From House of Cards’ sinister trumpets to The Fresh Prince’s iconic rap, TV theme tunes are powerful signifiers and also, just occasionally, standalone hits superior even to the show they prelude. Elizabeth Beattie examines five of New Zealand’s television theme songs to sift the cultural gold from the mud.
We can tell a lot about TV theme songs from their first jingles or strums. They play an important part in setting the tone of a show and help to set our expectations. When The Sopranos theme starts, you know you’re going to be watching something masculine and violent but still chill, while the introduction to The X Files is creepy as anything you’re going to see in the show. Many TV themes have become as legendary as the shows themselves. But listened to on their own, and critically analysed, how well do New Zealand’s classic TV themes hold up?
Food in a minute
Classic, simple, but innovative – much like baking a loaf of bread stuffed with Wattie’s spaghetti. There is something undeniably upbeat about this mini-symphony. The host and her ‘cool mum’ ways seems super passionate about basic ingredients and the soundtrack serves to reiterate this message. The music heightens budget cooking into something positively cosmopolitan. The music creates an ambience that tinned spaghetti and studio lighting alone is incapable of. The theme makes me think of Sex and the City – but instead of slurping cocktails in a Manhattan bar gossiping about last night’s indiscretions, we’re watching Lana whip up “a savory swiss roll”.
Iconic? Definitely, much like Pavlov’s dog, Food in a Minute trained us to feel hungry in the late afternoon for a quick snack.
Musicianship? Just like the food, I imagine this piece was manufactured with a dose of computer involvement. But there’s definitely some slick brass skills being put to use here.
How has it dated? Considering they’ve updated the track, I suspect the producers didn’t realise the gem they were dealing with. Nevertheless, the people do; in the words of Youtube commenter LilHaseProductions: “Lmao this song is classic”.
Flight of the Conchords
I am trying not to be biased just because I like ’em, but it is a solid opening track. Optimistic, novel and quirky, it provides a good musical introduction to the series. It’s a pretty wholesome sounding intro, but then, the Conchords are no Mark and Jez, so it’s fitting.
Iconic? The show itself is so iconic, by proxy the opening credit tune is too. Portland band Hockey arguably nicked off with a portion of the track in their (aptly titled?) single ‘Too Fake’.
Musicianship? Musically simple, but reveals the group’s expertise.
How has it dated? A timeless treasure.
New Zealand’s Next Top Model (Season 1 & 2)
The New Zealand’s Next Top Model theme song sounds like those weird music demos your teenage brother made after staying up all night listening to Machina-era Smashing Pumpkins. But then again, much like the models’ poses themselves, it is stiff and emotionless, so perhaps it was a natural choice. Lyrically the tracks sends a problematic message. The line “give me models, give me money” explicitly says models are just another consumable and a powerless commodity. Perhaps this is accurate of the fashion industry, but it sets up the show in quite a depressing way. I can’t help but feel like I’ve thought about this more than the producers did…
Iconic? Considering the track only lasted two seasons, not very iconic.
Musicianship? I don’t want to make assumptions about technical skills as there is such a weighty blanket of distortion over this track, it’s hard to actually judge each component.
How has it dated? Dreadfully, but then it was never good, so perhaps it’s actually dated really well.
Although I must confess I have a secret appreciation for bluegrass, Country Calendar is undoubtedly one of the most iconic TV theme songs ever. There is something so confident and playful about this track, it’s positively buoyant. It’s the only track which could inject life into a show about tractors, sheep and fencing dramas.
Iconic? The soundtrack to New Zealand’s longest running TV show – it’s up there with the Addams Family for memorability.
Musicianship? Shows flourish and quirk yet remains highly traditional.
How has it dated? Bluegrass is timeless. Obviously this style of music has never conjured up images of cool, so they’re in the clear here.
Shortland Street original version
For New Zealand’s longest running soap opera, which this year turned 25, it’s appropriately soapy. I always preferred the original Peter Gabriel version of ‘Mercy Street’ though. Just listening to this track lets you know to expect infidelity, cliffhangers and teenagers with “issues”. The track feels just a little insipid and self-conscious, like while it was being recorded everyone involved was a bit unsure about having their names attached to it.
Iconic? There is no doubt about it. For better or worse, Shortland Street (and its musical output) is synonymous with New Zealand.
Musicianship? There’s some flanger-style distortion going on, and what appears to be the sound effects that accompanied Windows Movie Maker.
How has it dated? About as well as a Nokia ringtone. While at the time I’m sure it was ‘edgy’, the thin and abstract lyrics – “If you want to find a way of searching for another world, it’s hard to see, Shortland St” – haven’t helped its cause.
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