In her review of Mean Streets Pauline Kael wrote, “...music and the movies work within us and set the terms in which we perceive ourselves. Music and the movies and the Church. A witches’ brew.” Every scene in The Sopranos works off of this observation.
Creator David Chase knows that the sensuality of pop music and movies and the guilt of pretending to be a good Catholic boy are forever tangled up. The new—and crucial—ingredient that Chase adds to the brew is psychoanalysis. (For Chase, therapy is like confession minus the ten Hail Marys.) After the one-two punch of The Godfather and Mean Streets you would never watch Italian-American criminality without relating it to the pent-up energy of Top 40 music. You would wonder how, exactly, gangsters acted before the invention of rock ’n’ roll?
Chase uses our collective movie memory of Italian-Americans, music, and gangster movies to subversive effect. Like GoodFellas, The Sopranos does a remarkable job of taking the romance out of crime. The use of music on the show plays with both our expectations of what looks “cool” and with the harsh reality of everyday cruelty. Like Scorsese, Tarantino or the John Sayles of Baby It’s You, Chase uses music, all at once, as commentary, ironic counterpoint and mood enhancer. For example: In the first episode of the series Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) shows initiative by whacking a rival contract bidder. The killing is set to Bo Diddley’s cover of “I’m a Man”. Christopher, the frustrated screenwriter, acts out his Scorsese fantasies as he cold-bloodedly shoots the man while the throbbing blues stomp grows louder, more intense. It’s Christopher’s first step toward becoming a man.
Choosing the five best uses of music on The Sopranos is really impossible, and pointless. Instead, I’ve opted to pick five moments where The Sopranos displays its specialty of using a song just right, whether as season-ending summation or theme or ironic foreshadowing. In chronological order:
1. “Woke Up This Morning” by A3: On January 10, 1999 a buzzed-about crime show about two kinds of families entered America’s pop culture psyche. It all began with the show’s opening credits sequence where Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) returns home after a full day’s work at the office. Some men go to an office building. Tony works out of the backrooms of a pork store (Satriale’s) or a strip club (The Bada Bing). We see the images of the N.J. Turnpike and the Twin Towers from the rear window of Tony’s SUV. Tony smokes a cigar. We see other seemingly well-kept houses. The sequence ends with Tony pulling up to his house, presumably greeted by his wife Carmela and two kids, Meadow and A.J. (The sequence is a little odd in that Tony usually conducts his business in Jersey, rarely needing to go to New York. But I digress.)
The song used for the sequence is an electronic-blues number that’s like a gospel song gone evil. The outfit A3 creates music that has a way of getting stuck in your head. Imagine if Moby was more committed to fun than creating Art and you’ll get an idea of A3’s approach to blues, gospel, and electronic beats. The opening lines set the tone: “Woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun. Your mama always said/You’d be the chosen one.” Right there we are given the key themes that will run through the entire series. Every season opener begins with Tony waking up and stumbling down his driveway to get the paper. As a leader, it seems Tony was always chosen to take care of his people. His flaws as a human being have also been what allowed him to outlast everyone around him. The song climaxes with a gospel-like chorus repeating the song’s title. We move from the threatening to the possibility of seeing the errors of one’s ways in less than 1:30.
It’s easy to forget how influential the opening-credits sequence has been for other shows. Before The Sopranos, most opening-credits music selections have been of the catchy but disposable variety. Supposedly Chase wanted to use a different song for every episode. The executives at HBO convinced him that their needed to be a unifying theme song for audiences to know the show was starting. They were right. The song is more than catchy. It has depth and meaning. On the rare occasion that a show’s theme song has entered the pop charts, like, say, Friends (“I’ll Be There For You”) or The Heights (“How Do You Talk To An Angel”), the song really doesn’t have much of a shelf life after the show’s completion. (Do people still clap along to the opening of Friends? I hope not.) But The Sopranos was different. A3’s “Woke Up This Morning” has staying power. It lives outside of the show as a great pop song that summons feelings that aren’t tied to the show. (How many of you still enjoy watching the opening-credits sequence?) Other shows followed suit. Phantom Planet’s “California” (The O.C.), The Von Bondies’ “C’mon, C’mon” (Rescue Me), 70s-era Who (C.S.I.) have all helped to give an identity, a temperament to their shows. “Woke Up This Morning” did more. It told us what to expect from the series: the unexpected.
