If you happened to catch last week’s Screened Plays, you’ll know that we discussed
the importance of television theme songs and, in particular, how they should be
viewed in the context of the audience they reach and the generation in which they
existed. Theme songs are great windows to the soul of a television audience, but the
thing is that most are pretty limited by their genre. That is to say, most television
theme songs say a lot about an audience’s values and tastes, or the subject of the TV
show itself… and that’s it.
But there are some television show theme songs that transcend their show’s scope
and somehow manage to be appropriate for whatever music style is current at the
time. Enter: The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
Often pointed to as 90s-Nickelodeon gold (and as the reigning 90s-nostalgia
magnet), The Adventures of Pete and Pete captured the essence of what it was like
to come of age in a safe, reliable, and comfortable suburban community. There
really weren’t many heavy-hitting issues 90s era kids had to deal with—the whole
gluten allergy thing really hadn’t taken off yet— so the show instead focused on the
mystical quirkiness to be found in an everyday American community.
This framework alone made The Adventures of Pete and Pete stand out from other
shows in its field (i.e. network). But the show’s creators seemed to really declare the
show’s uniqueness by introducing it with a theme song that sounded nothing
like the standard expected fare airing on other shows. The theme song was bold,
catchy, and so alternative 90s. Most importantly, it could work as well outside of the
show as it did for the show. I cannot think of any one theme song that’s more radio
friendly and relevant to that music era than “Hey Sandy,” performed by Polaris.
Now, I know you may be thinking that the Friends theme song could give Pete and
Pete’s a run for its money. But consider this: “Hey Sandy” reached an audience of
kids. The theme song sounded like the adult music they heard on the radio—either
at their friend’s house, on the soft rock station playing in their parents car, or on
MTV—but was given to them through an age-appropriate vessel—an after school
TV show. Young viewers were given the chance to feel cool, current, and grown up,
even if they weren’t any of the above.
Even the way the theme song was presented offered another chance for the
audience to feel cool. Instead of being music that aired over pre-recorded clips,
Polaris themselves played their song, with their instruments, wearing plaid and
other 90s-alt clothing, on the front yard in an average, All-American neighborhood.
It almost feels like a music video, but not one shot in LA or New York. Instead, it’s as
if Polaris just showed up on the Wrigleys’ lawn one day and played a show for
you and your friends… something that could only happy in the mystical quirkiness of
Pete and Pete.
This song tapped into an audience that was on the cusp of becoming adults, while
still (maybe not so secretly) holding on to their childhoods. Every adolescent faces
this moment, whether they want to or not. The theme song to Pete and Pete succeeded in
bridging the coming-of-age gap; it gave kids something adult-sounding, something
to prove their faux-coolness to their friends while also making it okay to enjoy
weird, juvenile things. And once the gap was bridged, it could find its place in a
modern listening library without becoming as tiresome as repeated viewings of the
show itself could be.
When you get down to it, the real secret to this theme song’s cross-genre success is
that kids always want to feel like they’re grown up. That is, until they are grown up,
and then they want to listen to music that makes them feel young again.