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SPINfighting: What Was the Best TV Theme of the ’90s?

SPINfighting TV Themes

As the roundtable format has grown into an effectively direct way for a publication to think out loud for its readers’ perusal, we present SPINfighting, a new column where the SPIN staff will debate about a new wrinkle in the musical landscape every week. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which made Will Smith a household name partly due to its iconic rap theme song, turns 25 this week. So in this edition, we asked ourselves, what was the best TV theme of the ’90s?

Andrew Unterberger: The reason for the season, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air turns 25 this week, and its theme song remains as timeless as ever. Well, that’s not actually true — TV show themes stopped following such a literal narrative pretty much immediately after the show’s debut, and by mid-decade, not even Bart Simpson could get away with saying “smell you later” — but the psychic hold the Fresh Prince maintains on an entire generation a quarter-century later remains uncanny. It’s outlasted “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and even “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” in the public consciousness, its singsong verses and insidious synth-strings still knock-hockeying around Snake People’s brains and party playlists as much as ever. You wouldn’t even think it was weird if you heard the Fresh Prince theme at a wedding— in fact, you wouldn’t think at all, you’d just instinctively start rapping, “Innnnnnnn West Philadelphia, born and raised…

Rachel Brodsky: If the last decade has shown anything, it’s that ’90s reminiscing is real. If your childhood featured oddball children’s programming like The Adventures of Pete & Pete, with its lawn-invading alt-rock house band Polaris, you’d be pretty quick to hop on the nostalgia bandwagon, too. At first glance, the trio — made up of Mark Mulcahy, Scott Boutier, and Dave McCaffrey — looked and sounded like a poor man’s R.E.M., but “Hey Sandy,” which was written exclusively for the show, was so remarkably, uniquely weird. “Hey smiling strange / You’re looking happily deranged,” it went, before reasoning “Can you settle to shoot me? / Or have you picked your target yet?” The fact that you couldn’t understand a single phrase in the track’s marble-mouthed delivery (all I caught was “ah-ya-ya-yaah” at the time) probably worked to the band’s benefit: Could you imagine a kid’s show theme song with lyrics about loony chicks gunning someone down today?

Colin Joyce: The theme from Twin Peaks originally surfaced the year before the mystical series premiered, as the backing track to Julee Cruise’s “Falling”: an eerie, Angelo Badalamenti-produced, post-Cocteaus dream-pop track that mirrored the show’s ominous, killer-next-door atmosphere.  She’d make a couple of appearances on the show, one of its many in-jokes, but for the opening credits she was stripped from the song. So despite the fact that it predates the show itself, Badalamenti’s instrumental is almost inextricable from its strange legacy. The delicate swoop of the chintzy organ and pinging cymbals is just a hair off, something that sounds mostly of this world, but a little wrong. It’s a suggestion of both terror and possibility and a tip-off that we’re in unfamiliar lands — an appropriate theme for the 1990s’ weirdest prime-time drama.

James Grebey: Did you know they are still making new episodes of Arthur!? It’s great, because the show’s feel-good, motivational reggae-jam of a theme song is still on TV. With its repeated “Hey!” shouts and infectiously positive outlook on what a wonderful kind of day it is and the joys of teamwork, Arthur’s theme song — which was performed by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers — is the most all-ages awesome intro the ’90s had to offer. Plus, the visuals also imply that D.W. is akin to some sort of God whom Arthur taunts as he jumps from page to page, medium to medium, like an educational Samara from The Ring.

Dan Weiss: The Ducktales theme was arguably the pinnacle of what I guess could now be referred to as the “Too Many Cooks” era of TV themes. Say what you will about living in the present, but I remember when a cartoon show about anthropomorphic ducks going on adventures could be summarized with the utmost sincerity by a dude emoting soulishly over a Hall & Oates slap bass shuffle and “Sussudio” horns. The bizarre ratio of trying and not-trying in this minute-long opus is summed up by unforgettable call-response of forced rhyme: “It’s! A! Duck! Blur!” Intense key change at the end? Check. Or what did we say in the ’90s? Check please!

Harley Brown: There are varying interpretations of Frasier‘s 30-second theme song, either from Genius (the line “Yeah maybe, but I got you pegged” translates to “Frasier understands his patients”) or from the songwriter himself (“Frasier does understand these people and helps them”), but either way it’s an extremely hummable, singable blues ditty. Who hasn’t felt like tossed salad and scrambled eggs?

Brennan Carley: It seemed like Boy Meets World swapped theme music more often than Shawn did something lovably idiotic, but its best iteration was Phil Rosenthal’s surfy, lyrically simplistic one that anchored the opening credits for at least a couple of years. “Wandering down this road, that we call life / Is what we’re doin’ / It’s good to know I have friends that will always / Stand by me,” he sings, his voice dipping down and firing right back up on that final, glorious, harmonized utterance: “Boy meets world.” It was a practical theme, one that lacked frills but more than made up for its starkness with a weekly wallop of heart.