No band ever suffered over a song the public well and truly disliked. Market forces tend to solve the problem in that the audience dislikes a track, rejects it, doesn’t buy it or the album it came from and the whole thing goes away. The harm it has done to the artist is, in the long view, minor. They can go on to do other songs and albums and have as much a shot at redeeming themselves as anyone.
The song doesn’t even have to be bad, either. It can be a good song that simply becomes so overexposed, it is impossible to hear that artist’s music without the looming shadow of that song mucking things up. This scenario calls to mind Wang Chung, the one-time art-pop band that could not escape the gravitational pull of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.”
But there are other songs that do damage to a band and a brand, and it was probably easily avoided. Take The Rembrandts — Danny Wilde and Phil Solem — who had solid credits for a classic pop band sound with two albums under their belt (the self-titled debut in 1990 and the album Untitled in 1992, respectively). That goes back even farther, to the early 1980s, when Wilde and Solem were part of the underappreciated power-pop band Great Buildings. But despite The Rembrandts scoring a major hit out of the box with “Just The Way It Is, Baby,” they weren’t necessarily household names.
All that changed when they were called upon to help with a theme song for a new NBC TV series. They call it Friends. The rumor mill says that the series producers initially wanted R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” as the theme, but the band refused, probably imagining their song being pumped out prefacing a sitcom for at least a year. Those producers were looking for a bright and bouncy jangle-pop sound reminiscent of mid-period Beatles or The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”
They got The Rembrandts, who were eminently equipped to provide a catchy, slightly retro sound. This is probably where the whole thing falls down on the large spectrum, because the duo works with Friends producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman, Kauffman’s husband composer Michael Skloff, and songwriter Allee Willis. This kind of band-for-hire/written-by-committee setup has long been the recipe for problems, and one need only look to the lyrics to find it. The glib, scratching-for-rhymes wordplay might have been clever to this council at the time, but retrospectively is toe curling.
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s d.o.a.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
And it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year
This is not a pop song. This is, in every respect, a sitcom theme song sitting comfortably next to the “Theme from Perfect Strangers” and the “Theme from Full House” or the “Theme from Family Matters,” cousins in banality. And still, the Friends phenomenon was unshakeable. People gravitated to “the gang” and, after many years knocking about the fringes of sitcom hell, Jennifer Aniston becomes a breakout star. The “Rachel haircut” becomes an accepted trend. The numbers for the episode where Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel get together go through the roof. This show was going to be on for a long time.
About ten years, in fact.
Initially, it was a boon to The Rembrandts. They recorded a longer version of the track, mostly out of public demand. A radio station did a three-minute edit of the theme looping it over and over, sources straight from the TV, by request during those first seasons. Their “official” version appeared on their third album called L.P. Perhaps if the show didn’t go on as long as it did, this wouldn’t have had such a negative impact. Ten years of a song that was not truly meant to be a song in the traditional sense, played every week and sometimes five nights a week when the show entered the syndication market mid-run, is a long time. R.E.M. only had to deal with one season of Chris Elliot’s sitcom Get A Life to run out “Stand” on a weekly basis. Not signing up “Shiny Happy People,” if that urban legend is true, was a smart move.
Let’s not take anything away from Wilde and Solem though. They are to this day accomplished pop music creators. The Great Buildings album, as much a product of its time as it may be, is filled with pleasant, punchy earworms. The first two Rembrandts outings are quite skillful. Their personal compositions exceed “I’ll Be There For You” on every level, but because of the level of ubiquity the song had, few are going to know that. Friends is still syndicated incessantly in multiple countries. Almost every member of the cast has had a struggle to break free from roles that, for once rightly, could be identified as iconic.
…and that song has adhered to The Rembrandts like stink on a dead skunk. Google the band’s name and the association is immediate. It is in the first few lines of their Wikipedia entry. Ask anyone on the street to name a Rembrandts song and they will regularly ask you what you’re talking about. Clap four beats in quick succession…clap/clap/clap/clap!…and they know it is “I’ll be There For You.” I’ve often wondered if the band regrets the decision. The residuals from all those airings of the show has to take the sting out of their choice a little bit (or a lot, depending on the take). Yet, for all the effort of slaving over a composition, lobbing lyrics back and forth, pondering whether “that line is too cheesy,” their place in history is reserved for them by one of the cheesiest hits the Nineties ever spawned.