In recent months, one could hear Morton Stevens' Hawaii Five-O for AT&T; Vic Mizzy's Green Acres for Ford; Frank DeVol and Sherwood Schwartz's Brady Bunch for MCI; Miklos Rozsa and Walter Schumann's Dragnet for Nissan; Buddy Kaye and Hugo Montenegro's I Dream of Jeannie for Burger King; and Tony Romeo's "I Think I Love You" (from The Partridge Family) for Levi's. Along with Batman, also for Nissan, plus Gilligan's Island and Bewitched, both for McDonald's, these commercials tell us something their creators already seem to know: classic television themes connect with young consumers in ways that classic rock may not.
There are lots of intriguing reasons for this, and they have as much to do with technology, culture and politics as they do with music and advertising. For one thing, vintage TV is now available in more dayparts, to more audiences, more age groups and on far more channels than it ever was in its heyday. The renaissance of theme songs, which are now deeply fixed in the unconscious of three generations, simply illustrates the marketing axiom that frequency breeds familiarity breeds resonance.
In addition, vintage television is ideally positioned as a resource for commercials, not merely because it's comedy as reference for comedy, but primarily because of the retro-cool cachet of Nick at Nite and its many imitators. Thanks to them, the shows and their theme songs are, in a cultural sense, a product of the here and now. So these "classics" can feel to young audiences like exactly what they're not-something fresh-and not like what they are, which is something old.
A vintage theme also allows a commercial to make an easy leap from irreverence to irreverence. However gifted these composers may have been, hardly anyone ever thought of TV theme songs as great music or serious art. (Even themes that were serious in tone, like those of Dragnet or The Twilight Zone, were so far over the top they seemed written with a clearly perceptible wink.) But when we dare to put a Beatles or Stones song in a spot, we ask the audience to make the leap from reverence to irreverence, from serious to frivolous, and from "art" to commerce. To some, that's a kind of cultural disconnect. To others, it's like spitting on the flag.
TV themes generally evoke similar associations from person to person and generation to generation. But a single pop classic like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" can mean very different things to different age groups. To older boomers, the song might conjure up memories of a first love, with Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight on the car radio. To younger boomers, it means the secondhand nostalgia of The Big Chill, an homage to someone else's lost youth. And to those born a decade or two later, it means little more than the California Raisins.
It's no wonder that in their popular oldies campaign for Burger King, Ammirati creatives chose to accompany Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancin' In the Street" with contemporaneous b&w archival footage of kids doing just that. On the other hand, when the agency and BK licensed the theme to I Dream of Jeannie, they were able to leverage the show's visual equities-evoking context, memory, emotion and even sex appeal-without licensing any visuals at all.
Finally, it's worth remembering that the tonality of these shows-generally revolving around happy families-was blissfully oblivious to an America on the verge of being ripped apart by race, war and assassination. In fact, their ambience is much closer to that of today's more tranquil American culture and politics, where far more college students identify themselves as conservatives than was the case 30 years ago.
And what of these sons of Tin Pan Alley (many of them sons of immigrants) who invented "television music" when television itself was still being invented? They were all part of a unique breed in the Hollywood of their time, before rock 'n' roll supplanted the orchestra as the music of network television. Indispensable and anonymous, they were the ultimate utility players, often as adroit with rhyme and humor as they were withmelody and orchestration.
For many of them, TV themes were presumably a goof-because the medium itself was still kind of a goof. It was their joke on us back then, and, luckily, it's their joke on us now.
Rick Lyon, a composer and writer formerly at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, is creative director at New York's Rick Lyon Music. He invites your