Before The Sopranos series finale famously cut to black, Tony Soprano made a choice. He flipped through the options in a diner jukebox and decided to play Journey’s 1981 anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
That wasn’t the first time a TV show featured one of Journey’s songs, or even that song in particular. Family Guy, Laguna Beach, and Scrubs had all taken midnight trains goin’ anywhere before The Sopranos did it in 2007. But experiencing that track in such a widely watched episode of one of the most revered dramas in TV history changed the way some people perceived it. After that diner scene aired, “Don’t Stop Believin’” got an adrenaline shot of renewed popularity, and Journey, a band often dismissed as purveyors of Velveeta rock, basked in a bit of credibility.
In the near-decade since that jukebox moment, ’80s music has played an increasingly prominent role on television. As more years have passed and the decade has been put in more nuanced context, the diversity and quality of its pop music has become more widely acknowledged.
Series that are set in the ’80s, as well as some that are not, now frequently incorporate the era’s radio-friendly hits into their soundtracks in ways that infuse them with fresh meaning, while a number of shows, especially period pieces like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire, keep digging further into the vinyl vaults to highlight deeper and deeper tracks from the time. All of this confirms that the early MTV landscape, once perceived as the epicenter for disposable one-hit wonders and artists who cared more about their lip gloss than their lyricism, is actually a pretty rich field to mine for enduring and meaningful melodies.
“We’ve had decades of listening to Led Zeppelin,” says Lori Majewski, co-author of the book Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s, as well as the co-host of the SiriusXM music talk show Feedback. “You know: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ [by the Rolling Stones] was used in everything, right? We’ve heard those songs over and over and over. Now people who are in their late 30s through early 50s, they’re running the shows, literally. That’s why this cool music is being heard.”
Ben Zales, music editor for Mr. Robot, which weaved in a number of choice ’80s cuts during its most recent season, echoes that sentiment. “I’m seeing some showrunners and writers who grew up in the ’80s and have an attachment to that era of music,” he says. “And now they’re in a position to inject their tastes into what they’re writing into their show.”
The very notion of building a TV soundtrack around pop music was actually pioneered in the mid-’80s, when Miami Vice became the first scripted series to commit to it as part of its modus operandi. Back then, though, the public was more inclined to take a Phil Collins or Glenn Frey track seriously. After the 1980s ended and we began the process of looking back at it, the decade’s pop music was often characterized as one massive, ridiculous, retro giggle. And, to be fair, some of it was ridiculous as hell. Have you listened to “I Wanna Be a Cowboy” recently? There’s a reason why that song will never be in an episode of Westworld.
But when resurfaced in the proper context, the ridiculous can become infectious, poignant, and potentially even sublime. Glee put a lot of ’80s music faves on the radar again by reconnecting with the sentimentality and/or sense of fun in tracks by REO Speedwagon, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and, yes, Journey, among others. Both This Is Us and the CW’s No Tomorrow recently worked in a similar vein by illustrating moments of empowerment by having a character perform an ’80s smash in front of an audience. (On This Is Us, that happened when Kate crooned “Time After Time” at a retirement home, while Evie on No Tomorrow let her headbanger chick out to play during a live karaoke rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.”)
Things get even more interesting when a series takes an incredibly familiar ’80s tune and flips the script on its tone or meaning. This season, Mr. Robot used a song that you can barely scan a radio dial or enter a grocery store without still occasionally hearing — “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears — and, once again through the power of live karaoke, turned it into a haunting commentary on the emptiness of both Angela’s and f society’s quests for power.
One of the strongest music cues in Stranger Things, aside from its chilling synthesized score, happens at the beginning of episode three when Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” — the jumping-off point for many a slow dance in 1981 — underscores both the first sexual encounter between Nancy and Steve and the dragging of poor Barb into the Upside Down by some otherworldly creature. Under such tense circumstances, a song that once sounded overly sentimental suddenly assumes a sinister quality. Who, exactly, has been waiting for a girl? Steve, or the creature from the Stranger Things lagoon?
The best uses of ’80s music fire up the synapses in our brains in a way that allow us to simultaneously feel a surge of remembrance and a surge of empathy for the characters we’re watching. Sometimes they even call to mind the use of ’80s music on ’80s TV shows.
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