My Little Pony is arguably one of pop culture’s most enduring brands, and in 2023, it’s celebrating 40 years of friendship and magic.
Remixed in size and color after the 1981 My Pretty Pony fell short in inspiring young buyers, the My Little Pony brand took off with the release of some Gen1 ponies in 1983, followed by TV specials, shorts and animated series bearing the toy line’s titular name. By the mid- to late ’80s, the ponies had become a fixture of the children’s media and toy industry.
In the four decades — and four more pony generations — since, the Hasbro brand’s endless appeal has led to more toys, shows, movies and games. As a result, My Little Pony has left an imprint on multiple generations, from the children of the synths-era to today’s current TikTokers.
To help celebrate that cross-generational appeal, Jessica Vaughn, head of sync at Venice Music and the founder and president of Head Bitch Music — a full-service music production house that has worked on series like Bridgerton, Criminal Minds, Melrose Place, FBoy Island, Chucky, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts — has remixed the My Little Pony classic theme for fans young and older.
Through two EPs featuring more than 20 combined remixes, Vaughn — who is also involved with Web3 Music Rights Group, a nonprofit focused on fair and equitable licensing agreements and copyrights in the Web3 space — has delivered a series of thematic spins that are not only at the disposal of Hasbro, but My Little Pony fans across the world.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Vaughn, who is a singer-songwriter in her own right, about crafting music that not only captures My Little Pony’s steadfast themes of friendship and magic, but pays tribute to its distinctive eras. She also discusses making music for brands in the social media age, creating music for young audiences, and how Web3 technologies and AI are reshaping the modern music industry.
You released two EPs in July — a six-track compilation of sped-up and lo-fi remixes and instrumentals, as well as a second 14-track collection featuring acoustic, ’80s and ’90s remixes. What inspired these?
I’ve been working with Hasbro on and off since 2014. I’ve worked on Jem and the Holograms, the My Little Pony spinoff the Equestria Girls, Littlest Pet Shop. Any small animal or an animal that becomes a real girl, I’m your girl. (Laughs.) Hasbro had approached us about helping with some of the marketing materials around My Little Pony. I’m such a fan. I feel like it’s so empowering. It was a show that as a young child I really related to, so when they asked me to reimagine some of the songs, I was like, “Absolutely.” The first EP is all the main ’80s theme. There’s been different iterations of that theme — we’re on Generation Five now — so it’s been through a lot of changes.
It was a really exciting project because we got a ton of amazing female creators involved as well as the bronies, the producers that we worked with. We got to do a ’90s pop version, an ’80s remix. It was just a lot of nostalgic moments, as well as some modern touches. But it came about organically. I spoke to the head of music [at Hasbro] and we put our heads together to figure out what would audiences want to interact with. We had the one theme sped up, as that’s what Gen Z kids and younger want, and then a whole reimagined EP. But we are going to be doing some more My Little Pony across a lot of fun generations.
You were clearly trying to tap into the generational diversity of the My Little Pony fan base. How did you find the right sound to represent those generations?
We talked a lot about how we connect to each generation of Pony fans. I was born in the ’80s, so I really grew up on the ponies in the ’90s. I’m actually the one who’s singing on the ’90s girl-pop version because doing a Britney [Spears] theme is easy having grown up on that. But we didn’t want to alienate newer fans that might not be so aware of the ’90s and the ’80s. We wanted them to also be like, “This is silly. This is fun. I want to post about this.” So no matter the style — obviously we are catering to that nostalgia — we worked to not alienate those that might have grown up with different versions of the ponies, and also different eras of music.
You’re also always thinking about the parents. What I like about Hasbro so much is that I really believe they work in a really holistic way. There are the kids, the fans with no kids, and there are the parents. Whenever I approach anything, whether it is a re-imagination of a preexisting catalog song or an original song, I try to think about all the listeners. I don’t want to leave anyone out because music is supposed to resonate with you. It’s supposed to make you feel less alone. If you’re making something that is alienating, you’re missing the point of this magical universe, in my opinion.
What would you say makes the My Little Pony theme distinctive? And what elements of the original were you willing to play with? What might you have not wanted to change?
There’s definitely motifs in the song. Toward the end, there are three notes, and we were really going back and forth with Hasbro on this. Do we need to keep it? Do we need to lose it? Certain notes are always going to be recognizable across the board, no matter what brands you are working on. People just associate it with that. So they were really adamant about keeping it, and I was trying to make it work within only having 30 seconds or only having 60 seconds. But then also with the motif, how are we going to do the ’80s remix with that? Is that a guitar part? Is that a voice, a synth? There are certain elements in the theme, especially the ’80s theme, that are so iconic. It’s very child-like, the voices. Obviously, there’s some adult mix with this high-pitched voice. But you can’t tell if it’s like numerous characters or just one character.
