Best Music Cues in a TV Show

Last week I saw a tweet asking “What do you think is the best use of a song on a TV show?” It’s a simple enough question, but me being me I have been OBSESSED with it ever since–remember, I used to do a whole podcast with my brother specifically designed for us to endlessly debate pop culture minutae rankings. This is right in my wheelhouse.

The first thing we need to do, as always, is establish some ground rules, though I think the only one we really need is “no theme songs allowed”–not because I don’t like theme songs, but because they’re a different animal. I might need to do an entire blog post about TV opening sequences sometime, because some of them are absolute works of art (I will mention The Wire, The Sopranos, and Patriot; note that I can’t find the actual opening sequence for Patriot anywhere online, so that link is just the song without the visuals). Today we’re going to focus on songs that are used in the story itself, as part of the storytelling.

Here are my picks for some of the very best:

1) My gut reaction to the question was “Walking in Memphis,” by Cher, as used at the end of the X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” Cher’s music plays a vital role throughout the episode, both in setting the surreal tone (it’s a comedic episode, filmed in black and white, telling a bizarre tale of genetic experimentation, monster sightings, and loneliness) and in the plot itself (the lonely monster, The Great Mutato, is a huge Cher fan, thanks to her role in the movie “Mask”). Two horror sequences are incongruously set to the songs “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” and a Cher version of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” but it’s not until the end, when Mulder and Scully finally leave the city with The Great Mutato in custody, that “Walking in Memphis” kicks in, and the final sequence changes from sad to dizzyingly joyful in a single shot: we see the agents in the car with the boy, and the music plays, and then the camera focuses on Mulder’s shoe, tapping along to the beat. The music isn’t just playing over the show, it’s playing inside of it, and the characters are listening, and they’re not arresting him, they’re taking him to a Cher concert. The show ramps up the joy another ten notches or so with a perfectly timed zoom: Cher sings the line “Down in the Jungle Room,” and steps to the side, and there’s The Great Mutato himself rocking out in the middle of the floor. And then somehow, impossibly, they ramp up the joy AGAIN with possibly the most charming single thing to ever happen in the entire run of the show: Mulder stands up, extends his hand, and invites Scully to dance. Every single drop of this entire sequence is perfect.

2) Spoilers ahead in this one. Another show with a fantastic theme song is Justified, which uses “Long Hard Times to Come” by Gangstagrass, but Justified also has an unofficial second theme song, which they use as an ending to every season, and it’s hauntingly tragic and beautiful: “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The original version was written and recorded by Darrell Scott, though the show used different covers almost every time. My personal favorite combination of music and story came at the end of season 2, as the capstone to one of the most powerful performances on television: Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett. She’s been a towering villain, mixing love and vulnerability with a ruthless plan and vicious methods, and her exit is one of the high water marks of the entire six seasons of the show. Whereas the first season ended with a shootout, the second ends in a quiet, solitary reverence, with Mags and Raylan sitting down to a drink of apple pie moonshine. We think she’s going to poison him, but she chooses to poison herself instead, and her final scene becomes a heartbreaking bookend to her first one. Her last words are exquisitely chosen, and Martindale’s performance is flawless, and then Brad Paisley’s cover of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” comes in like a funeral wail.

3) We’ve done a joyful song and we’ve done a sad one, so let’s do one that’s both: Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” as wildly reinterpreted by Glee. You need some setup for this one: teenage Rachel has never known her birth mother, but has always wanted to find her. Near the end of the first season she finally does, and it’s a perfectly cast Idina Menzel; Rachel is overjoyed to learn that her birth mother shares her love of singing, but almost immediately crushed to learn that her mother does not intend to stick around and be a part of her life. Rachel proposes a parting duet–one last song before they never see each other again–and passes her mother the sheet music for a peppy piano version of Poker Face. It’s a bouncy, happy, and yes, gleeful arrangement of the song, completely recontextualized from the pop radio version, but it somehow also manages to draw out the deep pain of the lyrics in a way you’ve probably never thought about before. On one hand, it’s a song about doing what you want, and not letting anything bother you; on the other hand, it’s a song about hiding your emotions and pretending your heart isn’t breaking. Watch the way they sing it, and the way they move so fluidly between the happiness of singing together, and the tragedy of knowing that this will be the last time. Watch them struggle not to cry every time they repeat the line “She’s got to love nobody.” It’s a tour de force by two incredible singers, backed up by some phenomal acting, and together they create an almost alchemical mix of joy and despair.

