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Can Lorelai and Rory Save Pop, 05.19.01 ...

Right now, there’s more opportunity to discover great pop music on television than there’s been in nearly two decades, ever since MTV changed the musical landscape seemingly overnight.

Of course, MTV for years has been sliding towards complete musical irrelevance for anyone old enough to drive themselves to the record store. You won’t find the newest, most unjustly obscure, smartest and catchiest pop there, or on VH1, or indeed anywhere on cable. You’ll find it on prime-time network TV.

Yes, really. The same prime-time network TV that for the first three decades of rock and roll history either pretended the music didn’t exist, smugly mocked it or, most often, got it glaringly, hilariously wrong. Remember that episode of What’s Happenin’ where Re-Run got tricked into bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert? Only in a television fantasyland would three mid-‘70s black teenagers be the slightest bit excited about going to see the freakin’ Doobie Brothers, but you get the idea the producers of that show never heard of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Television historians will tell you that it was Miami Vice that finally got rock-on-TV right, and while it’s clear how much of today’s filmic vocabulary can be directly traced to this show’s appropriation of MTV editing gimmicks, it’s also painfully obvious that their taste in music was nowhere near so up-to-the-minute. This show’s avatars of hip, remember, were Phil Collins and ex-Eagle Glenn Frey.

That’s not the rule anymore. A New York Times article recently discussed how many current television commercials use songs by otherwise obscure young pop artists, focusing on The Apples In Stereo, who licensed their songs “Shine A Light” and “Strawberryfire” for JC Penneys and IBM. NBC’s critically acclaimed new series Ed uses the Foo Fighters’ wistful “Next Year” as its theme song, and has twice prominently used Marshall Crenshaw songs in scenes. The oft brilliant Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle has a theme song by They Might Be Giants, who also write the underscore (the music used beneath scenes and during transitions) for every episode. But the current reigning champion of obscure pop music shoutouts, as well as quite possibly the most pop music-obsessed TV show ever, is The WB’s Gilmore Girls (Thursdays, 8 p.m. Eastern). Ostensibly a warm-hearted family comedy-drama about a mother and daughter, in reality, it's the world’s first television show written by pop geeks, about pop geeks, for pop geeks.

That somewhat controversial term is not used lightly. The characters on this show revel in their differences from the cardboard figures on such superficially similar series as 7th Heaven or Dawson’s Creek. The high school students not only attend classes, they actually study and even read books on their own. The adults drop casual references to both Marcel Proust and The Dukes of Hazzard. The dialogue is fast, funny, and often insightful, and for all the show’s deliberate whimsy, even the minor characters feel more like quirky human beings than stock figures rounded up from an “Eccentric Local Color” casting call. And by conscious design, series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has chosen to express these characters’ individualism in large part through their idiosyncratic tastes in pop music. The near-constant musical references on Gilmore Girls, ranging from Thelonious Monk and Tito Puente to Young Marble Giants and the Sugarplastic, are not last-minute additions, but a fundamental part of the characters’ lives. Or, as series writer Daniel Palladino puts it, “Before this show, we always thought the network and studio dictated what kind of music to use, and then when we got into this, we started using music and putting in references and waiting for someone to tell us not to! Then we discovered that it’s actually the creators and producers who put in all that bland music. So we’ve been using this as a forum to espouse our musical tastes.”

What you need to know about the show itself: Gilmore Girls is about the unique bond between 32-year-old Lorelai Gilmore and her 16-year-old daughter Rory. Lorelai (Lauren Graham, who has been the best thing about a long string of mediocre-to-horrible sitcoms, and who is luminous now that she finally has a role to match her talents) is a manic, caffeine-fuelled smartmouth who got pregnant at the age of 16, quit school, moved out of her rich and domineering parents’ house and became a maid at a hotel in the tiny Connecticut village of Stars Hollow. Sixteen years later, she now runs the place. Rory (talented newcomer Alexis Bledel, a former teen model who has the winsome grace and quirky intelligence of the young Winona Ryder, minus the angst) is a bookish straight-A student who dreams of traveling the world and going to Harvard, not necessarily in that order. Rory gets into a snooty prep school called Chilton. But in order to afford the huge tuition, Lorelai has to mend fences with her parents, Emily and Richard (noted stage actors Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann), who agree to finance Rory’s education as long as they’re allowed back into Lorelai and Rory’s life.

These are folks who take their pop music seriously. All activity stops when Rory’s best friend, the adorably awkward Lane Kim (Keiko Agena), rushes into the Gilmore house waving a copy of Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume II). Seconds later, Lane, Rory and Lorelai are dancing awkwardly around the living room while “The Man Who Murdered Love” plays at top volume.

