Story and Song

by Alafair Burke

While I was listening to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” for the gamillionth time yesterday, I realized I had a video clip playing in my head, and it wasn’t footage of Adele performing her hit song.  It was of Chuck and Blair from the season finale of Gossip Girl, clasping hands from their hoisted chairs at a crashed wedding, one final romantic night in their tragic union before Blair is to be married off to a prince.

Yes, I watch Gossip Girl.   Go ahead.  Laugh.  I’ll wait.  But the fact that I have the same taste in TV as your fourteen year old daughter is not the point of this post.  My point is about a good soundtrack.  Sometimes the connection between a song and the story it helps narrate becomes so indelibly etched into the brain that the two can never be separated.

If you don’t believe me, check out the love between these two doomed, slo-mo youngsters.  “We could have had it all.”  I’ll love this song forever, and it will forever remind me of Chuck and Blair.

Adele and Gossip Girl aren’t the only song/story combination linked together in my mind.  My playlist seems to be filled with songs from soundtracks.  Here are some of my favorite uses of song to accompany story.

Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in Grosse Point Blank

You can feel John Cusack seeing the life he hasn’t lived in that adorable baby’s eyes.  “Cause love’s such an old fashioned word, And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.  This is our last dance.  Under Pressure.”

Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” from Say Anything

And speaking of John Cusack, I see the life I could have lived with him everytime I hear “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.  “I see the doorway to a thousand churches in your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches.”

Dear Husband, at some point before I die, I need to be serenaded with a boom box beneath my window. Oh, I want to be that complete.

Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” in the Sopranos

David Chase used music brilliantly through this series.  When it comes to Journey, most people will remember “Don’t Stop Believing” in that final, controversial scene, but I always remember “Wheel in the Sky” playing at the end of the episode Bust Out in season 2.  Tony has just ended a particularly bad-behaving day, having ruined a friend’s sporting goods business and beaten a murder rap.  He takes the helm of his new boat, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.  “The wheel in the sky keeps on turning, Don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”  It’s Tony Soprano’s anthem.

Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here” from Sixteen Candles

If you were a straight girl in the 80s, Admit it: A part of you is still in love with Jake Ryan.  Dear Husband, I also need you to wait for me outside my sister’s wedding in a red Porsche, then sit crosslegged on a table with me and a birthday cake.  “If you were here, I could deceive you.  And if you were here, you would believe.”

Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Every time I see Jennifer Jason Leigh, I hear this song, and vice versa.  Poor girl, losing her virginity to that scum bag in the high school dugout.  “She’s gonna be somebody’s baby tonight.”

Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” in Almost Famous

Another Cameron Crowe movie, no surprise.  Most people will remember that epic bus tour scene with the Elton John’s Tiny Dancer singalong, but I also love this scene with Penny Lane dancing to Cat Stevens.  These kinds of moments in this film are the reason I still haven’t given up on Kate Hudson.  “Where I’ll end up, well I think only God really knows.”

Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” from Harold and Maude

And speaking of Cat Stevens, his song “Don’t Be Shy” always makes me think of the moment we met Harold as he was about to hang himself.  “Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there.”

Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” in Royal Tenenbaums

And speaking of songs to kill yourself by, I love the use of this song in this scene.  “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.”

Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” in, Um, Everything

I just learned from Wikipedia that this Kate Bush song, one of my favorites, has been used in a slew of stuff I don’t watch, like CSI, Ghost Whisperer, Alias, Without a Trace, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  But since the 80s (also known as the best era ever), the song always makes me cry thanks to this scene in She’s Having a Baby.  “Give me these moments back, give them back to me.”

More recently, I also really enjoyed Ricky Gervais’ use of the song in the series finale of the Extras to show his friend Maggie’s plight.