People get really attached to what they grow up with, so if you re-imagine it too much, it’s almost like you’re taking something away from someone. You have to be really mindful about that. The things that really make the theme the theme are the motif and all the friendship and magic. I feel like the lyrics are really important, but there are some lyrics that you’re like, “Are they dated? Should we say it?” At the end of the day, it’s that nostalgia, so we can’t change it. But we can build upon it. The ponies and the pony and brony [adult male] fans want to feel safe. Those motifs and the setting is really important to that. So each theme remix whether it was ’90s, or ’80s, or acoustic, pretty much entered in the same fashion. The production may change, but the melodies don’t. It’s the approach to the melody that does. You might change it one way for the ’90s, but then you’re doing a more acoustic version, and you might sing it more like Taylor Swift. It’s all about how you interpret the same material without changing it.
My Little Pony debuted in a time when toy lines were frequently adapted into TV shows, and before there were more restrictions around marketing to children through the TV. Which is probably why those theme songs feel so catchy — they weren’t just themes, they were toy jingles. Do you feel like the My Little Pony theme embodies jingle elements that make it memorable? If so, what are they?
I work in sync and custom music, so this is something I think about every day. When creating a theme, or even a theme that already exists, that needs to resonate with somebody as a person, and I honestly do believe that Hasbro is really good at this. When I think of My Little Pony, I think of feeling safe, being free, having friends and empowering young women. That naturally lifts their brand, the shows and the movies because they’re all about that: being independent, leaning on your friends and living in this magical world. And then going all the way back, we all grew up on this, so we already have that within us. It’s like with any show that you watched back in the day. These iconic brands, that’s what they have to do with their themes. No matter the theme, no matter if they change the theme. It all comes from the direct source of how the initial viewers felt. Then they evolve, and that’s how I approach the music. Some people are like, “Children’s music? I don’t have kids.” But I was a kid, so I give it 100 percent. These are memories that stay with people for the rest of their lives.
Once people reach a certain age, they can move or even lose some respect for the music of their childhood shows. But at an animation-themed Writers Guild picket, the playlist had all these kids’ show songs that were not just recognizable, but danceable. What does it take to make a good theme for a kids show?
There’s always a certain amount of finesse, intelligence and silliness. Just like any TV show theme or anything that accompanies music-to-picture, you really have to think about whether this supports the narrative. To me, that feels like a paint by number situation. Be fun within the lines. When I wrote the original theme for Littlest Pet Shop, that was for a little bit of an older audience — similar to My Little Pony. I had such a blast doing that, because some of the references were Fitz and the Tantrums. But how do you take Fitz and the Tantrums and make it also universal for kids, for the families that are watching?
Going back to the My Little Pony EP songs, Hasbro and fans will have access to them — both for business and for fun. How did you take that into consideration when crafting them? And did you think about, in terms of Hasbro’s use for marketing, what might perform better certain places online and off?
The Hasbro team and I talked about this a lot. The ultimate goal for these and other releases that we’ll be doing is supporting the brand and helping engagement across the board, whether that’s for marketing lift, or for new people to discover the song on TikTok and then be able to use it in their content in a silly way or as a fan. So we did some of the conversions because there’s so many different ways to engage as a user with audio content. My favorite is the ’80s remix. It’s fun and silly, and maybe it’s just my age that makes it perfect for someone like me, but, you can make a really fun video to that, if you wanted to post ads. And if Hasbro does want to run ads for their brand, they have all these different versions that they can now test out, if they so choose. But we definitely thought about that — especially the sped-up and slowed-down versions. Those are obviously for [Instagram] Reels and for TikTok. We really had them in mind. We studied what are people creating that are slowed down and sped up. At Venice Music, we have a lot of artists that I represent that also do really amazing on TikTok, so I had a perfect case study.
Beyond your work with Hasbro and other networks and shows, you are attached to a nonprofit focused on Web3 technologies. AI isn’t Web3 exactly, but it is an increasingly discussed topic in terms of how it’s used in relation to artists and their rights. In what ways has AI impacted your work? Do you use it at all in your process?
I co-founded a group called the Web3 Music Rights Group with some other players in the music licensing space out of necessity. We were like, how do we solve this problem? And this is before we were in deep fake-land. We were like, “Metaverse!” and we were thinking about NFTs — or, I guess, we’re not really calling them NFTs anymore because that did not go well. (Laughs.) But we asked, how do we create a safe space for each other to ask questions and then create general standards that we can share with our community. As someone who deals with rights all the time, it can be a muddy place to work. It can be confusing. It can be ever-changing. Things move at such a fast rate, sometimes legislation can’t keep up with it. So it’s our job sometimes to “Wild West” and regulate this to the best of our ability as good citizens.
