TVLine’s ongoing review of TV’s all-time greatest theme songs this week may evoke images of a girl wrapped in plastic, a dancing baby and a fist-pumping ER doc, as it cues up tunes from the 1990s.
Based on U.S. series’ premiere dates, we’re continuing our series with a look at the ’90s, which served up more than its fair share of TV history’s most iconic theme songs — from instrumentals haunting (Twin Peaks, The X-Files) and exhilarating (ER, Beverly Hills 90210) to some of the most quotable singalongs (Fresh Prince, Dawson’s Creek, Friends).
TVLine’s remaining TV theme song reviews will similarly tackle a decade at a time, harmonizing with the Two and a Half Mennnnnn, geeking out over the song that each Big Bang started with, tumbling in slow motion with Don Draper, celebrating an unbreakable cult survivor and serving up TV’s second take on One Day at a Time.
And for you fans of animated fare, there will be a special “best of” list that is bound to please your brain (brain, brain, brain).
Review our selection of U.S. TV themes from the ’90s and vote for the very best/most effective ones in the Comments. (Or, click this link and vote!)
BEVERLY HILLS, 90210 (1990)
Composed by John E. Davis, the original opening credits featured footage of Brandon and Brenda driving around their new city. Come Season 2, that was replaced with the more renowned shots of its attractive, young cast laughing and hanging out together. The track, however, became a legend of its own, with a slick mix of guitar, sax, piano and synth. And the double-claps? Davis, while working on a strict overnight deadline for producer Aaron Spelling, simply didn’t know what to put there. The song was submitted just days before the show’s premiere, and over time, those little hand-made beats became more and more prominent.
“My Opinionation” was written by Mike Post and Steve Geyer, and performed by recording artist Dr. John for the show’s first four seasons. The opening featured Mayim Bialik’s title character filming herself in her bedroom while dancing and making silly faces. Season 2 added different dance moves and outfits, while the following year added cast members like Joey Lawrence and Jenna von Oÿ dancing alongside Bialik. Though the series’ final season minimized the opening to just a few short piano notes, we’ll always remember Blossom bustin’ a move.
THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR (1990)
“Yo Home to Bel Air” is yet another “explain the premise” theme song. While playing basketball in his hometown of Philly, Will gets into a tussle with a local gang. The confrontation scares his mom who sends him to live with his rich aunt and uncle. Written and performed by Will Smith under his stage name The Fresh Prince, the music itself was composed by music industry legend Quincy Jones. Jones has 80 Grammy Award nominations and 28 wins, and is famous for producing Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad among countless others.
TWIN PEAKS (1990)
Twin Peaks‘ instrumental theme song was composed by David Lynch’s go-to guy, Angelo Badalamenti. The composer was nominated for three Emmy Awards for his work on the series, including the track above titled “Falling.” His collaboration with Lynch includes multiple movies in the director’s filmography including The Straight Story, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. When the series was ultimately revived at Showtime, Badalamenti contributed new material.
STEP BY STEP (1991)
“Second Time Around,” the theme song to this Suzanne Somers/Patrick Duffy-led sitcom, was written by ABC’s music maestro Jesse Frederick alongside writing partner Bennett Salvay. Frederick, who’s also known for performing and writing the themes to other TGIF favorites like Perfect Strangers, Full House and Family Matters, sang with Teresa James. James’ voice can also be heard on shows like True Blood and Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and movies such as Michael and American Dreamz.
Composer Peter Wetzler, working with Gail “Sky” King, married sound design with just a hint of audio sampling to find a fitting theme for the children’s mystery series. “It’s not a theme that you can hum,” Wetzler told the MXDX podcast. “It’s catchy in a way, but it’s one of the first sound design-oriented themes that had no hook to it,” instead pairing sound effects with the sampling of the main character Lenni saying “Ghostwriter” again and again, accompanied by exposition-filled narration. Said Wetzler, “It was a brave new world!”
HANGIN' WITH MR. COOPER (1992)
“Hangin’ With My Man,” written by Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, was the ABC sitcom’s Season 1 theme song, sung by series stars Dawnn Lewis and Holly Robinson, along with En Vogue. For Season 2, Shalamar’s Howard Hewett delivered a remake of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” But the theme viewers may remember best, because it ran longest, arrived in Season 3, when
Sherwood Ball, Carmen Carter and Oren Waters performed “Cooper, Cooper,” written by Gary Boren and Steven Chesne.
MAD ABOUT YOU (1992)
A perfect companion to the NBC rom-com, “Final Frontier,” composed by series lead Paul Reiser and Don Was, was originally performed by Andrew Gold, though a version served up by Anita Baker got swapped in starting with Season 6. (For the recent Spectrum Originals revival, Lyle Lovett and Kecia Lewis took over the vocals.)
