How Happy Pop Music Makes a Sad Film Even Sadder

'State Like Sleep' is a new movie that demonstrates how pop music deceptively underscores the most devastating moments in film and TV.

There is a moment in State Like Sleep that sticks with you. Released last weekend, and featuring an excellent cast of Katherine Waterston, Michiel Huisman, Luke Evans, and Michael Shannon, the film is a commentary on celebrity with no clear resolution. But the opening sequence is a severe reminder of the death, loss, and discoveries of hidden truths of a public figure as it is occurs. The film’s premise: A movie star commits suicide and his widow, a year later, tries to piece together why.


The film tries to thread together grief and desperation: Waterston’s character is meant to be the ultimate vessel through which we’re supposed to recognize the complexity and difference of public persona and person. The most profound way this is expressed is through a 1986 shiny new wave song that recurs throughout the film.

Tirez Tirez’s 1986 track “Set The Timer” is uncomfortable at first listen. It’s pithy, sparkles even, and feels a lot less painful than what the scene gives us. State Like Sleep opens with the camera panning over empty bottles of beer, remnants of cocaine on pristine glass tables, and garbage littered everywhere. It’s an uncomfortably familiar scene of destruction that verges on cliché; that to accept the death of a celebrity at their own hand, it hinges contextually on their last moments always deemed as excess. And that is an assumption of what a celebrity is and not who they are: real people dealing with substance abuse and mental health care. The last few seconds of this celebrity’s life before he dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound are desolate, unbearable. Music plays jovially in juxtaposition to this space of deep grief. Pop music has always been so deceptively optimistic. It seeks to mask, but only amplifies in the end, the darkest parts of an emotional experience. This strategy is an absolutely more common occurrence in pop culture’s prolific moments in film and television.


Pop tracks have altered the way we see and feel grief, loss; they change what endings look like. You may not agree but I’m going to argue for it anyway, that Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” is a fairly optimistic pop track. Its inclusion in one of the best season finale episodes on television changed the way anyone hears the song going forward. If listened to on Eyes Open, the 2006 record it appears on, separate from the Grey’s Anatomy second season finale when, painfully, Denny dies, the track has hope. It is as earnest and triumphant in its display of affection and love. Being together as the world melts away. It is only devastating when Izzie is curled up around a dead Denny. It plummets your emotional response to sadness because it becomes a portrait of what could have been and the reality of what is: loss. Not a single moment passes without tears the moment one hears Gary Lightbody’s gentle riff before cooing, sliding into verses of “what if’s.”

Using playful, cascading pop sounds over moments of tension or sadness on the big or small screens is an unyielding tactic. It offers confusion; feeling unsettled. While State Like Sleep provided a new wave zip over a literal end to someone’s life, the use of upbeat pop has found its way into more violent, unnerving scenes too. Take, for example, the use of “Walkin’ On Sunshine” in American Psycho. In the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, the track doesn’t play over a scene of violence but the person for whom the track has meaning is violent; a serial killer motivated by the power of this overly familiar, perhaps even remarkably overused, Katrina and the Waves song. His presence unravels the spool of sunny pop, triumphant trumpets. This occured, too, perhaps even in a more frightening way in A Clockwork Orange where a song of comfort dramatically shifts in tone and meaning through a violent encounter. “Singin’ In The Rain,” Gene Kelly’s 1952 track meant as an uplifting mantra to get one through seemingly discouraging times, is altered when Malcolm McDowell and his “droogs” break into a house and tortures its residents. Because “Singin’ In The Rain” is ubiquitous, a classic in cinema and pop, McDowell singing it versus the inclusion of the original overtop of the scenes doesn’t really matter. It makes the scene of real bleakness that much more bleak.

Music supervisors are very good at thematically pairing tracks to scenes so you feel the intensity of the emotion or movement in the scene that much more. (It’s why any of us care so much about Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” from The O.C.’s second season finale or “Bittersweet Symphony” in Cruel Intentions, monolith sad pop tracks in pop culture.) But by shifting the tone of the song but keeping a devastating scene playing only serves to amplify how pop music is deeply sad and unbearable at times. If you’ve ever listened to “Happy” by Pharrell and desperately wept, you know this to be a truth.

State like Sleep is currently available on demand and in select theaters.

Sarah MacDonald is a writer. Follow her on Twitter.