There are precious few moments in modern television history that aren’t punctuated by a music cue. Some shows choose to eschew music in favor of making a grander statement with silence (The West Wing or many period piece shows), but most executive producers and network heads believe in their hearts that people need to be told how to feel with music, not just from watching a television show and becoming invested in the characters’ arcs.
But sometimes television shows throw curveballs. Intentional or not, many of them elicit laughs, sighs or gasps just from their use, not necessarily because of how well they complement a show’s mood. In the spirit of one of the bigger “WTF” moments in television history, let’s run through some of the more surprising or out of place references shows have drawn from music.
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” The Beatles – Mad Men
Matthew Weiner, showrunner for Mad Men, had been teasing this all episode, making explicit references to The Beatles’ ungettability, their expense and their general inability to play to the ears of people older than them. Yet when Megan Draper gives Don a copy of Revolver and tells him to pop on the last track, it’s awe-inducing to hear one of the quintessentially weird moments in music history play over one of the more fantastic montages in television memory. “Tomorrow Never Knows” perfectly captured the sentiment of Mad Men’s fifth season, yet merely its appearance on television is reason enough to warrant a gasp. Plus, y’know, it cost $250,000. No big deal.
“Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey – The Sopranos
Diagetic, or in the scene, soundtrack choices are always lovely when they comment on the audience watching it. In the last scene of the “Sopranos” series finale, the family Soprano (minus one key member) sit eating onion rings at a diner. They say nothing. Journey plays. Someone walks in. Tony looks up. End series. Shocking as the ending itself was, Journey’s seminal tune would comment on the near decade-long debate that has raged over that final scene—what was the ultimate fate of Tony Soprano? We may never know, but Journey certainly has some advice on that subject.
“Good Vibrations,” Beach Boys – Lost
“Downtown,” Petula Clark – Seinfeld
We combine two seemingly uncombinable shows here to explain that a song doesn’t necessarily have to be playing for it to have a certain impact. In one case, the melody of a song changes the fate of dozens of characters simply because there was only one person who could remember the melody at that specific time. In another, a man begins to believe his overseer is sending him encoded messages through a pop song. Music, especially unexpected cues from songs that don’t fit a shows mood, can drive a listener deeper or elicit more hearty laughter than even great standalone jokes.
“Straight Up and Down,” The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Boardwalk Empire
Then there are the misplaced songs. “Boardwalk Empire” is nothing if not religiously strict to its period piece principles. Yet for the baffling title sequence, executive producer Martin Scorsese chose to forget the show’s time (1920s) and use a title song completely befitting of another time in Marty’s career arc. It’s a jarring and beautiful sequence, but it couldn’t fit less with the show’s thesis, and that’s mostly because of the music choice.
“Big Shot (Hands in the Sky),” Straylight Run – Sons of Anarchy
If this was the first time you’d heard of Straylight Run, “Big Shot”’s placement as a motorcycle ride out song in one of the toughest, most brutal shows on television would fit perfectly. And the song certainly does. But this musical WTF moment is for those that know the gentler side of John Nolan’s project—aka every single Straylight Run song except for “Big Shot.” While it was a perfect choice by the “Sons” music supervisor, for Straylight fans the song’s selection must’ve elicited a hearty chortle.
“Hide And Seek,” Imogen Heap – The OC
The big one. The one that was parodied by SNL to great effect. The OC made a mint off of showrunner Josh Schwartz’s music library, to no greater effect than this moment, in which [SPOILER] Marissa Cooper murders the brother of her sometimes lover, Ryan. It’s not so much the a cappella songwriting, or the gunshot itself, but the combination of the two creating a deathly still moment in time. It was a WTF moment on both ends, storytelling and song choice, and it defines exactly what a shocking moment should look like, if punctuated by music.