The La Las

Understanding ‘Gilmore Girls’ and its music

When something mildly intense, somewhat infuriating, or just a little bit less than postcard-perfect is about to happen on Gilmore Girls, you cue the ‘La Las’ — a set of calm and harmonizing voices singing the literal words “la la” to the soothing sound of a guitar strumming. (Sam Phillips supplies the music and the multitracked voices.) While Gilmore Girls has some great moments, I’ve often felt that they’re just too tritely contrived. Whenever anyone is less-than-pleased, you can sense it immediately in their overwrought facial expressions. They look like they’re trying to keep their formulaic pain bottled up, but the shot that lingers just a second extra in close-up on their faces gives them away instantly. And if that wasn’t enough, you can always hear the La Las.

“I love the Gilmore Girls music,” my best friend Tiana told me while we sat in the TV room of our sorority house, two twenty-one-year-olds eating salads, complaining about readings on cultural capital and watching an episode from the show’s first season. It’s Rory’s birthday and I could tell the episode was almost over because the party was dying down and Lorelei had started watching as other people cleaned up the mess. At the episode’s end, she was at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, when she looked outside and saw Rory with a boy, Dean. We can tell that she’s internally fuming because Rory’s with a boy she doesn’t know about; rather than present her emotions through her own dialogue — the snappy dialogue for which the show is well-known — we get to see a close-up of Lorelei’s vaguely distraught face. The credits start to roll as the La Las and the strumming of a guitar build to the quietest crescendo. I had to laugh at Tiana’s comment.

A guitar is always being strummed in the background of the show, but the strumming always ramps up during these moments of less-than-perfect perfection. At the moment the characters start to struggle through an obstacle in their lives or begin to unpack the uglier complexities of their relationships, the strumming gets marginally faster and louder, alerting the audience that there’s something up. But lest you become upset as well, the show would like to remind you that the most intense music in any given episode is still merely guitar strumming.

Lorelei in distress, to the sound of guitar-strumming

In this episode, what’s up is that by not being completely honest with Lorelei, Rory has been, by default, dishonest. And mothers and daughters who are best friends don’t keep secrets from each other, actively or passively. Maintaining this deceptively honest relationship with Rory is one of Lorelei’s few priorities besides coffee, and the music reflects her desire for evenness and consistency by being just that. In a show where dialogue is so deliberate, so wittily calculated, what’s most striking is how it fails here. In the absence of any words, we get to see Lorelei’s face and feel her disappointment as she realizes that the one constant in her life, her relationship with her daughter, might not be as stable as she’s thought. For a moment, the realness of this mother-daughter relationship is all-encompassing; we rationalize Lorelei’s behavior and we sympathize with the feelings she’s forced to unpack. But then we get the La Las, and as quickly as the genuine moment appears, it’s gone.

This show and its music remain a point of contention for me. I want so badly to adore it, and I really should. The story centers around a loving mother-daughter relationship in a small town on the east coast. The daughter goes on to study English at a prestigious university, serves as one of the editors of her school’s paper, and ultimately leaves her small town in the controversial series finale to accept a job reporting on a scrappy young man from Chicago’s bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. I, too, have a loving mother. I’ve lived in a small town on the east coast, I study English, and if I could retroactively have a dream job, it would be covering Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency.

So why haven’t I fallen deeply into the world of Gilmore Girls fandom? While the dialogue is usually praised as the show’s greatest strength, I find it ultimately underwhelming. It’s interesting, but not revealing. Maybe it’s my own fault for not sticking with the show long enough to watch Rory and Lorelei fight and make up, to watch them fall in love and break up, to watch them make messes they sometimes can’t clean up. Maybe I’ll get there. But even the snappiest of writing can’t make up for characters that seem profoundly hollow. In the moments when the most powerfully open and heartfelt dialogue could be delivered, the La Las come in like a warning, reminding the characters of the dangers of an unscripted life and how truly disconcerting actual conflict can be.