BOY MEETS WORLD (1993)
Whereas the early seasons cycled through various instrumental themes composed by Ray Colcord, the #TGIF comedy’s final theme song, used for Seasons 5 through 7 and written/performed by Phil Rosenthal, is the one that fans hold most dear.
Indulge is a zag here, as we highlight a closing theme song. The intro and outro themes for the Cheers spinoff were both composed by Bruce Miller and Darryl Phinesse. Series star Kelsey Grammer sings the closing credits track, “Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs,” an oddity whose origin is described thusly: Miller, who was also the composer for Wings, was specifically asked to avoid lyrics relating to radio and psychiatry. Lyricist Phinesse stepped in to add suggestive phrases (“I hear the blues a-callin'”) to allude to Frasier Crane’s life and work as an on-air psychiatrist. For the show’s super-short intro, one of 25 brief musical cues plays over the title card, which changed color every season.
LIVING SINGLE (1993)
“We Are Living Single” was written and performed by rapper Queen Latifah. Latifah was no stranger to the music biz. By the time the show premiered, she had released two albums: 1989’s All Hail the Queen and 1991’s Nature of a Sista‘. In the middle of the first season’s run, her third album, Black Reign, dropped which was certified Gold and delivered the single, “U.N.I.T.Y.”
Having reviewed our round-up of U.S. TV themes from the 1990s, click this link and vote for the four best!
MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS (1993)
“Go Go Power Rangers” served as the opening theme for the show’s first three seasons. Written and produced by Ron Wasserman under the name “Aaron Waters, The Mighty RAW,” the original cut was slightly altered and repurposed for the mini-series Mighty Morphin Alien Rangers in 1996. The title also became the franchise’s catchphrase, which was then incorporated into several other areas of the show and film series.
THE NANNY (1993)
“If My Friends Could See Me Now” (from the Broadway musical Sweet Charity) was used for the pilot, only to one replaced with the more explain-y “The Nanny Named Fran,” which was performed by composer Ann Hampton Callaway and her sister Liz Callaway, and explained via animation how Fran Fine went from being her ill-fated bridal shop gig to working as a nanny for the Sheffields.
THE X-FILES (1993)
The opening sequence for The X-Files remained unchanged until David Duchovny left the show after Season 7. The eerie instrumental track was composed by Mark Snow, though its signature echo effect was created by accident. As explained on the “Behind the Truth” segment on the Season 1 DVDs, Snow put his hand and forearm on his keyboard in frustration after multiple attempts left him unsatisfied. As it turned out, he accidentally enabled an echo effect setting that would live on in television history. In addition to his work on the series, Snow also scored both films: 1998’s The X-Files: Fight the Future and 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
ALL THAT (1994)
The theme song for this children’s sketch show was performed by TLC and written by Arnold Hennings and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes. The series went on hiatus in 2000, returning with an all new cast two years later. Despite its relaunch, the theme song remained the same. All That is still on the air having been revived in 2019 for its eleventh season, but TLC still dominate the airwaves with their silky smooth vocals, Left-Eye’s kid-friendly rapping and a wee hint of ’90s R&B flavor.
James Newton Howard, who has scored over 100 films and also penned themes for TV’s The Sentinel and Gideon’s Crossing, composed the acclaimed medical drama’s original theme, for which he earned an Emmy nomination. Martin Davich penned a new theme (listen here, at the 10:40 mark) that was used from Season 13 until the final episode, when Howard’s original theme was brought back to close the loop.
Co-written by series producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman, composer Michael Skloff, songwriter Allee Willis and The Rembrandts’ Phil Sōlem and Danny Wilde, “I’ll Be There for You” as a single (extended from 40 seconds to three minutes long) peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ultimately hit the Top 10 in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland and the United Kingdom. “[The producers] wanted a proper song, not just something that had been dreamt up by a jingle writer,” Wilde shared in 2004. And though the tune and some lyrics were pre-written for The Rembrandts, “We completely made it our own,” Wilde said. “It had great harmonies and this upbeat vibe. More than anything, it was fun.” Wilde also admitted that while the wildly popular song was at first an “albatross” that alienated the band’s original audience, “now it’s become a part of pop culture and there are moments when I’m really very proud of it.”
MY SO-CALLED LIFE (1994)
“My So-Called Life Theme” was penned by W. G. Snuffy Walden and earned an Emmy nomination in 1995 for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music. Walden would later go on to compose the Emmy-winning theme for The West Wing.
PARTY OF FIVE (1994)
“Closer to Free” would go on to be the rock band BoDeans’ biggest hit, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even so, it was not invited to be a part of the Freeform reboot’s family. “I love that song but… it doesn’t really fit, in a way,” Amy Lippman, the co-creator of both the old and new series, explained. “It felt like an upbeat kind of anthem didn’t feel right.”
