Funeral Songs

The Music of 'Six Feet Under'

by Jer Fairall

3 November 2011

Death Cab for Cutie 

Take a moment and think of your favorite uses of music on television. What comes to mind? Iconic theme songs, certainly. Instrumental pieces like Johnny Mandel’s mournful M*A*S*H* theme “Suicide Is Painless” and the irrepressible swagger of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn. The otherworldly electronic whistles of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who and Earle Hagen’s simple, homey one for The Andy Griffith Show. Jingle-like lyric pieces, whether helpfully expository like Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle’s “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle” and Will Smith and Quincy Jones’ “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or more broadly functional pop songs like The Rembrandts’ Beatleseque Friends theme “I’ll Be There For You” and Gary Portnoy’s Tin Pan Alley-like Cheers opener (the latter was named The Best TV Theme Song of All Time by Paste magazine a few years back). Or maybe you think of live performances captured on television variety shows: Elvis and the Beatles inciting mass teenage hysteria on Ed Sullivan, Michael Jackson moonwalking during Motown’s 25th anniversary special, Madonna writhing around in a wedding dress on MTV’s first Video Music Awards, controversial stunts pulled by Saturday Night Live musical guests like Elvis Costello, Nirvana and Sinead O’Connor.

In dramatic television, however, music never managed to play much of a roll during the medium’s first half-century, at least after the main titles finished rolling. Rare instances flit through memories from my own childhood, notable mainly for how anomalous they are: Billy Vera and the Beaters’ “At This Moment” scoring Alex P. Keaton’s heartbreak on Family Ties (and sending the then-five-year-old single to the top the Billboard charts in 1986); Ray Charles’ showing up on Who’s The Boss? to perform “Always a Friend” as a spur to the show’s sappy plot machinations; the period use of various late ‘60s hits on The Wonder Years. Up through most of the 1990s, though, television remained a dramatically static medium, never so much resembling the fluid rhythms of film as it did the stagy presentations of live theater, even in instances when the programs were not locked into live in-studio locations (think, for example, how rarely cop shows ever used music beyond the perfunctory melodramatic scores, or how even a format-bending sitcom like Seinfeld never relied on musical cues beyond its own iconic theme); a hangover, perhaps, from the early days of television, when programs were very literally live, and things like elaborate musical soundtracks were still the exclusive domain of the more glamorous medium of the cinema.

Even viewers raised during the 1990s, when various format shakeups began expanding the boundaries of the medium—whether it was animated sitcoms like The Simpsons opening up possibilities in terms of presentation, or HBOs esteemed roster of mature programs doing the same in terms of content—were expected to recognize the obvious distinctions between film and television. Today, the distinctions are less clear. Somewhere towards the end of the 1990s, television began mimicking its higher achieving older sibling, the movies, more frequently and effectively, culminating in 21st century landscape where there is now as much formal variety on television as there are options for programming. Keeping in mind (please) that this is a potted history at best, and that even the most dramatic revolutions rarely occur with such linearity, dramatic television’s cinematic overhaul began more or less in that lawless backwoods of the medium, cable TV, before eventually expanding outwards to the networks. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, even many of the most mainstream television programs bristled with the energy of filmmaking, up to and including the creative uses of music on the soundtrack.

Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) arrived at a fairly nascent period in this development, just late enough to benefit from the groundwork laid by fellow HBO drama The Sopranos (1999-2007) yet early enough that its own accomplishments can now be viewed as truly innovative and perhaps even influential. We can speculate that the distinctly filmic qualities of Six Feet Under  emerged internally, perhaps a result of series creator Ball coming from the world of film, having won an Oscar for his screenplay for American Beauty two years prior (tellingly, Ball has gone on to greater success on television, with his current series True Blood now in its fourth season while his 2007 return to film, as both writer and director of Towelhead, was a dead-on-arrival flop), but, as we will see, Six Feet Under  did bow to trends in television, however brilliantly or subversively, during its run nearly as often as it stormed the gates of the medium with its singular vision.

This is not, then, a history of the many artistic accomplishments of Six Feet Under as a series, and it is certainly not, no matter how it may have read so far, a thorough examination of the uses of popular music on television. My intentions here are far more micro than macro in nature, even if the particular dots I am discussing do end up fitting onto a much larger horizon. My subject is not Six Feet Under, or even certain episodes, as a whole, but rather two specific sequences from two separate episodes, and how they use popular music as both dramatic (and again, filmic) devices and cultural signifiers. These two sequences may not even be Six Feet Under ‘s most immediately recognizable musical instances—I am discussing neither the show’s glassy Thomas Newman instrumental theme (another American Beauty connection), nor Sia’s “Breathe Me”, the song that plays over the series’ final flash-forward montage sequence, nor the two soundtrack CDs that were released during the show’s run. These two sequences do, however, broadly illustrate Six Feet Under ‘s singular genius and sophistication as a drama as perfectly as any that you could select from elsewhere the series, musical or not. These ones just happen to have a couple of great songs in them, too.


