Monday, February 4, 2008

Theme Songs, A Refrain

Some years ago I wrote an essay in which I wanted to consider the role of the theme song as something that might be indicative of legitimate issues in contemporary culture. My thesis then was that the songs themselves served to map questions of culture, gender, race and economy across an American cultural landscape that was all too often fraught with the realization that, in general, most of us received our culture through television, and not through the museum, or the theatre, or the symphony.

What I realized recently was that now, we also don't really have the theme song. This is not to say that we don't have theme sonds - the Beach Boys sing through the opening of HBO's Big Love, Jane's Addiction helps Vince and Turtle and E and Drama work their way through LA in their suicide-doored car, but generally this phenomenon seems almost like it's over.

I wanted to turn, then, to the ideas that were being considered in that earlier essay. Today, it is as if the refrain has come, but we've forgotten the chorus.


It is a popular postmodern pastime to recall them. It is better if you can sing them as well. You can even get a range of albums that contain your favourites. But what about the actual discourse of the theme song? Does anyone bother to listen to what they really say? Thinking about this recently, I came to the realisation that in the theme songs of American popular television one can trace the history of the west in the late twentieth century, from the implications of late capitalism, to the right’s constant concerns for the demise of the family and its resurrections.

This is clearly a twentieth–century symptom. The television theme song has been around for about fifty years. But in that time it has mapped the hopes and dreams of America’s dispossessed, noted unique senses of obligation and allowed opportunities for traditional values to come forth.

Juxtapose ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ both television dramas concerned with urban living conditions for African Americans. In the first, the idea is mere survival. It is, as it were, a rem(a)inder of post–Vietnam pessimism, the final rejection of the baby–boom, the letdown of life in the ’70s after the idealism of the ’60s and before. For many African–American urban dwellers, the reality was (and often remains) that living conditions were deplorable and social services were the same. Yet in a sing song gospel ‘Good Times’ invited us to reflect on the tenacity of these urban dispossessed, and to celebrate the victories of the everyday. To the best of my recollection, the song called out:

Good Times – any time you meet a payment
Good Times – any time you feel free
Good Times – any time you’re out from under
Not gettin’ hassled, not gettin’ hustled
Keeping your head above water
Makin’ your way when you can
Temporary layoffs (good times!)
Easy credit ripoffs (good times!)
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em,
Good times.

Telling the story of a single mother raising children in an American ghetto, the sympathies of the song are not lost in the show’s storylines. And one must wonder whether or not the whole history of post–Civil War promises to African–Americans is encapsulated in the line ‘any time you feel free.’ But, if so, what can one make then of what seems to be the more conservative, more opportunistic sentiments found in ‘The Jeffersons’:

Movin’ on up
to the East Side
to a deluxe apartment in the sky!
Movin’ on up
To the East Side
We finally got a piece of the pie!

This celebration of capitalism includes the realization that this is an epiphanic experience which manifests the idealism of the American dream:

Took a whole lotta tryin’
Just to get up that hill.
Now we’re up in the big league
Ain’t no turnin’ back
As long as we live, it’s you and me baby,
Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

In comparing the sentiments from ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ it’s possible to map the shift from Democratic postwar new deal idealism to New Right assertions of the values of capitalism. It is clear that the class consciousness of ‘Good Times’ has shifted; in ‘The Jeffersons’ we follow the story of a single family who is living the American dream. But it is a dream that has climbed not from Harlem’s Striver’s Row, but from Archie Bunker’s Queens. Was the journey from Harlem seen as being one which might just be a little too far? So who do the Jeffersons truly represent? Perhaps it is here, in these singsong opening arias of popular culture that the true battles for influence are fought. For despite being unable to remember a single episode of any American sitcom or drama in its entirety, (you try, scene by scene), I can recall many theme songs. So it is here then that their contribution to cultural memory must be situated.

Take the metaphor further. Its variations are infinitely complex. One can range far and wide across the scope of cultural and economic differences – from the barrio with ‘Chico and the Man’ (which implores ‘Chico, don’t be discouraged’ although Chico lives in a van in the garage where he works) to the famous line ‘Darling I love you but give me Park Avenue!’ from ‘Green Acres.’ Listen, and let the myriad sites for cultural construction come to the fore. Is Chico’s stereotyped Chicano rootlessness made evident by his living in a van? In this single gesture can one find the whole history of itinerant labour in the southwestern United States, even in the late twentieth century?

Were Chico Pakeha, we might find him ‘where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.’ But fret not, for Chico is ministered to by his white boss /father figure known in the song as ‘The Man.’ One need only recall in wonderment the fact that this ‘Other’ is known lyrically as a slang term for the police. Here again, unconsciously, the song mirrors the real displacement of Chico’s fears, that his experiences will always be mediated by ‘The Man.’ What you think is a segue into the action is really the event itself; it encapsulates the totality of what follows. Everything that attaches to the song is actually a supplement which seeks to reflect the truths the song has already told.

Isn’t this precisely what happens? Don’t we know that the Dukes of Hazzard are safe, despite the machinations of the evil Boss Hogg? Don’t we know that Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane will never really get his men because we’ve already learned that ‘someday the mountain might get ’em but the law never will.’ Despite the truths of the ’hood, don’t JJ and his family always come to the realization that there are ‘Good Times’?

So what, in the end, does it mean? Perhaps that in the simplicity of the popular song one can say in a few words what some might say in many. It is here that the conflict of lyric and image is finally found. And this, in the world of visual culture, played out via a popular medium, is a true theatre of the obscure.

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