Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included Outkast's "Dracula's Wedding," David Bowie's "Starman" and The Clash's "Guns on the Roof."
Through sheer ubiquitous repetition, television themes toe the dangerous border separating enjoyment and irritation. The general rule of TV theme songs: the shorter the better, and the less words the better, less to hear, less to get annoyed by. Have you heard the Friends theme song all the way through recently? I have, at the supermarket. It was like running smack into Kryptonite in the cereal aisle. My knees buckled. That was a so-so song that had the "unfortunate" luck of being associated with one of the most astronomically popular shows in recent history. The Rembrandts are played at least five times a week every single week in syndication. The song can't help but be annoying.
But some theme songs are simultaneously great while remaining under-played enough to make them seem unique. It is a treat to hear these themes all the way through, serving to only improve your viewing of the accompanying episode. Some opening credit sequences and theme songs are so good that I am willing to sit through 13 one-minute doses per season without skipping ahead (The Venture Bros.). Others are so satisfying and exciting that they can pop up on my iPod any time I need a pick-up (Beavis & Butt-head, Kids in the Hall and King of the Hill). Some themes serve as a time-capsule of weird kitschy kick-ass (the Super Friends theme, circa Wendy, Marvin and Wonderdog, with that funky bass line and the opening "bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp-buh-buh" horn bit) and still others, like "Deththeme" from Metalocalypse, serve as a kind of line in the sand for their show: if you're not banging your head a little by the end of this song, then the show might not be for you. But for sheer catchy repeatability, no theme song has managed the kind of cerebral stranglehold quite like the theme to Spectacular Spider-Man as played by the Tender Box.
As I consider the Saturday-morning greatness pumping from my speakers, it occurs to me that the animated Spider-Man shows through the years have a unique tradition among in that they've never had a bad theme song. Since that classic 60's theme, the shows haven't all been great, but the songs have never been bad, even that mid-90's Joe Perry version was still kind of rockin'. For pure nostalgia, the old "Does whatever a spider can" theme from the 60's will always remain the Sean Connery of Spider-Man cartoon tracks, but this latest tune from Tender Box is the first real challenger for the title. Complete with "ah-ah-ah-aaaaaah-AAAAAH's" and an impossibly hooky chorus, the song's punky without being "punk," rough without being false, slick without being lame. Spectacular Spider-Man the show is very youth aimed, so the song is one of those themes that tells you precisely what you already knew about the character, but it's all handled in a great way. If you love Spider-Man, why wouldn't you want to hear about it again and again in some rockin' rock song?
And the more I think about how the cartoon Spider-Mans have always produced quality themes, it only goes to illustrate how lame the Danny Elfman scores were for the live-action movies. In some weird way, consciously or otherwise, the animated shows' themes have acknowledged a truth about the Peter Parker character: he's thoroughly modern. With characters like Batman and Superman, you can compose a classically "heroic" and "dramatic" score with an orchestra and John Williams and all that good stuff. But because Spider-Man is a young, contemporary guy dealing with teenager problems, a garage band is perfectly suitable. He lends himself to most popular fads without coming off like he's pandering. Without a whiff of character mishandling, Spidey can support nearly any musical genre because it seems like the type of music a kid would listen to; disco, metal, punk, rap, grunge... anything but reggae, though I'm sure it's not impossible. He, like most "drawn" characters, can support greater artistic risks, and therefore those risks should be taken. Unfortunately most superheroes (and most of their live-action counterparts) are so super serious and "traditional" that they need a supportive score. The original teaser for 2002's Spider-Man was set to an instrumental rock song, and it sounded cool because it was cool. It felt like 2002. Then when the movie actually came out, the music was just "Batman Returns 2.0," which would make it 1992-ish. Muddle.
Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but I prefer to see it as more evidence of the continued dominance by animation in the world of superhero stories. Because it's simultaneously truer to the core of the character and is far enough off the cultural radar to sneak past any risk-stopping executives, this theme song contains all the implied drama that a guy like Elfman would have wanted from a "traditional" score. That opening riff is practically a staccato horn blast normally employed for the likes of Superman, only done with a modern flair. The creepy, crawly, dare I say "spidery," guitar bit that follows sets more mood than its given credit for. What makes the song especially cool for me is that I can play it with or without an accompanying episode of an otherwise OK cartoon. It's not a bad version of the story. It's definitely a step up from the mid-90's talk-a-thon, lame-animation version. Compared on their own merits, this 2008 cartoon is not the best superhero series ever. But when you hear the theme song, despite being over a minute long and chalk full of lyrics, defying the general rules, you imagine it could be.
Note: for some reason, nobody's been bored enough to upload a video of just the opening titles, so I'm including this video of stills set to the song. If you really want to see it in the context of the opening credits (which aren't too bad, honestly), then you can watch the opening of an episode like this one. It starts around 2:11, just after Connors injects the Lizard juice into his shoulder.