One of the greatest challenges for any musical artist is crafting a compelling theme. But there’s a whole new level of difficulty to be found in the realm of theme songs for children’s shows, given that kids are the toughest customers on the planet, and finding a way to adapt one’s unique musical sensibility to a well-established formula is one of those tasks that sounds a lot easier than it really is.
With the premiere of the 25th (and final!) season of long-running PBS series Arthur today (February 21st), Consequence decided to unleash its inner child by looking back at the many, many times a great animated kids series got some musical help from a well-known artist, starting from the 1990s.
This list includes, as a result, a remarkably eclectic collection of artists with one thing in common: They all saw their value in bringing their talents to a genre that may not have much critical respect, but means the absolute world to younger generations.
— Liz Shannon Miller
Reverend Horton Heat – Ren & Stimpy (1991-1996)
There’s something ineffable about rockabilly staple Reverend Horton Heat’s jazzy, idiosyncratic theme tune to millennial gross-out fave Ren & Stimpy; the frenetic bongos, the surf guitar, the always-driving double bass.
The tune, called “Dog Pound Hop,” is a curiously fitting contrast to the close-up grotesqueries of Ren and Stimpy’s adventures. After all, if you’re about to see a zoomed-in shot of an anthropomorphic chihuahua’s bloodshot eyes, you’re liable to seek comfort in the tiki-bar warmth of a slide guitar. — Clint Worthington
Mark Mothersbaugh (DEVO) – Rugrats (1991-2006)
Devo frontman and keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh has long since made a name for himself as a prodigious composer of film and TV, whether for Marvel (Thor: Ragnarok), Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic) or animated jaunts like The LEGO Movie and The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
But he cut his teeth writing some of the most iconic Nickelodeon themes of all time in the ‘90s, from the jaunty bassline and catchy lyrics of Clifford the Big Red Dog (co-writing with Josh Mancell), the frantic ‘90s dance-music drums of Rocket Power, or the strangely reggae-inspired theme for the Super Mario World cartoon.
Obviously, though, his biggest contribution to our collective childhoods was the deceptively simple, but eerily playful synthesizer theme to Rugrats, with its oddball, carnivalesque chirps and human sound samples. It’s a work of understated genius, of a kind he’d parlay into scores of scores hence. — C.W.
Danny Elfman – Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
This one almost feels like cheating, since Danny Elfman’s iconic theme for the TV show is largely derived from his work on the ‘89 Tim Burton classic. But the former Oingo Boingo frontman still pours heaps of Gothic brass and haunting orchestral sweep into this evolution of the theme, expanding on it in ways that Shirley Walker would run with in her moody, evocative score for the series proper. For a lot of ‘90s kids, this is the definitive theme for the Caped Crusader. — C.W.
The B-52s – Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-1996)
In between trips to the Love Shack, ‘80s new wave darlings The B-52s lent their talents to the zippy, effervescent theme to Rocko’s Modern Life. It’s a great fit: After all, Rocko, with his breathless exuberance and unceasing zest for life and adventure, feels like Fred Schneider if he a) wore Hawaiian shirts and no bottoms (!) and b) was a wallaby. (Fun fact: apparently Kurt Cobain was their second choice to pen the theme. One wonders what Grunge Rocko would be like.) — C.W.