latest obsession: the music of big little lies

Sorry that it’s been a minute. I had to ask people for money by writing an extended explanation of how wonderful my work is, and self-promotion sucks the life out of me. That’s not a meta-humblebrag about how humble I am; it’s just a fact about impostor syndrome. I also had to ask people for help at multiple points in that process, so you could not design a more perfect storm of things that make me feel vulnerable. On top of that, I can’t say I’m enjoying living inside a rejected season of The Americans in which Margo Martindale is tasked with supervising a virulently racist animatronic Keebler elf.

Anyway! Like every other white woman with a love of murder mysteries and access to premium cable, I’m very into HBO’s Big Little Lies. There’s a lot to like about it: the internal mysteries unfold at a just-right pace, the set design is gorgeous, and the acting is impeccable down to the tiniest details, like Reese Witherspoon’s hilariously theater-kid way of saying “controversial.” It represents the pressure of wanting to be liked without forcing its characters into the narrow gendered parameters of a Likable Woman Character; none of these women are “likable,” but they’re so complex and detailed that it’s beside the point. No one’s purely an angel and no one’s purely a monster — even the darkest characters have tangible human motivations. On top of all this, it features Adam Scott in a beard and some Patagonia-ass pullover sweaters, which is my sexual orientation in a nutshell.

But the one thing I might be loving most about the show is that it doesn’t just have an impressive soundtrack — although I am always and forever a sucker for quality music supervision — but the characters dictate the soundtrack into each episode in the the way that the rest of us incorporate music into our own lives. Real people sing along to Fleetwood Mac on road trips, they crank angry songs while doing cardio, they use meaningful songs to explain themselves to others, and they talk about the emotional resonance of music in the way that my small weird queen Chloe does. In short, these characters seek out and immerse themselves in music that either syncs up with how they are feeling or how they’d rather be feeling, just like the rest of us.

I get the argument that the characters’ endless queuing up of emotionally significant songs is starting to look like an ad for Sonos or Apple Music or whatever. But I don’t think that makes it feel any less authentic. In fact, you could easily interpret the show’s incorporation of music as part of its overall approach to depicting personal technology use in true-to-life ways. But we don’t acknowledge that media geared toward women often does a better job at integrating technology and its attendant ethical and social quandaries than shows that are about those topics. Like when The Good Wife had to depict the surveillance state to get critics to realize it had been about privacy all along, and how Jane the Virgin is the only piece of media that’s realized the potential of texting as a storytelling device. And, ultimately, to reduce the soundtracking to the way it takes shape materially ignores its important emotional and narrative contours.

To be fair, we’ve seen moments like this before. The “Tiny Dancer” singalong in Almost Famous and the boombox moment in Say Anything and the cheesy “this song will change your life” scene in Garden State come to mind. But I can’t remember such a full-scale commitment to meta-soundtracking in a story that isn’t about the creation of music — or such a complicated one. On the surface, these music selections breed familiarity with these characters and give us a window into identifying with how they feel in these moments, even when we don’t particularly enjoy or understand them. But there’s a darker, weirder undercurrent to these music choices, just like there is with everything else on this show. These song selections grant characters a brief opportunity to self-narrativize — and not one of them has proven to be a reliable narrator. Except Chloe, of course.

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