Out of ‘Toon: A Look at Cartoon Music
Out of ‘Toon
by Damon Smith
Anybody here remember Ducktales? If you don’t, do yourself a favor and Google the theme song. It’ll never completely leave your head once you hear it. Heck, I never even watched the show all that much growing up and it’s stuck in my head.
Looking back, a lot of the cartoons from the 90’s had very memorable theme songs. Years later, some of these songs still pop into my head from time to time. And some of them were pretty creative too; Doug and The Tick both utilized scat singing in their themes (and in Doug’s case, the in-show soundtrack) and much of the Rugrats’ theme song soundtrack was a capella. There was a lot of experimentation in this era in regards to music as the increased budget for TV animation had given creators more free room to work with more stuff behind the scenes, especially in regards to many post-90’s Disney Channel animations. When you have the Mouse at your back, you tend to get a lot of wriggle room in terms of budgeting.
Cartoons have had a tie to music since day one. In the old days, all you had for animation was music (the ability to actually use voices in the animation was still very much in its infancy). The oldest animations used music as part of their animation, matching what happened on screen to musical clues and using music as sort of sound effects back in an era when such a thing didn’t exist in animation. Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 were entirely built around this concept.
And that’s without touching upon the cartoons in which the characters were in a band. From Hanna Barbera’s Jabberjaw and Josey and the Pussycats to the music on the 1960’s cartoon Archie Comedy Hour (two words, “sugar sugar”). I could do an entire article alone on cartoon bands without even mentioning cartoons based on real bands like The Monkees or The Beatles.
But back to theme songs. To mix mediums for a second, Stan Lee once said “every comic book is someone’s first,” and the same can very well be applied to animation. Any episode of any cartoon could be a person’s first, especially in the days before the Internet was widely available to spread news of premieres and such. So the theme song is the best way to ease a newcomer in, as (with the exception of cold opens) it is often the first thing you see once a show begins. Because of this, theme songs, especially in animation geared towards all ages, act as gatekeepers of sorts to shows.
The 80’s in particular were the best time to see these kinds of songs. Without giving away the titles, let’s see if you can guess the show’s title or premise just from reading these lyrics:
“They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team
They’re heroes in the half shell and they’re green
When the evil Shredder attacks
These turtle boys don’t cut him no slack”
“Fighting to save the day.
He never gives up.
He’s always there,
Fighting for freedom over land and air”
Even without knowing what shows they belonged to, (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe for the curious) you can get a grasp on what the plot of these shows would probably be about, or at least whom the heroes/villains would be/be fighting for. A lot of old cartoons run on this, and it was a lot harder to find theme songs from the 80’s that didn’t constantly blare the show’s name at you.
From a business perspective, especially in the 80’s, this makes a load of sense. You want kids to buy your toys, so you hammer in the characters at the start of every episode. But it also works brilliantly from a narrative perspective and for hooking fans. There is nothing wrong with a simple narrative, and a well-written theme song serves the purpose of getting a new viewer involved in that narrative. If you get the viewer involved at minute one, you could have a new fan right off the bat.
Cut to modern day and you’ll start seeing the opposite. For some shows, such as Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, there is no theme song, simply a title splash before the episode begins. For other modern cartoons such as The Amazing World of Gumball, it has a theme song… in its non-American airings. In the U.S., we only get a title splash.
One of the best ways to see how the length of theme songs has shrunk or straight up vanished is through Teen Titans. The original 2003 cartoon has a roughly two-minute long theme song (the English version at least) that essentially did what the aforementioned 80’s songs did: set up the plot and let you know what you were in for. It even cued you in to what you were in for this episode, as Teen Titans had two different theme songs: one in English, and one in Japanese. English normally meant you were in for a more serious episode (or at least ones that would advance the overarching plot), while the Japanese theme song episodes tended to be much wackier. This actually strikes at an even deeper level than the other examples, as this kind of theming helps repeat viewers, as they can tell what they’re in for if they’re familiar with the pattern.
Fast forward to 2013 with it’s spin-off/sequel series Teen Titans Go! and you have a much shorter, singular theme song that doesn’t do much beyond stating the title. Not that the 80’s were exempt from this sort of writing. The lack of the two theme songs is understandable, as Go! is a much much less serious show. But in the case of Go! a severely shortened theme song is especially egregious since the theme is written and sung by the same artists that did the original.