4) I love it when TV shows recontextualize songs in this way, making them mean something different than they used to, or shining a light on a meaning we hadn’t seen before. The flip side of this is to use a song that recontextualizes the show itself, turning a scene or a character or a relationship on its head. One of the very best instances of this I’ve ever seen was Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town,” in a cover version by Tony Lucca created specifically for the first season finale of Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights is a show about a small-town high school football program, showcasing in equal parts the way that football is both a saving grace and a dangerous obsession. In a lot these towns football is elevated and idolized to a degree that warps the entire community. The first season of the show follows the team as they train and focus and fight and eventually win the championship, culminating in a triumphant parade with the entire town cheering for them. But even though it’s a victory–even though the entire season has led to this moment–the show undercuts the whole sequence, blanking out all of the sound and the cheering and the applause and everything else, and instead just playing this haunting, almost shocking song instead. There is no joy, and there is no triumph. In context, it’s like being punched in the gut, and it was so vital to the plan of the show that they actually commissioned their own cover version to make sure they got it exactly right.

5) Let’s do another one that embraces cognitive dissonance: “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” by Tommy James and the Shondells, in the final season of Breaking Bad. In a show about blue crystal meth, you know this song had to turn up sooner or later, and I can only imagine Vince Gilligan the showrunner sitting on this one for season after season, biding his time and waiting for the perfect moment; you don’t want to squander a music cue this good. And boy, did they ever find the perfect moment. “Meth-making montages” had become a hallmark of the show, and Breaking Bad used “Crystal Blue Persuasion” as the soundtrack for the very last meth montage we ever get–though it’s more than just meth, it’s a seamless dance connecting every step at what is, by this point in the story, a worldwide drug empire. We watch them make the meth, package it, ship it, pass money, count money, make more meth, weigh it, smuggle it, count more money, make more meth, hide in the shower, make more meth, move more money, on and on and back and forth. Breaking Bad was always brilliant with its cinematography and its editing, and this sequnce is one of their greatest achievements, cutting from one scene to the next in ways that connect movements and colors and visuals until the entire process seems unified and whole, and the song has such a laid-back, groovy, comfortable vibe, and everything is working smoothly, and yet it becomes painfully obvious that no one involved is happy. A lot of people pick Breaking Bad’s final song, “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, as the best in the show, and it’s a good one, but “Crystal Blue Persuasion” from a few episodes earlier absolutely takes the crown.

Breakin Bad "Crystal Blue Persuasion" from Nonnie on Vimeo.

6) We’ve done a lot of dark songs, and a lot of dark shows, and that probably says more about my viewing habits than anything else, but let’s end on a high note. Let’s look at one of the best depictions of drive and hard work and determination I’ve ever seen in a TV show: Kim from Better Call Saul, trying to secure a new client for her law firm to get back in their good graces. She spends every spare minute on it, in stairwells and parking garages and restrooms, and it all happens to the sound of “A Mi Manera,” better known as “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, as performed in Spanish by the Gipsy Kings. Yes, I’m doing another Vince Gilligan show, but what can I say? The man knows how to use music. Kim is one of the unsung heroes of Better Call Saul, a show that is primarily about two feuding brothers but wouldn’t work even half as well as it does without Kim as both a counter-example and a humanizing element on main character Jimmy McGill. To be fair, Jimmy is one of the hardest-workin’ men in the law game, but his methods are loose and wacky and so far outside of the box most people just assume he’s a criminal, even when he’s not; Kim works just as hard, but she does it from inside the system, and this sequence shows her with her nose to the grindstone, at all hours of the day and night, shmoozing old friends and calling in forgotten favors and pulling every string she can think of. Choosing the Gipsy Kings version of “My Way” is the perfect choice, not just because it’s in Spanish (which is beautifully on-point for a show set in Albuquerque), but because the flamenco guitar underneath it sets a tone that’s playful and frantic at the same time. The music is every bit as busy as Kim is, and yet hopeful and excited and inspiring.

This isn’t a remotely comprehensive list–it isn’t even a ranked list–but it was on my mind. Now it’s on yours. Any suggestions?

5 Responses to “Best Music Cues in a TV Show”

  1. admin says:

    I can’t stop myself: how about “Get On Your Feet,” by Gloria Estefan, on Parks and Recreation?

  2. Klimpaloon says:

    The “Mmm whatcha say?” cue might not be the best one, but it deserves an honorable mention for it being used in the SNL sketch “Dear Sister.”

    I have a personal fondness for the appearance of “The Happy Wanderer” in Fringe episode “Brown Betty” for it

  3. Klimpaloon says:

    The “Mmm whatcha say?” cue might not be the best one, but it deserves an honorable mention for it being used in the SNL sketch “Dear Sister.”

    I have a personal fondness for the appearance of “The Happy Wanderer” in Fringe episode “Black Blotter” for it encapsulating Walter’s drug high (with Pythonesque visuals accompanying).

    There’s also “Tick Tock Goes the Clock” used repeatedly throughout Doctor Who series 6 for extra creepiness.

    I’ll think of more later, probably.

  4. Mario Zakall says:

    “John the Revelator” by Curtis Stigers & The Forest Rangers in Sons of Anarchy:

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