Theme Music Omnibus, part 1

Ahh, the theme music of public radio. I’m not talking about actual songs with lyrics like the exhausted one that opens Prairie Home Companion, I’m talking about the music that begins each show and plays behind the front end teasers.

Through repetition they become quite ingrained.

Can you identify which theme this is?

(slowly)

Da da, da da

Da da, da da

Da da, da da

Dum dum DUM!!

If you are a true public radio-head like I am I’m sure you pegged that as the spritely and lovable opening music of All Things Considered, composed originally by Don “even NPR can’t spell my name right” Voegeli. (Apparently they have now corrected his name on that page, surely as a result of this post. You’re welcome, Mr. Voegeli, Planet Earth, and the concept of truth in general!)

That theme has become jazzier and a bit more flatulent over the years, and every time they tinker with it I initially despise the new version, then I get used to it, and finally I begin to enjoy it. I’ve realized something: it’s not that I like the music qua music, it’s that over time I simply develop a positive Pavlovian association between the music and the content of the show.

There, see, I said something nice. Read it again, it’s in there, I promise.

Morning Edition, meanwhile, has an opening tune by the prolific giant of public radio music BJ Leiderman that sails dangerously close to the shoals of elevator music, especially when the guitar takes over the melody, but again it’s saved by sentimental attachment.

My favorite Leiderman work is another slightly muzak-ish one he created for Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the super-human tightness of the final section, heard at the end of each episode. Dah-dahh, dah da-da da-daaaahhhhhhh *bleeng*.

The Diane Rehm show has quite a theme, heavy on astonishingly athletic piano. It’s bombastic as all heck. The left hand does this constant “bing-bong, bing bong” as if a town crier is calling everyone to the square to announce the eminent arrival of the sovereign or the black plague. Listen for it next time you turn on the show. It finishes with a show-off complex run up the entire keyboard. I always picture the musician falling off the bench unconscious after the effort. I once heard Diane say as an aside that she’d never change the theme, and I agree.

Finally, in honor of their recent win of a coveted “baggie” award, I’d like to bring up the creepy and disturbing ditty that begins each edition of On The Media, written by “bassist/composer” Ben Alison.

But first I have a question. Why are they always so careful to say “bassist/composer Ben Allison” at the end of every episode? Which is it? Bassist or Composer? Pick a side, sir, we’re at war!

He must have instructed them to credit him just this way, which implies he’s ashamed of being a composer and just wants to play bass all the time. His parents must love that. “It’s not enough you want to try to make a living in music, son, but you want to be a bassist? Don’t tell your mother!”

Or maybe he just thinks chicks dig instrumentalists. But if he’s going to force the show to list non-composing traits and abilities in his composing credit, why stop with bassist? Why not “our theme was written by bassist/composer/dog lover/morning person Ben Allison.”

Sorry, I’ll now return to the topic at hand, the music itself. What are they trying to say? What atmosphere are they trying to create? I really want to know what they asked for from Ben and how they felt about the results.

Maybe they said “Give us something like All Things Considered, only, you know, for media. A tune that ‘All Media Considered’ would have. Or ‘All Things Media.’ See what I mean?” If they said that then it clearly didn’t work out. In fact, if that’s what they said I hope that Ben’s “bassist/composer” credit is all he got in return.

But maybe it was more like this:

“Okay, Ben, what we want…uhmm, Ben, maybe you could put down the bass for one minute while I’m talking to you…thank you…anyway, what we want, and I think I can safely say “we” – though I haven’t actually spoken to Brooke about this yet – what we want is a kind of slow, melodically disturbing horn section that makes you feel the way you do when you see someone you recognize striding purposefully toward you, but then you realize they aren’t who you thought they were, and in fact they’re kind of scary looking, and they’re coming right over to you and you suddenly realize there’s no one else around and you start to try to come up with some kind of an escape plan, and then they’re right up on you and it’s too late, and you’re feeling light-headed with panic, but then they just walk right by you, and you just stand there wondering what happened and why you got so freaked out. You know that feeling, right? What’s that? Yes, you can play bass in it.”

If they said that then it worked out perfectly, and I hope Ben was remunerated well enough to get his parents off his case and purchase whatever the Bass equivalent of a Stradivarius is.

I am now suspicious of and disoriented by the popular media, and for that I guess I’m grateful to OTM, and, more specifically, grateful to the music of bassist/composer/cavity fighter Ben Allison.

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3 thoughts on “Theme Music Omnibus, part 1

  1. Thank you for the Baggie. We shall indeed cherish it. But if you would just please send us a new one. I left the last one on the x-ray belt at LaGuardia.

    By the way, as to the provenance of the OTM “melody,” what you deduced is pretty much correct.

  2. The theme music for “All Things Considered” is, sadly, why I can’t listen to the show. My Pavlovian response to ATC was developed as a child when my parents would blast the show for hours. Given the excitement ATC holds for most kids, “da da, da da” became an instant recipe for a nap. Once established, this response has never changed, and I can be a real hazard on the roads if I accidentally tune into ATC. If you live in a town filled with the 30-something children of the semi-elite, I would advise staying off the road at the top of the hour (and seemingly every two minutes after that), during the 6 or 7 hours your local NPR affiliate probably devotes to ATC.

  3. Re: OTM theme.
    It’s like you were there. Just one insignificant correction- It was my idea.
    I like creepy and disturbing. You would understand if you met me.

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