The Power of Song On the Small Screen

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Television Song Column

There are songs in the film tradition that are immediately recognizable, with some even reaching the stuff of cinematic soundtrack legends. You hear “My Heart Will Go On” and immediately think of the (misuse of three hours) that is Titanic. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” reminds the listener of supernatural world of The Wizard of Oz. And for anyone that’s seen Pitch Perfect, one might recall an entire plotline influenced by the power of music in movies, as evidenced by The Breakfast Club’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

But I’d like to discuss another area of the use of music onscreen: television show soundtracks. I’m not merely speaking of theme songs, because while a good theme song will embody the spirit of a show on the whole, it would be hollow without the smaller moments in every episode that develop a show’s depth. People will spend hours and hours (and hours) of their lives watching TV, whether by weekly episodes on cable, or on a streaming service like Netflix. And if you can commit to watching all those episodes as artistic installments in their own right, not just fuel for the binge-watching session for which you probably don’t have time, one might take notice of the fantastic music television shows use in their episodes. Often, those songs serve as the perfect catalyst to momentum or emotion that a TV episode is working to create, and the result has the potential to be as impactful as watching Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega dance to “You Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction (R.I.P. Chuck Berry).

But a lot of times, those great moments in a TV show are forgotten in the show’s seasons, lost in the noise of other TV series that only fragments of the country watch. While it makes perfect sense that a song in a TV show episode does not achieve the same degree of recognition as that of a movie soundtrack, I would hope that the audience of a television show takes note of the striking relevance of the musical backdrop over which some of their episodes take place.

Whenever I get sucked into a TV show and pulled out to sea by its current, I make an effort to attend to the songs I hear in all of the episodes. I even have a playlist entitled “screen junkie” with all the agreeable or episodically important songs from my favorite shows. And I listen to it when I feel like reliving all the best moments of shows that have taken my heart and soul hostage. Yes, it may very well be considered bizarre or simply embarrassing to relive episodes of Suits or Grey’s Anatomy at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday when I’m doing homework at the library. But there’s something quite satisfying and thrilling about remembering the fleeting, yet memorable moments of TV shows. A good television show can be an artistic companion to the viewer, an entity the viewer gets to know in-depth and perhaps identifies with or is influenced by as they watch characters navigate the situations and relationships and spectrum of life events put in front of them. And as the events of these episodes unfold, the attentive viewer will remember the rush and curiosity that accompanied Meredith Grey’s first scrubbing in on a surgery, or the time Raymond Reddington of The Blacklist hunted down everyone responsible for betraying him to the tune of “The Man Comes Around.”

In essence, a television show is full of moments that blend together, stand out, or are forgotten entirely, in much the same way life itself unfolds. As the episodes come at the viewer every week (or at whatever pace your voracious appetite for TV requests), it’s easy to mindlessly write them off as nothing more than a few minutes of your life that you’ll never get back. And while that may be the precise appeal of television for some, one might consider the deliberate and carefully presented components of an episode that make the whole art form compelling enough on which to spend a significant amount of time. A TV soundtrack has the capacity to attach significance to moments on a show that might otherwise fall flat on their face. I think recognizing the intrinsic value of music as it appears every week on your favorite shows will not only lend a greater appreciation for the characters and storylines we invite into our lives, but also foster a more mindful consideration of the addictive artistic medium that is television.

Featured Image by NBC

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