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Mapping the Music and Style of 'My So-Called Life'

"This life has been a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have received instructions on where to go and what to do…"

The lives of Angela Chase, Rayanne Graff, Ricky, Brian Krakow, and Jordan Catalano are forever in stasis. When we left them in January 1995 Brian was circling Angela on his bike as she twirled in the center of the road, talking to him, flirting with the idea of flirting with him. The show never returned for a second season, despite critical acclaim, so in my mind they are still there, Krakow pedaling an unending loop around his first love.


My So-Called Life was a game-changer for teen TV. For once it showed characters that weren't glossy and perfect, and who struggled with real teen problems: loneliness, feeling like an outsider, having small boobs, being the only gay guy at your school, hating your parents while still desperately needing their approval, the weird thing that happens to daughters and fathers when a girl goes through puberty and they suddenly don't know how to talk to each other anymore, the pain of being the little sister when your big sister turns moody and mysterious, and the even worse pain of having a pre-teen little sister who is super annoying and nosy. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It shrugged off the expectation that teenagers were (slightly) more youthful looking adults that had crazy and pretty unlikely things happen to them but were still able to hold it together—I'm looking at you here, Beverly Hills 90210—and instead showed teens in all their blemished greasy glory. The wonderful thing about most teenagers is that they feel like insane things are happening to them and their emotions are incredibly intense, but in reality they're just living in suburbia and going to school and feeling the same things people their age have felt for hundreds of years.

My So-Called Life perfectly portrayed that desperate longing for something to happen, a desire that lives alongside a deep fear that something will actually happen. Which would be, like, the worst thing ever. (I want to do a log of how many times the word “like” is used in Angela’s voiceover. It's A LOT. I blame it for, like, ruining my vocabulary.)


So we know the on-point script (shouts out to Winnie Holzman. Legend!) and the young actors' delivery were the backbone to MSCL’s enduring appeal, but without a doubt the cast’s outfits and the show’s soundtrack cemented its cult status. As with Clueless, the creators gave their characters wardrobes that were reminiscent of how teenagers dressed (or wanted to dress) at the time, but with a little extra intensity. They pushed it further and consequently started their own trends. Hands up if you ever dyed your hair cherry red, or had a woven backpack, or fell madly in love with plaid, or lost your shit over clogs after watching the show. I know I did. I still try and dress like Angela and Rayanne now. It was also the birth of a generation's longing for Jordan Catalano, played by Oscar-winner Jared Leto. So synonymous is Leto with Catalano that when I watched him scoop his statuette my first thought was, “Jordan can read!” Either way—the boy done good. And he's still beautiful. [Because he’s clearly made a pact with the devil – Ed.]

Sadly Jordan's band Frozen Embryos never made it into Rolling Stone, but MSCL showcased a lot of amazing music, including songs from Buffalo Tom, Sonic Youth, and The Lemonheads. Hey, in one ep Juliana Hatfield even made a cameo as a homeless teen angel. It got my big sister into grunge and I soon followed suit. I think the requisite for a band to have their music on MSCL must’ve been:


1. Emotional.

2. Grizzly male vocal/Liz Fraser-esque sweet-woman-warbling.

3. Guitars x 4.

4. At least one mention of being different/an outsider in the lyrics.

Anyway, without further ado here are Brian, Angela, Rayanne, Jordan, and Ricky sharing their wardrobes, music, lives, and loves.

Rayanne Graff is the best friend you adore, but are also completely intimidated by. She is a braver, bolder, more extreme version of who you want to be. If your life is pastels and soft rock, hers is neon and happy hardcore. This girl is a foul-mouthed Technicolor princess. Your parents hate her guts—which is yet another reason why you love her all the more.

It's easy to find your very own Rayanne Graff as these types peacock: They wear their personalities on their sleeve, and their personalities are tie-dyed. As you can see above, Rayanne completely ignores Coco Chanel's rule of removing one thing before leaving the house—Rayanne adds eight things instead. She's wearing a BRALET to school with a plaid shirt and a backwards cap. She is not messing around.

In fact, Rayanne is all about clashing and layering prints. Below she's wearing two plaid shirts and stripy trousers. Her body is a festival and all the flannel is invited.

LOL Ricky’s face. Classic Ricky.

Hey guys, what’re your thoughts on wearing a maxi tie-dye shirt or a maxi plaid shirt? Cos Rayanne has an opinion on the subject and that opinion is that IT'S AWESOME.


I’d never really considered bowler hats as an option—they're more for the Dad in Mary Poppins than an actual style option—and yet… Incidentally, this is the hat Rayanne wears when she briefly becomes lead singer of Frozen Embryos (in the episode where enigmatic, never-seen Tino briefly but dramatically quits the band). Her performance totally bombs, but I don't think it was the hat's fault. CAN WE ALL JUST STOP BLAMING THE HAT.

