March 8, 1990
Even if you fell and
hit your head and forgot everything else, chances are you wouldn't forget the
words to the themes from Gilligan's Island, The Patty Duke Show and The
Brady Bunch. In fact, there's a record label, TeeVee Toons, that
preserves those memorable songs on vinyl. But in the words of the theme
song for the nun comedy Sister Kate, "Don't look now, but things are
changing." As Marcus Peterzell, vice-president of TeeVee Toons, puts
it, "TV theme songs are just not as memorable as they used to
be." The last TeeVee Toons theme collection used up the Seventies and
Eighties in one fell swoop (and the producers had to be somewhat desperate to
include The Facts of Life and Knots Landing.) Asked which
recent themes will be classics ten years from now, Peterzell can only come up
with the wimpy songs that welcome viewers to Family Ties and thirysomething.
nothing out there," says Vic Mizzy, composer of the themes for The
Addams Family and Green Acres. "They're all pretty
bad. I'll give you a hundred bucks if you can whistle the theme song from Rosanne
or L.A. Law."
there's an intense process to come up with these songs, and they all come out
sounding kind of the same," says Jesse Frederick, co-writer of the themes
for Perfect Strangers ("Standing tall on the wings of my dreams /
Rise and fall on the wings of my dreams) and Full House ("Everywhere
you look, there's a face of somebody who needs you").
"It's a formula
thing, just like the shows," says Steve Tyrell, who co-wrote the theme
songs for The Famous Teddy Z ("He's the man to see -- uh-huh / He's
got the key to your fantasy") and Snoops ("Curiosity, always
got you guessing / Questions spinning round in your mind"). "The
networks want something sure-fire, so they end up getting the same thing over
and over again."
John Bettis is one
of the people the networks call on consistently. His lyrics are featured
in the themes to four current shows, including Growing Pains ("The
best is ready to begin / As long as we got each other . . . sharing the laughter
and love"). That song reached Number Three on the adult-contemporary
chart in 1988, and according to Bettis, the show's writers play it for
inspiration. "My job," says Bettis, "is to encapsulate the
spirit of the show. If you write something too specific, it won't wear
In other words,
we've just left the era of "Just sit right back and you'll hear a
tale" and entered the era of "Life goes on and so do we" (from
Bettis' Empty Nest theme) and "Life goes on, right or wrong"
(from the Dear John theme) and "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, life goes
on" (from one of the Beatles songs John Lennon hated the most, which is now
the Life Goes On theme).
"Today I think
you'd find that the theme to The Patty Duke Show is so spot-on that you
couldn't watch it more than once," Bettis says. This is why his theme
for Free Spirit -- a show about an attractive witch who becomes a
housekeeper for a single-father family -- has no mention of witches or
housekeeping or single-father families. "Something about your
voice," a pop tenor croons, "every time I hear it / Tellin' me I'm at
the edge, and I shouldn't be so near it."
"I left the
witch stuff alone," Bettis says, "because people will watch the show
for its characters and its relationships. It's a tease of a show and a
tease of a song. The song makes no point at all."
Bettis writes his
lyrics on the basis of a producer's one-sentence description of a show.
Frederick says he works more closely with producers. For Perfect
Strangers, he says, "they said they wanted the theme to sound
contemporary but not too rock & roll. They wanted something real
positive. They said, 'It's about winning.'"
So if theme songs
are no longer talking about the shows to which they are themes, what are
they talking about? Well, a careful analysis indicates that they promote a
mysterious est-style self-fulfillment love cult. The Perfect Strangers
theme, which declares, "No matter what the odds are this time / I know I'm
gonna make it (sic - this line doesn't appear anywhere in the theme song!) /
Nothing's gonna stop me now!" isn't the only song obsessed with
winning. "Here's my chance to make it!" says the theme to A
Different World. "Life is a race, and I know what can in
it," says the theme to Just the Ten of Us.
But win what?
Here's where we find constant references to cultish love sharing, as in the Growing
Pains refrain ("We got each other, sharing the laughter and love")
and The Hogan Family's theme ("In our hearts we share the laughter
and the sadness.") While the Homeroom theme promotes universal
love ("We need to reach out and love one another"), the theme of My
Two Dads delineates the proper guru-follower relationship ("No one
loves you more than I do / Put your hand in mine"), as does the Empty
Nest them ("I'm always here for anything you need rain or shine / I'll
be the one who shares it all.")
Love is all you
need? In the Nineties? Not surprisingly, the inspiration for some of
these themes lies in that frolicsome, free-love-cult-filled decade, the
Sixties. "I used to hang out in Woodstock," says
Frederick. "I was pals with the Band. I was trying to be Bob
Dylan. But then Todd Rundgen showed me that there was an art to writing a
hit single, an art to condensing a song. With a theme song, it's even more
challenging. Hey, music is music."
Yet success in theme
songs is bittersweet, like "the laughter and the sadness" in the Hogan
Family jingle. "Millions of people hear your music every
week," says Frederick. "And you're generously paid. But
somehow you're not quite as cool as you'd be if you did something else."