As if I needed another one, in the past year or so I’ve discovered a whole new reason to watch television.
It’s not enough to merely see Alex sweep a weeping Izzy into his arms: one of the most poignant moments in the “Grey’s Anatomy” season finale was played out to the swells of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” and the scene would have paled without Gary Lightbody’s stunning vocals. In a memorable moment from the first season of “Lost,” the sounds of Damien Rice’s “Delicate” carefully accompanied the castaways as they paced the beach dejectedly; the song came to a sudden halt, signaling that Hurley’s Walkman batteries had died.
The creators of “Grey’s Anatomy” could give a master class in the importance music plays in adding depth to the action of a scene. Whether humor or heartbreak, the emotional balance is perfectly achieved by the soundtrack; because of it, what could be a silly soap about horny doctors is elevated from mere fluff week after week due to in no small part to the songs that score their experiences. But Shonda Rhimes & co. are far from the only television producers who’ve embraced the art of music; the airwaves are chock-full of shows that have integrated musical choices into their dramatic arcs. (Rumor has it that at least 67 percent of “The O.C.”’s remaining audience is hanging on to see which new band will make it big.)
I’ve always been a bit of a music geek, but as I entered my thirties, I found that my vague dissatisfaction with the type of songs aired on my local radio stations had turned to bitter hatred: quite simply, popular music has become more and more like the kind of corporate bubble gum fluff I’d turned my back on the day I heard my first Nine Inch Nails album. Corporate ownership had taken the last “alternative” station in the DC/Baltimore market and turned it Spanish. I’d never been patient enough to become a true devotee to college radio -– too much sub-listenable crap to wade through to get to the gems -– plus, no universities have a strong enough signal to reach my apartment. And this may be a reflection of my age, but I had trouble with internet radio stations, primarily because when everything is unfamiliar, I shut down. I had no constant exposure to new music, and therefore, no connection to a series of notes, a voice above a guitar/base/drum line.
Specifically, enter the last episode of “Six Feet Under.” The series concluded with an absolutely perfect montage set to Sia’s “Breathe Me,” which you’ve probably heard a jillion times since last summer, whether in Barnes and Noble or riding in my car, but at the time, it was nothing short of stunning. It fits the visuals in a way that stretches that final moment past just another ending to another creatively intelligent show, and puts it among the most memorable finales in television history ever.
Since then, I’ve paid especially close attention to the music that’s used on television. I’m tuned into the standout background beats -– whether it’s that throbbing music on the “Amazing Race” which sounds vaguely like a rip-off of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” or the impossibly high and sweet notes that Sam Phillips hits on “Gilmore Girls,” I’m enthralled. But even more than the musical cues, it’s the actual songs.
There’s a reason that all my iTunes gift cards have been squandered down to just a few gasping cents. My new music folders are bulging, and the majority of the artists and songs were completely unknown to me before I heard them played on television.
Perhaps show creators are taking more chances, and moving away from the pop music standards. (It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed as if every NBC show was contractually obligated to feature that same Green Day song that was played every 37 seconds on top 40 radio.) Perhaps those in music marketing have watched bands like Death Cab for Cutie become famous after a TV gig, and now see television as a new venue to push their product. Maybe it all comes down to money, and filling a soundtrack that can be up to ten songs long every week is just cheaper when you use indie acts.
Whatever it is, when it comes to me, it works.
My new favorite bands of the moment –- Snow Patrol, Old ‘97s, Spoon -– were all introduced to me by television shows. The most-played songs on my iTunes are almost exclusively from television shows. I won’t even admit the exact length of my playlist of songs used on “Veronica Mars” -– whose show runner appears to have the exact taste in music that I do, as I have instantly loved nearly every bit of music ever featured on the show.
And thanks to this website, my love for music is no longer limited to shows I actually watch. Though maybe now I'll have to check them out -- who knew "Scrubs" was set to such a killer soundtrack? And the Von Bondie’s “C’mon C’mon” is almost enough to pull me into “Rescue Me” (though something tells me I’m glad I didn’t start watching earlier in the summer).
There’s been some backlash when it comes to the indie-music/television phenomenon, people who claim that songs lose their individual power when married to someone else’s image. And some artists are still a little disdainful of the practice, as if being included on a television show is somehow too mainstream for their current trajectories. And there's always the fear that it becomes a little too much when the artists set their videos entirely to scenes from a television show.
But to me, the proof is as close as the last three minutes of a late-season episode of “Veronica Mars.” As the camera followed separate shots of the ensemble cast, the strains of Alejandro Escovedo’s “Gravity/Falling Down Again” filtered over and across the action, pulling together disparate story lines, closing out one mystery and elevating another in a poignant and powerful way. As one character’s fate was sealed, the lyrics “No angels hanging from the ceiling can save you” played, and I sat, staring at my television, wondering how I could have gone the last fifteen years without comprehending the existence of this incredible singer/songwriter who’d been apparently putting out dozens of records from Austin, Texas.
Now that's powerful television.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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9.8.06 @ 9:31a
When "The Sopranos" used Fred Neil's "Dolphins" I just about died. That really brought my misspent coffeehouse youth back home from almost fifty years ago.
Then there's the almost die reaction every time I hear Zep behind Cadillac commercials, but it's from outrage. Zep is sacred, dammit.
Of course, every metal band this side of Jupiter has ripped off a Jimmy Page riff at least once, but somehow that's okay. Go figure!
9.8.06 @ 10:20a
This might not be too inappropriate a time to shamelessly plug my favorite radio station, WYEP. It is an independent station here in Pittsburgh that introduced me to Sia (and Zero 7, who she provides vocals for), Damian Rice, Old '97s (and Rhett Miller, their lead singer), Alejandro Escovedo, and others long before they showed up on tv soundtracks. They play some mainstreamy pop (REM, U2, Tom Petty, and so forth) too. You can find their live stream on the website.
But yeah, sometimes the thing I like best about Grey's Anatomy is the song over the closing shots.
9.8.06 @ 10:34a
Please, Michelle. I introduced you to Spoon.
9.8.06 @ 10:38a
Ah, television! Let us suck once again at your nourishing teat!
Okay, my music of choice on the iPod during this morning's commute did just happen to be the VM season one soundtrack. It didn't occur to me for a good minute and a half that there was synchronicity with Michelle's column, or that perhaps I was subconsciouly influenced in my listening this morning because I'd noted in passing earlier (without having read it) that her column was about TV soundtracking.
It's just good music, is all, and each time I play it I wonder why I haven't ponied up for one of Mike Doughty's solo CDs yet.
Still, the pop music/TV marriage has its dark moments. I owned a copy of Remy Zero's "Save Me" well before it became the theme song for "Smallville." When the show debuted, I thought it was an inspired choice. But then in the first season finale, what band is playing on stage at prom...in the middle of Kansas...and gets name dropped by a couple of characters to boot? Yeah. While it didn't burn me entirely on Remy Zero, it more than burned me on "Smallville." I don't mind that lesser-known bands are able to grab a few moments in the spotlight thanks to TV shows, but when the song/band intrudes on the story as blatantly as that? Now that's just whoring.
9.8.06 @ 10:52a
How incredibly ironic that so-called "music television" channels let their baby loose to walk among sleazy midway carnival barkers, while fictional programming takes control of promoting new and fresh music.
I was stupidly awake at 2 a.m. a couple of nights ago, and flipped over to the only time slot when a viewer can see real music on VH1 - the insomniac block. I watched videos from Beck, Thom Yorke, Remy Zero and others that I've never seen at any other time.
(Unfortunately, due to past professional habit, I default to the music channels when I want the TV on to wind down or wake up)
Also, witness the success of OK Go and their homemade videos - first put out on You Tube, THEN released by Capitol to MTV/VH1, who surprisingly plays them.
9.8.06 @ 10:53a
I swear that "Top Chef" rips off its "hard decision" riff from Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On." bum BUM bum BUM bum etc.
Needless to say, I agree with this -- I also agree with the Entertainment Weekly article a while ago that views the end-of-show montage as a way-overused wrap-up technique these days. I much prefer the music that doesn't call quite as much attention to itself.
(Except in totally awesome, unusual, necessary cases like the SFU finale mentioned here.)
9.8.06 @ 10:55a
Abrams uses those end-of-show montages like 3 times an episode!
9.8.06 @ 4:18p
I don't think it can technically be an end-of-show montage unless it ends the show, but I see your point. Like the 72-hours-earlier device, it's become a bit of a crutch for him.
9.8.06 @ 4:38p
Yes, I was using hyperbole to emphasize his reliance on the gimmick.
michelle von euw
9.9.06 @ 4:35p
Ken, that's almost enough of a reason to move to Pittsburgh.
Jael, EXACTLY on the Spoon/Top Chef thing -- I've thought that, too.
9.9.06 @ 10:45p
I admit I do choose music from television shows I've watcehd, but I also will pick up songs from commercials. I discovered Spoon and The Real Tuesday Weld through commercials.