Part A: “Transatlanticism” (from “Terror Starts at Home”, Season 4, Episode 6)

I Need You So Much Closer

At 1:20, the scene itself lasts about six-and-a-half minutes shorter than the nearly eight minute song that scores it, but it feels much longer as it plays out, and expands to even greater length in memory. The glacial pace of the song itself is certainly responsible for the feeling of time slowed down, but the happily stoned haze its five characters occupy has a lot to do with it as well. A quick blow-by-blow of this brief sequence, then: 

Claire (Lauren Ambrose) draws the phrase “TERROR STARTS AT HOME” (thus giving the episode its loaded title) in blue paint on her bedroom wall, observing her work long enough to pontificate on its meaning. “It’s like, how many evil-doers do you have to kill before you become one yourself, you know?”  “Totally,” replies attentive friend and soon-to-be lover Edie (Mena Suvari) while, over on Claire’s bed, her ex-lover Russell (Ben Foster) strokes Claire’s roommate Anita’s (Sprague Grayden) leg, uttering “smooth” in the sensory-heightened awareness of his drug stupor (the five art school classmates had taken AMT, described as “like ‘X’ but groovier”, in a previous scene), while Anita replies, with her own dawning awareness of the drug’s effect, “I’m insanely thirsty”. On the floor next to the bed, another of Claire’s soon-to-be lovers, Jimmy (Peter Facinelli) sits, eyes closed and smiling dumbly, in a blissful daze. Cut back to Claire and Edie nodding along to the rhythm of the song playing on some unseen stereo, before Edie picks up on the song’s oft-repeated chorus refrain:  “I need you so much closer”. Soon, Claire joins in, and then, as the camera repeats its tour of the room, Russell, then Anita, and then—stroking Anita’s other leg while loudly exhaling in anticipation of whatever other sensory experience is to follow—Jimmy all now singing along with the song’s desperately longing hook. Cut back to Claire, swaying along to the music of the stereo and her friends, before the scene abruptly, even rudely, cuts away to a separate set of characters collapsing onto a carpeted floor in a post-coital entanglement.

The song they are singing along to is “Transatlanticism”, the title cut from the fourth studio album by Washington band Death Cab For Cutie. A hypnotically paced, melancholy ode to the distance—physical, emotional or, more likely, the latter literalized as the former—between a pair of lovers separated by whichever schism you choose to read into it, “Transatlanticism” is a curious pop song for a couple of reasons. For one, a strictly literal reading of its text places it within the very small tradition of unrequited love songs where the thing standing in the way of the happiness of the narrator (and, one presumes, the narrator’s object of affection) is not a third person, or even the subject’s unwillingness to reciprocate, but rather actual space. A couple of pop generations earlier, They Might Be Giant’s tackled this same issue with more clarity with their single “Ana Ng”, in which the narrator not only lamented the distance between the two potential lovers, but also the fear that time may be running out for them, albeit for no reason more square and unsexy than “Ana Ng and I are getting old”.

“Transatlanticism” never acknowledges time in any such way; in fact, the entire text of the song reads as if it is always taking place right now. Writing in the present tense is hardly unusual, especially in something as relatively simple as a pop lyric, but “Transatlanticism” is far more lyrically (and again, unusually) complex than most pop songs. Far from simply mourning his absent love, lyricist Benjamin Gibbard casts his subject on an epic-scale canvas (perhaps to match the size of his and co-writer Chris Walla’s sprawling composition), beginning the lyric with a kind of dream vision: “The Atlantic was born today and I’ll tell you how / The clouds above opened up and let it out”. Beginning your own story with the birth of the Atlantic Ocean displays an almost Miltonian level of ambition (or pretension), though as a poetic device it serves a surprisingly effective purpose, introducing the sudden, inconvenient existence of the Atlantic Ocean as it becomes a sudden, inconvenient factor in this particular long distance relationship.

The Six Feet Under scene, which, again, runs only about a quarter of the length of “Transatlanticism”, features none of this surrealistic preamble to the song’s chorus, but rather captures it at about the very moment the lyric is shifting from the fanciful to the real: “The rhythms of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forevermore” (2:45 into the song itself) is the first thing we hear of the song in the show, just before it makes its way towards that mighty chorus. Likely, the timing has to do with little more than the demands of the scene, and the fragment of pre-chorus that we get is simply there to establish the song’s presence in it as it moves from a piece of the setting’s environment (diegetic, as they call it in academic-speak) to the eventual focus of the scene. More likely, the song is cut into the scene in such a way as to not burden the audience with more text than is necessary (it is already a fairly sparse scene, dialogue-wise, as my earlier summary indicates) pulling the focus towards the implications of the chorus hook when the characters begin singing it. Perhaps, though, we are given none of Benjamin Gibbard’s dream world because the characters’ hallucinogenic state provides one of its own, one in which “I need you so much closer” is not a cry across a cruel, insurmountable distance but rather a conversation between these five characters in which they draw each other into a shared experience, however artificially induced.

If this repurposing of “Transatlanticism” feels a bit shallow, or at least perilously free of irony, though, consider some of what happens during the remainder of the episode. Claire, in the midst of sharing this connection with her friends, is soon called away (during which time Anita, Russell and Jimmy presumably have a three-way in Claire’s shower), having forgotten that she is due at her brother David’s birthday dinner being held downstairs. Showing up still deeply under the influence, her blissfully extroverted presence clashes with the already tense family atmosphere, finally punctuated when a nearly naked Jimmy crashes the oppressively formal scene. Returning to her friends, Claire gushes over having “really connected” with her family over dinner, when clearly the opposite is the case. In her imagining of this connection between her and her bewildered family, and in not being present for the duration of the drug experience (and sexual experimentation) with her friends, Claire is essentially isolated from both groups. If “I need you so much closer” is intended, as we can plausibly read it, as an outward expression of Claire’s mental and emotional needs at the particular point in the series in which it occurs, we instead find her dethatched, withdrawn and, perhaps worst of all, oblivious to all of it.

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