your Mind” as a song, and the video will soon be broadcast on PBS stations around the country. PBS is also planning more videos in a series they have dubbed PBS Icons Remixed. “We know there is a huge audience out there for PBS television programs in the mobile and web space,” Seiken says, “Now we are beginning to create web original productions that have the quality of PBS, but the sensibility of YouTube.” With a viral Mr. Rogers, it seems like they are off to a good start.
David D. Burstein is a writer and filmmaker. His book, Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World will be published by Beacon Press in February 2013. Find him on Twitter: @davidburstein