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90210 to Buffy to Glee: How Songs Transformed TV


After sixteen episodes of dancing with a transparent, ooga-chucking baby, Ally McBeal is finally seeking out a good therapist in the episode "Theme of Life" - and, in the '90s, therapists are usually played by notable comedians who offer equally comedic advice. Enter Tracey Ullman as Dr. Tracey Clark with a portable laugh track and a list of bizarre trust exercises. Her advice to Ally: Find a theme song, "something to play in your head to make you feel better." And for God sakes, make it peppy. Her own is the Cuff Links' upbeat "Tracy." Ally comes up with "Tell Him," an old standby that's been covered and re-covered since its debut as "Tell Her" by Bert Berns in 1962. Only now, it's a faster-paced version by resident singer Vonda Shepard that gets Ally's feet tapping on a street corner.

Aside from providing the popular theme song "Searchin' My Soul," Shepard became the voice of the series and appeared as the house singer at Ally's favorite piano bar at the end of each episode, sometimes dueting with the likes of musical guests Gladys Knight, Barry Manilow or Jon Bon Jovi. Her songs, mostly covers, reflected Ally's journey as an unlucky-in-love lawyer with an uncertain future. Ally's co-workers also occasionally took the stage to belt out their frustrations. Her boyfriend Larry Paul, played by Robert Downey Jr, gave Vonda a run for her money with a rendition of Joni Mitchell's "The River." The show released six soundtrack albums and the first, Songs from Ally McBeal, became a platinum seller. Series creator David E. Kelley was still formulating the idea for the show when he watched Shepard perform at an L.A. club.

"It was the proverbial lightbulb going off when he saw me up there," Shepard explained in a Songfacts interview.

Lightbulbs were going off everywhere. Ally McBeal became a prime example of the courtship that was beginning between music and television before its eventual marriage in current shows like Grey's Anatomy and Glee that seamlessly blend story and song. Long before "synch" experts were on the payroll, TV shows occasionally tried to capitalize on their music by releasing a soundtrack. The Monkees albums were promotions for their '60s series and Miami Vice had a multi-platinum selling record in 1985. Theme songs became all the rage (who can hear the Rembrandts' "I'll Be There For You" and not think of Friends?). But the '90s were also when music started to make the leap from background noise to vital story component - and helped a few musicians make the jump to mainstream along the way.

Aaron Spelling, who had long had his arthritic fingers on the pulse of teen culture, embraced the opportunity to bring a new musical element to Beverly Hills 90210. The gang's hangout, a retro-themed diner called the Peach Pit, spawned an after hours club that not only provided an "edgier" stage for drama but introduced indie bands to a broader audience and ramped up exposure for already-popular acts. It showcased performers like Luther Vandross, Monica and Christina Aguilera and groups like Barenaked Ladies and Flaming Lips. They were the soundtrack to all the surprise parties, break-ups, brawls and the occasional overdose.

The Peach Pit After Dark also brought attention to one of the show's cast members. By 1994, Jamie Walters had already scored a #1 hit with "How Do You Talk to an Angel?," the theme song to another Spelling show, The Heights. On 90210, he played Ray Pruit, a blue collar guy who romanced uptown girl Donna Martin (Tori Spelling) while crooning throaty love songs at the club. She was by his side when he sang "Hold On" to an empty stadium and dreamed of his future as a star. But Ray's dark side soon emerged when he began abusing Donna. Fans soon had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction and Walters' music career began to suffer.

He told MTV: "And then [the show] started twisting him into being like this abusive evil boyfriend. I was like you either have to change the character or you have to let me off the show, because I'm going out and I'm trying to sell tickets on our tour, and there's teenage girls out there who think, like they really think I'm an abusive guy you know, and they'd hold up signs saying like 'leave Donna alone' and that's like so not what I wanted."

Ray, and in turn Jamie, was redeemed when a sympathetic backstory was drawn up to include the character's own abusive childhood.

