Steven Universe and Instrumental Identity: Song Breakdown
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for all of Steven Universe and minor spoilers for Steven Universe: The Movie
While working on the soundtrack for the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe, composers Aivi and Surasshu found a unique way to give characters distinctive musical identities without sacrificing time; assigning unique instruments to characters. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the track “Happily Ever After” from Steven Universe: The Movie. The main four Crystal Gems (Steven, Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst) take lead vocals, with each of their verses being split into two sections; an A section where the lyrics focus on the character’s backstory, and a B section focusing on the character as they currently are and how they’ve changed over the course of the main series.
The song begins from Steven’s perspective, the instrumental borrowing heavily from Steven’s instrument, chiptune (in other words, electronic, 8-bit instruments). His verse contains ascending arpeggios (broken chords where each note is played individually) and playful interludes of chiptune embellishments, signifying Steven’s playful and hopeful personality. During his B section, a section of the Steven Universe theme song (“We Are the Crystal Gems”) is played as a counter-melody. While not exclusively Steven’s motif, he did write the song in the show, and the hopeful nature of the song's lyrics further solidifies the hope in Steven’s character and “Happily Ever After.”
The song then transitions to Pearl’s verse, which is scored with piano being the main instrument. The piano reflects Pearl’s elegance and grace and is used to score the vast majority of Pearl’s songs. However, unlike other Pearl-centered songs, her verse also incorporates an electric bass guitar (which Pearl is seen playing on-screen) to reflect how she’s come into her own and broken free from being defined by her past. While her B section doesn’t directly quote any motif, elements such as piano arpeggios are present in other Pearl-centered songs.
Garnet’s verse is perhaps the most littered with musical references. Being a fusion, her instrument, a synth bass, is a combination of the instruments of the two gems which make up Garnet; a synth pad for Sapphire and a bassy drum kit for Ruby. While her A section uses mainly her synth bass, her B section transitions into a softer instrumentation similar to Ruby and Sapphire’s love song, “Something Entirely New.” Garnet’s B section quotes Ruby and Sapphire’s love theme, which is also quoted in other Garnet songs like “Something Entirely New” and “Stronger Than You.”
Finally, Amethyst’s verse is driven by her instrument, various drums and percussion. While her A section stays consistent with the rhythm of the rest of the song, her B section transitions into a swing beat, representing how Amethyst was able to find ways to stand out proudly. Much like Pearl’s, Amethyst’s B section doesn’t directly reference any one song, but does share some similarities with “Tower of Mistakes,” setting up a contrast between Amethyst’s self-esteem issues in the beginning of the show and her much more confident present self.
Aivi and Surasshu’s instrumentation of “Happily Ever After” provide both a look into the characters' pasts and their futures, giving additional insight, even when the lyrics are removed.
Listen to "Happily Ever After:" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZtclwrcdOY