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The soundtrack for the critically acclaimed (but painfully short-lived) HBO TV series Big Little Lies was released last Friday, a few days ahead of Sunday’s series finale. Both TV critics and TV watchers have praised the way in which the series integrates music, even though it’s rare for a TV series to get this much attention for something other than its characters or plot lines. Big Little Lies music supervisor Sue Jacobs has explained that the songs she includes in particular scenes often reflect the emotions the characters are experiencing in those scenes (for instance, Jane’s “trauma” is highlighted via passion-fulled songs such as Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother F—king Asshole”). On a larger scale, however, Big Little Lies‘ entire soundtrack—including its haunting opening credits theme—is composed of slow, soulful tunes that depict the show’s setting of Monterey, California as “a place where perfection exists only on the surface.”
TV music supervisors for shows like Big Little Lies often choose music in ways that aren’t super obvious or noticeable, but still encourage TV viewers to think or feel a certain way. Here are just a few examples of why and how TV music can affect the ways in which we respond to and feel about TV shows themselves.
First, let’s take a well-known example like the show Scandal. Scandal’s Alexandra Patsavas-curated soundtrack (disclaimer: all the best ones are Patsavas) is chock-full of R&B music from the 1960s and ’70s that showcases highly influential artists of colour such as Nina Simone, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder. The choice to prominently feature artists of colour isn’t an accident; though Scandal doesn’t explore racial issues as explicitly as, say, Black-ish, Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope is an intelligent, high-ranking woman of colour and with a worldview that’s inevitably different than that of a white woman.
Patsavas and Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes have also explained that they want the show’s soundtrack to instill a sense of nostalgia within the viewer, as the controversial events of Scandal evoke “the decade that Watergate happen[ed] and America lost its innocence of what politics is.”
Friday Night Lights similarly uses music to reflect the show’s complex, multi-layered attitude towards its setting of Dillon, Texas and the people who inhabit it. In one of the show’s most interesting musical moments, Dillon High School’s football team triumphantly walks through town after winning the State Championship. Instead of a high-energy banger like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” or something cliché like “We Are The Champions,” Tony Lucca’s plodding, repetitive “Devil Town” plays in the background. As GQ points out, the song hints at “the slightly parasitic edge to the town’s hero worship” of the young football players and demonstrates FNL‘s willingness to portray seemingly heroic characters in not-so-heroic lights. The song became so synonymous with the show that it was even used in a few of its promo clips.
The Carrie Diaries, a Sex and the City spinoff/prequel, took a slightly different approach to music, using pop and rock songs from the ’80s to reflect the show’s retro setting and contrast teenage Carrie’s mainstream music taste with her younger sister’s fondness for Morrissey. Shows like The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks also feature ’60s and ’80s music, respectively, transporting viewers to eras of the past.
Freaks and Geeks features hard-rocking tunes like Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” to firmly situate the show in the 1980s. The track also reflects Lindsay Weir’s newfound rule-breaking ways and reminds viewers of a time when acts of teen rebellion and expression not only flourished, but were depicted in movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Heathers as demonstrations of freedom.
The Hills soundtrack, on the other hand, doesn’t purposely try to get viewers to mentally transport themselves to a certain time period. But now, it calls mid-2000s era music and fashion trends to mind regardless, almost seven years after the show’s final episode aired. Titles of songs like Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” often popped up at the bottom of the television screen as LC and Heidi hashed it out, encouraging loyal Hills followers to pretend that they, too, had bougie California lives and could build beachy playlists of their own.
Supernatural, like The Hills, takes place in the “present.” However, Dean Winchester listens exclusively to ’70s and ’80s rock musicians like AC/DC and Metallica—recapturing a simpler time, back when he was a child and didn’t constantly have to be on the lookout for demons. The show’s rock-heavy, high-energy soundtrack (also partially curated by Patsavas) reflects Dean’s music taste to a tee and gets viewers mentally and emotionally ready to experience the Winchester brothers’ raucous Impala-driving, demon-slaying ways.
Alternatively, the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack, (also curated by Patsavas) doesn’t conjure up images of aggressive car rides and intense slaying sessions. Rather, the music encourages viewers to romanticize and sympathize with McDreamy, McSteamy and the other members of Seattle Grace’s obscenely attractive, emotionally-distraught medical staff. Building the soundtrack for a highly dramatic, often serious medical drama like Grey’s can’t be easy. But Shonda Rhimes and Patsavas have worked together to match unique (at one point) under-the-radar songs to scenes, making Grey’s inseparable from the somber, slow-paced tunes like the one in the below scene.
The above song “How to Save a Life” is also featured prominently in Scrubs’ “My Lunch,” one of the series’ most heart-wrenching episodes. Scrubs, like Grey’s Anatomy, follows a group of doctors who work with each other, banter with each other, and even hook up with each other. But Scrubs, unlike Grey’s, is a comedy—which means that while the two shows sometimes use the same songs, they do so in very different ways.
“How to Save a Life” fits right in with the rest of the Grey’s soundtrack, which includes several other songs by indie pop and rock artists like Bon Iver and Ingrid Michaelson. In Scrubs, a slow-paced song with earnest lyrics like, “Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend / Somewhere along in the bitterness” stands out from most of the other tunes used in the show. As a result, viewers are subliminally told to expect seriousness and sadness from the scene in which the song is featured—in a shocking move, the usually unflappable Dr. Cox walks out of the hospital in distress after failing to save the lives of two of his patients.
Stalker, a crime drama about the members of the LAPD’s Threat Assessment Unit, experimented with music in the same way that Scrubs did. Its soundtrack consists almost entirely of slow-paced, melancholy covers of catchy pop tunes, all of which reflect the serious nature of the crimes that the LAPD had to investigate (and highlight the subtly creepy, desperate-sounding lyrics of songs like “Every Breath You Take” and “I Want You to Want Me”). Hearing a sad song in a witty show like Scrubs and hearing a sinister-sounding version of a beloved pop song in Stalker are both jarring and serve to heighten the emotions of TV viewers.
Even though music supervisors rarely get the kudos they deserve, the work that goes into compiling and curating the perfect TV soundtrack is definitely impressive. We may not always realize it, but the music in our favourite shows is carefully designed to affect how and what we think about the show itself.