Kids, disconnect your brain stems from the Bezoscloud and swipe your iPhone XVIII holograms closed—it’s time I told you about the TV theme song.
A long, long time ago, our favorite shows had full songs before every episode, and we sat through multiple minutes of these tunes because they were great. You got the full cast, the character introductions and even the episode titles, and every week you’d hear the same exact song. A single synth-y saxophone line delivered a morphine dose of comfort.
With the rise of streaming culture, though, theme songs went from 3 minutes to 60 seconds, then 30, then lightning-quick audio burps like “Who’s that girl? It’s Jess!” Before long, Netflix let us skip them entirely so we could mainline multiple seasons at a time in one Cheez-It-fueled marathon binge. (Hey, I once heard that making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.)
By 2018, the theme song was a relic whose sole appeal was this nostalgia thread that went viral on Twitter. Reading the replies to this tweet is like witnessing your family dog rise from the dead and snuggle you in your childhood living room. It’s that warm.
So let’s settle this once and for all—what were the coolest theme songs of all time? Consider, if you will, a few off-kilter entries from the horny, broken-brained, rum-numbed goons at MEL to complement canonical picks you’ve surely seen before, like Cheers and The Simpsons.
I was probably too young to be watching Moonlighting, a pretty grown-up comedy-drama series starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as detectives who solved crimes and tried their best to ignore their palpable sexual chemistry. I wasn’t old enough to get all the sexual innuendo, but I got a decent amount of it. As a result, the show helped form in my adolescent mind the idea of how flirting and courtship worked.
That’s probably why, years later, the theme song still conjures up a feeling of sophisticated romance. Sure, “Moonlighting” is really just straight up smooth-jazz clichés: Al Jarreau croons his moony lyrics, while Chic’s Nile Rodgers mans the boards, supplying plenty of swooning hooks and catchy rhythms. But with each new episode, as David and Maddie got that much closer to falling into bed with one another, the theme song seemed to suggest all that was electric and sensual about sex. I may be the only person on Earth who thinks such things when I hear “Moonlighting.” Suddenly I need a cigarette.
(Also, the Archer theme rules.) — Tim Grierson, critic-at-large
Like some other popular anime shows, Naruto Shippūden aired for many, many seasons, which meant it was accompanied by numerous (20) opening and (40) ending theme songs. While this prevented me from ever becoming tired of any single theme song as I watched my way through all 500 episodes, this also meant it was extremely difficult for me to choose which one slapped the absolute hardest. But after some deep soul-searching — and some seriously nostalgic crying — I’ve decided that “Lovers” by 7!! is the ultimate banger. The entire song is in Japanese, a language that I don’t speak in the slightest, and yet, it manages to send me sliding down a rainbow of emotions every time. — Ian Lecklitner, staff writer
I’ve heard endless theme songs in two decades of ravenously consuming television, but 99 percent of the ones I love became remarkable after I fell for the show itself. Not so with the intro to Cowboy Bebop, the space-bounty-hunter anime renowned for its animation, storylines and general badassery. I still remember randomly clicking onto the late-night block for Cartoon Network and suddenly hearing triumphant jazz trumpets ring out before an intro rippling with bass, bongos and a man’s lone voice: “I think it’s time we blow this scene … get everybody and the stuff together … okay, three, two, one — let’s jam.”
That’s all it took to get me hooked. “Tank!,” performed by Japanese “space jazz” band the Seatbelts, is an unruly big-band composition that’s worth listening to in full, but the 90-second cut used for Cowboy Bebop is a perfect distillation of attitude, power and earworm-y riffs that get stuck in your head for hours. As one YouTube commenter puts it: “Who else wishes this music would play when you’re kicking someone’s ass? I know I do.” — Eddie Kim, features writer
There’s a savagely catchy pop-punk chorus that’s been etched in my brain since the late 1990s. It’s a riot grrrl–inspired anthem celebrating individuality over conformity, helmed by a singer who cuts through the distorted guitar with a perfectly snotty Kim Shattuck howl. This isn’t the Muffs, though, it’s singer and actress Kathleen Wilhoite. The line? “Pepper Ann, Pepper Ann, marchin’ in her own parade. Pepper Ann, she’s like one in a mill-YONNN!”
That high note fucking owns, and so does the cartoon it introduces: Pepper Ann, which aired on Disney’s One Saturday Morning from 1997 to 2000.
