TV Turns To Michelle Branch, P.O.D., Other Artists To Help Tell The Story

By | October 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Nurse Abby Lockheart has just been dumped. She is in the middle of the rather painful process of moving her stuff out of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. And to make matters worse, Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” a song about the things a man is looking for in a woman, is playing on the radio.

On “ER,” popular music is becoming a bigger part of the story line with every episode.

“It adds something to the show every time we use it,” “ER” supervising producer and writer Scott Gemmill said. “It’s amazing what music can bring to a scene.”

There’s a new movement in television toward an increase in the use of trendy music, and it extends far beyond the crowded halls of the “ER.”

Tune in to “The West Wing” and you might hear some Tricky. Watch “Providence” and you could hear Remy Zero’s “I’m Not Afraid.”

“The District” is blasting cutting-edge hip-hop like it’s BET. If you caught the series premiere of “Crossing Jordan,” you may remember John Hiatt’s “Thirty Years of Tears.”

Television’s oldest networks appear to be drawing from the musical formula of newcomers Fox and the WB, whose shows “Party of Five” and “Dawson’s Creek” have often championed up-and-coming artists.

“It comes from who is writing the shows,” Gemmill said. “We’re not that old. I like to think we’re just as young and hip. And that stuff more and more is getting into our shows.”

J.J. Abrams, the creator of “Felicity” and this year’s new “Alias,” is at the forefront of the movement. In just the first episode of “Alias,” he pulled music from Vertical Horizon, Sinead O’Connor, Cat Stevens, Supreme Beings of Leisure, Peter Gabriel, Gus and the Stereo MC’s. He’s also a musician himself, and composed the show’s techno theme.

“Music is as important or more important than anything in movies or TV,” Abrams said. “I don’t know how you tell stories without music.”

As Abrams and others work their way into the game, Fox and the WB continue to showcase new artists, with the latter in particular becoming more music-driven with each new show.

So far this year, “Felicity” has featured songs from former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams and neo-psychedelic popsters Essex Green. “Charmed” has used music by Tantric, Depeche Mode and Stevie Nicks. Michelle Branch, Poe and P.O.D. have been used on other WB programs.

“Smallville,” the network’s much-talked-about new series about the teenage years of Clark Kent, included songs from Lifehouse, Jude, Stereophonics and the Calling in Tuesday’s premiere.

That show’s use of music has already proved effective, according to Allan Johnson, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune. “It really gave the series a modern slant to a story that has been around for more than half a century. I thought it enhanced the show’s ‘Dawson’s Creek’ aspect that really works.”

Leonard Richardson, the director of music for the WB, said each show on the network has its own music supervisor whose job it is to set their scenes with the most fitting music out there.

“I think we’re more aggressive about getting the hottest music than some other places, because our demographic is so young,” Richardson said. “Music plays such a big part in our dramas, not just ‘Dawson’s’ and ‘Felicity,’ but ‘Gilmore Girls’ and ‘Smallville’ as well.”

The WB pulled a major musical stunt a few years ago when it helped break Paula Cole by using her song “I Don’t Want to Wait” as the theme to “Dawson’s Creek.” The singer later won the Best New Artist Grammy.

Since then, punk funnymen Nerf Herder were commissioned to write the theme to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Public Enemy’s Chuck D was asked to compose the theme for “Dark Angel.” This year, “Undeclared” snagged the Dandy Warhols’ “Solid” for its theme.

Other shows have taken the “Malcolm in the Middle” approach to showcasing hip music. That show features original music composed by They Might Be Giants. Other bands composing for TV this year are David and Don Was of Was (Not Was) (“The Education of Max Bickford”) and Ween (“Inside Schwartz”).

“Ed” used Foo Fighters’ “Next Year” for its theme last season, and replaced it this season with “Moment in the Sun,” by New York indie rock band Clem Snide.

