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  • Lucy Weltner

How Music Transforms "Big Little Lies" and "The Young Pope"

Big Little Lies and The Young Pope change how TV shows use music and tell their characters' stories.


Credit: HBO

As prestige TV has increased, so has the popularity of TV scores: popular bands like The National now write songs specifically for TV, and the Empire soundtrack sold more copies than the Madonna album released on the same day. With popularity comes experimentation, and lately it seems like more and more composers are willing to take risks. Normally, scores heighten the emotions already on screen, making battle scenes more epic or death scenes more tragic. In two recent shows, the composers instead dramatize hidden emotions, the unspoken thoughts of characters who, for varying reasons, can't emote on screen. In the first show, Big Little Lies, all the music is diegetic – meaning whenever a song plays in the background, it’s also playing in the world of the show (usually on a character’s iPod or car radio). In The Young Pope, the music is non-diegetic, meaning the score is not part of the world of the show (and the characters can’t hear the music). But in both shows, music dramatizes the characters’ inner lives, making initially unlikable characters some of the most fascinating and relatable people on TV.


It’s common for TV shows to give their most iconic characters “theme songs”: as soon as the show shifts focus to the character, an easily recognizable theme plays. A good theme sums up the character’s personality and role in the story: think Laura Palmer’s dreamy, haunting theme in Twin Peaks. Like many other shows, Big Little Lies chooses three recurring themes for the three main characters; unlike any other show I’ve watched, those songs are diegetic. We hear “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” play at the beginning of many of Jane Chapman’s scenes because – in the world of the show – Jane plays the song on her iPod again and again. In Big Little Lies, there’s no omniscient composer telling a musical story about each character; there’s only characters telling stories about themselves.


Big Little Lies is a show obsessed with people’s attempts to control the narrative. Many characters strain to stick to lies that are familiar, comforting, and easy to re-tell (the affectionate couple next door are not abusive, just into rough sex; the new kid is bullying my daughter, not her friend). The best moments on the show – Jane discussing Ziggy’s father, Celeste finally accepting that her husband is abusive  – explore how difficult it is to talk about truths that don’t fit into comfortable narratives. We tell stories about our lives for self-help reasons, to better understand our own identities, but we also reach for narratives we can easily explain to other people. Our story needs to seem true both to ourselves and to others. The nosiness and social policing common amongst the elite moms of Monterey, California, music gives the characters a pre-made narrative, something people can use to explain feelings that don’t fit into easily relatable stories. When Celeste listens to Irma Thomas’ “Straight from the Heart” to process her husband’s abuse, the song legitimizes her hurt and anger without requiring her to explain the situation (or to say the phrase, “my husband’s abusing me”). When I first started watching Big Little Lies, the show seemed to be looking down on its characters. It seemed like what I saw was what I got: a world of privileged moms gossiping and trading insults in a liberal California town. As I watched more, however, the show gave us access to the private reserves of melancholy, love and trauma the characters often fail to express out loud. The music helped reveal those emotions.


Everyone wants control over the narrative, especially characters who usually get spoken for. Big Little Lies is one of the few prestige dramas that treats the child characters as people with unique stories to tell (instead of using the kids as symbols for adult dysfunction, or tools to drive the grown-ups’ character development). If there’s one piece of parenting advice in Big Little Lies, it’s that adult social drama will, inevitably, effect the kids. The parents in Big Little Lies protect the children from sex and violence, from witnessing anything obviously adult. They can’t protect the kids from the resulting tension, power imbalances, bursts of anger, and subtle, verbal abuse. The children notice and eventually end up copying bad parental behavior, poking at taboo subjects, and expressing the feelings that exist, unspoken, between the grown ups. Instead of keeping the kids innocent, the parents expose Ziggy, Chloe and Max to the edges of big, thorny, adult issues, then leave them alone to figure out what’s going on.


The first graders in Big Little Lies don’t understand the adults’ problems as spousal abuse, PTSD, or infidelity. Unlike the adults, they don’t have the knowledge, the experience, or the vocabulary to craft a sympathetic narrative that explains what they’re experiencing at home. Since the children can’t fully express their feelings through words, the show lets the children speak through music. The children control most of the music in the show – Chloe DJs all the music played in her family’s car, and Ziggy often choreographs dances to songs he plays on his iPad. Music lets the children express feelings about situations they don’t have the words to discuss. By playing a song, the kids can indirectly talk about what’s going on without needing to know how to talk about the taboo topics only adults are “supposed to” understand.


Credit: HBO

In one of the most disturbing, hallucinatory scenes in Big Little Lies, music helps Ziggy understand and control a complicated “grown up” situation. At first we see two first graders – Ziggy and Chloe – parade across a well-lit living room, rehearsing a dance they’ve clearly practiced many times before. The song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations plays, and a father’s friend records the dance on his iPad. Suddenly, we cut to Jane, pulled over for speeding after an encounter related to Ziggy’s father. While Ziggy’s confident and controlled, Jane sits tensed in her car. Everything around her is blurred by the police’s bright carnival lights.