Although music is important to nearly all the characters on the show, Lane is Stars Hollow’s resident pop fanatic, and one of the most endearing, true-to-life adolescents ever shown on television. A Velvet Underground fan whose career goals include either becoming the Foo Fighters’ bassist or the keyboardist on the Siouxsie and the Banshees reunion tour, Lane is alternately rebelliously dismissive of and scared to death of her fiercely traditionalist Korean immigrant mother. A walking encyclopedia of music history whose taste runs from Yoko Ono (“A very misunderstood artist and the Beatles would have broken up anyway. I know it, Yoko knows it, Sean knows it, Julian’s still in denial but what can you do?”) to Grandaddy, Lane is shy and conflicted, but she’s a refreshing reversal of the usual High Fidelity cliché of the person who depends on pop music to provide the emotional depth their everyday life doesn’t provide. For all its faults, Lane is quite happy with her life, thank you, and uses music as more of a social and communal activity than a crutch. Although Lorelai and Rory are the stars of the show, Lane is its philosopher.

Can Lorelai and Rory Save Pop Music? Well…they’ve got as good a shot at it as anyone else. As Daniel Palladino points out, “It seems like no one at record companies actually likes music anymore.” The ad agency reps, TV show producers and music supervisors who salt their programs with music they genuinely love and think is underexposed--Ben Vaughn has stated in interviews that he uses Alex Chilton’s music in That 70s Show simply because Alex is a talented friend who could use the extra money--are in some ways the best A&R people in the music business today. Is their use of their favorite obscure pop music working? Both artists and fans say yes.

Eytan Mirsky is a New York-based singer-songwriter who works at a film post-production house as a sound editor by day and records his own sweetly astringent pop songs after hours. He’s placed songs in a few noted indie films--Jane Adams and Michael Stipe sing Mirsky’s song “Happiness” at the end of his film school friend Todd Solondz’s film of the same name, and his songs play a key part in Jeniphr Goodman’s The Tao of Steve--and he recently had an instrumental version of his song “Leaving You,” from his soon-to-be-released second album, Was It Something I Said?, play during a pivotal scene in an episode of Ed. Mirsky admits that he didn’t get much (“say it's high three figures”) for this, but says that isn’t the point. He’s a realist when it comes to the use of his music on TV. “People have contacted me from all over the world about Happiness, and many of the reviews for The Tao of Steve commented on my songs, but even all that hasn't had that much of an effect on my career. I would have hoped that by now I'd have been hired to do more film work, but eventually something else will pop up.” So why does he license his songs? “The money. But also, I'm hoping that they continue to use more stuff from me, which of course would mean more money! Plus, you never know what it could lead to, who you could connect to. In this case the music editor is a friend of mine so it's just encouraging that he actually used some of my music. It gives me hope for the future.”

But what it comes down to is this: Does the use of pop music in TV shows cause viewers to actually buy albums? I asked this question on a message board at a Gilmore Girls fan site and apparently, the answer is yes. In particular, copies of the two most recent XTC albums, Carole King’s Tapestry (the show’s theme is a new recording of that album’s “Where You Lead” by King and daughter Louise Goffin) and the collected works of the Bangles (Lorelai’s favorite band, who performed live in the episode “Concert Interruptus”) are apparently considerably more prized now than they were before this show went on the air. And for the artists, the fans, and the TV landscape, it’s hard to see how that can be anything but a good thing.

Q&A with Amy Sherman-Palladino

Amplifier: The musical references are such an important part of the show, more so than on any other show I’ve ever seen not actually set in a musical world.

Amy: They are important, because certain music has become very associated with WB shows. You know, like Dawson’s Creek got into the really Paula Cole-y, Sarah McLachlan-y kind of thing. Because the voice is very specific on the show, the dialogue and the language is specific; I needed the music to be equally as specific, ‘cause it’s your backdrop. It says as much about the show as the words do! So…when I set about to put music in it, I’m like, “We gotta get somebody to score the show that really gets the show... not just somebody who scores five thousand shows on television and has won forty Emmys and who I’m sure is very competent. But somebody who’s got a very unique voice.” Hence, the lovely and talented Sam Phillips!

That started as a lark, really, because we used one of her songs in our pilot, and everybody fell in love with the song and most of the people had never heard it before, and they were like, “Is this a hit? Is this on the radio now?” and I’m like (laughs) “Uhhh…noooo…this is actually from, like, the ‘80s! It’s been around a while!” We were literally about to hire somebody and then I just said, “You know, just for the hell of it, let’s call and see if Sam has any interest in being involved with the show.” I got a call back that said “Oh, Sam is available and she’ll meet with you in an hour!!!” and I’m like “REALLY???” She was interested in doing it because I think she’s getting interested in learning how to score movies, because T-Bone is doing that now, and they’ve got a young daughter, and so Sam wants to be around a little bit more. She has a new album coming out soon, too.

