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A golden age of TV music

A golden age of TV music

As television shows get more subtle and sophisticated, their soundtracks are following suit

As television shows get more subtle and sophisticated, their soundtracks are following suit

Michael Hann | May 11th 2017

On May 19th, a groundbreaking film soundtrack is being re-released. “Singles”, a romcom from 1992 starring Matt Dillon, was set in Seattle and followed the romantic lives of a group of plaid-clad twenty-somethings who worked in coffee shops and played in bands. The musical backdrop featured songs by real-life musicians from Seattle who were part of America’s burgeoning grunge scene, including the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. The album made the American top 10 and went platinum. At the time it seemed revolutionary: no one had ever brought bands together like this before. Today it seems old hat. Soundtracks have moved on. No longer there to simply set the mood, they are now more sophisticated and more integral to the storytelling than ever before. And the most interesting are not found in films but on television. 

“Big Little Lies”, a black comedy which premiered on HBO this spring, demonstrates how far they have evolved. According to Sue Jacobs, its music supervisor, the show is written to foreground the music. Characters are given iPods or turntables so that music can be introduced naturally, and what they listen to is used to add character rather than colour. The young boy, Ziggy, becomes obsessed with “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” by the Temptations not just because he wants to show his mother a dance routine, but because both child and parent are grappling with the issue of his absent father. He has no idea who his dad is; she fears Ziggy’s father was a monster. As he mimes “Momma I'm depending on you, to tell me the truth,” it’s as devastating as if he were asking her himself.

“Stranger Things”, which first aired on Netflix last year, also used songs as emblems of personal trauma and drivers of plot. The show mixed carefully chosen tracks with an original score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Chilly, minimal and foreboding, it was the kind of thing you might expect to hear on a public information film about nuclear war, and suggested the danger lurking beneath a patina of domestic security. More important were the songs that ran alongside it. Jonathan Byers, an unhappy teen whose younger brother Will has disappeared, sits in his car playing postpunk tracks like “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash. Not only is it a sign of their bond – they had listened to it together – but it later becomes a central part of the search for Will. 

The popularity of TV shows like “Stranger Things” has made their music more important commercially as well as artistically. In Britain alone, music sync – or synchronisation, the process by which songs are placed in films and TV shows, on adverts and computer games – was worth £75m in 2015 to record labels and publishers. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a worldwide recording industry body, sync revenue is growing every year. But the incentive to get your music on TV is not just the money generated directly. Being featured on a popular show can deliver hoards of new fans. This is helped by technology. If you watch TV programmes that you’ve bought through Amazon using an Amazon Fire Stick, there is an option which shows you what song is playing in any scene. Websites like Tunefind list songs episode by episode. After “River” by Leon Bridges was used in an episode of “Big Little Lies” in February, it surfaced in the American charts having been tagged on Shazam, a music-finding app, 65,000 times. 

That was a recent song, but TV also gives a fresh life to old ones. Sometimes they resurface in a new form. “Westworld”, a sci-fi series about androids in the Wild West, reconfigured the Radiohead back catalogue as saloon-bar piano music. At other times they turn up in unexpected places. Alanis Morissette’s debut album “Jagged Little Pill” was originally released in 1995. Then, in April 2014, it re-entered the British album chart. The source of new sales was a pair of middle-aged men on holiday: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, stars of “The Trip”. As they made their way through Italy in the show’s second series, they sang along in their Mini. They might not have been anyone’s idea of the perfect sync, but that’s exactly what they proved to be.

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