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The rise, fall and rise of the TV theme song

Popular TV shows of the 1980s and '90s were rife with catchy tunes. After a lull in the DVR age, theme songs are making a comeback in the Netflix era

Once upon a time, in a TV universe far, far away, there were theme songs. And what theme songs they were. Long after the often hackneyed plots faded from our memory, the catchy tunes lingered, to be sung in the bath, to be hummed in the car, to be heard—years later—with a jolt of recognition.

In the 1980s, the instrumental synth-heavy track reigned supreme, pairing with a slew of cool detective shows. There was Magnum P.I. (theme song here), Miami Vice and Remington Steele (theme song here), all with nifty themes and lovingly detailed opening credits, the camera lingering on Tom Selleck’s dimples, Pierce Brosnan’s suavity, Don Johnson’s white linen suits. 

Like many songs of the time, Crockett’s Theme, made for Miami Vice, rose to the top of the charts, its “too cool for school" vibe epitomizing the “too cool for school" Don Johnson.

Many of the theme songs were better than the admittedly cheesy shows of the ’80s. 

Airwolf, a show about a man and his helicopter, Street Hawk, a show about a man and his bike, and Knight Rider, a show about a man and his car (starring the king of cheese, David Hasselhoff) all had amazingly catchy themes.

Then there were the soaps. Long after we got tired of watching the twists and turns of Dallas (theme song here) or The Bold and the Beautiful (theme song here), we remembered the theme songs.

But this was also the era of thoughtful lyrics. In The Jeffersons, one of the first sitcoms to star an interracial couple and discuss racism uninhibitedly, the theme song Movin on Up perfectly summed up the long suppressed African-American dream:

Well we’re movin on up

To the east side.

To a deluxe apartment in the sky.

Movin on up,

To the east side.

We finally got a piece of the pie.

Also memorable was the theme song to the hit series Fame, about a bunch of ambitious kids in a multi-racial performing arts school. It was the song that launched a million leggings for us ’80s kids, as well as a hit album for Irene Cara. 

“I am going to live forever", sang Erica Gimpel for the theme, as us viewers clutched our imaginary Grammys. The song also memorably featured dialogue from a young Debbie Allen. “You want fame? Well, fame costs. Right here’s where you earn it? IN SWEAT!" 

While Allen and Gimpel went on to star in other TV series, most of the Fame kids sadly and rapidly faded from public memory.

The tragicomic hit M*A*S*H, about a team of surgeons operating during the Korean War, also had a very popular, though dark, theme song, Suicide is Painless. 

A sample of the bleak lyrics:

The game of life is hard to play

I’m gonna lose it anyway

The losing card I’ll someday lay

So this is all I have to say...

Incredibly, these lines were written by a 14-year-old boy—director Robert Altman’s son—Mike Altman, with music by Johnny Mandel. The lyrics made it to the film version, but an instrumental version was used for the TV series, perhaps because they were too grim. 

Later, Robert Altman revealed that while he only made $70,000 for having directed the movie, his son earned more than $1 million for the theme song. Suicide is Painless climbed to No. 1 on the UK charts, and has spawned over 20 different cover versions.

The ’90s continued with some great theme songs. Many of the theme songs of the decade were potted histories of the show. Searching My Soul, the chicklit-ish theme song to Ally McBeal, for instance, perfectly summed up ditzy, neurotic Ally, and her equally ditzy friends. 

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song made Will Smith a star, and introduced many of us to an unfamiliar genre of music—rap. 

The X Files song, deceptively simple, gave us goosebumps. Danny Elfman’s witty and gag-filled The Simpsons theme was perhaps the most dynamic ever, with the visuals (Bart’s writing on the board, for instance) changing with every season. 

Then there was the definite theme song to end all theme songs, the Friends theme. Annoying, yes. Sappy, yes. But an earworm, with immense brand recall. 

Watching this theme, we could all con ourselves into believing that yes, we too could live in a roomy Manhattan apartment on a waitress/masseuse’s salary. And hey, we could drink expensive cappuccinos all day while still staying thin. To cap it all, we’d have a gorgeous swooshy haircut in The Rachel, of course, because our friends “would be there for us".

Prolific producers like David E. Kelley used theme songs to differentiate their various offerings, often with the same actors crossing over from one show to the other. Boston Legal, with the glorious vocal stylings of singer Billy Valentine, was a fun, irreverent theme about fun, irreverent lawyers. The Practice, with its gritty “traffic sounds" theme song, was darker, scarier, grimmer. Chicago Hope used emergency room sounds for a more antiseptic, medical theme.

But then something happened. The DVR came along. Network executives began to fear that people might fast-forward through the credits. With more and more TV channels, attention spans declined, and people began to switch to other shows during theme songs. 

The extra minute gained from not having an opening theme could be used to squeeze in another commercial. Slots for sitcoms were slashed to half an hour, leaving little time for an opening number. The theme song came to be seen as dated and tacky.

With all this, the new brand of TV show wanted to cut straight to the chase. No loving montages of actors’ tanned faces. Let’s dive straight in. Frasier may have been the pioneer when it stuck its iconic theme song at the end, even when sung by Kelsey Grammar. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Mentalist, Modern Family, Scandal and 30 Rock had truncated or generic theme songs. Who can even remember any of them?

But lately I have been detecting a slow, creeping return of the theme song, in a new, cooler avatar. Most triumphantly, in Game of Thrones (theme song here). 

Much thought went into this song. Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss asked composer Ramin Djawadi to compose a theme around a journey. Djawadi has said that he wanted to reflect the “backstabbing and conspiracy" and the unpredictability of the show. 

The producers also asked him to avoid the clichéd flutes found in so many fantasy serials, so he chose a sonorous cello, and dulcimers at the end to give it a ‘shimmering’, mysterious sound. 

The majestic tune brings much needed gravitas and dignity to the “swords, sandals and tits" theme of the show. And again, it has spawned a series of covers.

In The Affair, a show set in a small seaside town, and revolving around sex, lies and deaths by drowning, Fiona Apple’s eerie, choppy song The Container sets the theme. Played against a montage of ocean scenes, dripping water and disjointed faces, the song mirrors the “Greek tragedy" feel of the show.

In House of Cards, the chilly, remote, sinister, theme song fits perfectly with the chilly, remote, sinister Underwoods. For Narcos, a haunting Spanish theme song. Brazilian composer Rodrigo Amarante mined the narcocorrido vein of music, a genre of music specifically written for and about drug kingpins in South America, like gangsta rap. Perhaps the children of the ’80s, now all grown up, are trying to return to their youth.

It’s no coincidence that many of these shows are on Netflix, which does not feature commercials. And we are certainly not in the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s yet. How much more awesome would Silicon Valley be with a quirky theme song? How much more dramatic would The Good Wife be with opening credits, and perhaps Alicia, Kalinda and Diane walking in slow motion to the courtroom?

But there’s hope. The ’80s-inspired soundtrack of Stranger Things is topping iTunes and bringing synth back. The hottest new Netflix offering, sweeping saga The Crown based on the British royals, has a fittingly sweeping theme song composed by Oscar winner Hans Zimmer.

Bring back the memorable theme song, I say. It’s time.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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