Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scores, Indie, and Breaking into Song: The Music of Television

“42 minutes, 15 seconds. Arcade Fire’s first album. It’s like an auditory aphrodisiac.”
-Chuck Bartowski

So, yeah, I know I’m still really behind on episode recaps, and the new fall TV season is rapidly approaching, but I’ve decided to take a bit of a breather and talk about something that I think is incredibly important for every good TV show. That would be music. Music heightens the emotions in any especially dramatic scene, and it can create a mood or even an identity for a show overall. There are three ways shows incorporate music that I especially enjoy and find effective. Some shows use a score composed especially for them. Some use cutting-edge indie rock for their soundtrack. Still other shows let their characters actually sing. I like all three options for different reasons, and in different types of shows.

When I think of modern shows with a great score, I first think of “Lost.” As I recently discussed in my recap of “The End,” Michael Giacchino’s music was a major presence in the show. The music had such a distinctive sound that when the pilot of “Fringe” was first released, fans could immediately tell that some music from “Lost” was being used for placeholders (the music of “Fringe” has since diverged from “Lost). Each character of “Lost” had a musical theme. Some of my favorites were the very bouncy Hurley theme and the beautiful Penny and Desmond theme. “Life and Death” is iconic, as it has been the sound track to the majority of major character deaths on the show. The first episode of “Lost” I ever watched was “Through the Looking Glass,” the Season 3 finale. “Life and Death” played during Charlie’s death, and I still remembered the music when I went to watch the rest of the series for the first time over six months later.

The other show where the score really stood out to me was “Pushing Daisies.” Jim Dooley composed the “Daisies” soundtrack, and it’s one of the few TV soundtracks I own. The music that plays over the end credits of the show is lush and beautiful, and I especially love Ned and Chuck’s waltz as well. Emerson’s theme is also memorable- it had a very Noir vibe. I also remember a specific theme that would always accompany the Young Ned flashbacks at the beginning of most episodes. The Season 1 soundtrack has been available to purchase for quite some time, but the Season 2 soundtrack was never released. This is a shame, because there is definitely some music from Season 2 that I would love to be able to listen to. I think the score made the most impact on me in the “Pie-lette.” It just punctuated Barry Sonnenfeld’s vision beautifully.

Many shows these days tend to use indie music for their soundtracks. I’ve discovered some wonderful artists this way, myself. The first show that introduced me to indie rock was “Grey’s Anatomy.” As I’ve alluded to on this blog before, even though it’s slightly embarrassing, I used to be a big-time “Grey’s” fan. I have a whole playlist on my iPod of music from “Greys,” organized in the order the songs appeared in the show. I think my favorite artist I discovered from “Grey’s” is Tegan and Sara. Their song “Where Did the Good Go?” plays during a very pivotal scene between Cristina and Burke when Cristina is having a lot of trouble dealing with the death of a patient. I think the music from Season 1, where Tegan and Sara were really a staple of the soundtrack, stuck with me the most. Other artists I discovered from Season 1 that really stuck with me are Jem and The Eames Era.

Another show that uses indie rock well is “Chuck.” Chuck is a bit of an indie music nerd himself, making references to bands like Arcade Fire. One band “Chuck” introduced me to is Gomez. I had heard their song “How We Operate” on “Grey’s,” but the use of “See the World” in “Chuck’s” pilot really made me take notice. Another song I love from the pilot is “A Comet Appears” by The Shins. There’s something both “Chuck” and “Grey’s” have in common music-wise, which is probably why the indie music on both stand out. A woman by the name of Alex Patsavas has served as music supervisor on both shows. Patsavas has made a name for herself bringing indie music to television. With radio declining in popularity and so many other entertainment choices out there, television seems like a natural venue for indie artists to get the work heard.

I couldn’t write a post about the music of television without a nod to shows that incorporate music in the form of characters singing. Pushing Daisies gets a second mention here in this category thanks to the wonderful talents of Kristin Chenoweth and Ellen Greene. Both Olive and Aunt Vivian tended to break into song, and it always made sense. I liked how whenever a character sang, it was justified by the story and the character herself. We learn right from the second episode that Olive sings when nobody’s around. Usually when she sings, it’s because of Ned. She sings “Eternal Flame” after she and Ned win the Comfort Food Cookoff, and she sings “Hello” after they kiss while pretending to be engaged for the sake of some old “friends" of Olive. My absolute favorite instance of singing in Pushing Daisies, which I know I’ve mentioned here before, comes from the episode “Pigeon.” Olive and the Aunts are in a car following the carrier pigeon Olive rescued. Olive and Aunt Vivian are just so filled with joy at being outside that they sing along to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might be Giants.

Of course the ultimate example of success in the field of TV characters singing would have to be “Glee.” The show overall owes a great deal of its success to sales on iTunes of songs performed on the show. New Directions’ performance of “Don’t Stop Believing” from the pilot episode was the number one song on iTunes at one point. Unfortunately, I think the desire to sell tracks on iTunes influences the production of the show a little too much. More musical numbers were crammed into the second half of the season at the expense of story, and most of the musical numbers that are meant to be sold on iTunes are hideously overproduced, especially when you consider the level of talent in the cast and guest stars such as Broadway veterans Matthew Morison, Lea Michele, Kristin Chenoweth, and Neil Patrick Harris. In fact, one of my favorite musical numbers on the show was about as unproduced as it gets on scripted television, and not surprisingly, it didn’t show up on iTunes. That particular performance would be from the episode “Dream On” when Will and Bryan Ryan sing “Piano Man” together at a bar just after Bryan has admitted that he really does still love theatre and performing.

Music, be it composed score, indie, or provided by the characters themselves, is really the final piece of the puzzle that pulls a show together for me. Music is what will make me cry while watching an episode of “Lost” or grin like an idiot while watching “Pushing Daisies.” A lot of music I’ve discovered for the past five years or so has come from television. I think I might have given up on listening to much music if I had just stuck to what is available on the radio, but the quality of music found on television these days is truly impressive. Music on television, especially shows that have used Alex Patsavas-provided indie rock, has greatly shaped the soundtrack to my own life.

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