Pepper Ann was the first Disney animated series created by a woman, Sue Rose. Like its jaded older cousin Daria, the show was woke before woke was a thing — outright hilarious, boldly feminist and slyly socially conscious without sacrificing heart and character development. It let its title character fuck up repeatedly and grow from her mistakes. I can’t think of a TV theme song that more perfectly captures the hero’s personality, and Pepper Ann Pearson was so effortlessly weird and cool she made me want to show up to middle school with a face tattoo. Look no further than SZA’s 2017 jam “Go Gina” for proof of the show’s — and the song’s — lasting influence. Much too cool for seventh grade. — Cooper Fleishman, New York Bureau Chief
I don’t know the name of the BoJack Horseman theme song, but that’s because it doesn’t appear to have one. It’s a cowrite from Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney with his uncle Ralph Carney, who played on Tom Waits records and passed away in 2016, but not before gifting the world this gem. When we talk about what we like about songs, there’s all the technical stuff, sure—it’s built on a click track and an arpeggiator, a Jupiter 4 keyboard, tenor and baritone sax and choice drum fills.
But then there’s what it adds up to. Here, that’s jazzy and avant, the sonic equivalent of a flashing deteriorated neon sign outside an hourly motel. With its simple looped beat, shuffling fills, panning vibrating reverb, and critically, that sleazy sax, it manages to sound sexy, hopeful and damaged at once. All that is weighted by that jazzy horn, which is always threatening to take its sultry sleaze and shimmer itself offscreen, probably to go do a line of coke somewhere before it wanders back in to say something pithy. (At one point, it nearly literally neighs.)
That perfectly and nonchalantly captures a lot of what L.A. is like as a city, Hollywood as an abstract concept, but also what BoJack Horseman is really about. A washed-up former TV star who is floating through existence, in this case, a series of glamorously bleak shapeless days and nights, all full of the promise of real connection and meaning, but the kind that’s always just out of reach. — Tracy Moore, staff writer
‘Yu Gi Oh!’
There is only one correct answer to this question, and that is Yu Gi Oh!. While the show may be a subpar anime, particularly after its second season, here you have an anime devoid of the standard J-pop synth-laced karaoke that usually accompanies franchises. Yu Gi Oh! instead opts for dark, deep electronica. From the initial opening sounds of mystical trance all the way to the infamous words, “It’s time to duel,” you’ll feel goosebumps. There’s no empty promise of everlasting and uncompromised friendship you’d associate with Friends, Cheers or modern animes like Yuri on Ice. Instead, this is an anime that in the opening 10 seconds is telling you, We’re not here to fuck about. We’re here to duel.
Then the bass drops — a solitary second of silence, before the theme breaks loose with its tight drum beat, a deep bass line that should render Seinfeld insignificant, and of course, the epic violin strings that should accompany every hero’s quest.
The Yu Gi Oh! theme is timeless for several reasons. First, it suits almost every kind of techno, drum-and-bass or trap remix, and therefore, it has a timeless value. The second — and most important — is that the theme song lends itself to any person confronting a challenge, a demon or their own Blue Eyes White Dragon. It’s a theme song that sends a single, powerful message: Regardless of who you are or where you’re from, it’ll always be time to d-d-d-d-duel. — Hussein Kesvani, U.K./Europe editor
The theme to Nickelodeon’s Hey Dude doesn’t just slap — in the immortal words of Buck Swope in Boogie Nights, “it kicks and turns and curls up in your belly, makes you wanna freaky-deaky, right?” Well, let me tell ya — for early 1990s Jeff, it certainly did that. That cowpoke-folk tune is permanently ingrained in my psyche, right up there with Pogs and 9/11. I might be 80, and I’ll still remember every strum of the guitar, every twang and every “yippee-ki-yay-WHAT!” They don’t make ’em like they used to. — Jeff Gross, social media editor
The Full House theme song was the beginning of an era. The origin of TGIF. A staple of the early 1990s. The raspy voice accompanied by a sultry saxophone made the perfect opening for Friday-night television. To keep the party going, same song, different lyrics: Family Matters and Step by Step. I’m 93 percent positive all three of these theme songs were written within the same hour and a half, giving you a three-for-one for the win. — Ernest Crosby, video editor
I don’t care if this is the easy answer; it’s the right one. Anybody who tries to fast-forward the opening credits of The Sopranos is a cop. Hearing anything besides Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” after the HBO logo drops — other than the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme — actually pains my ears. It’s the perfect blend of sinuous trip-hop and soulful skronk. The beat is propulsive, the backing vocals are chilling, those saxophone trills keep shit appropriately grimy, and you can’t not sing along to “GOT A BLUE MOON IN YOUR EYES.” I have no idea why English bands worked so well for a show set in New Jersey (Tindersticks’ “Tiny Tears” is ideal in the midst of Tony’s lithium stupor, while John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown” delivers the creepiest cliffhanger of the series), but man, they killed it every time. This is the only way to experience the Turnpike. — Miles Klee, staff writer
‘The Incredible Hulk’
There are, without a doubt, innumerable truths about The Hulk:
- It’s David, not Bruce, Banner — I don’t care what the comics say.
