Rock 'n' Roles

Girl with headphones in the club. Image from

How can today's top TV actors get into character? By listening to these themed playlists, of course.

Recently, actor Michael K. Williams revealed a startling fact about his most well-known character, Omar on The Wire. Turns out, the urban vigilante had theme music. Sorta.

On the show, the shotgun-toting character was announced not with music, but with nervous whistles and shouts of "Omar comin'!" But as he trudged up the street on the way to claim his next victory (or just a box of Honey Nut Cheerios), Williams was likely replaying the words of Mary J. Blige's "My Life" or Nas' "One Mic" in his head. Those are two of the 21 songs on the actor's playlist, which helped get him into the right frame of mindtold New York magazine, until the moment his scene began. Williams apparently has playlists for all the characters he plays, some of which are just a few songs long, and pretty much all of which include at least one Nas track.

Theme music as a signifier of a character's, um, character is a familiar practice in TV and movies, from Saturday morning cartoons to old Westerns. But that's post-production stuff. You don't often hear about what the actor listens to to get ready for the performance. This may actually be pretty common; after all, as athletes are routinely seen bumping to their own personal soundtracks in the locker room while getting ready for a game. But Williams's playlist was the first one I'd heard about, and I got to thinking about what music might fit for some of my other favorite TV characters.

Here are five short playlists I concocted to help those actors get ready for their roles (in the interest of narrowing the field, I limited myself to shows that debuted this century – sorry, George Costanza, Hank Kingsley, Bill Haverchuk, and Cockroach). I've created a corresponding Spotify playlist for each so you can listen for yourself – critiques and additional recommendations are welcome.

Charlie Day – Charlie Kelly, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia"

Charlie is a complicated man, and no one understands him but…well, wait, does anyone? He's often yelling incoherently or writing things down in his own special hieroglyphic-esque language. In any case, he's special. And unless Charlie the actor wants to spend his off-days sniffing spray-paint cans, he's going to need some musical inspiration for this role (the infamous "Dayman" and "Nightman" not included).

Kermit the Frog - "Bein' Green"

What song would get you in the mood to put on a full-body latex suit? It's hard to find one, but I'm sure Charlie could groove to this. Plus, it's clear his character is still at about the intellectual level this tune was originally directed toward.

Beastie Boys – "Fight For Your Right"

It's very possible that Charlie Day studied Ad Rock's high-pitched style in preparation for the show's debut. I can see his character trashing a hotel room to this classic.

The Ziggens – "The Waitress Song"

"There's something about a waitress that turns me on." Too bad Charlie will have to settle for just this quirky, creepy song.

Bob Dylan – "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Charlie does a heck of a Dylan impression, and this frenetic song is probably the best representation of his character's scattered brain.

Ozzy Osborne – "Crazy Train"

Really, I'm surprised Charlie hasn't bitten the head off a bat in an episode yet. Well, there's always next season.

Amy Poehler – Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation”

Leslie Knope may not always be optimistic, but she can usually find a way to put a positive spin on most situations, often with the help of booze or, more likely, sugar. But life’s not all sunshine and lollipops –as Poehler well knows, given her recent split from Will Arnett. Especially this season, she might need a little extra push to get her in that Leslie frame of mind.

Gloria Estefan – “Get On Your Feet”

There's a reason the Knope campaign chose this song for a public introduction – it's the perfect mix of perk and productivity for a woman who sneaks into work even while suspended.

Jackson 5 – Goin’ Back to Indiana

Ok, Tito, you got it! John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” is the obvious choice for getting in the Pawnee, Indiana mood, but Leslie needs more of a backbeat. Besides, I'm sure she could find some way that Pawnee could claim at least one of the Jacksons.

Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Pink and Mya – Lady Marmalade

The updated version of this LaBelle classic is right up Leslie's alley. The trick will be getting Anne to karaoke it along with her – if it doesn't work out, she can probably perform all the parts herself.

Bow Wow Wow – "I Want Candy"

Syrup, whipped cream, chocolate…if it's sweet, Leslie will likely eat it. Unless it's from Sweetums, of course.

Monty Python – "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life"

The message fits Leslie's irrepressible optimism (as long as you don't look past the satire), and gives Poehler a chance to practice one of her character's many foreign accents.

David Cross – Tobias Funke, Arrested Development"

I thought about going with Gob Bluth here, but I'm not sure if Will and Amy could handle being on the same tongue-in-cheek list right now. Besides, it would've probably just been Europe's "The Final Countdown" on an endless loop.