I know that some writers find inspiration in music.  Our own Jonathan Hayes even created a playlist to accompany A Hard Death (love his warning that it’s “not for kids, unless they’re bad kids”).  I’m not one of those people, but did last year decide while listening to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance that it was the perfect song to narrate 212.  Here’s the resulting book trailer, complete with ads that pop up when you use copyrighted music on You Tube.


So, how about it?  What are the songs and stories that are forever married in your minds?

22 thoughts on “Story and Song

  1. Reine

    Alafair, this was a fun blog. Thanks for the memory trip. Love your 212 book trailer. I've only recently discovered these, and I think they're wonderful.

    My longest lasting song and scene connect is in The Graduate . . . The part where he's steaming up the highway in his totally brilliant car, and Simon and Garfunkle are singing Parsely, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. It could be a total disconnect, but that is what plays in my inner YouTube whenever I hear the song. If I even think about the movie, I hear the song and do a brain flip to that scene.

  2. JD Rhoades

    The Doors' "The End" and the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now." Also, "Ride of the Valkyries" and the helicopter assault in that movie.

    The Piano part from "Layla" and the scene in "Goodfellas" where all the bodies are discovered.

  3. Sarah W

    I like your trailer — the song works *really* well with the clips.

    Many years ago, I saw a performance of Macbeth where the opening scene was set in a battlefield full of smoke and he and Banquo entered with laser sighted rifles and infrared goggles. It was *powerful*. That one scene, in my mind, is always accompanied by "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Metallica (the version backed by the San Francisco Orchestra).

    And Linkin' Park's "Numb" (which is my nephew's favorite ad nauseam song right now, bless his angsty teenage heart), somehow goes very well with the final scene in season two of Leverage, when one of the Feds asks Sterling who the #@%% Nate is, and Sterling stares at his old colleague and says he doesn't know. This song plays in my head between that bit, and Nate's answer.

    (I confess that I'm a bit of a fanvid, um, fan, too — if only because "junkie" has such negative connotations . . . )

  4. David Corbett

    This was a wonderful post, Alafair. I feel like we could all sit in a room, Murderatis united, like a bunch of kids in the dorm with our CDs — Oh, man, you gotta check this out!

    First, I'm blown away by your 212 trailer. It's so much glossier and more powerful than my poor attempt. I had no clue you could use Lady Gaga. I obtained rights from a classical guitarist I admire, and he gave them freely (and free). And I made the mistake of using my own voice for the narration (never again, never again). For a quick trip from the sublime to the not so:

    As for songs in song tracks, I'm torn. I think we've lost something great in movie music. Bernard Hermann was such a genius, using small ensembles of unusual instrument combinations to create his effects. (Check out this intro to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: )

    Randy Newman (the nephew of another great screen composer, Alfred Newman), is my personal favorite among our contemproaries: The soundtrack to PLEASANTVILLE is subtle, funny, simple: perfect. And check out this scene from SEABISCUIT:

    Give that scene to John Williams, we'd all be deaf.

    But I often get taken out of the story with a pop song I recognize. I realize I'm watching an inserted "vid" or I entertain my own inner video to the song, not what's on the screen. Music is always there to shape our emotional response to the scene, and songs so often make that too obvious.

    That said, I agree that THE SOPRANOS used musically brilliantly, often by using songs in contrast to the scene's mood, or to shade it slightly, not to hit you over the head with it (your example notwithstanding — the irony of the Journey song makes it work).

    The finale for season two of THE WIRE, with Steve Earle's "I Feel Alright" is another great example: Again, it's a great pick, because everything is not alright.

    But the best use of a piece of music not written specifically for the film that I've seen recently is from BIUTIFUL. Iñarrítu uses the second movement from Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (my Jukebox Hero of the Week in my last post), not just in the film itself but for the final credits, as an emotional touchstone for the entire story. And it is perfect to convey the ineffable beauty of heartbreak, of love lost but not wasted. For those who missed it or passed it over:

    Thank, Alafair, for a great start to the week.


