Music television used to mean after midnight viewing. Now the term could be applied to almost any prime-time dramatic series - and some sitcoms as well. From The Sopranos to the Gilmore Girls, from Dawson's Creek to Providence, more and more weekly TV shows are downplaying traditional orchestral underscoring and salting their soundtracks with rock, pop and hip-hop tunes by groups ranging from the rich and famous to the unknown and hopeful.
Tony Soprano made his fourth-season entrance to the calamitous yowl of World Destruction by Afrika Bambaataa and former Sex Pistol John Lydon. On The West Wing, President Bartlet strode to a pivotal news conference to Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms. Six Feet Under artfully folds in recordings such as PJ Harvey's One Time Too Many.
Classic rock tunes by The Who ignite the opening credits of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its new, Miami-based spin-off, but their episodic music leans heavily toward current bands such as the Wallflowers. Providence is a haven for folkies and soft-rockers such as Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams.
The list could go on and on. The producers of The Sopranos license up to 100 "source" songs - existing recorded material - for each 13-episode arc. Several series have in-house tunesmiths to provide situation and character-specific originals.
Gilmore Girls employs Grant-Lee Phillips, late of alt-rocker Grant Lee Buffalo, and folk-pop singer-songwriter Sam Phillips.
Ten years ago, such musical adventurousness was unusual. Twenty years ago, it was unthinkable. TV was still in the phase in which a series' musical elements consisted of a catchy opening theme and orchestral underscoring that most viewers scarcely noticed.
Now, the oddities are shows such as JAG that rely largely on orchestral scoring. Now, cover tunes are risky business. Now, production budgets reflect the necessity of "authenticity," even though the licence fee for a song can run from $US2000 ($A3500) to $US20,000 ($A35,000).
"If a kid is blasting music in his room and it's a cheap rip-off of something, it's just not going to have the same effect as if he's really blasting Kottonmouth Kings or something," says Ann Kline, who helps producer-writer John Wells choose source music for ER, The West Wing and Third Watch.
The shift started gradually. Miami Vice (1984-89) turned cop action into music videos to the beat of big-time rock hits such as Phil Collins' Something in the Air. The Wonder Years (1988-93) shrewdly incorporated pop hits from the '60s. Northern Exposure (1990-95) set the pattern for many of today's shows, using a quirky radio station and the jukebox at a local bar to work everything from Nat "King" Cole to Lynyrd Skynyrd into its soundtrack. There are many reasons why the trend has snowballed, but it mainly comes down to who's running the shows - and the networks. It's men and women who cut their teeth on rock and soul and, in some cases, were potty-trained to MTV.
"It's fun that you've had this song in your head that you've loved for 100 years, and now you get to, like, put it on and do a great scene around it,"says Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator-executive producer of Gilmore Girls.
The first Sopranos soundtrack was so successful - it went gold - that a second was released. Providence and CSI all have CDs out.
But the phenomenal surge in source music is not just about commerce and self-indulgence. Used well, matching source music to scenes is an art.
The consensus among people who make TV shows is that The Sopranos is the gold standard. "I think their use of music is incredible," Sherman-Palladino says.
The Sopranos has 100 per cent licensed music. Producer Martin Bruestle says series creator David Chase "has never been a fan of dramatic underscore. It's not part of his film- making style. Dramatic underscoring can be very beautiful, but it can also be very manipulative in the sense that it's telling the audience how to feel."
Bruestle says Chase occasionally decides on a song while writing a script - for example, Frank Sinatra's It Was a Very Good Year, which accompanied a stage-setting montage in the second season's first episode. Most often, the two sit down with music director Kathryn Dayak after they finish editing an episode and look for places "where music can naturally exist just as part of the wallpaper of their lives" - like Tony's strip club.
Not everyone is thrilled about the increase in source music. However inadvertently, the trend short-changes viewers who aren't into alt-rock, techno or trip-hop. And it means fewer opportunities for traditional composers.
"I still think hiring trained composers who know what they're doing, who've been in the medium for a long time, will give you a leg up in the long run," says Jon Burlingame, author of TV's Biggest Hits, which deals with series' theme songs. Burlingame praises the current scoring of Steve Bramson (JAG) and Alf Clausen (The Simpsons). "But I have to acknowledge that television has changed. It's not the same as it was in the '60s and '70s, when we couldn't wait to get home to listen to the theme from Mission: Impossible or Hawaii Five-0 or The Addams Family. Today, it's just different."
Credit: The Age
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