A friend of mine announced on Facebook a few years back that he hates mix-tape scores. You know — when a movie or a TV show accompanies the action, often in a montage, with a familiar song, one that the viewer associates with good times or bad, sadness or happiness. It’s a trend that probably started in the movies of the 1970s, most likely after the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (though as far as I can recall the score to Saturday Night Fever was made up entirely of original BeeGees songs). The first mix-tape score I can remember, though, was the blend of old and new Simon & Garfunkel songs that Mike Nichols used in his brilliant 1967 comedy The Graduate.
Nowadays the mix-tape score has become so common, even cliched, that it was parodied in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy by giving the main character an actual mix-tape, which he plays on an aging Walkman throughout the film (and at the end of the film they give him a new mix-tape to play in the sequel). The music choices weren’t necessarily from my all-time favorites list, but I never get tired of watching Chris Pratt kicking alien lizards to the accompaniment of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”
At some point the trend skipped across media and became common on television, to the point where some shows even give a credit for Music Archivist. (T-Bone Burnett got one on both seasons of True Detective.) Frequently the song is saved for the final scene and often plays right into the credits. You could always tell when an episode of Mad Men had reached its denouement when a thematically and period-appropriate song began to play over Don’s or Peggy’s or Pete’s realization that whatever had just happened amounted to some kind of turning point in their lives.
I don’t hate mix-tape scores. In fact, I kind of like them, at least when they’re done right. Maybe they’re a cheap way for a movie or TV show to project unearned emotions on scenes that would fall flat without some assistance from a singer-songwriter who might well have died before his or her song found new life on a soundtrack. But when the emotion is earned by the story, the burst of familiar music can take a scene right over the top, working with the action to create something that approaches the sublime.
Mad Men was terrific at this. Sometimes the scene where the closing song came in was the only moment in the episode that made me realize it had been worth watching. The one that for some reason sticks in my memory was in an episode where Don Draper holds on to his suave pretensions and talks about his career with a reporter, carefully omitting any mention of his impoverished rural upbringing. But the camera pulled back and the soundtrack told the real story, using the song “Tobacco Road,” a 1964 hit by The Nashville Teens (a British-invasion group, despite their name). I’m old enough to remember the song and the smile on my face was almost as wide as our large-screen TV.
And I don’t know if this will inspire a chorus of groans or cheers, but the Leonard Cohen song (“Nevermind”) that accompanied the opening credits of True Detective‘s second season was the best part of the show. Of course, given how the season turned out, that’s about like saying Josef Stalin was the nicest mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century. But I love Cohen’s work when he’s in a dark mood (which has gotten even darker in the last few months) and the song perfectly fit the dark mood that the show was trying, if generally failing, to achieve. (NOTE: This was written before Cohen died.)
The mix-tape score I want to talk about here was in last Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.” If you follow the show and haven’t seen the episode yet, you should stop reading here. Spoilers will follow. The Walking Dead is a show that people love to hate, but I hugely admire the skill with which they keep coming up with new ways of pressing old buttons. In “The Cell,” Rick’s gang finds themselves trapped in the nastiest town of survivors yet and the opening number, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” underscored that point. But then the show’s musical archivist found an obscure piece called “Easy Street” (no relation to the song of the same name from the musical Annie) by a one-shot group called The Collapsable Hearts Club and used it as sleep-deprivation torture on poor Daryl, who had made the mistake two episodes earlier of attacking the town’s evil dictator. It’s an extremely happy song, which would seem to contrast ironically with “A Town Called Malice” yet if you listen to the two songs sequentially they have remarkably similar uptempo drum tracks. For a song about evil, “A Town Called Malice” borders on the cheerful.
This uptempo beat recurs throughout the episode and it is indeed an ironic contrast to the horror of the story. (If you follow The Walking Dead at all, you know that the horror very rarely comes from the eponymous zombies. It comes from the people who have managed to survive those zombies.) Yet at the end they switch the tempo entirely, when an unexpected frenemy of Daryl’s does him the kindness of switching his torture song to Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” one of the saddest songs ever written and one that never comes even close to being uptempo. Daryl, who has been stoic throughout his torment, finally gives way to the enormous grief that he’s been bottling up and starts sobbing uncontrollably as the show goes to credits.
It was a remarkable use of mix-tape music, with “Easy Street,” a song intended to promise Daryl the paradise that could be his if only he’d kiss the evil dictator’s posterior, actually underscoring his own carefully studied emotional denial and Roy Orbison finally blowing it wide open.
It was one of the subtlest, most remarkable, even most moving uses of a mix-tape score I’ve ever heard. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, it justified the concept all by itself.