Whatever Happened to Predictability? Pondering the TV Songs of the '80sBy Jen Doll
Whatever did happen to predictability? Jessie and the Rippers, the faux-band of ‘80s sitcom staple Full House, got together last Friday on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to musically reminisce about the old days. It’s been almost 26 years since the first episode of Full House aired on September 22, 1987, and the milkman, the paperboy, and TV itself—including the openers of our favorite TV shows—have morphed into forms the pre-Internet '80s would have found nearly unrecognizable. Consider Full House’s opening theme, “Everywhere You Look,” composed by Jesse Frederick, Bennett Salvay, and Jeff Franklin, all joy and pain and hope:
Musically, it starts out pretty jazzy, with harmonies and snapping and a raggedy, world-weary vocalization by Frederick. Meanwhile, the life-coach lyrics of the song point to a world that’s externally confusing and irrevocably changed, where one must rely most of all on the people they love. Plot-wise this pairs up literally: Danny Tanner’s wife has died and he’s invited his brother-in-law, Uncle Jesse (have mercy!), and his best friend, Joey (every adult woman's nightmare), to live with him and help raise his daughters. There's a moral, family-oriented message in every 30-minute segment, but the program's essential paradigm is progressive in that “everywhere you look, everywhere you go / There's a heart, (There's a heart), a hand to hold on to.” Cheesy, yes. Catchy, yes. Sweet and sugar-coated, but without the traditional trappings of familyhood? Yes, again. This TV message is reflected over and over in many of the sitcoms of the '80s (and some that came before, and some that have come afterward), most of all in those theme songs that hammer home an ambitious, heartfelt, earnest message of relying on oneself, relying on each other, and believing in togetherness even when people are different.
Once you start digging through the Internet in search of the theme songs of the TV shows you grew up on, it becomes a kind of compulsion, and I spent far too many hours obsessively listening to 30-second openers and shouting to no one "Remember that one!?". Diff’rent Strokes, which first aired in '78, could be dissected for all sorts of things, but its foot-tapping song—“Well, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, what might be right for you, may not be right for some"—is pure you-do-you joy. Compare that to the knowing but still fun message of that show's spin-off, The Facts of Life, opener performed by Gloria Loring. In 1980 there was Bosom Buddies, in which two guys, one played by Tom Hanks, dress in drag so they can get affordable housing in a women’s hotel. The theme song to that show was genius: Billy Joel’s “My Life,” in a re-recorded version. The no-haterade lyrics say it all:
Themes of the "different" but still loving family, and motley crews bonding in collaborative units—with happy-go-lucky, plucky TV songs to match—continued in varying forms with 1981's Gimme a Break, 1982's Silver Spoons, and, um, Knight Rider, also in 1982. Because, look, Knight Rider is not just about a moral vigilante who fights crime in high-tech ways, it’s also about the family unit of a man and his artificially intelligent wheels. Poor Michael Knight is just a lonely creeper without Kit; Kit makes him whole again, the car is the Joey Gladstone/Uncle Jesse to Knight's Danny Tanner. There's no self-help verbiage in the theme song minus the imperious voiceover, no catchy refrain, but you'll feel your heart beat a little faster as you listen. "One man can make a difference, Michael”—and, too, all of us. Maybe we needed this message especially in the Reagan years?
Speaking of the Reagan years, throughout the ‘80s there were plenty of nuclear families represented on TV, though they had newfangled ‘80s aspects. There were working women (Family Ties, notable not only for Alex P. Keaton but also its romantic but still jammin’ theme, and Growing Pains, for which it only took until the second season to add a female voice to the theme song). There were, often along with those women, male caretakers (Punky Brewster, Head of the Class—teachers count!—Charles in Charge, and Who’s the Boss?). While we're here, let’s stop for a second to reflect upon the rather creepy Charles in Charge theme song, voiced by little-girl sounding Shandi Sinnamon (no insult to her performance, it's just, this is anything but an empowerment message).
