Funeral Songs

The Music of 'Six Feet Under'

by Jer Fairall

3 November 2011

Death Cab for Cutie 

An Ocean Making Islands

Before becoming sidetracked by the alluring combination of sex, drugs and indie rock singalongs, Claire and her friends are shown discussing their plans for combining their respective areas of artistic interest in the creation of some large, “confrontational” multimedia art project. “Multimedia” was a previous generation’s buzzword for what is now, in today’s inextricably interconnected environment, essentially just “media”, and few bands better expresses this particular 21st century condition than Death Cab For Cutie. Amusingly enough, for all of the artists who have attempted to incorporate a variety of media formats into their work (Gorillaz, Brian Eno and Bjork, to name a prominent few), the relatively quaint Death Cab For Cutie appear to have come about their internet-age fame rather inadvertently. Formed in 1997 and having built up a small but reasonable following through their early records, the 2003 release of the Transatlanticism album found the band gaining exposure via a most unusual outlet: the FOX teen soap opera The O.C.  Frequently cited as the favorite band of main character Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), Death Cab had five of its songs (three of them off of Transatlanticism) appear in the series, one of its songs released on a volume of the show’s tie-in soundtrack, their poster hung on Seth’s bedroom wall and even performed live on the show in one episode.

The effect of The O.C. on Death Cab For Cutie’s career was seismic. Although the band had reportedly been in talks with major labels at various points in their career up to that point, the exposure played a significant part in snagging the formerly independent label band a deal with Atlantic Records. Their first major label album, Plans, was released in 2005, eventually rising to #4 on the Billboard album chart and earning a platinum sales certification of over 1,000,000 albums sold (the band has since released two other albums on Atlantic, the most recent being this year’s Codes and Keys). Death Cab’s success, however, did not exist in a bubble. In not very much time at all, network television was all over the once fiercely publicity shy genre of indie rock, scoring such mainstream dramas as Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill to the more radio friendly end of the bands regularly found among Pitchfork‘s daily reviews. Suddenly, artists like Rilo Kiley, Tegan and Sara, The Postal Service (a Ben Gibbard side project), Feist, Metric, Peter Bjorn and John, Frightened Rabbit and Hot Hot Heat, among others, were gaining the kind of exposure previously unattainable to such non-corporate acts.

Just as the internet was making it easier and easier for independent musicians to get their music heard and distributed, television stepped in to lend its own helping hand via the magic of cross-marketing. Multi volume CD soundtrack releases of many of these programs flooded the market like movie soundtracks had been doing for years prior, perhaps culminating in the current success of Glee, a music-oriented television series that has already boasted an obscene number of product tie-ins in its two-season run. If you wish to trace a damning lineage from Six Feet Under and Death Cab For Cutie to Ryan Murphy’s incessant milking of his cash cow, go right ahead, but consider how even Glee is formally revolutionary in its own way, the kind of thing that could likely never have existed without the previous decade’s weaving of music into dramatic television so tightly that something like a weekly musical TV drama was now possible (not to take too much away from Glee’s individual accomplishment; surely it is doing something right where such earlier attempts at musical television drama, like NBC’s justifiably forgotten Hull High and ABC’s eternal punchline Cop Rock, failed). For better or worse, any institution that suddenly welcomes art school punks and indie rock nerds will only, over time, find itself more hospitable to drama geeks and glee-choir freaks, not less.

As Long As We’re Not, Like, Greedy Imperialists

Any discussion of indie rock’s hesitant dealings with the mainstream remains incomplete, however, without addressing the genre’s own death-and-taxes inevitability: backlash. Discussions on how Death Cab For Cutie “sold out” with their Atlantic deal can certainly be found in several elitist corners of the internet, but even the band had to know that hitching their particular wagon (or death cab, as it were) to a show about the pampered excesses of a bunch of rich and beautiful California teenagers was just asking for it (similar appearances a decade earlier on Beverly Hills 90210 either came from already unabashedly commercial acts like Color Me Badd, or the long-ago appropriated likes of the Rolling Stones). Such tedious debates will exist as long as there is any kind of corporate structure to the music industry, to be sure, but the indie-ificaction, as it were, of television soundtracks does bring with it the unique bonus of offering a stream of revenue to these artists at a particularly volatile time. With bands and labels (indie and otherwise) losing money to illegal downloading, selling music to television (and film, and advertisers) may not only represent an attractive opportunity, however unpopular in some circles, but also perhaps one of the few options remaining to anyone hoping to make it as a working musician in the 21st century.

“Terror Starts at Home” aired a good year after The O.C. began having its lead character touting his Death Cab fandom, long enough to open Six Feet Under ‘s use of “Transatlanticism” to potential accusations of trend hopping. But what if the show’s intentions ran deeper than that?  Certainly, there is an angle at which the appearance of a Death Cab For Cutie song on Six Feet Under occurring just as the band was starting to hit its mainstream stride could be viewed as deeply ironic. After all, what are Claire and her art school friends if not privileged white California kids, akin to The O.C. gang in every way besides their lofty artistic ambitions?  Is Six Feet Under ‘s Death Cab-scored atmosphere of bisexual orgies and hard drug use revealing the cleanliness of The O.C.‘s PG-rated debauchery as a funhouse-mirror distortion of Six Feet Under ‘s comparative realism?  Or does the way that the characters utilize “Transatlanticism” as a kind of dialogue between them, calling to each other for comfort and togetherness, expose the fraud of Seth Cohen’s wearing of his indie badges as a shallow fashion statement (and who’s being elitist now)?

Perhaps the answer is none of the above. In her DVD commentary track for “Terror Starts at Home”, the episode’s writer Kate Robin mentions that the scene was originally conceived with Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” as the song until it was deemed too difficult to sing along with. No mention is made of how “Transatlanticism” was eventually decided upon as a replacement, though anyone in charge should have understood the plausibility of a group of circa-2004 college students singing along to Death Cab For Cutie rather than a comparatively obscure Judee Sill song from 1971. A happy accident if an accident at all, then, and besides, Six Feet Under wouldn’t get quite that ambitiously surreal with their soundtrack choices for another season yet.

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