Rolling Stone Magazine
March 8, 1990

    Boob-Tube Tunes

By Jay Martel

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.

"There's 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."

"Ironically, 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 well."

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."