From "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" to "The Proud Family," where has original theme music for TV disappeared to?
In West Philadelphia… Yeah, I would put some cash on it right now that you finished that line in your head, as everyone would. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme is just one example of the memorable music that used to accompany the opening credits of a TV show. But as of the last decade, theme songs have disappeared along with the antennas and fat backs on your living room TV. A properly composed theme song — exemplified in shows like Moesha by Brandy, Living Single by Queen Latifah, and As Told by Ginger by Macy Gray — once had the power to resonate with viewers more than the plot of any mission the characters carried out on the show.
Aside from the nostalgia they brought, bonding you to the memory of the show, the fact that these themes were coming from some of our favorite artists took them to a new level. It was like your CD player would come to life as you heard TLC float across the opening theme for All That, or Destiny’s Child and Solange adding their gospel to The Proud Family theme song. Although artist-created theme songs are less common today, out of the method, we got some of the best theme songs of all time. So as I both urge and challenge you to remember your own favorite, let’s take a look at how the consistency has shifted.
“If you have the right theme song, that's another way and a missed way these days, of directing people to a show. There are folks that know about a song that have it in their head, and then find out that it's part of a show afterwards,” Kurt Farquhar, theme song composer for Cousin Skeeter, Moesha, and The Proud Family, explains.
Destiny's Child during "Survivor" promo - George De Sota/Newsmakers/Getty Images
In 2001, Destiny’s Child was riding a tsunami-sized wave of popularity. Fresh off of their legendary Writings on the Wall sophomore album, a project that landed them in TLC’s territory as one of the best selling women groups of all time, and their new installation Survivor, Destiny’s Child was at their peak as a collective. Even though they had several charting songs that added to their legacy, The Proud Family theme song in collaboration with Solange would instantly be another one of those numbers. When executive producers Bruce Smith and Ralph Farquhar heard the original theme that Kurt had written, they knew that they could go after someone “big” to execute the vision. And right away, they realized that enlisting Destiny’s Child was the right decision.
“The girls came into the studio one day and we just did the whole thing in an afternoon. We knocked it out, and it was just an incredible job. I remember back then, in those days, so many people used to talk about how the young singers didn't really sing, and that they weren't this and that. And all I could talk about after that theme was, ‘Well, you're not talking about Beyonce…’ because they all came in and turnt this thing out every which way the sun laid,” Farquhar says.
The Proud Family theme song turned out to be a straight hit, so much so that Disney ended up releasing the full track to be featured on the network during commercial breaks. In addition to bolstering the legacy of the show, having a household name allowed for the fans of Destiny’s Child and Solange to be brought in directly — a benefit that Coolio noticed as well when he made the theme for Kenan & Kel.
“That persons fans are going to come in right away, and they know if ‘so and so’ did the theme song, that's a million fans or whatever that person’s core fan base is. You got those people right away. And I think that's what makes it important,” Coolio says.
Alongside the network benefits, the recruitment of major singers and rappers also had an effect on their careers as artists. Back in the prosperous days of physical music sales, once your album or song cracked the top 10 on the charts, how impactful could a 30-second theme song really be? Well, some of these theme songs were just as big as their biggest hits, apparently. When you add the millions of kids and teenagers that tuned into Nickelodeon for Kenan & Kel, or even those who are watching the show now as a throwback, the theme song pivots them to search for an artist like Coolio, hear the music in his catalogue, and keep his legacy alive.
“I think the theme song of Kenan & Kel was just as important as "Gangster's Paradise" or any other one of my big songs. Actually, maybe even more important because it introduces me to a whole new generation of kids and fans year after year,” Coolio says.
Keenan and Kel during Nickelodeon's Coolio shoot - Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images
Theme songs, even in full length, would typically last no longer than 45 seconds at the max, leaving no room to fumble your attention. Yet now in the scope of modern television, both artist-created and longer length theme songs are nearly nonexistent, replaced with a quick graphic backed by one of the many songs that are featured in the episode. This is a method we’ve seen in shows like Atlanta, Insecure, and Euphoria. Rich Tuttobene, who worked as a music composer for All That, thinks this is a result of shows moving at a faster rate. “I think in one way that in everything else, pacing has become quicker. The length of content has become shorter,” Tuttobene says.
Instead, new shows have opted to put their energy toward implementing modern day music. There’s an obvious increase in how much music is available, allowing for people to find something that’s in line with their musical taste. Knowing that, shows like Insecure are putting theme songs low on the list of priorities in hopes to keep people’s attention. Choyce Schwartz, theme music composer for Insecure, says that nowadays, people just want to get right into it. But in addition to that, focusing on the music carried throughout the show rather than before it has a better effect.
“For us, I think it just has to do with Insecure just really wanting the theme music to not be so redundant and repetitive and just give different energy, because honestly, if you look at each episode or each theme in each season, the music always plays a role on the characterization, and the theme of what's to come out of that show,” Schwartz says.
If placed appropriately, music allows for the scene to have a larger effect than the dialogue. The way music can seamlessly fit into the narrative of a scene has become a fulfilling intention of the show. The latest instance of this new focus has come on Sam Levinson’s Euphoria which has led to music-focused post-release conversations with every episode. Bryant Furhmann, music editor of Euphoria, recalls the entirety of the carnival sequence in episode four and the club sequence that occurs toward the end of episode seven as accomplishments of this idea.
“In the carnival, it's this strangely sometimes tense/weird circus music that sometimes just sits in the background but other times is fully featured in the forefront, sometimes underscoring the moments, others barely noticeable. In the club, it's this massive track combined with the insane visuals that all come together to create this experience. If you strip out the music, or it's something more generic, I don't think it lands as strongly. Perhaps the visuals are striking, or the plot intriguing, but I don't feel like it would all come together as this cohesive moment without the music,” Furhmann says.
More new shows have adopted similar methods to that of Euphoria and Insecure, hoping to stay afloat in the world of pop culture. But every show doesn’t jump on the bandwagon. Some shows still do use artist-created theme songs but even then, according to Kurt Farquhar, the time slot is so short that it essentially becomes worthless.
Sam Levinson and Zendaya at Euphoria FYC - FilmMagic/FilmMagic/Getty Images
“Today, the average theme song is five seconds. And so, when it's under that sort of criteria, it's hard and it’s almost not worth it to go after a major artist to do a major theme song,” Farquhar says.
Approaching the 2010s, networks and executives believed that theme songs should go away completely, meaning that now, even a five second theme song is a rarity. Some new school shows like Power are reminiscent of the old days. But even then, enlisting a high caliber artist in today’s age has the opposite effect as it once did. In fact, the internet laughed when 50 Cent recruited Trey Songz for the new Power theme song. 50 changed the theme back almost immediately, further proving the change in times.
For the classic theme songs we do have, looking back at those of the 1990s and 2000s provides a sense of nostalgia and appreciation. Full length artist-created theme songs certainly don’t exist like they used to, but there’s always room to keep old traditions alive. 2020 will either show the return of artist-created theme songs or confirm the disappearance of them. But similar to Cortez’s, vinyls, and All That, some old things just deserve a comeback.