What ever happened to TV theme songs?

Remember when it seemed like almost every TV show had its own original song? Those days are long gone.

Published May 4, 2007 7:35PM (EDT)

Over on Andrew Unterberger's blog at the excellent online music magazine Stylus, he's raised a question that seems to come up every fourth or fifth late night at the bar: What ever happened to TV theme songs?

Instead of catchy, original themes like "Cheers'" "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" and "Welcome Back" from "Welcome Back, Kotter," TV shows are largely opting to use previously recorded songs (e.g., Massive Attack's "Teardrop" on "House"; the Dandy Warhols' "We Used to Be Friends" on "Veronica Mars") or, as with "24," "Lost" and "Heroes," atmospheric soundscapes that barely register as music at all. As Unterberger points out, a few shows, like "South Park," still have specifically commissioned songs -- complete with lyrics -- and other shows, like "30 Rock" and "The Office," feature pleasant but unsubstantial instrumental themes, but the time when it seemed like every show had its own special musical calling card is long gone. Unterberger contends that TV shows have been trending towards non-original music ever since "Miami Vice" started incorporating pop songs back in the mid-'80s. He also posits that shows like "24" and "Lost" don't want to waste precious air time on credit sequences, thus rendering original theme songs unnecessary.

It's not as if the themes to "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" or "Saved by the Bell" were works of musical genius, but the dearth of good theme songs is a minor shame. At their best, the songs did a wonderful job of setting a show's emotional tone. In 30 sad, sweet seconds, the "Cheers" theme said everything you needed to know about the show's tragicomic premise. But even if we can't hear these trademark tunes on TV anymore, we can revisit them in cyberspace. The Television Tunes Web site has 1,486 theme songs archived. Check it out. But don't blame me if you're whistling the "Perfect Strangers" theme all weekend.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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