Last week, prompted by the death of Andrew Gold (composer of “Thank You For Being a Friend,” aka the theme to The Golden Girls), we put together a list of the most memorable TV theme songs of the ‘80s. Some folks got worked up about it! (Fine, yes, the exclusion of Knight Rider was a gross oversight.) So, in true ’80s spirit, we took something that did pretty well, and made a sequel — this time selecting from the television shows of the ’90s, a decade that became the last gasp of the opening theme song. As we moved into the 2000s, shows started forgoing the opening credit sequence (lest viewers have the opportunity to switch away), instead crashing right into the show and running credits under the opening scenes.
But in the 1990s, most shows were still bothering to create a theme song whose primary purpose was to lodge itself into your noggin and remind you to tune in again next week. The rules are the same (the show in question has to have debuted in the decade in question), as is the criteria: these are not necessarily all good songs. They’re catchy songs, impossible to get out of your brain, like it or not. Check out the list after the jump, and add your own in the comments.
When Kevin Williamson’s corny yet inexplicably riveting teen soaper was at its zenith, “I Don’t Want to Wait,” the Paula Cole song that opened it, was so ubiquitous that even Creek star Joshua Jackson slammed it with a throwaway joke in the film Urban Legend. Cole didn’t create the song specifically for Dawson’s Creek — it was her follow-up single to the top 10 hit “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” — but its weekly airings on the buzzy show gave the song a huge push on the Billboard charts, where it sat on the Hot 100 for an unusually lengthy 56 weeks.
Keenan Ivory Wayans’ sketch comedy show was an early (and big) hit for the Fox network, where it ran for five seasons and helped launch the careers of Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, and “James” Carrey, among others. It also served as one of the few network outlets for African-American pop culture, both in its sketch comedy targets and its musical guests and hip-hop bumpers (with dance breaks by the show’s “Fly Girls,” including a young Jennifer Lopez). That distinction was clear from the opening credits, which featured a simple yet catchy, New Jack Swing-style theme performed by Heavy D; to keep up with changing musical styles, Heavy worked up a new theme for the third and fourth seasons (below).
The theme song to Martin Lawrence’s five-season Fox sitcom (composed by Steve Keitt, Joey Kibble, and Mark Kibble) isn’t all that complex: a hip-hop beat, a few dialogue samples, and a simple but distinctive vocal: “Mar’iiiiiiiin…. Mar’iiiiiiiin… Mar’iiiiiiiin Lawrence!” It’s not exactly a lyrical masterpiece, but that goofy yet danceable theme was like a starter pistol on Fox Thursdays; hearing it now recalls a simpler time, before the travesty of those Big Momma movies, when Martin Lawrence was actually (no, swear to God) funny.
We could act like Dick Wolf’s long (long) running cop show is on this list for its moody theme song by the venerable Mike Post (who made a couple of appearances on our ’80s list) —and it is certainly a fine and memorable theme song. But who’re we kidding? We had to include Law & Order for one reason: the scene change transition hit (below), referred to by Post as “The Clang” (and by Law & Order: SVU co-star Richard Belzer as “The Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound”). Combining several different sounds (including a gavel and a jail door slamming), “the clang” has become a ubiquitous pop culture artifact, popping up not only in direct spoofs but in countless other television shows and films (the Farrelly Brothers, for example, used it to click off the days in their recent comedy Hall Pass).
The premise of Party of Five isn’t exactly a cheerful one — family of five kids struggling to make it on their own after their parents are killed by a drunk driver — but you’d never know it from the show’s theme song, the peppy, up-tempo early-’90s rocker “Closer to Free” by Wisconsin band the BoDeans (“Parent are dead? Who cares! We’re closer to free!”). The song was first released in 1993 as a single from their album Go Slow Down, but it didn’t go anywhere; however, when it was selected in 1994 as the opening theme for Party of Five, it got a second wind. It was included on the show’s soundtrack album and re-released as a single in 1996; this time, it made it to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Well, come on, you knew it was gonna be on here. The ’90s theme song everybody loves to hate, the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You” was written by Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kaffman, along with songwriters Michael Sklott and Allee Willis and Phil Solem and Danny Wilde, who made up the Rembrandts (that’s right, it took six people to write “I’ll Be There for You”). It is, it must be said, a catchy song. Irritatingly, agonizingly catchy — as AOL Radio’s Matthew Wikening noted, while including it on his “Worst Songs Ever” list for AOL radio, “like a panther, it can strike anywhere that reruns of Friends roam free.” And here’s what’s astonishing about it: the Rembrandts originally only recorded the one-minute version that’s used on the show, but Friends-Mania was so fevered in ’95 that radio stations were just playing that, and the band had to go back into the studio and record a full-length version. To satiate public thirst. For the Friends theme song. The ’90s were a strange time, you guys.
When Comedy Central debuted South Park in summer of 1997, most of America had no idea what the hell they were in for. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker had made some waves in Hollywood with their Spirit of Christmas shorts (prototypes for what would become South Park), but most of those initial viewers tuned in because they were intrigued by the odd but funny TV spots. And that’s where Primus came in. Their original theme, a fast and furious pastiche of hillbilly, thrash, and funk, perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the series: hip, strange, rude, irreverent. That theme has metamorphosed a bit over the show’s 15(!) seasons, but we still prefer the purity of the original.
Okay, fine, if you wanna get technical, The Simpsons aired one episode — their first one (aside from the Tracy Ullman Show bumpers), “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” aka “The Simpsons Christmas Special” — in December of 1989. But the first episode to actually include Danny Elfman’s iconic theme was the second, “Bart the Genius,” which aired a month later. Elfman has said he composed the Flintstones-style theme in two days; it’s been re-arranged and altered slightly over the years for the varying lengths of different episodes, sometimes in a version that only includes the “couch gag,” often with variations on Lisa’s sax theme. Whatever the modifications, it’s a tune that usually sets off a stampede to the television. And it’s an instrumental, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sing along to it (just ask Green Day).
The producers of HBO’s mob drama The Sopranos could have gone in several predictable directions when selecting their theme song — Rat Pack, Frankie Valli, opera, etc. — but instead, they chose a remix of a two-year-old blues-rock song by an British band (little-known on these shores) called Alabama 3. The gritty instrumentation and growling vocals of “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix),” coupled with the imagery of Tony Soprano’s drive from Manhattan to New Jersey, began each episode with the appropriate degree of menace; the song became not only inseparable from the show, but from the network itself (to this day, whenever that “HBO Original Programming” logo fades, I still expect that A3 beat to follow).
Back in the days of Green Acres and Gilligan’s Island, a theme song’s primary function was to thoroughly explain, in painstaking detail, the premise of the series before each and every episode. We’d like to think of the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a throwback to that tradition. Written (with Quincy Jones III) and performed by star Will Smith (still going by the titular royal moniker), it’s a song that just about anyone who was a teenager in the ’90s can recite verbatim. The version above is the longer version that aired on the first few episodes; through most of the run, the show used a shortened mix that eliminated Will’s plane ride, causing us to wonder if he took a cab from Philly to Bel Air. (Way to get off on the wrong foot with Uncle Phil, Will.)