In some ways, it feels demeaning. By shortening theme songs so severely, or straight up cutting it (more on that in a bit) and jumping straight into the show, it comes off as if the networks don’t trust their viewers’ attention span enough to sit through a theme song. I know there are much more logical reasons for eliminating the theme song, which we’ll get to in a bit, but its just something to chew on for a time.
Now, animation is primarily a visual medium, I understand that. But it isn’t the contents of the theme songs that are a problem. It’s the aforementioned length. Mainly, that for a while, theme songs were getting cut out, and still are.
Why? Money, of course.
The simple fact is that viewing tastes have changed. In the past ten years, Saturday morning cartoons, once a staple of the media, have faded into the void thanks to the presence of networks such as Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, who primarily focus on cartoons for most of their daytime airings. What’s more, kids are much more likely to find their entertainment elsewhere thanks to the presence of services such as YouTube and Netflix.
And don’t think the adult fans will help either. Younger generations as a whole just aren’t watching TV live as much thanks to other services. And that means less ad money for views. This, in turn, means networks have to squeeze in more ads to make their programs profitable, or simply flood their re-run airings with their highest rating show like Nickelodeon does with SpongeBob. (Or CN now does with Teen Titans Go! and did before with Johnny Test.) Which means it’s time to trim the fat to get back that lost income. And ‘fat’ in this case often means music.
I’m not trying to point fingers, I’m just pointing out a trend. Television is all about the money, and countless great shows have sunk or swum because of ad revenue. This is especially true in cartoons, which often rely on toys or similar merchandise to keep on the air. It can win all the Emmys it wants, but if it doesn’t rake in the dough, it’s not going to stay on the air. Cartoon Network’s Sym Biotic Titan is a poster child of this—despite several award nominations and stellar reviews, it was unable to secure a toy line by the end of its first season and got the axe.
But it’s interesting how theme music is what gets cut first. When talking with people who have grown up with these older shows, it’s often the theme song that is best remembered. From a practical standpoint it makes sense to cut what is technically “filler” from a storyline perspective, but from a lasting standpoint, maybe not, because as the slew of Hollywood and TV reboots shows laying the foundation for nostalgia now can lead to big money down the road.
Music has a weird tendency to outlive the legacy of the people who made it. Whether it’s pop or classical, I’ll often remember a song, its chorus, and its lyrics. However, I’ll be damned if I can remember the artist. Theme songs sometimes work the same way, their notes embedding themselves in your head far better than any character or plotline. Simple sounds in our brain are far more eternal than a lot of other stuff that tries to compete for our conscious every day (think about ad-jingles for a non-TV-show, for example).
Sometimes theme songs occupy the same niche. It’s more rare due to the tendency to constantly blare the show’s name, but it does happen when a song is instrumental or if I can only remember the tune. In a way, it’s a form of musical sleeper-cell agents. If Hollywood or whomever decides to do a reboot/remake down the road of a show, you and I have long forgotten about (Let’s say Big Man and Rusty, because wow is that an obscure memory of mine), that music (and you know they’ll do a musical throwback of some kind during the movie trailer) will suddenly bring me back to that moment and give me that “ah-ha” of familiarity.
How many times have you heard something along the lines of “eh, it wasn’t great, but the soundtrack was amazing?” This is very indicative of the lasting power of music. There are plenty of terrible to so-so shows from back in the day that faded into obscurity, but damn if their theme songs are at least cheesy enough to bring a grin to your face and probably outlast any of the milquetoast the show actually has.
But all things to a cycle, we do seem to be shifting back into an age where theme music is getting a renewed focus. Most notably, Steven Universe and Adventure Time, despite being shorter theme songs, do a lot of stuff right that has been missing from more recent shows in terms of song composition. And in time, we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of an upswing in theme songs, as a lot of these shows are very popular across all demographics. And as the original cutting shows, networks follow the money. In time they’ll probably end up getting cut again only to return after even more time has passed before yet another cutting, and on and on and on.
At the very least, we got a reboot of Ducktales coming in a few years, so at least it’ll be getting stuck in the head of a new generation, albeit in a probably remixed form. And in that generation you’ll probably see a similar essay to this, because as I said, all things to a cycle, in music and in life.