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September 19, 2014

TV 101: Where Have All the Theme Songs Gone?

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Mar 23rd 2011 5:15PM
Growing PainsThe TV show theme song used to be an institution, something you could look forward to with joy, often overshadowing the show itself. I can't count the number of times my wide-eyed young self was steadily enthused by the warm, familiar theme to 'Who's the Boss?' just in time for Alyssa Milano to dazzle me with her sexy tomboy 'tude.

Those days are mostly gone, unfortunately. First they were replaced by popular songs -- but all Paula Cole made me do was vomit just before I got my Dawson and Joey on. I didn't want to wait for that SONG to be over -- now it seems "theme songs" are actually just titular lines blurted out between commercials by some singing robot. Why would you throw away something so unabashedly awesome?

I think I know why, and the reason might be both good and bad: money. Money is good in most respects; I think we all can agree on that. It makes the world go round, it doesn't grow on trees (yet), and we put it where our mouths are, ideally. But when it comes to television and art in general, money tends to mess everything up.

When you bring money into any artistic equation, the art usually suffers. And in the case of TV theme songs, it's the audience that loses out, left with a watered-down, more digestible product ... like lite mayo.



So, that's the bad side. I think it became bad business for shows to spend a minute or two on a jaunty and uplifting theme song when it could just as easily flash the title over scenes from previous episodes set to a techno beat. Never mind that it all but erased an American art form from our public consciousness.

The good side of this theory is that programs have more time for content. Shows typically run opening and closing credits over actual story, squeezing as much of an episode as they can into their time slot at the cost of a catchy, custom-made, inspiring theme song. This is good. More show equals good.

But in many cases "more show, good" doesn't translate into "more good show." "More pandering show," maybe. "More eye-rolling show," certainly, without even a snappy theme song to help us forget we're being mind-raped by 'According to Jim.'

Maybe it's a cultural thing, and the times we live in now aren't fit for the theme songs of old. Old people love to complain about attention spans and cellphones and the interwebs speeding life up to a break-neck pace. To some extent, they're right -- but I think most of us wouldn't mind sitting through a one-minute theme song if it was as sweet as the one for 'Growing Pains,' something that doesn't just encapsulate the show's sensibility, it also makes your heart melt.



But somewhere along the line we all settled for 'Modern Family,' 12 seconds of some dude yelling "hey, hey" at us, as if to say, "Yo, jackass! The show's starting now! Look up from your bowl of bean dip for a second."

Don't get me wrong, both shows are amazing in their own right. But the stark difference in their theme songs is troubling. Forget the fact that Alan Thicke (Jason from 'Growing Pains') actually wrote the brilliant theme songs for 'Diff'rent Strokes' and 'The Facts of Life,' while Charlie Sheen lip-synchs the word "men" over and over on 'Two and a Half Men.'

Maybe I'm just being nostalgic, but it marks a distinct cultural deterioration, emblematic of an audience that doesn't really care about what they watch as long as it's fast, sexy, flashy and has Rob Lowe.

Think about these theme song lyrics: "Thank you for being a friend" ('Golden Girls'); "I bet we've been together for a million years, and I bet we'll be together for a million more" ('Family Ties'); "Those were the days" ('All in the Family'). They spoke of a nation that shared a togetherness and an appreciation of others that has been replaced by a selfish, me-first mentality.

I'm not the only one who thinks these things. The 'Family Guy' theme song is a parody of the 'All in the Family' theme that asks the same kinds of questions I'm proposing here. "It seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV / But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely" sung from behind the piano by Peter and Lois, just as Archie and Edith did 30-plus years prior, at once acknowledges the fundamental shifts in television and seeks to bring back the theme song to its rightful place: easing us into a solid half-hour of television.



What's your favorite TV theme?


Dr. Vaughan teaches English/media/humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and he can hit a tennis ball wicked far. You can also check out his blog or on Facebook.

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23 Comments

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June Jerrie

ER, NCIS, and Cold Case.

