This week, I’ll share two lists of musical works that resonated with me during 2015. This one highlights my favorite television music cues this year. Music’s mediation within visual storytelling has long fascinated me, along with the work that goes into it. Here, I reflect on a handful of sequences that effectively brought song and scene together (spoiler: 80s pop music is apparently a currency I share with today’s music supervisors). It’s not a comprehensive or ranked list, though I do kick things off with my favorite TV moment of the year.
Also, tune in later this week for a rundown of my favorite albums of 2015.
“Looking for the Promised Land”
(Sister Sledge, “Lost In Music”)
To paraphrase Raymond Williams, Looking is boring the way culture is ordinary. During its second season premiere, Looking’s main characters take a trip. Within the episode, they roll at an outdoor rave tucked in the redwoods. But since this lyrical dramedy about a Bay Area-based friend group used fate as an organizing principle to investigate gay shame, family, gentrification, and the spectre of AIDS in post-closet America, it makes sense that their dancing shapes the arc of Looking’s final season (HBO’s consolation prize TV movie will air in 2016). Patrick (Jonathan Groff) kisses a boy who looks like an amalgam of his romantic rivals and bottoms against a tree for Kevin (an award-worthy Russell Tovey), who represents the accomplished life he wants but cannot provide the love he needs (#teamrichie). Dom (Murray Bartlett) hooks up with a younger man in his partner’s cabin—a shrine to the lover he buried—and wants something more. Augustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) goes night-swimming with Eddie (Daniel Franzese) and lets the current take him some place new. And Doris (Lauren Weedman) gets abducted by lesbians, signposting that her path from childhood friend Dom will diverge. With Liza Richardson’s guidance, Looking perceptively considered how music weaves into everyday life and drew from pop’s past, modern rock’s queer entries, and DFA’s dance historiography to shorthand gay male subjectivity. On 1979’s We Are Family, “Lost in Music” details Sister Sledge’s origin story. On a dance floor bathed in twinkling lights and brimming with possibility (perhaps erotic, always spiritual), it gives way to experience.
Master of None
(Spandau Ballet, “True”)
Aziz Ansari and I were both born in 1983 when this New Romantic outfit’s biggest hit scaled the pop charts. I’m glad I’ve never known a world without this song, as I enjoy crooning “listening to Marvin [Gaye] all night long” late into the evening at a karaoke bar with a drink in my hand. But this song isn’t about me. And it’s not about Aziz either, or his character Dev. Gary Kemp’s lyrics suggest that it’s about turning to Gaye’s music and controlled substances to get through writer’s block in the middle of the night. But on Master of None, “True” serves as a referent for a bittersweet period when Dev’s father Ramesh (played by Ansari’s father Shoukath) came to the United States from India, dealt with displacement and racist microaggressions at work and elsewhere, and welcomed his son into the world. “Parents” has been rightly praised for its insights into the gulf between first-generation Asian-Americans and their immigrant parents and its efforts to bridge that chasm with gentle comedy. This song, which is ultimately a plea for connection, gracefully gestures to one man’s memory and in doing so nicely captures how time and culture can bond father and son.
Doll & Em
(Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”)
In the season finale of this backstage meta-comedy, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells mount a play based on their own lives. After several missteps, disagreements, and Mortimer’s imaginary conversation with Virginia Woolf, they opt to tag out their American doppelgängers (Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood, in a meta-meta-turn that allows the show to reflect on how actresses internalize the aging process) and tread the boards as “themselves” (Doll dons a beard). It’s not a choice they fully commit to until a few minutes into their first scene, which dramatizes their first meeting at a club while tentatively dancing to this mid-80s single. What’s beautiful about this scene is how they help each other find the beat and in the process turn a song about the early flush of infatuation into an expression of women’s solidarity through a shared creative vision.
Picking a song from this crackerjack season is like finding a bin of mint-condition vinyl at a garage sale and being told “limit one per customer,” so I won’t. Fargo’s late-70s civil war between the Gerhardt clan, a Kansas City crime syndicate, and a pair of high school sweethearts boxed into an unfulfilling marriage looks like a faded Polaroid, tilts like a stack of Better Homes and Gardens, and races like a Cadillac with a body in the trunk (or through the windshield). In particular, it captures how America tussled with Vietnam’s ghost (all of the men have wounds and stories), racism’s steady hand (the African and Native American men in this story serve white men, until they don’t or can’t), and feminism’s contradictions (all of the women are saddled with expectations, with Kirsten Dunst thrashing against this circle of perfection like a bird bending steel) before voting for Reagan to displace thousands of veterans, level natural resources and urban environments, and undo policies meant to give women agency over their bodies and parity in the workplace. The period soundtrack, which boasts cuts from Cris Williamson, The Dramatics, and Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, completes the picture. In particular, “Fear and Trembling” makes great use of Devo’s perverse Americana to demonstrate the hazards of “Midwestern nice” as one career criminal initiates another at a donut shop and the penultimate episode ramps up the suspense of peak-performance Bokeem Woodbine’s drive to the Motor Motel to collect a body that won’t be there when he arrives to Cymande’s coiled, elegant funk.