So at what point in the conception of the show did you decide on the importance of the music and how you wanted the music to be?

Well, it was always a part of it. As a writer, you always want your stuff to be specific to you. It wasn’t a show I wrote for money, I wasn’t under a deal anywhere, it’s just an idea I wanted to do. I went directly to the network and said, “Look, this is what I wanna do, I dunno if you’re interested in it,” and they just took a flyer on me. So it was kind of one of those under-the-radar shows anyhow, that not too many people had their eyes on. Because of that, it was like, “Okay, great, when you get the pictures all together, now you have to think about music!” That’s the point where you have to think about “What do I want to say about this show? What do I want to say about the kinds of music these characters listen to? What do I want to say about the background music, which dictates how scenes feel, and the rhythm and the pace, and the knowledge [on the audience’s part] of where they are?” Part of it is that by putting in a character like Lane. Kids like Lane, who is really into music…well, my husband’s nephew is 15, and the music that this kid listens to! And it’s because of his father, you know. These kids didn’t grow up listening to Barney songs, they grew up listening to Tom Waits! They grew up with Jonathan Richman! They grew up with a totally different musical point of view. So you’ve got a 15-year-old kid now who’s into everything from Louis Armstrong on! All of a sudden you hear him talking about the Kinks and other stuff where you’re like “Really? But you’re fifteen! Shouldn’t you be into Limp Bizkit?”

What’s great is that I’m surrounded! My husband is super super into music, and my best friend, who works on the show, she’s super super super into music, so I constantly have people bringing me things! “You’ve got to listen to this song! We’ve got to do a Jesus and Mary Chain song.

When you name drop musicians and authors in your scripts, are you thinking more “This is a tribute to someone I admire” or more “Maybe if I mention this, someone will go seek it out”?

I think it’s both! When I have Rory reading Dorothy Parker, it’s because I’m a huge Dorothy Parker fan. But also, I’m always trying to get Alexis to listen to different kinds of music. I just bought her some Suzanne Vega recently, because Alexis is a very interesting girl--she’s just gotten into Squeeze, for example--so I’m trying to get her different things. I think that sometimes it’s fun to slip in a little something unexpected, and sometimes I think it would be fun if kids had to track down something. If nothing else, it’s fun to show what kind of an open world these people live in that they would know all these things!

You know, it is happening, that people are buying these books and records because of their use on the show, if the internet message boards I’ve been reading are any indication.

Really? That’s great! There are certain things like XTC and Sam and Grant Lee Phillips…people should know them! They should buy these albums! They’re just so good! They’re just pop craftsmen, and why they’re not bigger is just a mystery to me. When I look at that whole surge, that, that, Lillith Fair surge, and I’m thinking, “Why not Sam? I don’t understand!” She’s so interesting, and she’s not like so weird or crazy…why not? I just don’t get why not.

In the episode “Kiss and Tell,” Dean gives the usual “Isn’t it horrible that they used ‘Pink Moon’ in a VW ad?” speech. Where do you fall on that sort of thing? What if because of the show, there was a huge XTC revival and they suddenly started selling albums?

Well, advertising can be a great thing. You know they used one of Sam’s songs for a Calvin Klein fragrance commercial, and they did it so well! It was just her song “I Need Love” and these very interesting visuals of two people obviously in love. I wasn’t even certain it was a commercial until the very end, when they brought up the Calvin Klein logo. I called and asked if she’d seen the commercial yet, and she said “No, I’m scared to,” and I said, “I think you’d be very proud of it, because what they’ve done is taken the essence of your song and put visuals to it.” They didn’t cheapen it at all. I think it depends…music is so personal, that if it’s used in a cool way to convey something interesting, it says something. And if it says something about a show, it’ll say something about a product.

You know, it’s hard. Artists struggle to get their music out there. When Sam’s new album comes out, the same Sam Phillips fans will go out and buy that album and love it, but how many other people would be into Sam if she had an outlet where other people might go, “Hey, that’s a really interesting song, who is that?” You just have to be picky. It’s just like being a writer. Someone can throw a trillion dollars at you to turn Webster into a movie, and you can take the money and do it, or you can think, “You know, I really don’t think Webster is a movie, and that’s not something I want to put my name on.” But someone else could bring you something like the Charlie’s Angels movie, which I think turned out pretty well! It wasn’t the greatest movie in the world, but it was the right way to do that thing! And if you have an opportunity that’s a wonderful idea that’s going to give you exposure, and give you some cash when you’re living in a barn and driving a taxi on the weekends, I really think that this can only be a good thing.
Credit: Amplifier Online

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