For composer Mark Rivers, the challenge to writing songs for “Big Mouth” is balancing blunt language about sexuality and anatomy with the show’s tender, hopeful heart. The Netflix animated series has been lauded for promoting acceptance of all the awkward ways people mature, and the songs “I Love My Body” and “Valentine’s Day” are the epitome of showing that no one is ever alone in their experience.
The feminist, body-positive anthem “I Love My Body” comes about when Jessi and Missy (Jessi Klein and Jenny Slate) enter a Korean spa and are astounded by the wide range of very naked female bodies parading around without shame. Maya Rudolph as the Hormone Monstress named Connie is their guide to this parade of wobbly bits and sings:
Cellulite and knobby knees,
Ittie-bitties and double D’s,
Skinny legs and thunder thighs,
Areolas of every shape and size,
Innies, outies, easties, westies
Parts I only show my besties.
For the love letter to all of those body parts of various shapes and sizes, Rivers had to familiarize himself with the nuances of the terminology. “When I talked about with the producers, they gave me a few that I hadn’t heard of, like bat-wings,” Rivers said in an interview with IndieWire as he was working on Season 3. “In my first pass, I think I had saddlebags, and they were like, ‘No, that’s too negative.’ But I’ve yet to figure out why bat-wings is acceptable and saddlebags is not.
“If this were a serious song about women’s body dysmorphia or how women feel about their bodies, I wouldn’t be the guy to write that. But ultimately, it’s a comedy show, and also it’s a very positive message. I have a daughter, and it’s a message I certainly am happy to give to her, being happy with who you are, and how you’re shaped, and all your so-called flaws.”
Rudolph is also grateful for the Hormone Monstress’ positivity on the show and in songs like “I Love My Body.” The role was an unexpected surprise for her. “I love that it’s giving this younger generation what we never had. When I started doing show, I don’t think the Hormone Monstress had been created yet,” she said. Instead she had been doing random voices — like playing a dirty motel pillow — when suddenly she found out she’d be promoted to Jessi’s Hormone Monstress.
“We all created this thing together that we fell in love with,” Rudolph said. “None of us had idea that Connie would be such a superstar. But I’m so proud of her.”
“I Love My Body” is a song that is tailor-made for the Hormone Monstress, from its messaging to its aggressive vocals. Rivers at first tested out a Broadway showtune style for “I Love My Body,” but then he was directed to switch to a “Gloria Gaynor vibe” instead. “The first pass I did was a little bit more, ‘I am woman. Hear me roar,’ but it was a little too serious. You couldn’t really create an animated party vibe with naked women dancing around to it,” he said.
“We landed on disco as the perfect party, happy, upbeat vibe. It just seemed to fit, not only the celebratory tone of the song, but also Maya Rudolph’s vocal. It’s a great style for her to sing in.”
On a show in which most of the comedic voice actors aren’t singers, being able to write a song that features Rudolph allows Rivers to run with a broader range of vocals.“I always use temp vocals for her song, and it’s pretty ridiculous. It’s me singing, and I’m in falsetto, going for it, way out of my range,” he said. “But it’s fun and so much easier when I know that she’s going to be singing it because I can pretty much write whatever I want and know that she’s going to hit it. Pretty much any style is good for her to sing in.”
Rudolph is far more modest about her skills. “It’s actually hard to sing as Connie. That’s more of a challenge because she’s got such a low voice. I don’t really know how the hell to sing in her voice. It’s hard, very hard.”
Listen to “I Love My Body” below:
Although there’s a freedom to writing for musical veterans like Rudolph or Andrew Rannells, who voices Matthew, one of Rivers’ favorite characters to write for isn’t a seasoned singer: Andrew, voiced by John Mulaney.
“I always like writing for Andrew, because I feel like in many ways, he’s the heart of the show,” said Rivers. “Also, John Mulaney is not a tremendous singer by any means, but singing in the Andrew character, it’s one of my favorite musical moments. When he kicks in on [Season 1 song] ’Totally Gay,’ he’s just so sweet. He’s this poor wrongheaded, naïve kid, embracing what he thinks he is so wrongly. It’s a really great, heartbreaking vocal performance.”
Andrew joins most of the other characters in the the standalone “My Furry Valentine” special to perform the showstopper song “Valentine’s Day,” which is actually a critique of the romantic holiday. The song’s complex, ensemble nature was directly inspired by Broadway. “There was a song from ‘Les Mis’ we talked about, ‘One Day More.’ Not musically, but just stylistically because they jump around, cutting to all the different main characters, where they are in their lives, where they’re in the stories, that big grandiose overture kind of a thing,” he said.
With at least six adolescent main characters, parental figures, and two Hormone Monsters to service, that’s a surfeit of storylines to track and summarize in a lyric. “You’re not simply writing a little bit of a set piece; you’re really servicing the story. Each character is in a very specific point in their life, so those are a little tricker to dial into so specifically and to make them funny, hopefully.”
The song ratchets up the difficulty in one section where the lyrics the characters sing dovetail with each other.
“That one’s the trickiest part, the overlapping, building drama,” said Rivers. “The trick was making it all audible. I have to remember we live in a time that if things go by too quickly, or if there’s too much going on … you can rewind and dissect it, or go on message boards, or whatever it is people use these days. I’m always thinking, ‘Are people going to catch these dense lyrics?’ Well, they can re-listen.”
Even though the song is essentially an anti-Valentine’s Day song, his lyrics couldn’t skew too jaded. “These kids haven’t really experienced all the frustrations of love and the pressure of Valentine’s Day entirely,” he said. “They’re just at the beginning of it. So keeping it not too mature was a little bit of the trick on that one.”
In the end, “Valentine’s Day” is still about acceptance, acceptance of not following the societal expectations and norms for what romance is supposed to be. And that’s truly freeing.
Listen and sing along to “Valentine’s Day”:
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.