Soundtrack Studies: ‘The O.C.’ (,Bitch)

Tuesday, July 1 by
Kids aren't this interesting, but sometimes it's nice to pretend they are.  

Historically, cinema was the medium that was meant to endure the march of time, whereas serial television had existed to capture the moment, chew it up, spit it out, and move on. And while HBO, and a dozen or so cable shows have shifted that paradigm, it still remains largely true.

More specifically in the realm of music, licensing current hits or even up-and-coming artists for inclusion in the first-run episodes is expensive. Doing so in reruns and for DVD sales has proven prohibitive time and time again for shows like MTV’s The State and The Wonder Years, to which the music was integral.

As TV became more endearing with shows like The Wire, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and a few other HBO offerings, the networks were slow to catch on. For every Lost, there were seven bad Lost rip-offs. And while ABC, NBC, and CBS generally stuck to their core demos of children, families, and the immeasurably old, Fox went after teens and the slightly more offbeat demo.

The O.C. was an offering that first came into the public consciousness during the famed 2004 MLB playoffs that had everyone watching as the Red Sox stole the pennant from the Yankees. The show looked pretty ridiculous, so in that regard, the previews and ads were an accurate representation of what we were in for.

While the efforts the producers made towards including and featuring music in the show were borderline herculean, the show itself wasn’t anything terribly special. It was a teen soap opera the likes of which we’d seen many times before, and haven’t seen so much of since (except maybe on MTV, where music has become incidental, ironically). A guy moves to Orange County. There are a lot of storylines. Everyone’s good-looking. The end.

I don’t want to sound dismissive, but if you want to read more about the plot of the The O.C., click here. Better yet, click here and do something better with your time. But we should talk about the music.

The O.C. creator and showrunner Josh Schwartz isn’t a stupid guy and was certainly aware that he wasn’t treading new ground with this show. So in an effort to have a hook, he claims he “always intended that music be a character on the show.”

That’s just about the most description you can give, but it’s also fairly true. The attention that the music commanded on the show far exceeded that which any character warranted. The demographic was suggestible (I mean, they were watching The O.C. after all), and the introduction and presentation of countless acts and artists, both live and non-diegetic, gave the show something to hang its hat on then and now.

The focus of the show was indie rock. And while it would be fun and dismissive to say that the show’s take on indie rock was the dull, focus-group tested type of music that you would expect a committee to approve, the truth is that it was an impressive undertaking from a mainstream show. To give an idea of the depth and breadth of the show, check out the exhaustive inventory here. That’s no small effort.

It’s easy to take a list this large and mold it to your own thoughts or expectations, but the truth is that this demonstrates that the show was very dedicated to giving new artists (and old ones) a platform, and to expand the tastes of primtetime teenagers. Pretty noble goals. And if it served as a point of distinction among the muddled teen-friendly TV landscape, all the better.

Here’s a very large, very helpful playlist that shows the scope of the curation:

Sure, there’s stuff to ridicule there, but that’s the cost of doing this type of business. You want to put nine Guster songs on your show? Fine. Whatever. Go for it. But they also put in MULTIPLE songs by lthe likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Eagles of Death Metal, Royskopp, and The Walkmen. There’s lots of good music here. There’s lots of bad music here. There’s lots of MUSIC here. And that’s pretty virtuous in and of itself.

The issue I take isn’t with the music being good or bad. Catering to a primetime audience over several seasons, you’ll have to cast a wide net in that regard. The problem I have is that the characters in this show would never listen to this type of music. I bitched about a lack of authenticity torpedoing a previous film and soundtrack in Juno, and it happens again here. These people would not listen to this music. They don’t go to clubs to see up-and-coming indie acts. That’s not what people in Orange County do. That’s usually not what teenagers ANYWHERE do. They listen to obnoxious hip-hop and sappy songs that lends themselves to blowjobs in cars.

Which makes sense. Because hip-hop and sexual half-measures are things that teenagers like. Even the rich white ones in this show. So overlaying very progressive indie rock (at least by mainstream standards) against such a trite context doesn’t do the show, or ultimately the soundtrack, any favors. Though it doesn’t nullify the effort. I mean, could you imagine how bad the show would have been if it had been about music-savvy, painfully hip teenagers? It would have been like a hipster Dawson’s Creek. My eyes are bleeding just thinking about that.

So we’re all grateful that the producers and creators practiced some restraint there. I suppose we should just be happy that the powers that be gave us a familiar drama with good/great/lots of music rather than a familiar drama with nothing interesting of note. But it’s also not unreasonable to have wanted to more to elevate our enjoyment of both.

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