I don't watch a lot television. But I am aware, and have been for at least a decade, that when I tune in, it's very likely that I'll discover a band, listen to the premiere of a new single, or hear an old song that I love. At this point, it's a phenomenon I take for granted. But when exactly did my television turn into a jukebox?
General consensus is that The OC transformed the musical television landscape, though that probably had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. As mainstream radio support for indie bands waned, The OC picked up the torch, becoming a standalone -- albeit surreal -- context to discover up-and-coming bands. And while other shows had merely played a few seconds of a song to bolster or foment emotion in a scene, The OC acted in a more curatorial and intentional fashion. The music was part of the characters' lives, which further cemented the identification that the audience felt with the show. The OC gave boosts to bands like Phantom Planet, Modest Mouse and Sufjan Stevens, releasing CD "mixes" in the style of CMJ music samplers instead of soundtracks.
But let's be honest. Most of us didn't watch The OC, and if we did, we certainly wouldn't credit the show with anything more than having a shrewd and perspicacious music supervisor. And it's not as if that show was the first to marry the two media. But who was, and who was actually good at it?
One earlier way to get music onto a television show was to actually have the band or artist appear in an episode. There was The Standells on The Munsters, The B-52's on Guiding Light, Devo on Square Pegs, The Doobie Brothers on What's Happening!!, Julee Cruise on Twin Peaks, Wu-Tang Clan on The Larry Sanders Show and The Flaming Lips on Beverly Hills 90210, to name but a few instances. One problem with this scenario is that there is rarely a seamless way to incorporate a live band into a television show, whether it's a comedy or a drama. Though there are a few exceptions, the script usually involves the ingenious idea of the characters -- you guessed it -- going to a concert. Or, if there is some local hangout on the show, the band plays there, which involves a massive suspension of disbelief (even though we all secretly love to think that our favorite bands would play the malt shop in the small, crappy towns we grew up in).
And what about a solid, catchy theme song as an old-fashioned way to incorporate music? The theme from MASH, "Suicide Is Painless," became a No. 1 hit in the U.K. and "I'll Be There for You," the theme from Friends, peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard charts. In elementary school, we had to sing the theme from Cheers at each and every recital (I still have it memorized, by the way, and there are a lot more verses than you might think). And one of my current favorite shows, Friday Night Lights, has a fantastic instrumental theme.
Then there was The Wonder Years. Thinking back, this may have been the first show I can remember watching that used popular music as a means of both embodying and legitimizing the era the show aimed to represent. Since The Wonder Years was exploring the '60s and '70s retroactively, the soundtrack acted as a mnemonic device. The music was just as much a part of the exploration and story as the visuals and plot.
I do think that television is a better, or at least more agile, barometer of cultural trends and norms than film. Yet I still prefer the combination of film and music. I find the use of music in today's television shows overly conspicuous and silly, and maybe even a little desperate. It reminds me that the show is trying to appeal to a certain audience, and I find that transparency to be irksome. Then again, television seems to be doing just fine, and I keep watching my favorite shows, as does everyone else. And I never used to be so bothered by the combination of the two media. Perhaps it's just sad that music needs so much help these days.
Have you discovered a new band or song via television? What is your favorite combination of episodes, scenes and music? Or, what are the most embarrassing or contrived instances of songs on TV? And what shows, past or present, have been curators of good music?