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Sunday, December 15, 2019

“Morning Edition” And The Theme Music From Nowhere

Theme music for a radio show is like graphics and fonts and paper format for a magazine. Music establishes the neighborhood, telegraphs what’s going on, reinforces the mood, and establishes the emotional tone. It’s the glue between stories and episodes and voices. It’s a strand that instantly lets you know where you are when you tune in.

For 40 years since NPR’s “Morning Edition” launched, it’s had the same theme music:

Composed by BJ Leiderman in 1979 at the age of 23 while still a student at American University, the music has embedded itself in the ears of millions through several generations of listeners. And though it’s been updated and rearranged and “freshened” many times, it’s been surprisingly durable.

Until now.

This week, NPR introduced a new theme for the show, workshopped and constructed by a music house by the name of Man Made Music, which declares on its website “We Score Experiences”:

Executive producer Kenya Young told The New York Times that “I wanted a sound and a mood and a tone and a feel and a vibe all mixed in one.” That’s a heavy lift.

Reaction from some listeners hasn’t been positive, with listeners mocking the vaguely techy electronically-produced score:

In sound and feel, it joins Canada’s CBC:

and the UK’s BBC:

All these themes are more look-and-feel than substance or distinction.

The ME theme opens with the synthetic protein of an electronically constricted wah-wah backed by a faux-strummy guitar-ish backbeat intended to elevate your metabolism. Just as your mouth starts to register the acrid chemical aftertaste, what’s this – a warm reassuring piano enters with hopeful chords to suggest strength and familiarity. Optimism. The get-up-and-go! electronic pulses build underneath until about the 25-second mark when the music takes a turn towards the familiar Leiderman Morning Edition chord progression, the old theme finally bouncing through in a loopy sonic parody. What sounds like a crowd (us?) clapping on the beat to say what – we’re all in this together and we approve? Finally, the old theme melody bubbles up to end on a rousing upbeat note. Which quickly evanesces in a calorie-free starburst of feels-good.

The sound and feel? The aural manifestation of what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” an idea advanced by philosopher Thomas Nagel in his 1986 book The View From Nowhere.

There’s nothing authentic or real or substantive in any of this music. It ventures no point of view, no geography, no anything to wrap your ear around. It is devoid of authentic culture. It suggests rather than tells. It feels instead of proposes. It is, in fact, exactly what Young ordered: “a sound and a mood and a tone and a feel and a vibe all mixed in one” absent any nutritional value or originality.

The Times described a process of composing by committee in which ideas were arrived at and workshopped until the right tone was achieved. A contrast, I suspect to the 23-year-old Leiderman’s approach 40 years ago.

Times change. And it was probably time for a new theme. But if theme music represents the show its in, what does this music-from-nowhere say about the stories Morning Edition aspires to make?

Image: Pixabay

Douglas McLennan
Douglas McLennanhttps://www.artsjournal.com
Doug is a longtime arts journalist, and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com, he's frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works with a number of arts organizations nationally.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I can kind of see what they were thinking: there’s a faster, more propulsive sense to the new theme, as opposed to the sense of calm, soft spoken authority conveyed by the original. It’s more modern, snappier. More Twitter, less NY Review of Books. That said, the old theme is objectively a better fit than the new one. I really don’t need my cosmopolitan educated liberal NPR catnip delivered to me at the frenetic cadences of speed freaks or Wall Street traders. And anyway, about 30 seconds in the new theme does basically devolve into grocery store Muzak.

    My consistent reaction to stuff like this is making me think I’m turning into a Burkean traditionalist. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he mumbled to no one in particular as his trembling hands spilled his spoonful of soup into his lap.

  2. Some things perhaps are better left unchanged. There can be a sense of continuity and resonance to keeping a familiar theme.

  3. This reminded me of the scene from James Brooks’ “Broadcast News,” where they were listening to a newly-commissioned theme for the evening news — the composers touting their “big finish!”

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