You’re The Worst
(Still Corners, “Don’t Fall In Love” and “Beginning to Blue”)
Sorry, “New Phone, Who Dis?” You are a real song in You’re the Worst’s storyworld and an excellent vehicle for a sharp Odd Future parody and Kether Donohue’s boundless comedic talents (see you and Carly Rae on Grease Live, grrrl). But the songs that best capture the season’s tone are two reverb-heavy tracks from this British two-piece that wrap the big mid-season reveal in a fog evocative of a lead character’s mental state. Early in the season, scrappy music publicist Gretchen Cutler (in an award-worthy turn from Aya Cash) began sneaking out of her boyfriend Jimmy’s house shortly after they moved in together. It took a few episodes to reveal where she was going, which prompted speculation that she was cheating. My theory: Gretchen was hyperballading [v., etym. Björk, to perform a series of idiosyncratic and potentially self-destructive rituals in order to affirm your independence as part of a couple]. Here, Jimmy (Chris Geere) trails her and finds her sobbing in her car while playing Snake on her phone. In the next episode, Gretchen reveals her history with clinical depression and the rest of the season focused on her battle with care and grace. That it’s still a romantic comedy is impressive. That it manages to broaden romantic comedy’s parameters by investigating what it means to love or be loved through those circumstances is something even better.
Show Me a Hero
(Whitney Houston, “I Want to Dance With Somebody”)
I can wave away turf war criticism against using Freehold’s bard to score a historical drama about the fallout of Yonkers civil servants’ desegregation efforts at the turn of the 90s. Former Mayor Nick Wasicsko probably didn’t listen to that much Springsteen, but “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Brilliant Disguise” work as leitmotif. The issue with Hero’s soundtrack is balance. As Emily Nussbaum put it, “Springsteen dominates, while hip-hop leaks through doors.” That’s somewhat intentional. Hero’s biggest contribution to contemporary discourse is its attention to how black and Latin women incur the burden of racist misperceptions around crime and poverty as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and widows who struggle to find safe homes for their families. This development comes to fruition in the last installment, but even the use of Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” privileges the perspective of a white Yonkers resident who originally opposed desegregation. So I’ll recognize a scene in episode two where Wasicsko, desperate for his white constituents’ approval, nurses a drink as Houston’s 1987 hit plays in the background. It offers atmospheric detail and a rare potential connection between a needy politician and the community he’s actually serving, if he could see past his ambition.
(Lady Gaga, “Edge of Glory”)
Anyone who’s ever lived through college (or camp, or childhood) knows that exhilarating moment when you finally have the entire apartment to yourself. This dance sequence also sets up Abbi as season two’s protagonist, with Ilana serving as her Tyler Durden.
“Sand Hill Shuffle”
(Run the Jewels, “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1”)
Credit music is kind of a cheat, but Run the Jewels are to Pied Piper’s crunch time what the Geto Boys were to Michael Bolton’s commute. And this song nicely sets the tone for the season’s central conflict. It fades in as Pied Piper founder Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) listens to Hooli CEO Gavin Belson’s eulogy for a colleague and overwhelms the diegesis as he reads over a letter notifying him that his start-up is being sued by the search engine giant for intellectual property theft. In the tech industry, you don’t DDT ‘em in mausoleums. You lawyer up.
Despite the aims of this blog, there exists an impossibility: I can’t keep up with everything that goes on in popular music. I try to winnow down the aggregate by focusing on women and girls (and sometimes some relevant men and boys, but usually in the periphery). But some things get lost in the proverbial mix. Tonight I thought I’d focus on two artists I’m starting to get into, thanks to my neighbor David and Kristen at Act Your Age.
First up, tUnE-yArDs. When I saw the cover for BiRd-BrAiNs, I dismissed the act out of hand. Surely this is some kind of indie white boy band who is too in love with their sense own irony. Maybe they do dance music, but in quotes. Ho hum. I dance for real.
But actually, Merrill Garbus is the woman behind a solo project called tUnE-yArDs and specifically picked the name to be annoying. You can listen to old fogey rock critic Greil Marcus espouse his opinions on her work here. You can also play the clip below, which shows the singer performing “Hatari.”
I have some thoughts of my own. I think it’s interesting that Garbus is being lumped in with a spate of new artists who embrace lo-fi (note: a lot of people approach the term as a subgenre; I think of it more as a recording philosophy that eschews state-of-the-art technology for outdated, often analog equipment and favors using domestic spaces to double as studios).
But, I have trouble with a white woman weaving African music (specifically from Kenya and the Congo) into her sound after studying abroad during college. I don’t know much about the Garbus family’s social standing, but there’s definitely the risk of world music’s cultural poaching here. Some folks, like my partner, might find her race more troubling when hearing her voice, which seems to betray both her race and age. I feel a bit weird about it too, but I also like the richness of her tonal quality. This might help me come around to the prospect of a live puppet show, which I’m also on the fence about. The grooves and her ear for unexpected melodies along with intersting harmonic and rhythmic shifts help. I’d like to see her in a live setting to see how all of this comes together. SXSW?
Also: Beach House. Man, have people talked them up. Dudes, mainly — some of whom seemed a little too preoccupied with vocalist Victoria Legrand’s Nico-esque vocals, making The Velvet Underground’s influence a bit too obvious. So I’ve more or less avoided them, confident that they aren’t going anywhere and I’ll get to them eventually. That said, I do really love the music video for “Master of None” off their self-titled debut, and like the song as well.
Their third release, Teen Dream, comes out next week. Kristen gave it a thumbs-up, which was enough for me. As Michael Katzif points out, the new album has a lighter, dreamier sound. At times, the album reminds me of Kate Bush and 80s-era Fleetwood Mac (“Norway” boasts a guitar line that sounds quite a bit like “Gypsy”). I’ve taken for granted the number of times Beach House have made it down to Austin. I hope I get to check them out real soon.