Throughout Big Little Lies, Ziggy’s understandably curious about his absent father; his mother Jane’s reluctant to tell him anything (for good reasons I won’t spoil here). Unlike the adults in Ziggy’s life, The Temptations aren’t anxious or fearful about absent fathers: they accept the reality of bad dads. They make jokes about it. They’re even joyful about it. They take a story that’s usually presented as a tragedy – a callous guy abandons a helpless kid – and recast it as story about learning the truth and owning your past. And as Ziggy parades across the room as the song plays, he gains control of a situation the adults in his life are still very much disturbed and confused by. Even the framing shows Ziggy taking control: Ziggy records himself the way he wants to be seen, while Jane’s unwittingly recorded by police cameras and blindsided by bright lights. But the change in music makes the contrast most obvious. In Ziggy's scene, the music is diegetic: he knows it’s playing. Ziggy wants to be associated with the song and everything it represents. Jane’s unaware of the song playing, and unable to escape the story the song tells about her situation.


Picture this: a young pope sits stoically behind a desk. The Italian prime minister – confident, businesslike – pitches him on plans to sell merchandise emblazoned with photos of his face. The pope seems to agree, saying “yes” and “very good” in a slightly mocking tone. Austere strings swell in the background. After a few seconds of tense calm, the pope stands up, and erupts: he is not a celebrity, he insists, he is nobody. The pope’s power should come from his mystery and inaccessibility, much like the reclusiveness of celebrities like JD Salinger and Daft Punk compound their fame. As the pope flips the script and out-maneuvers the prime minister, the soundtrack morphs from soft strings to an insistent, gently building, electronic bass beat. As soon as the audience expects a build to a big orchestral climax, the energy of the music shifts: what’s compelling about the piece suddenly changes. The music’s shift reflects the pope’s way of doing business: instead of trying to get what he wants through the normal processes, he persuades opponents to adapt his own rules. And, like most master manipulators, he makes his rules sound more interesting, more novel, more fun: if Vatican traditions are orchestral music, he’s EDM. In a more meta sense, he does the same to the audience, taking what many viewers expected to be a stuffy show about Vatican politics and making it something captivating and transgressive.


Credit: HBO

In order to talk about the music of The Young Pope, I need to address the show’s most iconically weird scene. The scene I need to preface by telling people, that, no, this is not a mashup, this song really is part of The Young Pope’s score. Of course, I’m referring to the scene where, as the pope goes through the involved process of getting dressed in traditional Papal attire, LMFAO's “I’m Sexy and I Know It” blares in the background.


There’s an easy way to interpret this scene as very on-the-nose satire, as the show poking fun of the pope’s vanity and, more generally, the ostentation of the Vatican. The director purposefully contrasts the music (a silly pop song about being sexy) and the content of the scene (the pope solemnly getting dressed in traditional robes) to make a point. Normally, a score immerses the audience in the story by reflecting the setting and atmosphere; in satire, the music disrupts our involvement in the story, urging us to step back and think critically about what’s going on.


One thing complicates that interpretation: the pope’s in on the joke. He looks pointedly at the camera. He smiles knowingly at the audience, as if to say, “This is silly, but it must be done.” In a previous scene, Lenny describes his appearance in full ceremonial garb as a calculated display, a way to present the new pope as mysterious, impressive and lofty. The traditional robes are just part of Lenny’s branding – he is, deliberately and joylessly, making himself sexy for the public. As ridiculous as Lenny looks in full pope regalia, and however funny it is to hear “I’m Sexy and I Know It” play as he gets dressed, there’s a power in the way the pope takes ownership of all the pomp and circumstance. He’s self aware, which means he’s in control of the narrative, not the butt of the joke.


The same dynamics get encapsulated by the theme song. We begin on a tracking shot: the pope confidently strides down a hallway lined with historic religious paintings. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” blares in the background. As the pope walks, a painted star exits the first painting (of Jesus in the manger) and jumps into the second, then the third, following the pope like a bouncing Karaoke ball. If you watch closely, you begin to notice the star creates chaos in each painting it enters, setting buildings on fire and sending people running. At the end of the hallway, pope Lenny turns to the camera, smiles slightly at the audience, and gives us a huge wink. There’s a raw power in rock music like “All Along the Watchtower,” but there’s also a juvenile sense of rebellion. The music perfectly embodies all parts of the pope’s personality: his charismatic power, his childish defiance, and the sense that, even when he destroys traditions, he knows exactly what he’s doing.


All Along the Watchtower. Credit: HBO

Over the course of the show, you realize that Lenny’s not sincerely enacting papal duties. Instead, he’s knowingly putting on a performance of being pope – a performance he hopes will, eventually, lead to genuine spiritualism. In pursuit of a connection to God, Lenny performs vanity, arrogance, and anger as well as kindness and mercy. He often doesn’t act like a good person, but he always seems to have a reason for leaning into his worst instincts. Even when Lenny’s terrible, he’s searching for meaning – that’s why, despite anti-hero fatigue, I couldn’t write Lenny off, couldn’t take my eyes off him. The music helped. Just as the pope shifts between acting like a cruel dictator and a brave philanthropist, the score shifts between soft, string-heavy score, warping electronic beats, and pop music. Like the pope, the music often seems like it doesn’t belong in the Vatican. Like the pope, it takes elements of different genres, never settling into predictability, always searching for meaning. Like the pope, it often embraces crassness, but it always finds its way back to beauty.

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