So, how does one get in the head of a self-deluding analrapist with perpetual health problems? With a heavy dose of cheesy pop, of course. Hopefully David is listening – the Netflix season of Arrested Development comes with impossibly high expectations, and he'd better be ready.

The Village People – "Macho Man"

The self-delusion thing. And though Cross may want to blow himself (away) after listening to this a few times, he's got to study up to be able to make subtle references to guys like Freddie Wilson (aka Victor Willis the cop).

Donny & Marie – "A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock 'n' Roll"

This gets at at least some of the problems between Tobias and Lindsay, that selfish, country-loving woman he's married to. (And Donny & Marie don't sound too far off from Dr. Funke's 100 Percent Natural Good Time Family Band Solution.)

Queen – "Somebody to Love"

Freddie Mercury is loved the world over (did you know there's a statue of him in Montreux?) for his singular voice, bold spirit and impressive facial hair. Tobias has at least two of those things…and he does clearly need somebody.

George Michael – "Freedom! '90"

Because there's no artist named "Boy Michael." Besides, Tobias don't belong to you, and he don't belong to me. He belongs to the voices in his head, which may or may not be telling him to go to the hospital.

The Starland Vocal Band – "Afternoon Delight"

I know, this should really be on a Michael Bluth playlist. But for the king of unintended double entendres, this seems an appropriate choice. Anyway, the alternative is really Eiffel 65's "Blue," and no one wants that.

Taylor Kitsch – Tim Riggins, Friday Night Lights"

I had one rule for this playlist: No Explosions in the Sky. I like the moody instrumentals that soundtracked this show fine, but I'd imagine the entire FNL cast is pretty tired of them at this point. Let's stick to what would really get Kitsch to forget about his disastrous film career and get into the head of Dillon's polarizing favorite son.

Kip Moore – "Somethin' About A Truck"

You can't separate Tim Riggins from his truck, though some have tried. This song may not be deep, but it includes all of his favorite things: driving, girls, and beer. (Seriously, find me another country song that has all that.)

Lynyrd Skynyrd – "Simple Man"

Remember that episode of "Seinfeld" where Elaine dates a guy who shushes her and stares off into the distance every time The Eagles' "Desperado" comes on? (You knew I'd get a reference in here somewhere.) Kitsch needs a song to practice staring off meaningfully in the distance, all clear eyes and full heart, and this Southern ballad seems as good as any.

Ram Jam – "Black Betty"

For the intense football scenes.

Son Volt – "Drown"

"If living right is easy…" This alt-country tune about things gone wrong from that other Uncle Tupelo offshoot fits Riggins' destructive personality pretty well, and it rocks just enough to keep that hard edge.

Theron Pfeifer – "Texas Forever"

You can write that down in big stone letters…or just toast to it every chance you get.

Dule Hill – Burton Guster, Psych

Who? Only one of the finest comic characters of this century – and no, I'm not kidding. This admittedly silly USA show about a psychic detective agency may not be as universally beloved as the other shows on this list, but after six seasons, you've got to give it some credit. Gus may be Shawn Spencer's purported sidekick, but in my mind he's the highlight of each episode due to his impressive delivery and even more impressive dance moves. Only a certain quality of music will get him moving right.

Michael Jackson – "Billie Jean"

Honestly, nearly any Michael Jackson song would work, given Hill's killer impression of the King of Pop. But this has the maximum number of woo's and hee's.

Boyz II Men – "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday"

Did you know Gus was in an a capella group with Jaleel White and Mekhi Phifer? Yeah, it's true. And I'm sure that Hill listened to this track and others obsessively getting ready for that episode.

Destiny's Child – "Say My Name"

It's rare that Shawn will actually introduce Gus as, well, Gus. Whether it's Methuselah Honeysuckle, Hollabackatcha, Control Alt Delete, MC Clap Yo Handz and Santonio Holmes, Hill has to get used to being called a lot names other than his own. (Plus, the mental image of Beyonce will help inspire that creepy look Gus gets around attractive women.)

Tears For Fears – "Shout"

Both Shawn and Gus have a love for '80s music. But this song wins above all, because it enables yet another MJ impression, complete with Jheri curl (Sh'mon! I'm talkin' to you).

Nas & Damian Marley – "As We Enter"

For when Gus needs to put on his tap-dancing shoes.





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