Rayanne's hair is also a marvel: random braids, blonde streaks, floral scrunchies, and butterfly clips—and by that I mean clips of actual plastic butterflies—all reside on her head at one time or another. Sometimes all at the same time. I also love this embroidered cowboy shirt she's wearing below. If minimalism was a word on Rayanne’s vocab test, she’d get a big red X.

When it comes to music, Rayanne is a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. When Angela's dad gets them tickets, Rayanne is beyond excited. She comes into school with her hair in loads of little braids and her best psychedelic tie-dye tee.

And she pairs this classic look with Converse (classic) featuring mismatched laces (rebel). Also, DEM SOCKS.

Rayanne loves Nirvana, announcing “I can't even look at him,” when a picture of recently deceased Kurt is placed in front of her. Rayanne is Trouble with a capital T, but she’s also a girl with troubles: she does drugs, she doesn't mind being called a slut, and *SPOILER ALERT* she does one of the worst things a girl can do to another girl.


But she also gets arty boys to paint her shoes.

Rayanne is The Ramones, she’s Sonic Youth, she is Urge Overkill, but she's also the Sesame Street theme song, which she hums. A lot. In fact at one point she actually turns it into a sexy striptease-type song. Classic Rayanne: raunching it up at every inappropriate opportunity.

I will leave you guys with Rayanne's best quote:

“Two words: Tino.”

Growing up I always wanted to be Angela, but I knew that I was really her annoying little sister, and my big sister was the red-haired mysterious beauty. In the show most of Angela's talking is in her head, I don't think she actually says much to, like, other people. But we know what she's thinking and feeling from her longing looks, internal monologuing, and her cry face.

Angela has all the feels. She’s so raw she's basically sushi, and she picks up on every nuance in people's behavior and then obsesses over it. She falls completely in love with Jordan Catalano from afar, and then has to deal with the fact he's not really boyfriend material. Why do we always want the bad boy (or girl) when all they bring is pain and cry face? Or, even worse, they fall in love with us and stop being bad and then we realize they're just normal and boring.

In the meantime Angela teaches us to wear colored tights and plaid dresses.

Angela's soundtrack is very heavy on bands that deal with #deepfeelings. She finds it soothing to sit in her room and listen to The Cranberries for hours. She will go to a rave, come home, and get deep to some Enigma or R.E.M. Everybody hurts, but Angela hurts the most.


But then there is the glorious morning when she wakes up and realizes she's not sad about Catalano anymore. She is over him and to celebrate she dances round her room to Violent Femmes. Girl was hopping around on her bed way before Kirsten Dunst. Sidenote: even her PJs have plaid detailing.

In case you're doing a poll, my favorite of Angela's outfits is this one:

I love that sweater, it looks so comfortable, I want to marry it and have sweater babies with it and make them all grow up to be accountants. And I love that she wears it with plaid and leggings and socks.



This Aztec coat is also pretty Goddamn dreamy. It goes really well with her science equipment. (But what is a volumeter really?)

More examples of layering below, this time with denim and—guess what—PLAID.

At the beginning of the show Angela changes everything about herself. Well, at least the things that count to a teenager. She dyes her hair, she stops wearing white tights and twin sets, and she drops her lifelong best friend Sharon. It's similar to the life makeover Lindsay Weir does in Freaks And Geeks. And I'm sure a lot of us went through transformations like theirs at a certain age. It's an icky moment in our life history: “Yeah, I was best friends with this person… but then I wanted to be friends with these guys instead so… um…” The result is a period of discombobulation for everyone involved, and I feel like that's sort of represented in the way Angela dresses. There's a lot of Rayanne in her wardrobe, but I think also she sometimes gets freaked out by herself and her desire to grow up and be different so she heads back to her safe outfits, like these overalls.


But man, oh man, do I love it when she lets her Rayanne flag fly.

I'm going to listen to some Bettie Serveert and stare at Angela in this outfit for a while.

Oh, I almost forgot: THESE CLOGS.


Ricky is a dreamboat, I wish I'd had a friend like him growing up. He's a good guy, he's sweet, funny, and kind. And so intuitive. He gets Angela's deep love for Jordan Catalano (because he’s infatuated with Catalano too) and he loves Rayanne like fam even when she's being her most self-destructive. Plus, these shirts!

Patterns. Remember last year when Solange was all about PATTERNS all day e’eryday? Bet she was re-watchingMSCL for inspo.

We don't know much about Ricky's personal life—he's quiet on that front, plus Angela's angst is often deafening—but we know he’s given a hard time by other kids, but that doesn't stop him being who he is. He's like Duckie from Pretty In Pink. Imagine how much Duckie would have ached for these vests:

To be fair they all look pretty great in this shot, but Ricky really steals the show.

We also don't know much about the music Ricky likes, however perhaps my favorite moment of the entire season is when Haddaway’s “What is Love” comes on at the school dance and Ricky and his date Delia (in your face Brian!) go fucking INSANE to it. You see Ricky in all his unexpressed glory and you just know this guy left high school and became the King of the Frickin’ Universe.