No list of "male caretakers" would be complete without a nod to dear old Mr. Belvedere, the star of the show bearing his name, its theme performed by Leon Redbone. Beyond the awesome lyrics—“When you drop-kicked your jacket / As you came through the door / No one glared"—and the hummable instrumental riff at the end, it was again all about living the good life, the life we all thought, with, say, a British butler, might be ours, too.
I know you’re thinking, but what about Cosby? Here we diverge because there are no catchy lyrics. Cosby ran from 1984 through 1992, and it is one of the few sitcoms to use different versions of the same theme, “Kiss Me,” composed by Stu Gardner and Bill Cosby, over the course of the series. The consistent star of the intro was Cosby himself, the instrumental theme a backdrop for him and his cast to perform upon. Watch all of them here for the full effect. I have to give the Cosby producers credit for keeping it recognizable, and uniquely contemporary among its peers, while updating it through the years. Maybe that's easier without lyrics, and with someone like Bill Cosby at the helm.
The truth is, though, that with my ‘80s theme songs, I love the corny lyrics, I love the heartfelt refrains, and I love the possibility represented by where we were with that music, then. Say you're two single dudes who happen to be far-off cousins who come together to live in Chicago and make their dreams come true (Balki and Larry, that's you!). It can happen!
And, if have two dads because your mom died and never told you which one is really your dad, you can move in with both and be a big, happy family (1987’s My Two Dads was themed with “You Can Count on Me,” performed by the dad who was not Paul Reiser, Greg Evigan, who also co-wrote it). If you're living in an apartment building with neighbors who become, essentially family (227), or in a house in the Deep South where that's the case (Designing Women), or at a Florida retirement community where that's the case (Golden Girls), well, maybe you ARE family, and maybe you're better functioning and happier in that unit than you were with the members of the actual family you were born into, or maybe you can be. "Your heart is true. You're a pal and a confidant." In the '80s, the TV shows we watched—even the one featuring a robot child—were our friends, too. We could count on them, as their innocent lyrics and charming medleys promised (the odder the show, the sweeter the anthem). Even ALF, about an furry alien who comes to earth and is adopted by a human family and likes eating cats, gives the impression that life could be fun and games and heart and laughter, regardless of any presumed need for lyrics, or species commonality.
These shows, these theme songs, they weren't trolling us. I think they actually believed it. And they had the power to help us believe it, too, if in 30-minute intervals.
But in 1987, the same year that Full House, the show about the San Francisco male triumvirate who explore the world of parenting with clear eyes, full hearts, and dad jeans premiered, there were rumblings of change. There was this thing—let's call it irony, or a shifting of the expected norms—and it was being pronounced loud and clear. The true destruction of the milkman, the paperboy, and evening TV came, I'd hypothesize, right around the time of the Married with Children, the Al-and-Peg-Bundy show, its opener set to Frank Sinatra singing "Love and Marriage." It's a beautiful old song, and a less-than-idealized family life.
In this case, the family (and it's notable that it's nuclear) is seen as complicated. Fraught. Frustrating. Tacky. Occasionally a total disaster. This is your '80s sitcom equivalent to a hate-read, perhaps, a show that's not aspirational at all, and instead, features characters we can either commiserate with over our pains, or feel superior to. That its theme song is what it is is just another smack in the face, a tweak, a surprise. A year after Married with Children came Roseanne, its bleary sax-based instrumental intro further paving the way for anti-family, or anti-hero, family programming, where the families were nuclear, maybe, but that didn't mean they were perfect. Or, for that matter, predictable. But rather than "how rude," I say, thank goodness for that. The time for the Uncles J had just about run its course. Except, obviously, in syndication.
Never gonna forget you, '80s TV.
Jen Doll sat too close to the TV growing up. She writes for The Atlantic, The Hairpin, New York Magazine, the New York Times, the Toast, and elsewhere. Her first book is due out from Penguin/Riverhead in the Spring of 2014. She's on Twitter — @thisisjendoll
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