Breaking Bad, Girls, and Mad Men: Music As Art on TV
    • THURSDAY, AUGUST 09, 2012

    • Posted by: Zoe Marquedant

    On television, music serves several purposes. It can clue us in as to how were supposed to be feeling during a certain scene. It was reinforce the themes and add another dimension to the backdrop of the episode. Or it can act like product placement for that week's favorite radio band. The incorporation of music into a television series is handled very differently by different shows. Soundtracks can be ingenious or unnecessary. Girls, Mad Men and Breaking Bad all offer different uses of the soundtrack. All three are popular dramas that utilize (or don't) the potential of adding music into an episode.

    [SPOILER ALERT, although if you haven't started Breaking Bad at this point you probably won't ever.]

    There are three notable modes of music supervision going on right now, apart from the obvious, lowest-common-denominator choices of MTV rubbish reality, or the canned muzak of shows like The Real Housewives and Pawn Stars. We're talking about music as part of a period piece, music as the iPod of the show's creator, and music as an enhancement of the audio-visual stimulus being presented. Here's an example of each.

    1. Music For The Period Piece

    AMC's Mad Men centers around an advertising agency and the mysterious Donald Draper. The series is praised for its detail-oriented production, which sets every aspect of the show in the 1950s-1960s. From the clothes to the furniture to the foods -- everything is meant to come from a past decade and it does. One element that reinforces this setting is the music. The soundtrack for the show selects songs that not only echo the year in which the season takes place, but also the themes and attitudes of the characters. That's a lot to encapsulate in two to three minutes.

    To do this Mad Men creators primarily draw from an older list of songs. Episodes feature songs like Vic Damone's "On The Street Where You Live" and Perry Como's "Blue Room," but do so without alienating the audience in the 21st century. Furthermore, music is as a way of enlisting another sense (auditory) in order to present an accurate time frame. The soundtrack has often been spot on, even down to the year. "Tobacco Road" was originally written by John D Loudermilk in 1960, but made popular by the English group The Nashville Teens around 1964. Their version was featured in the opening episode of season 4, November of 1964.

    The soundtrack emphasizes the passage of time as well. Mid-season 5, during Don's birthday party a clear line is drawn between the older executives and the younger mid-levels. Their outfits depicted the eras they grew up in. The 60s are painted an inch thick onto the younger party-goers and the older ones are still in grey suits. The contrast peaks in the performance of "Zou Bisou Bisou." The french song, sung by Don's new wife, marked a point in the show where there was a definite shift into the 60s. The show was well into 1960s, but parts of the series were still reluctantly stuck in the previous decade. Before that point, the soundtrack relied on the likes of Jack Jones and the big band names that your parents (or even their parents) listened to.

    This rule obviously comes with exceptions, like The Decemberists' "Infanta" in the episode "Maidenform." The song was the audio equivalent of the point-of-no-return.

    2. Music Via Show Creator's iPod

    Another show that takes a similar, but less coordinated approach to music is HBO's Girls. It's lack of finesse is perhaps due in part to the shows infancy. Music-wise, Girls yo-yos between the hip and age appropriate and the blatantly popular. Instead of highlighting that week's radio singles, it instead focuses on the so-called "indie" culture of the day. This in turn showcases some bands that you may not have heard of, but neglects the potential of using truly obscure music.

    There is an expectation to feature certain kinds of music; it wouldn't be an 'indie' comedy if there wasn't any Bloc Party or Fleet Foxes in there somewhere. The kind of bands every respectable 'indie' girl has on her iPod. At times the soundtrack comes across as Lena Dunham's top ten favorite indie bands, instead of music chosen purely for its function and value.

    The chosen songs are good, the show deserves points there, but they often serve no greater purpose in the episode than a break in dialogue. When Girls does attempt to integrate the script and the soundtrack, it often has underwhelming results. In season 2, when Hannah accepts her STD test results and dances triumphantly around her room in her newfound confidence/independence in swells Robyn's "Dancing on My Own." Pairing the two is a little too cookie-cutter to stand on it's own as a memorable moment. It's another painfully obvious moment in which the show attempts to match the character's mood word-for-word to the chorus of some particularly heartbreaking song. It runs along the vein of playing "Killing Me Softly" during a break-up scene.

    In actuality, Girls featured "I Don't Love Anyone" by Belle and Sebastian during the series one break-up thus far. It made the scene transparent and devalued what should've/could've been left to the acting to portray. This kind of over-statement is all too common in Girls. The other faux pas the show makes musically is their not-so-subtle song suggestions.

    When the less popular tracks, like "Met Before" by Chairlift or "Wreckin' Bar (Ra Ra Ra)" by the Vaccines, are featured it is almost as if the creators of Girls are leaning down saying, "Listen to this song, I really love it so you will too!" Girls is that one friend who keeps trying to get you to listen to their music even when you don't want to, or more likely, already know it.

    3. Music as Part of the Art

    In Breaking Bad, music is best used to show the transition of Walter White from harmless high school chemistry teacher to full fledged meth dealer. The show follows him and his family's life through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, the primary focus being Walter's double life. The soundtrack in turn presents both the upbeat and the unhinged to represent the two sides of Walter. The show often features these cooky songs, some with a strong Western influence, which is fitting given Breaking Bad takes place in New Mexico.

    In the series pilot, when they're cooking meth the Working For A Nuclear Free City song "Dead Fingers Talking" plays softly in the background. It isn't a particularly well known song, but it adds a rhythm and an uneasiness to the scene. At the end of the episode, "Out of Time Man" by Mick Harvey plays as new Walter dry-cleans the days earnings. This returns to the partial-insanity of Walt's new life choices. The light-hearted tune brings the episode back to the mundane suburbs, which would have otherwise been a violent shift after the drug-riddled, dangerous day. The song also echoes the passage of time and Walter's declining health.

    Alex Ebert's "Truth" was featured as the haunting backdrop for the final scene in "Box Cutters," the season four premiere. Ebert's band's Iam Robot and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have both reached relative popularity, but the same can't be said for his solo career (at least in the mainstream sense). It was, instead, used for the best possible reason -- color. Baseball players have walk-on songs, Walter White has "Truth."

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