June 18, 2009
TV theme songs
Today's Daily News has a long analysis of the evolution of TV show theme songs. It doesn't seem to be related to anything, but it's pretty good anyway. It starts out with the idea that you can identify someone's generation by which theme songs they know all the words to: "Gilligan's Island" represents one generation, "Brady Bunch" is another, and "Greatest American Hero" is another. Of course, anyone who's in my generation knows all three because of the Golden Age of Afternoon Reruns in the early to mid-80's.
Anyway, the point of the article is that with so many shows on all the network and cable channels, audiences don't have the time or the brain capacity to get to know and love theme songs they way they used to, and many shows have almost completely gotten rid of theme music all together. Think of those 3 seconds of abstract whooshing that seems to be the theme music for "Lost".
There's a long tradition of theme songs that set up the premise of a show and characterized the storyline that extends into recent years. The theme song for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" [video] about how Mary's gonna make it after all sets the stage for the show in much the same way that They Might Be Giants' "Boss of Me" did for "Malcolm in the Middle" [audio], and that ran until 2006.
Today's producers seem to be less secure about holding viewers, so they cut the long theme song to get straight to the action: "Now that most of us have dozens or hundreds of channels to surf through, and a remote to do it with, the networks are terrified that the minute one show ends, we will start looking around ... The idea is that we shouldn't have time to even think about picking up the remote before we're seeing action from the next show."
Maybe that's why cable networks are comfortable with longer opening sequences with theme songs than networks are, so we get "The Sopranos" [video] and "Weeds" [video] with one and a half minute intros, and on the networks we have a few quick bleeps to introduce "24".
So I'll share a few of my favorite theme songs and TV theme music. Please add any other stellar examples or personal favorites in the comments. (Click on the show names to hear the theme music.)
Miami Vice: My entire family used to be whipped into a frenzy of excitement every Friday night when that Jan Hammer music came on.
Mad Men: That moody, jazzy theme song with the hesitant descending strings somehow captures everything you need to know about the show.
The Jeffersons: I know. It's obvious, it's predictable, it's fantastic. It's by Ja'net Dubois.
Fame: Maybe I'm being influenced by the trailer for the new movie, but the original was really great.
Law & Order: Both the succinct "Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound" and the funky shuffle of the original show's theme music.
The X-Files: Abstract and spooky, maybe most popular ambient TV theme song ever?
The site Television Tunes seems to have every theme song ever--over 11,000.
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