Look, let’s cut to the quick: this is a list. It’s a list on the Internet. We’re not writing Ulysses here. Are we on the same page? Good, because hyperbole on the Internet can drive a person insane and I hope this article isn’t called “The 5 Best and 5 Worst Cartoon Theme Songs” or something like that. If we went and really did the BEST cartoon theme songs this would just be the Disney Afternoon openings in a row, and we’ve all heard those a thousand times. I want to explore lesser-heralded cartoon themes that beat some real garbage ones at their own game.
So: here are some awful, awful cartoon theme songs. I have carried their burden (every note and every word of every single one) in my head for years, so thank you for being the priest I confess my sins to as the weight of these horrors tumbles out into your ears. Alongside each theme, I have placed another one that I feel does a great job of whatever the terrible one attempted to do, as a palate cleanser.
Pro Stars was a cartoon about Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson (because he played two sports so they didn’t have to spring for a fourth likeness, right?) fighting crime and helping kids. It was truly bizarre, not least of all in that it featured live-action intros every episode. Michael Jordan looked like the few lines they got from him were filmed while he was on the phone.
In the early days, the theme song was a straight up parody of “We Will Rock You” by Queen. That was pretty bad, certainly, but the later theme was the one that burned itself into my mind. “PRO STARS; SHOW STARS!” they’d say; then a man would ‘rap’ about one of the Pro Stars. It still bore a bit of a resemblance to Queen, sure, but it stood its own two feet as a uniquely brutal piece of music.
There are episodes of this on YouTube if you’re truly interested in watching the whole thing — however, I think the intro wherein Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky BOTH press a button to make rockets come out of their shoes indicates how much thought was put into this series and how little of your time it’s worth. That being said, I’m not sure how ’90s nostalgia has overlooked the throbbing font at the beginning of Pro Stars that describe what’s about to follow as “Hot”, “Jammin’” ,“Cool” and “Slammin’“.
THE GOOD: JAMES BOND JR.
James Bond Jr. was not a good show. Little kid me thought that and I’m sure it hasn’t aged well. Being older does lend an odd appeal: knowing that the creators recognized they couldn’t make the main character James Bond’s son (he is his nephew) because A) you are then exposing kids to the central idea of James Bond as a womanizer and B) more disturbingly, your cartoon’s hero is now the son of a character who longed for “…the sweet tang of rape.”
But the theme, oh, the theme is great — it strives for something more exactly where Pro Stars gives in. The easiest thing to do with the James Bond Jr. theme and intro would be to do a classic Bond-style opening, much as ripping off “We Will Rock You” gets you out of the studio by 5. James Bond Jr. actually psychs you out by opening with that twangy Bond guitar then throwing it away immediately! There’s no Jr. turning to the camera aperture and firing a gun, no smoke drifting up from the bottom of the screen, there’s just a solid action-adventure theme that actually makes the show look good (which is definitely isn’t).
Sing it with me:” JAMES BOND JUNIOR CHASES SCUUUUUMMMM…”
This one is especially raw. This one is like someone targeted me and knew how to press my buttons, and that ‘someone’ is the five-star load who cashed his $40.00 cheque for writing this theme for his brother-in-law’s production company.
There are too many sins here to properly pick apart without this ballooning into an essay-length ramble about the desecration of Tove Jansson’s seminal works. Let’s look at the broad strokes, shall we?
1) The laziest rhymes this side of Billy Bragg’s “Sexuality”.
2) A direct reference to this being a television show (“they’re here for you on your tee vee”).
3) One-take vocals that… ehhhh… PROBABLY should have been vetoed if anyone possessed a single care).
4) Unnecessary repetition (“there with the Moomins/there with the Moomins/there with the Moomins/there with the Moomins”).
5) OVER 30 seconds of padding in 1:30 of music via the singing of “ba ba ba ba ba ba” over and over.
The Moomin books contain an unparalleled sense of wonder, character and tone rarely seen in children’s literature or indeed literature at all. It’s a marvelous world to inhabit. Tove Jansson’s impact is immeasurable, and I find her works to be among the truly staggering bodies of artistic output the world has ever seen. But — they also led to the creation of this song. So, you see, there’s a strong argument that her entire body of work should just be Fahrenheit 451’d.
THE GOOD: Teddy Ruxpin
God damn it, how am I sitting here talking ill of Moomin and talking up Teddy Ruxpin? This theme does everything right. It has a whimsical, dreamy adventure quality that perfectly suits the Moominvalley. The Teddy Ruxpin theme is actually just a better theme song than the Moomin one FOR the Moomin show as-is, without any changes. To prove it to you, I doubled them up.
Go to the link, mute the Moomin theme, watch it and tell me that Teddy Ruxpin‘s theme doesn’t convey the wonder better than that other abomination. It does. In fact, I’d argue that even over its own credits it does a GREAT JOB of setting that mood. When I was young, the Teddy Ruxpin theme made me feel like anything was possible. But then it turned out it just wanted to sell me a really crappy cassette deck.
The Mega Man theme is a truly terrifying example of not giving one damn. It’s one minute long and contains eight seconds of music. To accompany this, they have one person singing “SUPER FIGHTING ROBOT… MEGA MAN!” And that’s it. To accompany it visually you have Mega Man getting built, then shit blowing up, then Mega Man casually taking down any and all other robots without batting an eye. I can’t describe this one properly to get across how lazy and horrible it is. Listening to it will do a much better job. This song is a nightmare your nostalgia is having. It hates you.