May 11 2011 at 10:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kapit

To put it bluntly, you're over-thinking the matter. The simple answer is that all those shows you mention ran roughly 3-4 minutes longer than shows nowadays. A half hour show in 1990 ran about 24 minutes of content. Now they're lucky if they squeeze out 20. That's a whole other subplot, or if you'd rather, a theme song.

March 25 2011 at 3:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jason

Dude, they cut the theme out to have more time to sell ads. It's not a freaking sign of cultural deterioration. Give me a break.

March 25 2011 at 3:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Anony

Theme MUSIC <> Theme SONGS
I'll take the theme to Gilligan's Island or The Patty Duke Show over any of the crap you posters have mentioned.

March 25 2011 at 1:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
UGABugKiller

Great theme songs need not have words.

The BEST two theme songs right now are from The Office and Parks&Rec, and they don't use words, yet kinda perfectly encapsulate what those two shows are about through the music.

The BEST television theme song in HISTORY is the Theme from Firefly.

With just a few words, this theme tells you all you need to know about Mal Reynolds, Captain Tightpants himself, and his intrepid crew of rogues and outsiders.

Take my love, take my land, Take me where I cannot stand

I don't care, I'm still free; You can't take the sky from me

Take me out to the black, Tell 'em I ain't comin' back

Burn the land and boil the sea; You can't take the sky from me

There's no place I can be, Since I found Serenity

But you can't take the sky from me...

March 24 2011 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brett Alan

This year's best new show, Terriers, had a wonderful theme song. Sadly, the show didn't last, so we can no longer catch a ride with the trickster and the javelin man...

March 24 2011 at 11:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eeeemface

FYI--You have the wrong Dawson's Creek song up. That's not the Paula Cole version (they couldn't get the rights for the DVDs).

March 24 2011 at 10:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jack Kennerley

I would agree with @Jay that BuffytVS and Angel (and also Firefly - yeah alright I'm a Whedonite...) were some of the last great theme songs, Dollhouse's was a bit meh, but I grew to like it.

Grey's Anatomy's is one of the first I personally noticed starting out with a longer intro and then Very quickly (basically at the beginning of the second season) shortening it to no more than 2 or 3 seconds of the title, which I actually think works in it's favour (yeah I'm also British) for some reason, maybe I just found the theme song a bit irritating (especially compared to previous-big-hospital-show ER's adrenaline-pumpy theme) and kind of flat... They split second of the white-flash titles work better to dramatic effect.

Currently I am still loving Fringe's credits, the tune fits really nicely when leading into the beginning of what you know is usually going to be a twisty and mind-bending 45 mins of tv, and the way they change them for flashback episodes and for alternate universe episodes is such a nice touch of detail, a bit like when BuffytVS would change credits sometimes, such as when bit-part-side-character Jonathan was suddenly a superstar and featured all throughout the credits, or when they changed them to super-cheese for the musical episode etc.

March 23 2011 at 11:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jack Kennerley's comment
Renee

Firefly has THE BEST theme song!

March 28 2011 at 11:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jack Kennerley

I would agree with @Jay that BuffytVS and Angel (and also Firefly - yeah alright I'm a Whedonite...) were some of the last great theme songs, Dollhouse's was a bit meh, but I grew to like it.

Grey's Anatomy's is one of the first I personally noticed starting out with a longer intro and then Very quickly (basically at the beginning of the second season) shortening it to no more than 2 or 3 seconds of the title, which I actually think works in it's favour (yeah I'm also British) for some reason, maybe I just found the theme song a bit irritating (especially compared to previous-big-hospital-show ER's adrenaline-pumpy theme) and kind of flat... They split second of the white-flash titles work better to dramatic effect.

Currently I am still loving Fringe's credits, the tune fits really nicely when leading into the beginning of what you know is usually going to be a twisty and mind-bending 45 mins of tv, and the way they change them for flashback episodes and for alternate universe episodes is such a nice touch of detail, a bit like when BuffytVS would change credits sometimes, such as when bit-part-side-character Jonathan was suddenly a superstar and featured all throughout the credits, or when they changed them to super-cheese for the musical episode etc.

March 23 2011 at 11:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kate

I love the theme song to Dexter. Matched up with the images, it really gets me in the mood for a creepy/fun show.

March 23 2011 at 10:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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