Aesthetic Enforcement: Togetherness in Steven Universe

In recent history, Tumblr has been obsessed with the word “aesthetic” recently almost to the point of parody. While it has become somewhat of a memetic joke, aesthetic choices really affect the tone of an artistic work and can affect its quality. It is essentially a method of thematic enforcement through visuals and sound. As well, I’ve seen fantastic writing about fashion relating to games via Gita Jackson’s Wardrobe Theory series, and Zolani Stewart’s discussions about the Sonic the Hedgehog series’ relationship with visuals. These got me to thinking more about the necessity of strong thematic decisions. A series that works with well with aesthetic enforcement is, surprise surprise, the bright, bold, and often praised Steven Universe.

StevenUniverse_SecondIntroSome spoilers after the jump.

As should be the standard, the intro/theme song immediately establishes the feel of the show: bright, colorful, light-infused backgrounds and upbeat music with harmonized vocals all indicate that Steven Universe will be about fun, optimism, and togetherness, and won’t be afraid to cater to femininity or soft masculinity. Additionally, the vocal styles of each gem in the song provide hints to their personality and character. Garnet is the straightforward leader, Amethyst is nonchalant, Pearl is elegant, and Steven is eager, energetic and has a desire to be included. This is all included in the intro, establishing the show’s aesthetic immediately—whether or not you have a grip on what it is about, you know how it feels right away.

Music extends into character aesthetic for sure, usually by way of motifs. The fusion song for Pearl and Amethyst, “Amalgam”, is one of the strongest examples for this. It combines elegant piano for Pearl with jazzy drum beats for Amethyst, which fit into their personality types fairly well. This is the chief aesthetic and thematic choice in Steven Universe: the togetherness of diversity. Dissonant styles working in concert with each other—a sort of harmony, if you will.

Harmony can be tricky though.

Harmony can be tricky though.

This is present in the consistently beautiful sound design. There are the well known character songs for sure, (Garnet’s “Stronger Than You” and Pearl’s “Do It For Her” really back up their particular themes) but the incidental background music is a consistent enforcement of the aesthetic of the world and its various locations and residents. Sounds are relaxing when they need to be, and upbeat when the situation calls for it. The music frequently contains electronic based music mixed with more traditional instrumentation. Songs like “Desert Glass” and “Mirror Match” show this pretty solidly. (In fact, “Mirror Match” does a great job of comparing the different motifs of each of the Gems and Steven.) This mixture of electronic and traditional sounds reinforces the theme of togetherness in diversity. The music tells the audience that Beach City, and Steven Universe as a whole, is a dynamic place that can’t be summed up with one specific style.

There are definitely recurring themes.

There are definitely recurring themes.

Steven Universe relies heavily on music, sure, but it is there more than just for sounding nice: music is a recurring thematic element. From the overtly musical ideas, such as Greg’s early music career, to fusions needing a dance to be initiated, to harmony being a central idea in the tie-in game, music is everywhere you look in the series. The metaphor and theme even extend into subtle examples. The Gem Destabilizers (weapons that split fusions and forces Gems back into their gems) that the Homeworld Gems use resemble tuning forks.

There are also hands everywhere! That's gotta mean something!

There are also hands everywhere! That’s gotta mean something!

But audio isn’t the only way the show builds this aesthetic of coming together. It extends into its visual style as well. Really, the art works almost the same way as the music. The previously mentioned backgrounds are a source of beauty and theme building. As seen above, scenery is often relatively complex foregrounds with backdrops made of extremely simple shapes arranged into something resembling clouds and angular rays of sunshine. What’s more, the coloring in the foregrounds doesn’t seem too concerned with being completely even with the lines (seen below). Dissonant styles are furthered here in the way of neat versus sloppy, but they come together to appear proper in way. These backgrounds end up looking more like a light show than any kind of realistic interpretation of their world, which is likely on purpose. (Season 1’s intro literally starts with a light show!) But the takeaway here, again, is the combination of disparate styles to creating something beautiful.

Also, why not combine adult humor with children's programming?

Also, why not combine adult humor with children’s programming?

Combining disparate aesthetics isn’t a surefire way for beauty and success, however. The show actually makes a point of this in the form of “bad” fusions. The first bad fusion we see is Malachite, a combination of Jasper and Lapis built from anger and spite, rather than love or necessity. She is the only fusion we’ve seen to be anything other than bipedal, and is constantly in a state of fighting with herself to stay together. She isn’t a positive experience or reflection of togetherness. In the same vein are the fusion experiments from “Keeping it Together”. They are a hand-themed mess of a body horror, both in-universe and in the meta-sense, complete with scare chords. The fusion experiments are Gems that were forced together into a fusion, rather than willingly—completely the opposite of a harmonious union. All of the consenting, positivity-based fusions in the show work much better, enforcing that diverse styles can come together well when combined in good faith.

As I was writing this post, I saw an evolution of sorts in the topic. It became more complex, and I realized that kind of mirrors the show in a way; again referring to the theme song. That intro is deceptively simple upon first viewings of the show, as is the plot, and neither’s true brilliance appears until later and in hindsight. My assessment of the show’s aesthetic grew, too, which I think is very much promoted in the way Steven Universe works: the fun-feeling story about a human boy being raised by his alien “aunts” is pretty cool, but that’s far from all that’s there.

That’s why I care. So much of our media is more relatable than it seems, almost deceptively so. We live in a diverse world, and it is nice for shows to mirror that. I think, overall, the aesthetic decisions made for Steven Universe really enforce the theme of diverse ideas coming together in a harmonious way. It’s most subtle and driving in the music and art, but is also obvious in all the relationships, to some degree, and I think that’s really supposed to be one of the big takeaways. Despite being a sci-fi/fantasy mash-up, the characters and world feel real and similar to our own. This only proves how important aesthetic and theming really are, because if the show were more homogeneous, it might not have the strong impact that it does. The show is better for its diverse, unique aesthetic.



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