When Lorelei, in the next episode, fumes over the fact that Rory didn’t tell her about the boy she’d been casually seeing, I was annoyed. “Get over yourself,” I wanted to tell her. When Emily, in the previous episode, was furious because Rory and Lorelei had escaped upstairs to avoid a party they didn’t want to be at in the first place, I was frustrated. If the dialogue could just stop for a millisecond and these women could take the time to actually listen to each other, in the absence of the La Las, then all the talking could cease in order to make way for serious character development. Instead, we hear comebacks, gentle strumming, and La Las.

My favorite line in the whole episode is dropped when Paris, Rory’s prep-school rival, asserts her dominance by telling Rory she can’t go to Harvard. Coolly and calmly Paris says, “You should go to Brandeis. Brandeis is nice.” Rory doesn’t have an immediate retort, and in the rare silence that follows, the comedy and the absurdity of the moment sink in. I don’t remember if there were any La Las.

Of course, I didn’t know I would feel this way about the show when I flew to Los Angeles in January of 2015 to watch Gilmore Girls with my best friend, Tiana, and her mother, Cathy, who was suffering through the final stage of breast cancer. Tiana and I did some touristy things on that trip; we ate at the trendy cafes and we strolled along the beach. But we both knew why I was really there. It was important to her that I meet her mom, and in a few weeks I was leaving to spend five months in Denmark. It was unclear whether or not Cathy would be around when I got back that summer.

So I went to Encino and I cuddled up on their couch and we all watched Gilmore Girls together. It was the first time I had seen it, though I knew Tiana had an intimate connection to the show, since she and her sister had grown up watching every episode as it aired with their mom. Now in the era of Netflix and cheap plane tickets to LA, I could come visit for a weekend viewing. Watching the show with them wasn’t about the show itself. Watching was about the familial experience, the closeness, the coziness, the tea and the blankets, what books Rory was reading in school, and, of course, her love life. Neither the dialogue nor the music were important, so long as the plot progressed and mother and daughter could watch it all unfold. Their ritual dedication to the show was as charming as Stars Hollow. I didn’t love the show and I didn’t have to. The people I care most deeply about — Tiana, her family, and our group of friends — care deeply about the show. From that moment on, Gilmore Girls was always about more than just the TV. Gilmore Girls was being together.

In the fall of that year, when her mom was steadily and painfully fading away, all we could do was watch Gilmore Girls. When I couldn’t be of comfort to my best friend — how could I be ?— the women and the world of Stars Hollow filled in for me. When I couldn’t speak for fear of choking up and letting my tears betray my toughness, revealing how weak and helpless I was, how unfair death is; when all I wanted was to be strong for a person I loved, all I could do was let Gilmore Girls fill the silence. And when things got intense on the show, that light strumming of the guitar and the melancholic La Las in the background always signaled that at least for Lorelei and Rory, it would be okay.

This past fall Gilmore Girls came back with a four-episode mini series revival. If the revival’s trailer is any indication (the trailer is still all I’ve seen of the mini series), everything looks the same in modern Stars Hollow as it did in 2007, with plates of Pop Tarts on the table in the Gilmore house, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in nine years. Yet for fans of the show, there is comfort in sensing that, though time has passed, everything and nothing has changed. Here we are, nine years later, and Lorelei and Rory are still talking.

And as time passes and we keep talking, my friends and I must help Tiana confront the past year without Cathy. We watched a lot of Gilmore Girls in the weeks leading up to and after the anniversary of her passing, but more often than not we said we’d watch Gilmore Girls. For my friends, watching the show isn’t about the show. It’s about nostalgia and times we want to return to but can never bring back. It’s about togetherness through it all and having something to fill the space when words fail but emotions still run high.

I was sitting on the couch in my living room recently, spewing nonsense about what I was planning to do with the rest of my life, stressing about a job search that I didn’t even know how to begin, and wondering if I should uproot my life and move across the country. Had I the will to watch Gilmore Girls on my own, I might have found this college-life crisis replicated through Rory in the later seasons. It might have been relatable. Instead, my roommate cut me off mid-breakdown. “La la la” she sang.

As much as I’ve hated the contrived nature of a musical cue that reassuring, I couldn’t help but be calmed. It was nice to have my own personal La Las, signaling that everything would be alright. There was comfort in not thinking, not speaking for once.

La la, indeed.