Mad Men, Dexter, Game of Thrones—it’s such a great time for instrumental TV theme songs. But what about themes with lyrics, themes that follow the example set by classic shows like The Brady Bunch, Rawhide, The Jeffersons, and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Sadly, this variety of signature tune is a dying breed, seemingly destined to go the way of the laugh track. OK, so no one’s really bemoaning the near extinction of the laugh track but, as TV lovers, we should be concerned about the current lack of title music that we can actually sing along to. Whether we like it or not, the words to the themes from Gilligan’s Island, Cheers, Charles in Charge, Friends, Family Matters, and The Greatest American Hero, are floating around in our heads. Simple rhyming verses like “if the teacher pops a test, I know I’m in a mess, and my dog ate all my homework last night, riding low in my chair, she won’t know that I’m there, if I can hand it in tomorrow it’ll be all right” have become culturally significant. But what will this generation’s TV theme song legacy be? Here’s a list of series, all premiering within the last 10 years, that are keeping this proud vocal tradition alive with their original music (that is, songs composed specifically for the program) and predictions of whether or not these themes will stand the test of time.
The Big Bang Theory
In the 10th grade I used to walk around feeling super satisfied with who I was, not because I was particularly popular or smart or cute, but because I knew all of the words to Barenaked Ladies’ pseudo-rap, tongue twister “One Week.” Nowadays, I feel a similar sort of satisfaction whenever I rattle off the lyrics to the band’s “Big Bang Theory Theme.” Since the song chronicles the entire history of Earth in less than 30 seconds, it can be seen as the ultimate expository theme and probably deserves to be grouped with the greats for that fact alone. It’s also really alienating to creationists—something that I’m sure brings a tremendous amount of joy to Stephen Hawking. Any theme that includes the word “autotrophs” is destined to be remembered—it’s easy to imagine a future where this song is used by science and history teachers as a learning tool.
Zooey Deschanel’s “Hey Girl” is so deliberately perky that it simultaneously seems to be lampooning the inherent goofiness of sitcom themes and celebrating that semi-ironic love that today’s 20-somethings have for things that are inherently goofy. The song is sweet, the lyrics aren’t at all complicated, and by simply substituting your name for “Jess” (and changing “girl” to “boy” if you happen to be male) you can co-opt it. And isn’t that the dream? Your own personal theme song! The tune is as quirky and light as the series, consciously referencing the bubbly themes from classic working gal sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, and Laverne & Shirley. The extended version of “Hey Girl” is an actual, bona fide song that can be enjoyed now and forever by fans of Deschanel’s warm, velvety voice even if they don’t appreciate her warm velvety acting on the show.
Two and a Half Men
Whether it’s Ashton Kutcher or Carlos Estevez in the lead role, this show is mediocre. But do you want to know what isn’t mediocre? Yep, you guessed it, barbershop quartet music (or I suppose in this case, barbershop trio music). That sounds really sarcastic but I’m being serious. This so-dumb-it’s-clever homophonic ditty only has two words (I don’t know that woo-ha-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooo counts as a word, technically) and it’s that simplicity that gives it legs. Years from now (or maybe even a year from now, fingers crossed), when Two and a Half Men is no longer on the air, people will continue singing this song whenever they reminisce about the series or see a group of men-men-men-men-manly-men doing…something. This most masculine of theme songs was co-written by producer Chuck Lorre who is a paragon when it comes to this stuff: he’s also responsible for the theme to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series.
“I Know You Know” by series creator Steve Franks’ band The Friendly Indians sounds a bit like a bad ‘90s era Hootie and the Blowfish song. Save for the “I know, you know” chorus,” the melody isn’t especially memorable and the lyrics are a mouthful. “In between the lines there’s a lot of obscurity, I’m not inclined to resign to maturity. If it’s all right, then you’re all wrong, why bounce around to the same damn song?” What does any of that even mean? It’s like a riddle or something. Franks deserves some credit, though, for making the decision to give Psych a theme at all and for including semi-poetic verses like, “you’d rather run when you can’t crawl.” While “I Know You Know” doesn’t have much appeal for anyone who isn’t a part of the show’s pineapple-loving fanbase, what distinguishes it from the other themes on the list is that several pretty great variations of the song have opened the show throughout its six-season run. There was an a cappella version performed by Boyz II Men, the haunting, slow-paced version by Julee Cruise (who sang “Falling” from Twin Peaks), and a Bollywood version, which is my personal favorite. Franks clearly understands the value of a theme song even if this one isn’t the catchiest.
The Cleveland Show
While the jury is still out when it comes to the merits of this series, the title music is undeniably fun. Composer Walter Murphy (who is famous for his ‘70s disco adaptation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “A Fifth of Beethoven”) also created the music for American Dad and Family Guy—Fox’s two other Seth MacFarlane produced animated comedies. I’ve singled out The Cleveland Show theme, though, because I think that it—more than the other two—has the ability to really lodge itself in your skull. After hearing it once, you could wind up absentmindedly singing it for days, which speaks to the sort of love-hate relationship that we have with most of the greatest TV themes.
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