Oh and he's wearing another awesome vest.


I recommend taking a moment: stop reading this article and freestyle with Ricky to Haddaway. Trust me, you’ll feel better afterwards.

We have to say his full name, don't we? I feel like we do. He's like the Empire State Building or Sabrina The Teenage Witch: He's an American institution.

Or is he? Because I have to say, re-watching this as an adult I found Jordan Catalano slightly lacking. I mean, yeah he's beautiful in that 90s way where it's all about the hair and the eyes, but as a character he sorta sucks. He sings a self-penned song to Angela called “Red” and she obviously assumes it's about her, with her red hair and all, but of course it's not. No, it's about his CAR.

I quite like that though because Angela doesn't get upset, she laughs at him instead. She's all, “LOL you wrote a song about your car?!” And that made me think Angela was really cool. But still, that's kind of a dumb thing to do when you're sort of seeing a redhead, no?

Also this note happens:

And it's not true. But when Angela asks him about it his response is, “Ungh yeah, I guess that means we should have just done it, since they all think we did.” Maybe I'm just old now but I have no time for romantic interests that are going to say little and have the little they do say be douchey. Looking like Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet only gets you so far, my friend.

But if you DO want to look like a 90s babe, you should adopt some of Jordan Catalano's style rules. 1. Chokers (and long sleeved thermals) are unisex.


2. Sheepskin corduroy jackets are really great.

3. Eyedrops are handy when you've been blazin' cos you can't read so English class is boring. 4. Learn how to lean good.

5. Always stretch your sleeves so they cover most of your hands.


Music-wise you're going to want to listen to a lot of Jawbox, Buffalo Tom, Lemonheads, and Archers of Loaf. Basically bands that Andy Dwyer tries to emulate with Mouse Rat.

“She's my shelter from the storm
She's the place to rest my head
Late at night she keeps me safe and warm
I call her RED.”

“Red” by Jordan Catalano. Rewatch below and try to forget Jordan Catalano is now the lead singer of 30 Seconds to Mars.

I love Brian. I love that he tucks in his shirts, I love his soft curls, I love his inability to express his love for Angela without insulting her, I love that he rides around her house on his bike all the time, and that sometimes he circulates her home on rollerblades. I love that his chino collection is vast. I love Brian.

Brian is a high achiever, he always does the right thing, but he resents the world for not thanking him and rewarding him with popularity and love. The episode where we hear his internal monologue instead of Angela's is amazing. I never realized it was so hard to be a boy, and it's hard in a completely different way from how it is being a girl.

Also we have to talk about the scene in the hallway when Jordan Catalano ambles over to Angela and slides his hand in hers, finally a public display of affection for her (see below). In that iconic TV moment the camera pans to Brian and we actually see him die inside. We see his organs slowly shut down, one by one, the blood drains from his heart, and we know he's experiencing an untold level of pain. If you didn't stay in your room for hours listening to this song by Buffalo Tom after that then you do not have a soul and you can never wear plaid again.


Do you think he likes this Cosby sweater, or does he just wear it because it's there and it's clean?

Who is it that encourages him to look neat all the time? Or is it something he does for himself? Does he hate mess? Is he going to be a nightmare to share a room with in college? Asking for a friend.

“Hey Brian, quit playing games with my heart!” Angela didn't say.

Brian's tentative friendship with Ricky is a beautiful thing. I love these two when they're together, just look at them! Probably talking about those crazy wimmin or something.

I don't know what kind of music Brian likes. I feel like he would probably be a fan of similar stuff to Angela, but he wouldn't be as keen as she is to seek it out. I also think he'd have a bit of a thing for Shania Twain, but he couldn't tell anyone about it.

Oh Brian. Brian and the bra.

I loved writing about these guys, I love these characters in a very deep and sincere way. It kills me to think that they never got to continue their story, that they're all still trapped in their 90s provincialism, repeating the same trials and tribulations over and over again, but I guess maybe that's the perfect metaphor for being a teenager. We can never escape our 16-year-old selves, no matter how old we get, we're just living out an endless cycle of feelings and problems, battling the same old vulnerabilities and patterns that were set in stone back then. Sometimes I long for a reunion or a re-boot of MSCL, but I don't think it would work now. Teenagers still have problems, of course, but they seem to have more outlets for their woes (hai tumblr). Back then it was so repressed and internal, and you always had hand cramp from journaling furiously with an actual pen. Selfies were done wit disposable cameras with the flash on. You couldn't buy clothes online. Kim and Thurston were still together.


So Rayanne, Ricky, Angela, Brian, and Jordan Catalano are forever trapped in amber like really old bugs. Maybe one day we will defrost them and turn them into dinosaurs. I can only hope.

Elizabeth Sankey is the world’s preeminent MSCL-expert, alongside fellow Noisey writer Kathy Iandoli and Noisey Style Editor Kim Taylor Bennett. Sankey is also one half of the band Summer Camp and she is on Twitter. Follow her - @Sankles


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