Musical Musings, or: Your Favourite Use of Licensed Music In a TV Show?

Election obsession fever has got me good (but it’s socially acceptable this time around, so I’m OK), so I was looking for a YouTube clip to fill time rather than actually blogging. I came up with this cool YouTube of Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, always a good cheerer-upper despite the sad fates of both the singers. But somehow that got me thinking TV-related thoughts, about the way music is used in television, or should be used.

Look at the clip and then I’ll continue with my thoughts. (The reason I’m not embedding it is that if you click on the link, you will — or should — be able to hear it in stereo, whereas YouTube doesn’t allow embedding in stereo.)

What set me off was that this song was used in the second episode of the late lamented Frank’s Place. In the second episode of the show, Frank (Tim Reid) who believes that a voodoo curse compels him to move from Boston to New Orleans and take over his estranged father’s restaurant, prepares for his first night as a restauranteur. As act two begins, he falls asleep and dreams about the way he’d like the experience to be: glamorous, celebrity-filled, with him as a suave ladies’ man — all the things that are not going to happen in the real restaurant. And the choice of music reflects this: whereas in the real restaurant, the music is usually jazz or blues, for the dream sequence it’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — the most glamorous, glitzy, fantasy-world R&B song imaginable. The sequence is cut and timed to the music, but the most effective thing about it is just that we’re hearing a different kind of music in fantasy-world than in “reality.” And when he goes back into the real bar, the music is back to the grittiness of blues. (The musical sequence starts at about 1:08 in the clip below.)


This isn’t my favourite use of licensed music in a TV show, but it’s an example of my favourite way of using music, which is that it’s actually playing in the world of the show (or, in this case, in the world a character imagines) and that the choice of music says something about the character who picks it or the place where it’s being played. Tony Soprano choosing “Don’t Stop Believing” opened up all sorts of questions about why he chose that song and what it meant. Because David Chase clearly has a certain amount of contempt for the song, that choice has more complex and ironic layers of meaning than someone imagining “Ain’t No Mountain High” as the perfect accompaniment to his life, but it’s the same idea, a good idea: the music a character likes is a clue to who he is and what he wants.

I think a lot of shows kind of miss this aspect of music licensing through their emphasis on new and unfamiliar songs. It obviously helps a show (particularly one aimed at young viewers) to have the latest music, and everybody wants to launch a new hit song. Besides, new bands are cheaper to license than already-familiar songs. But licensed music that isn’t familiar is really just like regular soundtrack scoring — it’s mood music, but it doesn’t say a lot about character except in a generalized way. (The character’s taste in genres or styles can still say something about him or her, of course.) One thing that cable shows have going for them is that, for some reason, they seem to be more free than network shows to license non-new songs. (At least that’s my impression at the moment. And of course a show like Mad Men by definition can only use songs that are old. ) And that allows for more moments where we recognize the song and ask: what does it mean that this person chose that song, or that song is playing in this place?

If anyone has read this far, I’ll open up the floor for your favourite use of licensed music in a TV show — either to reveal character, or just because it worked really well with the scene.

(Update: Mad Men has used recent songs. I should have remembered that. The Decemberists sure don’t sound like 1962. In my defense, those songs weren’t played in the “real” world of the show; they were on the soundtrack, not audible to the characters. I guess that’s the excuse for the inauthenticity; the show’s original music, after all, isn’t in the early ’60s style either..)

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