2. “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen: Even with the New Jersey setting and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt in the cast, the music of the Garden State’s unofficial poet laureate is rarely used on The Sopranos. (Tony does mention the clearing-house box set “Tracks” in the Season 1 finale, however, and in a Season Five episode, Christopher quotes a key line from “Born to Run.”) It’s funny how compatible Springsteen and The Sopranos are, yet it’s doubtful Tony shares The Boss’ political views. In fact, the characters in Springsteen’s best songs are the people that Tony and his crew intimidate, exploiting human weaknesses for profit. Even the characters in songs like “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99” act more out of desperation than cold-blooded calculation. The exception is the Season 1 finale episode “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano.” By the time of the finale’s airing, names like “Big Pussy” and phrases like “What, no fucking ziti?” had entered the lexicon. We not only knew the characters, but we were taking sides on who should get whacked and what should happen next. Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) was the only woman who dared to tell Tony what was wrong with him, even if she feared for her life. We were so in tune with the way Tony’s mind worked that when he decided certain people needed to be taken care of, we knew exactly why.
The episode finds Tony coming to terms with the fact that his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) had manipulated his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) to have him clipped as revenge for putting her into a nursing home. Tony survives the hit, of course, and the episode chronicles his methodical plan to tie up loose ends. Christopher and Paulie eliminate resident Season 1 asshole Mikey Palmice (Al Sapienza). Indictments are handed down, but Tony isn’t named. And Livia conveniently suffers a stroke right before Tony can smother her with a pillow. In a scene of great power, Tony is reduced to yelling at his mother (“I tried to do the right thing by you and you try to have me whacked?”) as she’s being rolled away on a gurney. He looks almost like a little boy as he stands in the hospital hallway screaming, “Look at the smile on her face! She’s smiling!”
The episode ends with Tony, Carm and the kids driving through a horrific thunderstorm. They wind up at Artie’s restaurant. Christopher, Adriana, Paulie, and Silvio are all there. It’s a cracked tableau of Tony surrounded by his love ones. He gives a toast and tells his kids to try to remember the little moments with ones you love. As the storm rages, the spooky-cool guitar strumming of “State Trooper” begins. An outlaw anthem chronicling the wedding night of a petty criminal who hopes he doesn’t get pulled over, “State Trooper” is brilliantly re-contextualized as a song of anticipation as we can’t wait to find out what happens next. The song is a tip of the hand by Chase as Tony isn’t aware yet that he’s on the run and he’ll be on the run for the rest of the series. It’s foreshadowing of the highest order.
3. “It Was A Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra: What do you do when you’ve created a work of perfection? How do you top yourself? You don’t. Instead, you hunker down and try to maintain a level of excellence that you would be proud to sign your name on. The Season 2 premiere just might’ve been the most anticipated return of any show in television history. The fact that the season received less than unanimous approval by critics and fans probably led to Chase being permanently in defensive mode. He need not worry so much. The quality of the writing, directing, and acting of Season 2 was just as surprising as Season 1. Any other show on TV would be lucky to have this level of quality for half of their episodes. Complaints about Season 2 say more about viewers’ unreasonable expectations and nostalgia than it does about the show.
Chase, anticipating the inevitable backlash, flaunts his artistic achievement right at the top of Season 2’s premiere episode “Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist’s Office.” The use of Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year” is at once ironic and deadly serious. 1999 was indeed a very good year for The Sopranos. (It was also a very good year for moviegoers as directors like Doug Liman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Tom Tykwer, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Sam Mendes, Kimberly Pierce, and Spike Jonze came into their own.) The song is used to score a montage of all the key players. Through a series of wipes and dissolves we are shown what everyone has been doing over last year. Christopher is snorting and watching movies. Uncle Junior is in lockdown. Dr. Melfi has made a makeshift office out of a roadside hotel room, having been forced to go into hiding for having Tony as a patient. Carmela serves food. We see Tony grow in power as money comes his way. We also see him being a good father by showing Meadow how to drive. All the while, Sinatra is remembering when he was young and care free, singling out ages 17, 21, and 35 as particularly good years for chasing women. Sinatra’s fond remembrances are tinged with regret as he looks back from a point in his life where “days are short.” In this one montage Chase remembers his Season 1 triumph and immediately wipes it away, readying the viewers for another good year.
