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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Television's Top 5 Musical Mistakes

Erin Miller is a good friend of the site and a big television and music fan. She contributes this guest piece as a look at the way both mediums have dovetailed, and some of the mistakes that have been made there-in.

Have you ever been driving in your car and immediately changed the radio station after a new song began to play?  Was it because it didn’t fit your current mood?  I’ve experienced instances where the radio station’s music choice did not fit the “scene”—the song was about a sunny day while driving in the rain, or the song was gloomy and my mood was positive.

As in real life, the music used in scenes of TV shows can make—or break—the mood.  Music enhanced the already beautiful storytelling and cinematography of Dr. Mark Greene’s last scenes on ER, and the final scene of The Sopranos.

When music doesn’t work, it becomes a distraction at best and a disservice to the story at worst.  The following is a list of my top five TV shows with mismatched music:

5. Music from entire episode--Mad Men episode “The Doorway”

This is an example where the lack of music in an episode hurt the establishment of mood and times, especially in an episode where ad copywriting for headphones is the main focus.  The episode straddles the waning days of 1967 and the beginning days of 1968.  For an episode that features the years of “The Summer of Love” and a prominent year in American history, it seems like a missed opportunity to only feature classical music pieces and an Elvis song pertaining to Hawaii.  I could understand the use of classical music in the Francis household scenes, as Betty’s family represents the “Silent Majority” that actively avoids the social changes of the 1960’s.  However, the use of other period scenery, including Roger’s Jetsons-esque office, indicates that some period music could have been used to establish mood in this season premiere.

4. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” by The Hold Steady--Game of Thrones episode “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”

In this episode, the gender bending, serious-minded Brienne of Tarth is forced by her captives to fight a semi-tame bear.  After a serious scene featuring her rescue from the fighting pit, the episode immediately moves from somber quiet to a jarring pop/punk version of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” by The Hold Steady.  While this song is mentioned in the TV show and the books as a lighthearted traditional song, the pop/punk version doesn’t match Brienne’s intense, focused personality.  It also disjoints the transition from the episode’s pinnacle scene, depicting the brutality of captivity during anarchy, to a bright, fast-tempo version of a traditional song.  The use of a pop/punk song in the credits is more appropriate if the final scene features Tyrion or Olenna Redwyne delivering their usual wit.

3. “All Along the Watchtower” by Bear McCreary--Battlestar Galactica episode “Crossroads”

Battlestar Galactica does an excellent job of using mostly original instrumental music to build a scene, with one jarring exception.  Throughout the series, dirge-like music is used in scenes of human sorrow, building music layers that are used to depict climactic episodic scenes.Music featuring eclectic notes and instruments are also used in scenes featuring the mysterious Cylons. 

That’s why the first lyrical and contemporary song used in the series is very jarring, especially when it’s a cover of the classic Jimi Hendrix song “All Along the Watchtower,” which is itself a cover of a Bob Dylan song (…got that?).  The scene features a major character, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, returning from an assumed death that heavily affects her character in the subsequent final season.  However, her dialogue can’t be heard over the song’s lyrics (or the screaming in my head).

On a side note, if a contemporary song was mandatory for the scene, this is the song that should have been used.  The space-titled song and band name would have simultaneously pleased the sci-fi and music nerds.

2. “Baby Blue” by Badfinger--Breaking Bad episode “Felina”

The final song used Breaking Bad, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” is not a bad choice.  It echoes the color of Walter White’s famous meth and how he came to love the power of the meth business in the simple, automatic way he loves his children. 

This acceptable choice could have instead been a fantastic choice, especially since one of the best music scene placements of the series was featured earlier in the same episode.  In the cold open, Walt realizes he must go back to the Albuquerque to make his final stand.  The song he hears when he turns on his vehicle’s radio is the Marty Robbins version of “El Paso.” 

Like Walt, the subject of “El Paso” has his final stand in New Mexico.  Also, the female protagonist is named Felina, which is also the title of the episode. 

When an episode has a phenomenal use of music in its cold open, you can’t help but hope the final song placement will be equally phenomenal.  That’s why the simply adequate use of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” doesn’t work.  It isn’t out of place in the scene, but it is a forgettable and very 1970s style song.  Leon Russell’s bright, up-tempo live cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” would have been a better choice.  The repeating of the phrase “It’s all over” reinforces that the series is over, and the title and lyrics refer to sadness, finality, and the color blue. 

Also, the coda of one of the most popular American television programs could have featured a Bob Dylan song.  Ending a popular American show with a song by one of the most influential American artists in history would have been absolute perfection.


1. "Evidently Chickentown” by John Cooper Clarke--The Sopranos episode “Stage 5”

This episode of The Sopranos features the death of a powerful character, which forces other characters to examine their thoughts on death.  The last two scenes transition from the mortality themes to a baptism scene, symbolizing the continuity and joys of the beginning of life.  As the final scene unfolds, John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown” begins to play.  The song features a monotone British poet blunting stating his observations of everyday life.  The theme of Italian identity in an American culture appears throughout the series, so it seems very strange to use a song that punctuates its British identity by using “bloody” as ever other lyric.   Using a monotone song to transition from a scene featuring one major theme (death) to another (the beginning of life) seems out of place as well. 

The show is no stranger to funeral scenes, and in the Season 3 episode “Army of One,” one of the main characters sings a Neapolitan song that fits perfectly with the tone of the scene.  A similar song would have fit this scene and the themes of this episode and the series as a whole.

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