Producers for “Ed” first asked Clem Snide to write a new theme for the show, but after passing on three different tunes, they opted to have the band re-record “Moment in the Sun,” which originally appeared on its summer album, The Ghost of Fashion.

“It’s kind of odd it ended up being the ‘Ed’ theme song because I wrote it two years ago and it’s a very sarcastic song,” Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay said. “It was my reaction to Jewel, who was so ubiquitous at the time I wrote it. I just hate Jewel, I don’t hate many singers or songwriters, but something about her bugged me. So I wrote the song as if I were Jewel.”

So far, the band has run into mixed reactions about the theme song. “It’s funny, we just checked out the ‘Ed’ chat room and they all really miss the Foo Fighters,” Barzelay said. On the other hand, National Public Radio heard about the song before it even aired and had the band perform it on one of its programs.

Clem Snide are happy to make the extra money from the theme song, but aren’t quite sure they want to be the next Rembrandts, whose “I’ll Be There for You” was an unavoidable hit when it became the “Friends” theme.

“You have to be careful what you wish for,” Barzelay said. “In a way it would be great because our record is kind of strange, and you would have a bunch of normal people buying it, which would be really cool. But if I had to play that song every show the rest of my life, that might be a bit of a drag.”

Songs can explode off television sets without being theme songs, points out Anne Klein, the music supervisor for the “The West Wing,” “Third Watch” and “ER.”

“We used an Amanda Ghost song on ‘ER’ last year that we got an incredible response to,” Klein said. “People were calling from all around the world. It changed her career. Her label went with that as the single instead of something else they were going to use.”

Klein has already fielded several phone calls about Abandoned Pools, the relatively unknown debut solo project from Eels rocker Tommy Walters. His song “L.V.B.D.” was played and the Abandoned Pools name was mentioned by Dr. Greene’s daughter on last week’s episode of “ER.” “Almost everything gets tons and tons of phone calls,” Klein said. “It’s nice.”

The trend of using popular music on television exploded about three years ago when electronic music starting hitting the airwaves, Klein said. “It made it easy for action shows to use songs as scores,” she said. “That was our first big opportunity to use the Crystal Method and Fatboy Slim in a cool way.”

Before the electronic music boom, though, there was “Miami Vice,” the show that really illustrated the kind of impact popular music could have, the Tribune’s Johnson said.

“I’ll never forget how ‘In the Air Tonight’ in the pilot of ‘Miami Vice’ was so effective in telling volumes about what was going on in that scene,” Johnson said. “Ever since ‘Miami Vice,’ using popular music for both TV shows and commercials lures in a particular audience, one that could be younger and hipper and lend to the given show’s demographics.”

“Alias”‘s Abrams, who jumped from film to television after writing such screen gems as “Armageddon” and “Regarding Henry,” credits both movies and music videos for showing TV producers how to fuse images with music. “As TV has become increasingly like film, it is sort of a natural progression for TV to use music in the same kind of way,” he said.

Although using popular music has become more… popular, Klein noted that it is not easy for everyone to get in on the party. Sitcoms with non-stop laugh tracks and some dramas have it especially hard. “There’s no place in the White House where they listen to music,” Klein said. ” ‘Third Watch,’ where the characters are sitting around the firehouse, has the biggest opportunity for new music.”

Every show can benefit from new music, however, through the use of promotional ads. ABC received praise for its use of Coldplay’s “Yellow” in advertising its entire roster last winter. The network also helped break the song along the way.

This fall, NBC used Enya’s red-hot “Only Time” for commercials for “Friends” and “Frasier.” Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” was used in promos for “UC: Undercover,” while “Smallville” used Perry Farrell’s “Song Yet to Be Sung.”

“There’s definitely a race [between the networks],” Abrams said. “We’re all looking for great music and wanting to ride the wave of a hit single. You get a ‘Kiss Me’ [from Sixpence None the Richer] and it happens to hit just at the right time and the soundtrack sells and the show benefits. But that’s as much about luck as finding the perfect song for the moment.”

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