The show released three soundtracks: Beverly Hills 90210, The College Years and Songs from the Peach Pit. Walters didn't appear on any of them.

90210's sexier spin-off, Melrose Place, also brought its fair share of breaks to struggling acts. But for some groups, the exposure was both a blessing and a curse. In a time when indie bands were lambasted for "selling out" to commercials and popular TV shows, the Boston pop band Letters to Cleo was lured by Melrose Place's impressive soundtrack with notables like Annie Lennox, Urge Overkill and Paul Westerberg. Letters to Cleo included their own "Here & Now" to the mix. The group's lead singer Kay Hanley was startled at the meteoric success of their song, which soared to #10 on the Hot 100 once it joined the sudsy backdrop of the primetime soap. She told Request in 1999:

"No one had ever heard of a soundtrack for a TV show, and we thought it sounded really cool. The next thing you know, we were making a video for it. A single was released, and then a band no one ever heard of before was on MTV."

The song introduces the season three episode "The Days of Wine and Vodka," full of tumultuous issues like Matt's fear of coming out to his parents, Alison's worsening drinking problem and Kimberly's struggle with infertility.

For better or for worse, musicians were about to get more exposure by not only appearing on soundtracks, but having their songs become as important as dialogue in emotional scenes. And on teen dramas, emotional scenes were not hard to come by.

As Ally McBeal was just beginning its run in 1997 for the post-college crowd, Dawson's Creek was already spawning hits for the teen scene before it was even on the air. Promos featuring Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" (which would become the series' theme song) as an anthem for the sensitive North Carolinian teens gave the singer's This Fire album a much-needed sales boost. When the Songs from Dawson's Creek soundtrack was released during the first season, some tracks hadn't even been featured on the show yet. Still, the album debuted at an impressive #7 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart and secured a #1 hit single for Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me." P.J. Olsson received an onslaught of hits on his website at the expense of Dawson's sex life. His ballad "Ready for a Fall" supported Joey's rejection of Dawson's advances. Olsson was glad to be of assistance. He told Request:

"Dawson was hoping to get laid that night. He's not getting any, and my song was playing. I thought it was really cool placement."

While the music of Dawson's Creek helped unfold the storylines and amplify the character's emotions, another show on the WB was also crafting a soundtrack to reflect the soul of its main character. As the star of Felicity, Keri Russell was known for three things: her hair, her sweaters and her fickle love life (Noel or Ben?).

"We wanted the soundtrack to evoke a very specific side of Felicity – the show and the character – which is a very emotional and thoughtful side. It was important not to make it an eclectic jumble," the show's co-creator J.J. Abrams explained.

The soundtrack was only a middling success on the Billboard 200 chart, with a peak at #97 in 1999. Nevertheless, its mellow offerings from established acts like Peter Gabriel and Sarah McLachlan to indie pop favorite Ivy and the electronic duo Air fit the show's soft, natural lighting and quiet conversations to a tee.

While both shows were firmly placed in the traditional soapy teen niche like Beverly Hills 90210 before them, Joss Whedon turned the genre on its head when he introduced Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her crowd were too busy battling blood-suckers and demons to leave much room in a scene for a breezy pop song (although the musical episode "Once More, With Feeling" near the end of the series more than made up for it). Instead, musicians took the stage at the fictional club, The Bronze.

"I always wanted to have a space where kids would actually hang out and listen to music," Whedon told Request. "and then we wanted to have young, cool unsigned people playing the music because we knew it would give the show the right kind of energy; it wouldn't feel like a corporate thing."

Some of these cool people were bands like Four Star Mary (performing as the fictional group Dingoes Ate My Baby), Velvet Chain and more established acts like blink-182, Third Eye Blind and Lisa Loeb. One of the most memorable performances to hit the Bronze stage was Michelle Branch with "Goodbye to You," a song that reflected a turning point in several relationships in the episode "Tabula Rasa." While Buffy and Spike were just beginning their romance, Willow and Tara were breaking up theirs. Giles also had to say goodbye to the gang as he departed for England.