THE DREW CAREY SHOW (1995)
Following the Robert McGuire-penned “Moon Over Parma” (playing over an animated Drew Carey caricature) and a music video-style opening (set to The Vogues’ “Five O’Clock World”), Season 4 switched to the more memorable “Cleveland Rocks,” a cover of an Ian Hunter song performed by The Presidents of the United States of America, during which the characters milled about Cleveland landmarks.
7TH HEAVEN (1996)
In addition to writing and performing the theme song for this WB family drama, former Autograph singer Steve Plunkett also penned theme songs for the Lori Loughlin-led Summerland and USA Network’s short-lived 2005 Kojak reboot (starring Ving Rhames). Un-Fun Fact: In syndicated reruns, the opening credits are typically slashed, leaving little more than the first stanza.
ALLY MCBEAL (1997)
After seeing Vonda Shepard perform in a nightclub, series boss David E. Kelley signed the musician to appear in an early episode. Her song “Searchin’ My Soul” became the show’s theme song, and Shepard proceeded to regularly pop up in episodes, performing at the piano bar frequented by the main characters. Shepard also covered established tunes pegged to storylines on the show, helping fill out two soundtrack albums, a pair of compilations albums and a Christmas album.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1997)
California rockers Nerf Herder provided the opening licks for Buffy‘s theme. In his commentary for the first season DVDs, creator Joss Whedon said his decision to choose the band was influenced by cast member Alyson Hannigan, who urged him to check them out. The track blends elements of classic ’60s and ’70s horror — from an ominous organ to a booming wolf’s howl — to newer, faster sounds like electric guitar and pummeling drum rolls. It’s the perfect genre-bending theme for a boundary-breaking series.
THAT 70'S SHOW (1998)
The kids (and parents!) of That 70’s Show are singing Big Star’s “In the Street” from the comfort of the Vista Cruiser. Written by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Todd Griffin covered the track for the series’ first season, with Cheap Trick taking over for the remaining seven years. Season 8 changed the location of the opening credits from the seats of the Cruiser to the circle where they used to congregate to… uh, hang out.
Charmed‘s theme song, “How Soon Is Now,” is a cover of a Smiths’ classic by Love Spit Love, a band formed by Richard Butler during the 1990s hiatus of The Psychedelic Furs. While the track was used for all eight seasons of the show, it was replaced on streaming and the Season 8 DVDs because the music license expired. Regardless, we’ll always think of the Halliwell sisters whenever we hear the song’s spooky, echoed first notes. Fun fact: The cover was also used to soundtrack another witchy tale: the 1996 film The Craft.
DAWSON'S CREEK (1998)
Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” was used for the pilot, but when the singer declined to turn over the tune for use as the long-term theme song, exec producer Paul Stupin eventually zeroed in on Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait,” which had already been licensed by the network for other uses. “It just seemed like the right suggestion and the right idea at the right time,” Stupin explained. “It’s so moving and so powerful, and it became so identified [with the show].” There was one more hiccup to come, when for the series’ later boxed-set DVD releases, Sony wanted to save some pennies by dropping Cole’s tune. Taking its place was “Run Like Mad” by Canadian folk artist Jann Arden, whose music had been featured on the show.
The spinoff’s opening theme was composed by producer Holly Knight and the alternative rock band Darling Violetta. The band performed two songs for Buffy‘s third season, so when a call was sent out for demos using dark superhero themes and a cello/rock mix, Darling Violetta watched older Buffy episodes for inspiration. Eventually, creator Joss Whedon chose this submission as the theme song for Angel.
THE SOPRANOS (1999)
The show’s opening theme “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)” was written by, remixed and performed by the British act Alabama 3. The band, who’s sound blends country, blues and house, goes by A3 in the states to avoid any reference or conflict with country band Alabama. As for The Sopranos, the series was always praised for its diverse song choices; creator David Chase personally selected all of the show’s music with help from producer Martin Bruestle, music editor Kathryn Dayak and musician-turned-Sopranos-star Steven Van Zandt.
“Here With Me” was “the first song I wrote that was any good,” Dido recalled in a 2013 interview. “It’s a simple love song, written in quite a dark time.” Because of its exposure via Roswell, which led to it being Dido’s first hit single in the UK, “It’s the track that launched everything for me, so it has a soft spot in my heart.” (Fun Fact: A cover of the song was featured in the final scene of the first season of The CW’s Roswell, New Mexico reboot.)
THE WEST WING (1999)
Having previously scored such shows as thirtysomething and The Wonder Years, as well as penned the theme for My So-Called Life, W.G. Snuffy Walden was called on to compose the triumphant opening tune for NBC’s acclaimed White House drama, for which he won Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music.