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We Don't Talk Enough About: Ernie's Moon Song
How is it possible that this two-minute children’s song is the most profound piece of music ever recorded?
To hear this blog read aloud, click the “voiceover” box at the top of the post.
I’ve loved space for as long as I can remember. As a kid, this was not particularly noteworthy. A lot of kids love space. I had stars on my ceiling, a Barbie “Starlight Motor Home” so my dolls could look at the stars in the wilderness of my closet, and a lamp that projected the cosmos onto my walls, filling the room with blue and yellow and white light. It kind of seems like a lot now that I’m listing it out, but I promise it was pretty standard kid stuff.
Later, in high school, I was enraptured by two powerful forces: science and pseudoscience. Like a pair of stars careening toward one another in a spectacular cosmic collision, physics and mythology hit me with the kind of impact that only a teenage girl could harness into an entire personality. Yes, that’s right, I was into horoscopes and string theory. The original meaning of galaxy brain. I watched NOVA and read Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and ate that shit up like it was my religion, because it was.
I soon learned I was too dumb to actually pursue physics (my failed AP calc test really sealed the deal there), but I was also too skeptical to commit myself to astrology, and so my interest in space settled into a pure hobby, where it was always meant to be. But even as my relationship to space has changed, one thing has stayed with me, providing the forever soundtrack to my love of the cosmos, and, in a sense, to my life itself.
That’s right. “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” sung by Ernie. From Sesame Street. Holy shit, this song.
I don’t know when I first heard this tune, but it’s possible it was before I was a fully formed human being. It was written in 1978 by composer Jeff Moss, nearly a decade after Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon. Moss was a Sesame Street king, who also wrote other bangers like "The People in Your Neighborhood," “Rubber Duckie” and “I Love Trash.” Realistically, I probably first encountered “I Don't Want To Live On The Moon” in my toddler or pre-K life. Whenever I did, it embedded itself in my body and never left.
Sesame Street recently tweeted out the video of Ernie crooning to the sky (not the only time he’s been shown admiring the cosmos), and I found myself overwhelmed again by just how hard “I Don’t Want To Live On The Moon” goes.
Let’s just pause a moment for a closer look at those opening lines.
Well, I'd like to visit the moon
On a rocket ship high in the air
Yes, I'd like to visit the moon
But I don't think I'd like to live there
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love
So although I might like it for one afternoon
I don't want to live on the moon
It has a melancholic yearning that, with all due respect, no emo band could ever touch. They wish!! There’s an almost unbearable poetry in the simple conceit of staring out the window from your darkened room, in total stillness, thinking about all the places you’d like to go, and holding that in your mind and heart while also feeling aware of the isolation that adventure can bring, and, impossibly, having a tinge of longing for the people who are right there with you. There’s the pure, wide-eyed wonder about the world, and how improbable all of this is. There’s sorrow for things that aren’t even real. There’s love and gratitude. There’s imagination, a sense of personal limitation, and a sense of choice. Of living deliberately. The entirety of the human experience is in this song. Also, Ernie’s specific desire to visit the moon and (in the second verse) the ocean never fails to remind me of a classic Deadspin blog that I think about roughly once a week: Which Is Scarier, Space Or The Ocean? The Great Debate (the answer is the ocean, but yes, I can accept that space is scary as hell).
It took writing this blog for me to learn that Jim Henson himself was the one who voiced Ernie in the beginning, which only adds to my appreciation for this tune. The fact that the thin, often barely-there voice of earnest Ernie comes from the Muppet mastermind himself, the architect of so many cherished childhood memories, is almost as perfect as the song itself. There have actually been many renditions of “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” over the years but they’re basically superfluous. The voice, the unsubtle wind instrument accompaniment, the extremely basic production design, and the thrill of seeing Ernie’s entire body in the video?? You simply cannot top it.
For reasons I cannot begin to understand, this song does not get the respect or awe that it deserves. Writer Marah Eakin blogged an ode of her own for the A.V. Club back in 2014 and the comments range from variations on “woah I forgot about that song” to variations on “get a grip, that’s a song for babies.” But part of the reason my devotion to “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” has stayed so steadfast is precisely because I loved it as a child. I understood something about it then, I understand something about it now, and those two understandings are connected, but they’re not the same. The loneliness of being a kid and the loneliness of being grown are their own universes. The experience of relating to the song from both sides reminds me of a line from poet and essayist Louise Glück, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”
I’ve thought about all of this a lot, especially in the last few years, as I’ve watched my friends’ and loved ones’ kids grow, and watched them process the same characters and stories—and world—that I did. My dear friends’ perfect two-year-old daughter watches Sesame Street now and as we slowly emerged from our Covid bubbles over the last year, one of our first points of connection were these figures we all knew: Elmo, Grover, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert, and Ernie. I watched on public television, she watches on YouTube or HBO. Every time we share even the most passing moment of connection over them, or any other book, song, show, or movie for kids, I’m newly knocked out by the absolutely earth-shattering ability of childhood stories to grab hold of you, show you the world, and bounce around in your brain forever. Also, I’m pretty sure classic segments like The Milk Song or the segment on making crayons are out of rotation now, but I hope someday the kids find these trailblazers of slow TV. We all know Sesame Street has been killing the game since it arrived, but even decades of admiration and fanfare don’t quite do it justice. If there’s ever another Voyager record, I think that Ernie’s moon song should go with it.
About three months ago, I bought my husband (another space freak) a telescope for his birthday. It’s nice enough to see the moons of Jupiter on a good night, but not nice enough to make us stressed about lugging it around or putting our grubby idiot hands on it. During each full moon since we purchased it, we’ve hauled the thing to the top of a hill nearby to look at the same sky everyone on earth has been looking at since any of us existed. We stare at the moon and say inane, cliched things. And we meet all kinds of people because it is unreal how a telescope invites people in like moths to a flame.
We’ve met photographers, fellow space nuts, people who had no idea what was going on in the sky that night, people who had weird questions about what the telescope could spot on the ground, and people who had no interest at all in the equipment itself, who seemed like they just wanted to talk. It irritates me to no end that much of the modern popular discourse about space ends up being about fucking Elon Musk, but there’s still the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA, and people who just want to consider the sky, and think about going up there, and enjoy a moment of connection before shuffling on with the rest of life.
On the most recent full moon night, we were hovering over the telescope on a sidewalk when a car slammed its brakes right in front of us. A man rolled down the window and excitedly shouted, “Are you guys going to be here for a while? I know a kid who's just crazy about the moon. I can be back in seven minutes.” We waited seven (or so) minutes and he reappeared with a small child draped around his shoulders. We exchanged hellos and the girl peered through the eyepiece at the planets and then the moon, staying shy and nuzzling into her dad’s neck. She quietly absorbed the sights, not saying a word until the very end when they were about to depart.
“Let me look again,” she said.