Sunday, December 16, 2007

If you've got a heart, then Gumby's a part of you

For two days this week, I actually listened to something on the radio besides NPR. A local station was broadcasting TV show theme songs.

It was amazing. Avengers, Dark Shadows, Facts of Life, Peter Gunn, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Davy Crockett, Soap, Hawaiian Eye. There were songs I completely didn't recognize, songs I knew every note of but couldn't place, but mostly there were songs that were instantly familiar from the first note or two.

It was incredible. I couldn't turn it off. I first tuned in Wednesday afternoon on my drive home from work, and wanted to sit in my car listening. Thursday morning, I found the station streaming on the web, but eventually I had to switch off because I couldn't concentrate on work.

These songs are perfect little gems of culture. Listening to them one after the other, you become aware of just how much talent and energy goes into them. A minute's worth of music to accomplish so much: to invoke mood, to explain a premise, to establish expectations.
    Nameless studio musicians in tight, jazzy harmonies inform us they've got a gorilla for sale, or that Cathy and Patty are cousins.

    Smooth, earnest voices assure a young woman in the city that she might just make it after all, or that there are places where everybody knows your name.

    Balladeers introduce us to vigilante loners: rebels, knights without armor, the rippin'est, roarin'est, fightin'est men.

    And wonderful instrumentals: the syncopated jazz themes of impossible missions, bass-heavy intros to wacky precinct stations and night courts, synthesized evocations of the limits of space and imagination.
I happened to be tuned in Thursday while driving to lunch. At noon, the theme from The Rockford Files abruptly cut off, a new station was identified, and Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio" began playing.
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio
I know the TV theme songs were just a stunt, a silly placeholder designed to lure a broad demographic to the frequency. I know that it wouldn't be long before I would tire of the nostalgia and the culture-critic impulses such nostalgia always raises in me. Still, since Thursday afternoon, I've felt a sting of disappointment and loss every time I get in my car and face the same choices I have every day. Another modern rock station is just a tired variation on everything else, but for a few days, we were listening to something rare and new.

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