4. “Thru and Thru” by The Rolling Stones: Let’s face it. Even the best Stones records are slightly bogged down by the obligatory Keith Richards-tries-to-sing-lead-vocals track. The one exception is “Thru and Thru” off the slightly underrated “Voodoo Lounge” record from 1994. (Yes, I am fully aware of Let It Bleed’s “You Got the Silver” and Exile on Main St.’s “Happy.” I stand by what I wrote.) The track is used at the conclusion of Season 2’s much-debated finale episode “Funhouse” in much the same way that “House of the Rising Sun” was used at the end of Casino or the final fanfare during the baptism sequence of The Godfather. It’s used for a montage of tying up more loose ends. Through a series of fever dreams, Tony’s suspicions about one of his crew are made clear. (He knows what has to be done.) The Sopranos had used dream sequences before, but never to the extent that they were used in “Funhouse.” (Chase would reach a level of sustained dream logic that would rival Dali in Season 5’s “The Test Dream,” with its breathtaking 20-minute dream sequence.) Richards’ vocals on “Thru and Thru” are hoarse and full of experience. The song itself is a typical slow-burn blues jam that comes to life with Charlie Watts’ death-knell drumming. The montage consists of Meadow’s graduation celebration. Tony informs Christopher he’s going to nominate him for his button. Petty crimes and scams continue. More money comes in. The sequence ends with Tony smoking a cigar, his expression resembling something like content. But “Thru and Thru” suggests unrest and sadness, especially with its repetitive “It’s like an open book.” Life goes on and it’s also at a standstill.
5. “Living On A Thin Line” by The Kinks: In some quarters, Season 3 is considered to be the best The Sopranos ever got, with every subsequent season starting off strong and ending with a whimper. (I like to think of each season as being a self-contained entity, with specific rhythms and purposes.) For me, Season 3 is when The Sopranos went dark and mean, never to return to being a “humorous” look at the Mob in the age of self-help. The show would still be funny, but the laughs would come with a sting—and a price. Like the Billy Batts sequence from GoodFellas, dread would be the overriding emotion for the remainder of the show.
And if you had to single out one episode when everything went sour it would have to be the deeply disturbing “University.” Coming just two episodes after the shocking “Employee of the Month” (Dr. Melfi gets raped and makes a tough, moral decision.), “University” is a spiritual sequel to the Season 1 highlight “College” (Tony kills a man while taking Meadow to visit area colleges). It’s a self-contained episode that deals with the rampant misogyny and violence toward women that is part of Tony’s world. The episode focuses on the doomed fate of Tracee (Ariel Kiley), a Bada Bing stripper who comes across as someone who might’ve had a chance if someone noticed her. Instead, she’s a stripper with a little boy and another baby on the way. When she’s not stripping she’s working the VIP room. (“Fifty bucks to get in. Plus, a blow job for me later,” a dim bouncer informs all the girls who want in.) She’s also the “girlfriend” of Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano). Life has not turned out the way Tracee imagined.
Tracee’s storyline is paralleled with Meadow’s seemingly innocent struggles of being away from home at college. Compared to Tracee, Meadow’s problems are rather mild. The episode ends with a scene of brutal violence as Ralphie kills Tracee, beating and smashing her head. The episode was greeted with outrage at the graphic violence, as if violence toward women should be dealt with in the abstract. The fact is that the treatment of the women characters has nothing to do with The Sopranos being one of the best showcases for female performers. And Ariel Kiley’s heartbreaking one-episode performance remains one of the most indelible in the show’s history.
The Kinks’ “Living On A Thin Line” gives the performance context and shading. The song is used throughout the episode, providing a theme and cohesiveness. Off of their “Word of Mouth” album from 1984, the track has a very ’80s pop vibe, but in a good way. Chase occasionally chooses a song to act as an episode’s theme and point of reference. Season 2’s “From Where to Eternity” (Otis Redding’s “My Lover’s Prayer”) and Season 6, Part 1’s season finale “Kaisha” (The Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile”) are perfect examples of a song used in this manner. “University” opens with the synth-guitar intro to “Living On A Thin Line.” It’s not the most obvious song choice for strippers to dance to, but it creates a sense of foreboding that runs throughout the rest of the episode. The song is a distinctly Brit pop ode to disillusionment. Lyrically the song is pretty despairing.
All the stories been told
Of kings and days of ole
But there’s no England now
All the wars that were won and lost
Somehow don’t seem to matter very much anymore
All the lies we were told
All the lives of the people running around
Their castles were burned
Oh I see change but inside
We’re the same as we ever were
Living on a thin line
Tell me now what are we suppose to do
And that’s just the opening lines. The song evokes the feeling of abandonment and the possibility of no one being around to help you. It’s placement at the start of the episode provides an odd bit of foreshadowing as we quickly see that Tracee has indeed been stranded in a world where her body is her only commodity, and even then it’s disposable. After Ralphie murders her, the song is reprised for the final scene. This time the song is almost mournful, as a new girl is being indoctrinated to how things work at The Bada Bing. “Fifty bucks to get in. Plus, a blow job for me later.” Living on a thin line, indeed.