TV theme songs are all the rage right now, as evidenced by the popularity of the Saturday Morning Slow Jams (my favorite is still "Duck Tales"). A lot of it is nostalgia--kids who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s are now of the age when we're starting to feel like grownups, longing for 2D adventure cartoons based on Disney franchises from the 1940s in the same way our parents longed for vinyl. As The Atlantic demonstrated last year, thinking the today's kids just don't get it or are missing out is an American tradition.
And yet the Saturday Morning Slow Jams phenomenon has gotten me thinking about how scarce TV theme songs are nowadays. Perhaps we live what we consider a more sophisticated age, and theme songs are considered silly. Many shows even eschew opening music altogether in favor of a simple "Lost"-style title card. Or on a practical level, it could be a symptom of binge-watching: it's one thing to have a theme welcome you back into the show's world every Sunday night, but the routine can get old if you're breezing through a series in a weekend.
If you look back into TV history, it's the theme songs that really stand out. You might not remember an episode of "Laverne and Shirley" or "Cheers" but if you watched a lot of Nick at Nite in the 1990s your heart starts dancing a bit when you hear "We're gonna do it our way, YES OUR WAY," and who doesn't want to find a place where "everybody knows your name"? And as I type the words "Thank you for being a friend" I know you are all filling in the rest of the song in your heads.
The even rarer beast is the story-song, where the entire show's premise is conveyed in the opening theme. The most iconic examples from the 1960s are from "The Brady Bunch," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from "The Beverly Hillbillies." The form reached its apex in the mid-1990s, with the origin stories of "The Nanny" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
The best TV theme songs achieve a twofold purpose: they not only draw you into the world to keep you from changing the channel (especially important in the pre-DVR and Netflix days), but they also accurately convey the content of what you will be watching.
I started thinking about contemporary TV theme songs this morning when I was watching last night's episode of "The Fosters." For those who aren't familiar with the excellent ABC Family show, it's a drama about a biracial lesbian couple and their love for their adopted children. Because it's on ABC Family, the plot often gets bogged down in soapy drama, but the core of the show is the longing to find a home. The theme song by Kari Kimmel states "It's not where you come from/it's where you belong" over a slideshow of childhood memorabilia. And I found myself getting misty-eyed in front of my laptop screen at my kitchen table.
So in the spirit of bucking nostalgia, I've compiled a list of what I consider the most successful television theme songs of this new century of ours. As for considerations, I'm only including openings that contain actual lyrics, meaning the iconic "Mad Men" and "Dexter" themes are out. I also deduct points for songs whose words are unintelligible--sorry, "Community."
In general, the main question at the end of the day was: does this song and sequence actually reflect the show advertised and does it make me smile when I hear it?
And so, my Top Eleven TV Theme Songs Since 2000.
Orange is the New Black--"You've Got Time" by Regina Spektor. I was really ambivalent about including this one, because as far as binging goes, the song gets pretty effing annoying after episode five. But when I first heard it, it really got me jazzed. And I also have to add points for Regina Spektor moving away from her newfound poppyness back to her old discordant melodies. This is a raw, angry song by a female artist who's not afraid to sound unpretty, appropriate for a show about women in prison. Plus I also realized all of my other choices were from shows that have been cancelled, so I couldn't let myself completely succumb to nostalgia. I think the main issue with this theme song is at 1:11, it's a bit long.
Damages--"When I Am Through With You" by the VLA. This one looses points for enunciation of the lyrics--it was two seasons before I figured out the opening words are "little lamb." But the menacing "When I am through with you, there won't be anything left"as an intro to bloodthirsty litigator Patty Hewes always gave me an image of Glenn Close tearing Rose Byrne apart limb from limb with her teeth.
Psych--"I Know You Know"by The Friendly Indians. A song about messing with people to introduce a show about a fake psychic detective. Plus points for seamlessly including the title in the theme.
Kim Possible--"Call Me Beep Me" by Christina Milian. Detailing the job description and kickass-ness of the show's teenage heroine, the "Kim Possible" came at the tale end of the golden age of cartoon theme songs. The bouncy, soul-full tune not only lays out Kim Possible's job description, but the song is aspirational as it gets and makes you want to totally be her. Remember, when "Kim Possible" debuted in 2002, girls kicking butt on TV was hardly anything new: "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" was still on the air and "Xena: Warrior Princess" was still a fresh memory.
Gilmore Girls--"Where You Lead" by Carole King. Apparently Carole King re-corded the song specifically for the show as a duet with her daughter, a fact which, if you are a fan of the multi-generational drama, has just given you ALL THE FEELS.
Family Guy--"Family Guy" by Walter Murphy. Technically the original run of the show began in 1999, but I'm giving it a pass because it really rose to prominence in the early 2000s and reflects the sensibility of that decade more than the 1990s. This song, which begins with Lois and Peter at the piano bemoaning the vulgarity of contemporary pop culture, succeeds by artfully referencing another iconic TV theme song from "All in the Family." That's an excellent setup for show that plays fast and loose with pop culture, but it's almost a bit too earnest for one that relies so much on toilet humor. It's really Stewie's "effing cry" that makes it.
Weeds--"Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds. Honestly, I found "Weeds" a terribly frustrating show, but my god did I get giddy every time I heard Reynolds' cheery voice warble on about the boxes "made of ticky-tacky." Like "Big Love," I was really sad when the creators abandoned the original opening.
The Wire--"Way Down in the Hole" by Tom Waits. This song is especially significant, as the show itself actually features no background score during the episodes. For a morality tale featuring drug dealers and government officials caught in a sisephyan cycle of violence, poverty, corruption, the specter of lurking devil is hauntingly appropriate. As the show focused on a different Baltimore institution each season, the theme was recorded by different artists. My favorite rendition is probably the one for the education-focused season 4, apparently sung by actual Baltimore teenagers, which makes that whole season all the more heartbreaking.
And finally, number one:
Veronica Mars--"We Used to be Friends" by The Dandy Warhols. One only had to look at the bobbing heads inside the theatre for the "Veronica Mars" movie opening weekend to see how iconic this theme song has become. Like "The Wire," the teen detective show took an unsparing look at the affects of poverty, discrimination and corruption on individual lives. And like "Way Down in the Hole,""We Used to Be Friends" conveys a similar amount of menace and foreboding. But while "Down in the Whole" ultimately carries a feeling of resignation to the darkness, the added ingredient here is a note of violent aggression, appropriate to a spirited teenage girl like Veronica refusing to give up on her principles and soul without a fight. It's the appropriate anthem to introduce the the last of what I like to call TV's "grumpy girls" of the late 90s-early 2000s.
What are your favorite TV theme songs from the 2000s? What am I leaving out?