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

  1. Hmm. Okay, how about the BBC2 TV series Top Gear, season 8, when presented James May took a Bugatti Veyron to 252 MPH accompanied by John Williams’ Duel of the Fates?

  2. Ally McBeal seemed to rely on this quite heavily as part of the show.

  3. Two examples from the same show, however in both cases I nearly had chills in how well the scenes worked with the music.

    The West Wing
    Two Cathederals
    “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits

    The West Wing
    Posse Comitatus
    “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley

  4. Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms”, to close out West Wing’s Season Two (Two Cathedrals). The music is used to display the President’s determination as he and his aides either walk in a rain storm or answer questions in a storm. Pretty stirring stuff. Aaron Sorkin always wanted to use the song in one of his shows and wrote the episode to be able to include it.

  5. So many shows today do seem to use music in the same way, which is the now-cliched montage towards the end, usually to some soon-to-be-famous emo pop song.

    I hate being so predictable, and it’s a show that usually does the above to excess, but one of my favourite musical moments was in a first season House episode, Detox. He admits he’s an addict but says it’s not a problem, and he ends the episode with a buzz on and Feelin’ Alright plays. It’s what you’re talking about – a familiar song but the context makes it funny and a little poignant.

    Don’t you hate when people pick up on a small point in your post to nitpick? Me too, but I’ll do it anyway – Mad Men has used The Cardigans and The Decemberists, so it’s not averse to using new songs at times. I found it jarring, though.

  6. I think it was “Love Will Come Through” by Travis in the last episode of Wonderfalls. They specifically talk about licensing music on the dvd commentaries as I recall.

  7. There are two main kinds of music in film/TV: the music that exists in the world–that is, the characters hear it–and that which is used to enhance or augment the viewer’s perception of the world, and which obviously can’t be heard by the characters of the world.

    I think Jaime was looking for instances of the former, while the West Wing and House instances I think are the latter (but I haven’t seen that House episode in years).

  8. Jaime asked for our favourite use of licensed music in a show … besides, he’s gotta know commenters cannot be controlled like that :) (And I can’t remember either, if House was playing the song himself.)

  9. Picking up on Andrew’s point on in-show music. This is from memory so feel free to fact-check.
    “Generation Kill” had multiple songs, not the original licensed versions, sung by the charecters. The songs were used to emphasize the differences between this war & all the previous war movies the charecters had grown up watching. In place of the standards of 60’s rock, we had power pop like “Skater Boi” by Arvil Lavigne, to hip-hop like “Hot in Herre” by Nelly, with “King of the Road” thrown in for good measure.

  10. Freaks & Geeks – The theme from Rocky II in the episode where Bill gets to be one of the captains during baseball in PE. For two reasons:

    1. It’s wonderful that it’s not even “Gonna Fly Now”. The geeks are so pathetic that they only get the theme from the bad sequel.

    2. It foreshadows Coach Fredericks naming “Rocky II” as the best movie of all time a few episodes later while he’s dating Bill’s mom.

  11. It was done somewhat before in movies, and both Movies and TV since then have done the “happy pop song used in ironic counterpoint to scenes of violence”, but the final episode of 1968’s The Prisoner, with Patrick McGoohan and company busting out of the cave underneath the Village with machine guns blazing, to the tune of “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles, is perhaps the greatest use of this technique ever.

    On a similar line, the X-Files use of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in the notorious Home episode is a perfect selection for the characters to listen to. As it’s both heart-breakingly innocent sounding while still having that ghostly backing chorus so that it seems not quite an ironic choice for a horror show as one first would think.

    Actually one of the best episodes of Millenium by the same writers does make great use of Terry Jacks “Seasons in the Sun” sung Karaoke style by a Dr. Kevorkian style serial killer.

    Those three are the ones which leapt to mind right now. Blame it being just past Halloween.

  12. I was going to say the cover of Cohen’s Hallelujah in West Wing, but I’m not the first. I also agree with the Brothers in Arms. But what about the Jackal in West Wing?

    On another note–the use of Baba O’Riley in House was FANTASTIC.

  13. I don’t watch a ton of TV dramas, but my wife had me watch a few episodes of Eli Stone last year – the use of George Michaels, both musically and as character, worked pretty well.

    In a more obscure vein, I remember an episode of Hunter where a long scene featured an arsonist torching a large building with a flame thrower, to the Talking Heads “Burning Down the House”. But I was probably 15 then, so adjust accordingly…

  14. Damn it, I was going to say the Jackal.

    Using Hallelujah is such a cliche now. I don’t understnad why everyone is talking about using it in the West Wing, when every other show in the world has done the exact same thing.

  15. Mad Men using The Decembrists was the worst moment in the history of that show.

    Then again, the theme song for Mad Men is a hip hop song from like 2002.

  16. As I was reading this post, Richie Cunningham came to mind. “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill,” by Fats Domino. I think is an instance where the song revealed character, as it became the go-to song whenever Richie was feeling lucky in love.

  17. Man, I’m so disappointed when people don’t pick up on something that’s manifestly obvious.

    MAD MEN is exact about its period-accuracy to the nth degree, in almost a fetishistic way.

    They’ve used exactly two out of period songs.

    Go back. Watch the scenes. Ask yourself why. The answers are all there.

    And The Jackal in the West Wing was the SHIZNIT.

  18. It’s not exactly a song included in a TV drama, but I really like the way that HBO’s Big Love uses “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys as the opening theme song. It’s recognizable and manages to incorporate the modern, religious and romantic aspects of the show.

  19. There was an episode of Miami Vice in the second season that opened with Baba O’Riley and closed with Brothers in Arms. That’s my favourite so far.

  20. Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” in the 1st season finale of the “Sarah Connor Chronicles”. That moved me from a casual/reluctant viewer to hooked.

  21. I don’t see what Denis McGrath’s problem with out of period music in Mad Men was. It’s not like they showed the music coming from a radio or something. It was non-diagetic music. It’s perfectly all right for them to sue contemporary music on that show as part of the soundtrack. It doesn’t mean that Matt Weiner has stopped caring about period accuracy.

    My problem with The Decembrists song stems from the fact that the song and the band both SUCK.

  22. Wow. Misread again. The sucks/doesn’t suck is irrelevant. I also don’t have a problem with the out of period music. The point I was making is that they are VERY clear about their reference points and period stuff. So the fact that they used a contemporary Decemberists song is very notable.

    What was the song? What does it mean? What is the context?

    That’s what I meant. Go back. Look at it. Check it out. You don’t process the why and you’re missing half the fun.

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