The Bronze was featured in 66 out of 144 episodes of Buffy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Album, the first of four soundtracks, was released in 1999 and peaked at #51.

As Buffy ended its tenure on the WB in 2003, the network went back to its familiar roots with yet another sensitive teen drama.

With all of its character performances, musical guest spots, soundtracks and song references, One Tree Hill could almost be billed as a musical - the moodily self-aware older brother to the full-blown extravaganza of a screaming baby sibling like Glee.

In the tradition of other popular teen shows like Degrassi: the Next Generation (and its predecessor Degrassi High), each episode of One Tree Hill was named for a song or band that best represented the weekly installment. But One Tree Hill didn't stop with just a title; like Dawson's Creek, it brought songs into the story and made them key elements of emotional scenes, sometimes enhancing the dialogue or filling the space where words (or the acting) weren't enough.

Gavin DeGraw became a sensation after his single "I Don't Want to Be" was chosen as the theme song for the show. The lyrics reflect the angst-filled search for identity and purpose that lies at the heart of the series about two very different half-brothers - Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan Scott (James Lafferty) - who struggle to get along. DeGraw also wriggles his way into the show's narrative on a few separate occasions. "More Than Anyone" helps Nathan plead his case to Haley before their first kiss in the rain in season 1's "The Games That Play Us." He insists his feelings for his ex are long gone while DeGraw croons "How can I convince you to change your mind?" in the background. The music swells louder into "I'm gonna love you more than anyone" as Haley relents and goes in for the kiss.

Later, DeGraw's rendition of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" subtly clues us in to Cooper's misgivings about his relationship with Rachel in season 3's "Everyday is a Sunday Evening." Brooke has been scheming to bring Rachel down and brings Mouth into the plan, but he refuses to participate once he sees Cooper. The words "Jealous" are amped up louder as the scene closes.

One Tree Hill released four soundtracks: One Tree Hill, Friends with Benefit, Road Mix and Music from One Tree Hill. Aside from DeGraw, the series showcased groups like Angels & Airwaves, the Black Keys and Fall Out Boy, and artists like Ray LaMontagne, Kate Voegele and Matthew Perryman Jones.

Sometimes, it's not about finding a song that fits the scene, but creating a scene that fits the song. One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn told BuddyTV:

"Every once in awhile I'll be very inspired by the tone of a song or a lyric in a song, and I'll sit down and want to write to that lyric or to the tone of that song. Sometimes there's a play on words, sometimes I'll write an episode and there will be a theme, at least it'll feel like there'll be a theme to me, whether it's looking back, being happy, saying goodbye or whatever. Then I'll just sort of search for a song title that's a play on words."

Nowadays, synching music on TV shows is as crucial as writing the dialogue, and record labels know it. Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes spun songs into gold: Snow Patrol and The Fray owe the series for their respective hits of 2006, "Chasing Cars" and "How to Save a Life." Songs are routinely honored, or massacred, on Glee. What used to be a shot in the dark has now become a calculated, manufactured rite of passage. Some stars of the '90s, however, resent their association with TV - Letters to Cleo likened Melrose Place to an albatross and Jamie Walters left his music career behind with Ray Pruit at the Peach Pit After Dark to become a full-time firefighter.

As for Vonda Shepard, she still marvels at her big break on Ally McBeal. She told us: "After struggling for 33 years, I finally got a big ass paycheck, and it was so fucking exciting. It was astounding. It was like winning the lottery."

August 1, 2013
~Amanda Flinner

    About the Author:

    Amanda FlinnerAmanda is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a degree in English/Writing from Geneva College (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania). When she's not listening to jazz and pop standards from the '40s and '50s, she's obsessing over classic movies. She has no musical ability whatsoever except for a short stint as a saxophone player in the sixth grade.More from Amanda Flinner
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Comments: 1

I still remember songs from Real World New York…Droughtquake from Bay Area, Ca