I grew up in the 90's. By the time my little eyes and ears could comprehend what they were being subjected to, the era of mad animation had already begun. The 1990's were a colourful time, from the acid induced dance music to the sugar and additive-laden neon sweets and drinks. Luckily the animated shows we were given were no different.
Accelerating from the successful franchises of the 80's, most of which made money from the toy and merchandise tie-ins, the animation of the 1990's seemed to blast full speed with style, irreverence and a no holds barred approach to the premise of new shows.
But no matter which show you loved the most (or simply just watched because you didn't have anything better to do while you eat refreshers and drank panda pop) the first and most resonating taste of a cartoon is its theme. And the 90's gave us some wonderful themes.
*Be warned, if you begin looking up some of these themes on youtube it's very likely you will succumb to the endless black hole of intro's. Just as Scott and I did.*
The list of catchy choruses, magical melodies and bouncing bass lines are endless. I have a special affinity for theme songs. There is something potent about the tiny snapshot of music purpose-built to set the tone of a show. Each one is like a 30 second score, encompassing the feel, the energy and often the premise of the show to come. Those of you who have stepped foot in Super Shakes will probably have noticed a handful of themes in the shop playlist (In between copious amounts of Seal). So if I took the time to go over every jingle that puts a smile on my face then this would be an incredibly long blog. [Though honourable mentions go to any theme without lyrics such as Doug, Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy; and to superstar composer Danny Elfman]
For the purpose of time and sanity I'll instead present to you 3 observations during my time in the infinite back-to-back session of intro videos. So if you are simply a curious party or are in the process of creating your own authentic sounding 90's theme song, keep these in mind.
Rule 01: 90's keep it brief
Apart from the quality of the animation and the steady decline of muscular He-Men, a new trend also occurred - swifter intros. Just as every comic is somebody's first, the same applies for cartoons with their self contained stories and repeatability. Because of this many 80's shows began with an intro that was in itself a prologue, as is the case of the hilarious and infectious opening to Ulysses 31. [Check it out here - https://youtu.be/OZ4c1X5ene8 ]
But once we past the invisible decade barrier, things start to get more straight to the point.
Maybe it was because the old style was beginning to feel tired, maybe it was to simply shave an extra minute and a half off the total run time. There is a good chance that it was because as we merged into the era of lunacy and (Ani)maniacs there was no story structure.
"Mama had a chicken! Mama had a cow! Dad was proud, and he didn't care how!"
Rule 02: Ducks have Soul
The musicianship behind theme tunes is often passed by. Since most of the themes are over and done with in 30 seconds, a lot of these gems and respective artists don't get to become as recognised as the 30 seconds (or less) of effort that goes in to most modern pop songs. And although there were many thematic changes to soundtracks as time progressed including Guitar riffs getting more fiery and saxophones (unfortunately) dissipating, one trend I did notice was that shows with ducks had a passionate theme that few competed with.
Lets begin with Duckula (Which began in the 80's but waddled into the Nine-zero's). Beginning with a dark and spooky backstory and blackened images, all is blasted away once the vocals burst in. I get the impression if the theme was a minute longer we would have some glass shattering vibrato on our hands. At several points there are moments when it is as if the microphone they used cant actually handle the singing. Kudos to the composers for making the very silly premise of this show get glossed over by the energetic theme.
From Duck vampires to Duck crusaders, namely DW - Darkwing Duck. This Noire-styled big-billed master of surprise had a hearty theme too. In order to even attempt to replicate the pipes on this performer you have to fill your lungs first. You can just hear the force in their voice as they repeat the title of the show, to the point where when the second verse comes in the whole song seems muted in comparison. But so do many things after you listen to this theme a few times, its hefty.
Then in 1996 as if there weren't enough rich vocals and duck centred animations; along comes The Mighty Ducks. Not the rousing live-action family comedy starring a handful of young actors (Including the future Foggy Nelson from Daredevil sporting virtually the same haircut). This is jacked up, colourful, anthropomorphic ducks playing hockey, and the theme is just as mighty. The entire song seems to be shouted and the eager singer can barely get the first sentence finished without adding some vocal flair. The incredible intensity of this theme leaves no doubt about the final statement "Ducks Rock!".
This correlation between bombastic birds and soulful songs doesn't end there. A post millennium show Duck Dodgers has a theme performed by none other than world renowned welshman Tom Jones. And if thats not enough, need I mention one of the the most catchy themes of all - a Tale of a rich Duck who famously dives into his vault of Gold coins? I'm sure you can hear it in your head already. [If not click here to develop a tick that makes you "Woo-Oo" impulsively anytime you hear the title of the show - https://youtu.be/9DXo5haNd9M ]
Rule 03: Repeat the title as many times as possible
It goes without saying that if you want someone to remember your brand, you need them to remember the name. It's quite possible this marketing tactic was discovered in the late 80's. Pick 5 cartoons that ran in the 90's, and sing the theme. (Feel free to do it in your head if you don't want to look like a Freakazoid at the coffee shop). I'd bet that you said the title of the show at least 3 times. Yes it's intended and yes it almost seems silly once highlighted (Try the theme game again with 5 HBO shows; it's very different. I'm betting on 0), but it also puts a recognisable time stamp on our cartoons, a loveable paradigm of silliness.
This may have most memorably begun with a group of adolescent-genetically irregular- Japanese covert martial arts practicing-amphibians. Yes Leo, Donnie, Mikey and Raph's unquestionable chant, which although formed in the late 80's ran deep into the hearts, minds, and dreams of 90's kids everywhere. Brought to life by the mastermind of mindless repetition Chuck Lorre (See Two and a Half Men & Big Bang Theory - J-Man), who may have unintentionally begun a more overt tradition for shows created afterwards. Notably Earthworm Jim, W.I.L.D Cats, Hey Arnold and Rocko's Modern Life all follow the formula that shouting the title is key to a good theme.
You can see this method working in the Spider-Man cartoon series (Theme co-written by Media Mogul and Power Rangers creator Haim Saban). The words are repeated to the point that the synthesised vocoder chanting goes askew into saying Spider-anything. It's almost as if the singer was exhausted or Joe Perry(Of Aerosmith)'s face melting guitar was tiring them out. I used to think that at one point he was saying Spider-Glider in reference to hobgoblin showing up on screen, but it works for any word you can cram into those syllables. Spider-pamphlet. Spider-burger. Spider-spleen. You get the point.
And as if to prove that the musicians and melody makers behind all of these knew what they were doing - See Exhibit B - Bucky O' Hare. The action packed, detailed crammed opening doesn't forget to add the secret sauce; the name Bucky O' Hare is mentioned various times as are most of the other characters. But as we reach the end there is a very self aware moment where after definitely screaming the name several times one vocalist asks the other "Did you say Bucky?" as if they have a quota to fill. Without a beat his colleague replies "I said Bucky." and they both harmonise for a final "Bucky O'Hare!". This not only adds another few name drops to the counter but is a wonderful little giggle at themselves and the absurdity of their job.
To sum up, Memory can be measured by recall, recognition and relearning. With the constant barrage of names and vivid images drilled into our heads several times over before we have even seen the show - our capability to recite, recognise and build on our knowledge may explain why 90's shows and their themes were so (literally) unforgettable.