“FIGHTING SAVE THE WORLD!”
THE GOOD: COPS
This is also a theme song with minimal (i.e, no) lyrics about “fighting crime in a future time” and it is so good. There’s that John Carpenter-esque synth pulse. There’s the giant sound-effect noises over the song rather than the quiet, someone-stifling-a-sneeze explosions in Mega Man’s. There’s that awesome little guitar line that happens ONCE to break up the repetitive theme, that tone I am envious of to this day. Both intros feature a robot dog, but only one of them features a GREAT robot dog. COPS are better than Mega Man. Just this once.
2) DRAGONBALL / DRAGONBALL Z
Dragon Ball holds the honour for having the most English theme songs and not even one of them is close to being passable.
First off, you have this (apparently Canada-only?) intro:
This theme is the audio equivalent of the knockoff characters daycares puts up to avoid being sued by Disney. It’s oatmeal flavoured with water — a thin, sustaining mush that brings no joy to your life. It also has incredibly specific lyrics, and a weird wrap-around scene featuring a neon-piping movie theatre and possibly the first appearance of a drone strike.
At least by round two they got it… oh wait:
HOW MANY TIMES CAN YOU SAY BALLS IN A THEME SONG?!
Then Dragon Ball Z starts and decides why mess with a bad thing?
Thankfully, YouTube user “SuperSaiyanMewtwo7”, who is definitely over the age of 15, has put the first four themes together so you can experience five minutes of horrid. The first one is… I guess… the best. It’s a case of looking good next to your competition. The second theme has a Macho Man-type character with a flanger and pitch-shifter saying “Zeeeeeeeeeee” and “Dragon… uhh, uhh, Dragonball Zee” a lot. Next comes a pre-programmed Nokia flip-phone ringtone styled theme. The real kicker on this one is that they leave the sound effects but those sound effects are mostly people grunting and making exertion noises.
The last one’s video is beyond crazy. It’s all red tinted and then the dragon appears and seems to be muttering indecipherable tongues. Did mothers play this theme song backwards to see if it was Satan talking to their children through a bad filter-effect riddled cartoon opening? The music here is just third-rate Kidzbop Metal. Then someone whispers “zee…. zee… zee” at the end. This… this is unsettling. I feel like this opening summoned an entity into my house.
THE GOOD: DRAGONBALL Z
Dragonball Z HAS a perfectly good theme song! They eventually used it in English but they even managed to ruin that version, so we’re talking the original, AMAZING version. “Cha-La Head Cha-La” should have been used as it was without any change and a literal lyric translation subtitled at the bottom. This song rules your life. This song tells you what to do if a dinosaur appears out of the earth, and that answer is “train it to balance on a ball.”
Oh, Hammerman. Hammerman is a glory that the world will never know again.
Hammerman lasted 13 episodes. Hammerman is the fever dream of an insane mind, someone who is so pompous and arrogant that they would greenlight and star in a show about how they are an amazing, stand-up, righteous person worthy of superpowers but would make that known via a children’s cartoon where they wore talking magical shoes. MC Hammer is like the anti-Spider-Man; with great power there must come no great responsibility because he deserves that power.
The show’s Wikipedia article described the intro as “…lengthy…” and that’s funnier than anything I can write here. It’s a mixture of footage of the real MC Hammer and his cartoon counterpart (who just happens to have Hammer’s real name) describing just how Hammer came to have these great powers. How did he gain them? Well, obviously he was ‘given magical shoes by a hip-hop Motown dude.’ There are some truly cringe-worthy lines, chief among them “so gramps opened up the bag and took out the magical shoes/he set them on the ground and they soon began to groove.” Hammer also rhymes “Man” with “Man” in a song where he already says “Hammerman” a thousand times. There are some weird pacing issues on top of this, where sometimes he waits a beat longer than in subsequent or previous verses. It’s a car wreck, and you are gonna slow your ass down and look at it just like everyone else.
The clincher here for me though, the thing that makes this just god-awful, isn’t even in the music — it’s the visual cue where the real MC Hammer and Hammerman throw it back to one another as they say “Hammer” and “Hammerman”, like a one-man-and-his-cartoon-doppelgänger circle jerk of self-importance.
THE GOOD: CONAN THE ADVENTURER
Conan the Adventurer is my preferred Conan. I used to get up at 5:30 every morning to watch it… well, I got up at 5 to watch Hilarious House of Frightenstein, then Conan was on. This theme is also a boastful, proud story of how Conan came to be and what he means to do (which is ‘banish serpent men who have infiltrated positions of power and are lording over the world’, so I am trying to see which name in the credits is a known pseudonym of David Icke). This theme’s crowning moment comes in the breakdown, where the voice proclaims “CONAN! The mightiest warrior EV-AH!” The Conan theme’s boastfulness, however, wins over Hammerman in three important ways: 1) It is much better; 1) It is a third party, not Conan himself, boasting of his skills and greatness; and, 3) CONAN IS NOT A REAL PERSON TALKING ABOUT HIMSELF.
There you have it. Some video links and some rambling. I hope you’ve enjoyed my over-thought analysis of trash — I know I have.