- The motherfucker is strong, but not so strong that he can leap thousands of feet into the air — I don’t care what the comics and Thor: Ragnarok say. (Speaking of Thor, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the TV movie version of the Hulk and Thor’s throw-down in The Incredible Hulk Returns, with the wedding dress designer from American Pie 2 and the dad from Good Luck Charlie, that show my kid watched on Disney Channel, as Thor.)
- The strongest he’s ever been is when Lou Ferrigno decided to paint his muscles green.
- Ed Norton had no business ever turning green on his behalf.
- The TV version understood his plight far better than the MCU ever has — almost completely because of its theme song.
About that theme song, it’s seemingly only a few random notes on a piano, but fuck if it doesn’t capture everything about David Banner’s predicament (yeah, I said David Banner again, deal with it) — a man forced to roam the country in search of a way to rid himself of the monster inside of him, ’cause he can’t go home again until he stops turning Lou Ferrigno green. Like any man with a monster lurking beneath the surface, he, of course, brought this upon himself, strapping himself beneath some gamma radiation in order to gain the strength that would have saved his fallen wife. (It’s both too late, and a real fucking pain in the ass to hide — especially when he gets pissed and/or with a tabloid newspaper reporter trailing him.)
But for all those lonely piano notes on repeat, I still can’t shake it because of the imagery that comes with it. That is, at the close of every episode, a seemingly super bummed out David Banner (fight me?) hitch-hikes to the next town since he’s torn up the last town Lou Ferrigno style, accompanied only by that solitary theme. Between Banner’s hopeless gait and those spare piano keys, it rivals Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” as quintessential depression porn. —Josh Schollmeyer, founder/editor-in-chief
‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’
There are so many good themes that I could have gone with here. MacGyver (never have a mullet/Swiss Army Knife combo been so exciting to a small boy!); The A-Team (they left all the shooting and explosion sound effects in the mix!); Quantum Leap (roundhouse kicks and smooth jazz, oh boy!); My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (do you know you are my very best fri-e-e-e-ennnddd!!!!!!).
But for my money, nothing really beats the theme to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
All of them.
Let’s start with the 1987 theme. Right here, in one minute of hard rockin’, thigh-slappin’ awesomeness, we learn everything we need to know about the turtles and their world in order to appreciate what follows. Without this fist-pumpin’ track, how would newcomers to the show ever even know that Raphael is both cool and rude, or that Michelangelo is, indeed, a party dude? (Also, I am pretty sure that Michelangelo screams “butthole!” at the 48-second mark, although I’ve never been able to independently verify this.)
But wait! The TMNT music machine didn’t stop there, for in 1990, when the first TMNT movie came out, Partners in Kryme released their menacing yet funky “Turtle Power” song. Once again, all the specifics of the turtles themselves are related (the plot of the entire film, in fact, is relayed here), and while it gets docked points for inaccurately stating that “Raphael is the leader of the group,” it earns those points back by rhyming it with “transformed from the norm by the nuclear goop.” A classic!
Then, a lull. (We don’t talk about that Vanilla Ice song from Secret of the Ooze, shhh, or the seizure-inducing intro to the totally-doesn’t-count 1997 show Turtles: The Next Mutation.) But in 2003 came a new cartoon, and in this theme, alongside the usual explanation of what the turtles’ whole deal is, we get counting! One, two, three, four! Because there are four turtles, you see. There really is so much counting. But it’s fun!
Enter 2012, and another new show with the second greatest turtle theme of all time after the knee-weakenin’ greatness of the 1987 show. The beat! The strings! The rhyming of “Donatello” with “fellow”! I’d legitimately drive around with the windows down blasting this if I didn’t have this unfortunate medical condition where I’m allergic to having the shit kicked out of me.
And finally, we have this year’s new take on the franchise, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose theme is basically every theme that came before, thrown into a blender with roughly a kilo and a half of bath salts.
Look, don’t ask me to write a single paragraph on this shit. You should know better by now. — Nick Leftley, senior editor