The ’70s ended nearly 39 years ago, but That ’70s Show began 20 years ago today. Throughout its eight seasons and 200 episodes, the series exemplified the “Me” Decade’s stereotypes, cultural prejudices, and appreciation for shag carpet car interiors. It’s more of a superficial reading of the ’70s, yet succeeds in its timeless embodiment of suburban teenage boredom.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Donna, Jackie, Kelso, Hyde, and Fez basically just hang out in Eric’s basement, talking about sex and rock ‘n’ roll while eating popsicles. They’re trying to figure out how to grow up amidst the void of Midwestern nothingness. Its good-natured humdrum grew to cult success, becoming Fox’s only 1998 debut to survive cancelation. By season four, Fox got cocky and released the spinoff That ’80s Show. It bombed immediately but is definitely maybe worth your time, if only to see Dennis from Always Sunny as a Reagan-era cousin of Eric Forman.
On That ’70s Show, Eric and his gang are typical burnouts defined by the music of the time. Disco sucks, and so does Little River Band. Led Zeppelin reigns supreme. From seasons five through eight, every episode is named after songs of ‘70s rock stardom. KISS, Ted Nugent, and Isaac Hayes made appearances as themselves. So did Alice Cooper, playing Dungeons & Dragons in one of Eric’s dreams. For a show centered around the obvious stereotypes of the decade, naturally, That ’70s Show’s soundtrack is chock-full of then-mainstream, now-classic rock. But surprisingly they don’t just play the hits; they sing the hits, karaoke style.
The cast of That ’70s Show are not good singers. Laura Prepon’s Donna is probably the best, but Topher Grace’s Eric, with his lovable awkwardness, injects the most emotion. He really puts his whole body into it. Their sing-along moments are commonplace and horribly cheesy in a so-bad-it’s-good type of way. But they end up being nothing less than wholly relatable. Here are seven of the best, corniest, most endearing musical moments from a sitcom that never took itself too seriously.
Cheap Trick – “In The Street”
The theme song is iconic. Everyone’s packed into the Vista Cruiser, dancing, laughing for no reason, banging their heads up and down. It’s raucous and giddy classic rock and a rare moment in the show where the cast lip-syncs instead of doing their usual karaoke sing-along.
The first season featured Todd Griffin covering Big Star’s “In The Street” from the band’s 1972 debut #1 Record. After the show’s surprise success, Cheap Trick were hired to record the more polished version heard from season two onward. The power-pop band made their mark by replacing Griffin’s final “Whoa yeah!” with the “We’re all alright!” reprise from their 1978 classic “Surrender.”
Every time the show aired, Big Star’s Alex Chilton pocketed $70 worth of songwriting royalties. In a 2000 Rolling Stone interview, Chilton referred to the series as That $70 Show. He appreciated the irony, but considering he’s never even heard Cheap Trick’s “In The Street” cover, he was clearly not a fan of the sitcom.
There’s a lot of debate on who really screams “Hello Wisconsin!” at the end. I always thought it was Kelso (Ashton Kutcher). Apparently for all of season one it’s Hyde (Danny Masterson). Some people think Eric says it, which is just bogus. And Cheap Trick lead singer Robin Zander gets a vote because the official soundtrack version awards him credit.
I’ve tried to listen to “In The Street” in other contexts, but it just feels wrong. Maybe that’s the test of a good theme song; it becomes forever ruined for casual, unassociated listening. I only want to hear “In The Street” if I’m watching the show or if I ever for some reason end up inside a Vista Cruiser. And that goes for any of the three versions, although Cheap Trick’s packs the hardest punch of nostalgia.
ABBA – “Fernando”
That ’70s Show stuck to their usual Zeppelin rocks, disco sucks regimen. But sometimes, thanks to Jackie (Mila Kunis) and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama), the gang caught disco fever and let some glitzy pop slip in. There’s this moment at the end of season one’s “That Disco Episode” where Eric does his best to sing ABBA’s “Fernando.” This is circa Eric and Donna’s first kiss, so he’s really trying to woo her with this. Out of nowhere he starts reciting the lyrics, then bounds into the chorus. His body is so lanky that he just sorta jiggles around. Donna joins. They sound terrible, and the backing music doesn’t even help. Ultimately, it’s a charming display of unabashed youth.
Steve Miller Band – “The Joker”
This one’s right out of Fez’s nightmares. Eric, Donna, Kelso, and Hyde are sitting in the circle making fun of Fez and eating all his candy. But then they decide to hit him where it really hurts and sing without him. The relaxed, sun-faded rumbling of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” is unmistakable, and here that opening riff feels sinister. It’s a smiley, sassy rendition that turns into a psychedelic, glow-in-the-dark dance number. The dream ends with six men dressed in a white using their bodies to form the shape of a peace sign. It’s the highlight of season four’s memorably campy “That ’70s Musical” episode.
Neil Sedaka – “Bad Blood”
After a long bring-your-kid-to-work day at the hospital, Eric is expectedly drained by the emotional trauma of sickness and death. His mom, Kitty, deals with the sadness the way any grown woman in the ’70s would: belting Neil Sedaka and falling into a careless stupor.
“Bad Blood” is best when you shout it. It’s a searing diss track — the line “The bitch is in her smile” pretty much sums it up. The blood theme is fitting for Kitty’s nurse duties. Her speaking voice already hovers around shrill, so when she sings, it becomes a stinging shriek. She doesn’t try to make it sound good, and for that reason it heals. She easily ropes Eric into her determined bliss.
Paul & Paula – “Hey Paula”
Paul & Paula’s original “Hey Paula” (which you might have read about recently on The Number Ones) is a fleeting pop ballad that sounds like air, all gooey-eyed but sanitized. In Eric’s sloppy house party rendition, he dirties it up with a drunken charm, cleverly adjusting the lyrics to feature the name of his own beloved Donna. He rolls around on a grand piano singing into a silver candlestick. But his theatrical display of love, rife with voice cracks, doesn’t get near enough appreciation it deserves considering Jackie’s house has caught on fire and the fire department is on their way.
The Turtles – “Happy Together”
Red sings in this one, and it calls to mind that cringeworthy moment from Mamma Mia! where Colin Firth serenades with such passionate volition. It’s another scene from “That ’70s Musical,” where Fez, after being bluntly criticized by his tight-ass music teacher — played by the Who frontman Roger Daltrey — dreams himself a part of the Forman family. The gang breaks into a joyously mediocre cover of the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” ending up in the driveway effeminately dancing alongside glittering batons.
Blue Swede – “Hooked On A Feeling”
Opting out of the boring establishing shot to move between scenes, That ’70s Show always goes for whatever is most entertaining, delving into some of the aesthetic fads of the decade. The transitions usually involve groovy green screen backgrounds in front of which the characters jump on trampolines or dance or play an air guitar.
The pilot episode was a bit more explorative. Kelso, Eric, and Hyde suck the air out of variously shaded red balloons then sing the intro to Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling,” a song later brought back to prominence by Guardians Of The Galaxy. It’s a gaudy, absolutely high-pitched rendering that makes me want to hear many more songs sung under the influence of helium.