With AI, the way that I’ve been using it right now, I use some AI assistance at my licensing job. But I really don’t use it a ton in custom music. Sometimes I like to ask ChatGPT marketing questions, or, “Will this resonate with someone?” I do ask specific questions around a release rollout, or maybe something I’m creating to get general feedback, but the biggest concern in America is that your likeness is really not protected — so your voice, etc. — while in other countries it is. That’ll be a really interesting thing to tackle when it comes to licensing. It’ll also be an interesting thing, too, as we’re seeing Universal and these larger companies try to work out this backend deal with fake releases. But AI has to source its content from somewhere, so unless it is actually saying, I am sourcing from here, here and here, no one can truly license that material for film, TV, advertising and gaming. You need to know where all the bodies are buried in order to license something.
If you’re doing something with AI where it’s an AI library — someone is creating all this music, maybe they’re using a voice, and then it’s creating and generating a song — that’s truly a free-use situation. You would maybe sign up for that AI program, and you’d be able to pull and resource whatever you want. But if something is sourcing, let’s say from Radiohead, it sounds like Radiohead, it’s [Thom Yorke’s] voice and they’re taking bits and parts of his song and then changing it, it’s still being sourced from somewhere. You’re seeing this a lot with authors and artists. I think that at the end of the day, you still have to source and credit, kind of like sampling. But we’ll see how it eventually unfolds. It’s moving so quickly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we need AI to help us monitor AI.
The sourcing issue is an important one across industries, from visual art to writing to music. But it seems like a given: One learns that they can’t just download a photo from Google Images and use it because there may be permissions attached. It works the same way with other art, content, creation. So why does it feel like this isn’t a widely established understanding with AI, including in music?
It’s a systemic problem in the sense that music rights are confusing for most people, they’re confusing for the people who work in music rights, and they are ever-changing. People connect to music in all different ways. People also consume music in different ways and have a different level of respect for music across the board. You see it with networks and how they treat creators in general. Every production company, every network, is not created equal in the sense of how they appreciate creatives. If you’re coming from the Napster generation, where you’re just used to being able to get music whenever you want it, you might not understand the value that music has and that it is truly a copyright.
These are just long-winded macro issues across the board that have a trickle-down effect of how people consume music on a daily basis. And the law’s still the law, but is it easy to enforce across the board when everyone is violating it? Not everyone has the type of team that maybe Taylor Swift has that can constantly regulate how her music, voice and brand is being used. I think that a lot of people are in the mindset of, I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission.
AI has already started to make its way into the kids content space, from interactive episodes to cameos. In terms of music, which can become almost ear-wormy for kids, do you see any applicable uses for AI?
Not only do I work with Hasbro, but I work with Box Sign and they have a toy called [Toniebox]. We do a lot of the music for these little figurines that are in this screenless speaker box. It’s so important to put thought behind how you create music like this for children. There are ways to do it intelligently and to connect to numerous listeners. There’s a way to do it where it’s still silly and fun, but that you don’t dumb it down either. Kids are a lot smarter than they get credit for. So personally, if you’re going to use or generate AI for music for the children’s space, the only way that I could see it being used is almost like a splice package where AI generated this bed of music.
But personally, I just don’t feel comfortable as a person [with it]. I really labor over what we create, and I think it needs to be skillful, and you need to think about how young minds are growing up and how they’re going to interact with the world. That is a huge responsibility that I don’t necessarily trust at this current time for AI to be responsible for. Plus, I think it would take away some of that silliness and goofiness that works. You need a human being that has feelings to be able to connect to a child spirit.
There’s just so much hooky, zanny, specific stuff in a lot of those that it feels almost like AI couldn’t lyrically or musically match the distinctiveness of these themes. Do you think it’s possible for artificial intelligence to match the work of humans in the work you do?
It’s never going to be the same. For example, I love working with Hasbro because Equestria Girls and My Little Pony, those resonate with all genders, but as a young woman growing up, it obviously spoke to me. So it’s easy for me to pull from within myself when I’m creating for those brands. It feels real, because it is. AI and anything Web3-related — I don’t think anyone’s trying to avoid it, but it should be used as a tool to enhance the creators’ experience in a way that will help them resonate with their audience, or create a better allocation of time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a replacement of what they do because then we miss out on true art that connects to people. I feel like everything you do should be an extension of your humanity. Everything should come from an authentic place, or else what are we really doing it all for.
When you cater to the least evolved version of what it’s like to be a human being, you’re really missing out. Algorithms can help you find the things that you want to watch, but even then you’re helping push them into the direction that you are already in. When you use things like AI to create something, it loses its magic. Emotion is so nuanced. It’s like poetry. There’s so many different ways to react to how something is created. A kid can play the piano, but is it the same thing as somebody who has played for 25 years? It’s not. So I’m not afraid of AI. I started this group because I want to embrace change. But I want to be able to understand it and speak up when I think that it is taking advantage of my fellow creators, composers and artists that I hire.
Interview edited for length and clarity.