  5. Alafair

    Thanks, Sarah. JD and Reine, I also have Layla and Sounds of Silence linked to Goodfellas and the Grasuate.

  6. Jen Forbus

    Now you can have a turn to laugh at me, but how about Waylon Jennings "Good Ole Boys" with The Dukes of Hazard? Or Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" with Top Gun. The Who's "Who Are You" with CSI.

  7. Shizuka

    As someone who creates instrumental and vocal writing song lists, I love this post.

    The Thirteen Senses' "Into The Fire," reminds me of recent Pretty Little Liars episode.
    Several Sarah McLachlan songs featured in Buffy the Vampire Episode. In my mind, she's so linked to that show that even songs that didn't appear, like "Building a Mystery," remind me of the show.

    And from the eighties, The SImple Mind's "Don't You Forget About Me" always makes The Breakfast Club play in my mind.

    But my favorite musical/visual association is Sia's "Breathe Me" from Six Feet Under's final episode.

  8. Louise Ure

    I love this post, too, Alafair. Thank you for a glorious musical morning in the Way Back Machine.

  9. Jenni

    Lots of others have posted the songs and stories linked together in my mind already. But your post made me think of the ballads I love too – songs that tell a story. My current favorite is the Blitzen Trapper song, "Black River Killer." It's a song that sticks with you and could be straight out of a murder mystery or true crime story.

  10. Sylvia

    Love the post – whee!

    "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from The Social Network – – incredible scene and no other music would have done it justice.

    Journey – "Don't Stop Believing" but for the San Francisco Giants last year during the World Series. The entire city was singing it. It's played at every game.

    Tony Bennett – "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" – played at the end of every SF Giants game.

    Frank Sinatra "My Way" – it's the song I had in my head while swimming across the English Channel

  11. Alafair Burke

    Thanks for the comments, guys. I like Corbett's idea of a Murderati CD party. Or karaoke at Bouchercon. I can picture Jen Forbus rockin' Danger Zone 🙂

    Shizuka, I keep thinking Pretty Little Liars might be something I like (see comment in post about liking the same TV as 14 year old girls). Thanks for adding another cool person to my list of viewers of that show.

  12. Laura

    I love how a song can transport you right back to a memory, or a tv show or movie. Thanks for illustrating that so beautifully Alafair! I think one of my most connected song/tv things is Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" and Greys Anatomy. That song still makes me tear up! Another is "One Way or Another" which featured in an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch in a band competition and also "The Trouble With Boys" will always remind me of that Friends flashback episode with Monica and Rachel in very 80s clothing.
    Great post – loved the book trailer!

  13. JT Ellison

    Creepy, Alafair – we really do share part of a brain. I'm with you on almost all of these. And a couple of weeks ago, Randy and I wrote a list of song lines that meant something to us. Will have to post as an addendum to yours today…

    And I am an unapologetic GOSSIP GIRL addict.

  14. Alafair Burke

    JT, I often thing a bunch of us here at Murderati are psychically linked. On that note, Alex, yessss! to Magnolia, not just that song but the entire soundtrack. "When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical." That Supertramp song must have been 20 years old by the time that movie came out but to me, it's now the Magnolia song.

    Laura, Grey's Anatomy does a really good job with music. They had that musical episode last season where each character sang different parts of songs the show has used memorably over the years.

  15. Dao

    Once upon a time, I watched a really emo version of "Hamlet" with David Tennant playing the Prince of Denmark. When the scene where Queen Gertrude was revealed to marry Hamlet's uncle immediately after the King died, I burst into the beginning of "Gold Digger" ("she takes my money when I'm in need…") It seemed appropriate for that scene and I wish Shakespeare could meet Kanye West. We could have had some amazing soundtrack back then.

  16. Amy

    I agree! It's amazing to me how much music records our memories and the way it can work hand in hand with story.

    but, I hated that scene in Gossip Girl it seemed ridiculous to me considering what had happened before.

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