The air inside the Stillwater tour bus is thick with resentment. The band is a mess, spirits are low, and everyone is wrapped in some kind of fleece blanket of isolation. Tiny Dancer plays on top of this scene from Almost Famous, the piano adding yet another layer of melancholia, setting the mood for what is to be one of the most popular and glorious moments in soundtrack history. The music shifts, and now sounds as if it is being played on the tour bus and everyone — the band, the roadies, William Miller and Penny Lane — everyone can hear it. Their eyes light up on by one. The bass player sings the lyrics, “Handing tickets out for God.” One by one they sing a phrase, ceremoniously coming together by way of Elton John. When everyone is singing along, Will and Penny Lane get into conversation: “I have to go home.” “You are home.” And we have a moment, roughly two minutes long, etched in our memories forever.
At first, the music is what film intellectuals would call non-diegetic, which means it’s outside of the scene, strategically cued to set the mood for the audience. When the characters start hearing it inside their tour bus, it becomes diegetic, exisiting within the story, even steering the plot. In the 1999 drama Girl Interrupted, Petula Clark’s Downtown is diegetic.
There is an intimacy that results from using music in film in the diegetic sense. When it is embedded in the fiction, the brick wall that separates the audience from the characters is turned into a one-way mirror of sorts. The music acts like a bridge between dimensions and you feel like you are there, listening to it with the characters.
That’s not to say using music in the non-diegetic sense is not effective. In Fight Club, the city explodes to the tune of Pixies’ Where Is My Mind — that’s non-diegetic (Or is it? With this movie, we might never know). In 50/50, Radiohead’s High & Dry is put to excellent use: just as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character mulls over the point of life. And, pardon the reference, but how can we forget Mutemath’s Spotlight in that vampire love story that must not be named? It made Robert Pattinson seem more dangerous than his actual glittering undead self. Music heightens tension, inflates impact, and although it won’t feel quite as intimate, the alternative — the shared experience of hearing a great song played on top of a supposedly great scene with the rest of the audience — is electric.
It’s no secret that music is an effective tool for magnifying feelings. When you want to wallow in your misery, do you not play a Sam Smith or Adele song to add salt to your wounds? Does Eye Of The Tiger not make you want to punch the lights out of somebody? Doesn’t Paula Cole’s I Don’t Want To Wait make you feel like you’re 17 again? If you think a movie’s going to be good and its trailer makes use of a song that’s loved and familiar to the general populace, you would want to watch it even more. One of Suicide Squad’s bombastic trailers feature Panic at the Disco’s cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and it proved good for hype. A film with a promising soundtrack is irresistible. At that time, a lot of comic book fans were already excited for it. Had Warner Bros. used the Queen version, the trailer would probably not have connected with the younger audience the film hopes to draw in. This version had just enough angst in it to fit the chosen sequences, and though it wasn’t the original, it was larger-than-life — just like how the film was being marketed.
Recently, TV shows have upped their soundtrack games, to the point that soundtrack releases are making news as well. Take the Duffer Bros.-produced Netflix hit Stranger Things. Winona Ryder is what lures you in. She sits well with the concoction of 1980s nostalgia that you see on the show. But the soundtrack — the anticipation of what they’re going to play next — helps in keeping the audience interested, and those who haven’t seen the show, curious. Sometimes it distracts from the plot (Toto’s Africa during a makeout scene), sometimes it doesn’t (Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit during a chase). These familiar songs, love them or not, are what you bond with on a subconscious level as you watch the unknown unfold.
Unfamiliar songs work just as well. In the sophomore season of Mr. Robot, I Monster’s version of Daydream in Blue sets an ominous tone. In the final episode of the second season of You’re The Worst, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville’s Don’t Know Much transitions from diegetic to non-diegetic. It’s starts out funny, with estranged husband and wife Paul and Lindsay singing it on karaoke. Then it gets serious and oddly unironic as background music for Gretchen and Jimmy’s less funny realizations. In the 27 years that the song has existed, it may have just found its life’s place in the modern world — by being its cheesy self, it achieved its romantic peak, and may have even made some people cry.
Binge-worthy TV shows have likewise introduced us to genres we might otherwise glosss over. Scandal (remember it?) prominently used Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” in vinyl as a prop, and used The Isley Brothers’ Summer Breeze — while Olivia Pope did laps in a memorable white one-piece swimsuit — to great effect. Empire makes a good case for hip-hop. Although Lucious and Hakeem Lyon’s songs can be a bit on the cringe-worthy side, Jamal consistently hits the right notes. His coming-out song, an original from the show called You’re So Beautiful, deserved its moment.
And then we have Cameron Crow’s Roadies. That the show would make good use of good songs is a given. I’m still waiting for a Tiny Dancer moment, but it’s had some that came pretty close (the use of Pearl Jam’s Given To Fly in that running scene is one). Newer bands are also on showcase: The Head and the Heart, Frightened Rabbit, Reignwolf. Machine Gun Kelly, a real-life rapper who plays espresso connoisseur Wesley, ‘grammed today that the show’s latest episode would feature a duet with Halsey. Should the storyline grow thin, you will still have the music. And isn’t that the point?
Music is a persuader — the good songs will make you feel the most. That TV shows are starting to pay attention to their soundtracks (in the great tradition of Dawson’s Creek and The OC) might make you think: Am I here for the show or for the music? Producers are choosing the music, conditioning our already wired brains to feel something we would otherwise dismiss. They have us emotionally invested in these shows — do we even really like them? If you find yourself Spotifying more than you are watching, there’s your answer. But, who cares? I came for dessert.