The Importance of Music in 'Gilmore Girls'
Bowie, Björk, The Shins, Sonic Youth and many others all have a part to play in this seminal TV series, which also features Korn and some tulips, weirdly.
Given that 2014 was a year when so many new TV series became hot topics at the office water cooler that is now The Internet (True Detective, The Leftovers), while ongoing shows continued stellar runs (Walking Dead, Orange Is the New Black), you might have been surprised to see the throwback that is Gilmore Girls back on the pop culture radar. Last year God’s true gift to the English-speaking, internet-owning population of the world arrived portioned into seven fantastic seasons, courtesy of Netflix. Praise be and bye bye productivity.
Think I’m joking? I'm really not. I want to make it clear that I think Gilmore Girls is the best fucking show to ever grace my television screen, and that means it beats out a LOT. While nerds were getting lost in Middle Earth with Bilbo, Bifur, Bofur, Balin, and some man-eating trolls, I was escaping to Stars Hollow with Lorelai and her daughter Rory Gilmore. As I finish watching the entire hormone-driven, pop-culture filled escapades in their entirety for the second time, I don’t feel an ounce of the embarrassment I sometimes encountered when watching as an adolescent.
As the story goes, Lorelai Gilmore came from a “good” family with a shit ton of money and focus on social status. Much to the disapproval of her parents, a 16-year-old Lorelai finds herself knocked-up, eventually deciding to leave the Gilmores’ lavish lifestyle in order to raise her daughter alone in what’s basically the shed of an Inn. After taking a job as a maid, Lorelai raises her daughter here, eventually moving out to a bigger house after a series of promotions.
While this time in the girls’ is lives is discussed often, it’s only depicted once, when Rory takes her grandmother Emily to see the shed where she was raised, leaving Emily in tears after she understands how desperately Lorelai must have wanted to escape. However, the audience understands that Lorelai built an incredibly loving and stable environment for her daughter, preventing the sort of upbringings we see on 16 and Pregnant. Lorelai filled Rory’s life with wonderfully tasteful cultural influences, from film to food, music to books. The duo reference various artists and inspirations throughout the show’s entire run, a trait so essential that the show’s writers began creating a booklet to explain the “Gilmore-isms.”
When Rory graduates from high school, she thanks her mother for her vast wisdom:
“My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn't do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be. She filled our house with love and fun and books and music, unflagging in her efforts to give me role models from Jane Austen to Eudora Welty to Patti Smith. As she guided me through these incredible 18 years, I don't know if she ever realized that the person I most wanted to be was her.”
Rory enjoying both live music and angst. Retrospectively no one is enjoying that leather and denim patchwork jacket paired with a hoody, but hey, twas the early 00s.
The brilliant thing about Gilmore Girls is that, in a way, it's all Lorelai’s creation. Of course, it actually came from the mind of the show’s creator and writer Amy Sherman-Palladino, but bear with me: when Lorelai decided to escape from a life full of debutante balls and excessive opulence, she invented an entirely new world for herself in Stars Hollow. Here, she and her daughter found new friends and family, building lives for themselves that were seemingly unaffected from the horrors and stresses that fill the outside world. While one can’t belittle the emotional difficulties the girls go through, they’d never mention an event like 9/11, which took place during the first year or two of filming. The girls were tucked away in their own snowy, coffee-filled world, and for an hour a week, you could escape there with them.
Much like Rory’s graduation speech, I have to thank the mother-daughter pair for imparting even an ounce of their cosmic capital of cultural knowledge on me. As with so many of the greatest pieces of filmmaking, the music and the presence of music in this series is crucial to the story, the character development, and of course the union of music and moving picture accents and evokes emotion. Music has remained as important to me back when the show premiered, when as it was when I was 10, and below are the musical highlights from across the Gilmore Girls' glorious run.
CAROLE KING AND SAM PHILLIPS
Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband both wanted the show to have its own sound, putting a significant amount of focus on the theme song and score. Carole King actually re-recorded her 1971 track “Where You Lead” in a version featuring Louise Goffin, King’s daughter. It remained the show’s theme song for all seven seasons, with King also making a brief guest appearance during filming.
Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips wrote the famous and defining “la las” that make up a large part of the show’s soundtrack (listen here, if you're unfamiliar). In an interview roughly four years ago, Sherman-Palladino stated, “The thing about Sam’s music is it sounded like it was coming out of the girls’ heads. It really felt connected… I don’t know about anybody else and I really don’t give a shit about anybody else, but for me it felt like it was an extension of their thoughts. And if they had music going in their head during a certain emotional thing in their life, if they were real people, this would be the music that was going on. And I think that is what elevated the show.”
While one might assume that soft “la las” would dumb down the main characters if taken as representation of their inner thoughts, they actually do well in representing the sort of carefree thoughts the characters entertain while walking through town. For me, the introduction to King brought about a curiosity for 60s music, eventually leading me to 69’s Woodstock and all its free love, fantastic music beauty. Phillips left me more cognizant of film and TV scores, teaching me to understand subtle sonic elements on top of more obvious soundtracks.
ECLECTIC MUSIC TASTE IS COOL
When Rory arrives at Chilton, the snobby private school she’ll have to endure for four years in order to get into her dream college of Harvard, she struggles to make friends. Perhaps struggle isn’t the right word, because she seems totally fine in isolation with her books, music, and weak-looking lunch sandwiches. In one such scene, Rory is shown sitting alone in her cafeteria listening to “Know Your Onion!” by the Shins. And this was years before Garden State helped bring the band to commercial ears, so Rory gets some major kudos for knowing them early.
In general, Rory’s musical tastes are a bit more fresh than her mother’s. Over the course of the series she variously shows her admiration for Sonic Youth, Franz Ferdinand, and Belle and Sebastian. Lorelai focuses more on bands from her the 80s when she was becoming a teenager. Her roster includes XTC, the Go-Go’s, and the Bangles, whom Lorelai and her best friend Sockie (Melissa freaking McCarthy) takes Rory and her classmate to see in New York. Some of my other favorites mentioned in the show include Nena’s “99 Luft Balloons,” Wilco’s “My Darling,” and Modest Mouse’s “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” All in all, the girls were pretty hipster before hipster Y2K emerged from a birth canal lined with flannel.
BJÖRK AS A SNOWWOMAN
While their musical tastes were often fine-tuned and passionate, the Gilmore girls frequently expressed admiration for a notably diverse selection of artists. The second season revolves around Lorelai’s acceptance of Max’s marriage proposal, introducing a fulfilled version of herself that seems to be on the verge of shedding the single mother problems that served as the show’s foundation. Similarly, Rory continues flitting around Stars Hollow with the resident town hunk, Dean. Their relationship is incredibly PG and innocuous, with Rory’s 17-year-old self looking like a Neutrogena ad targeted to pilgrims. Of course, because this show plays out like a sorority house in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Amy Sherman-Palladino is not going to let the drama die down just yet, making our girls confused about their true love interests.
The tenth episode of the season begins with Lorelai and Rory enjoying their town’s idyllic winter by participating in a snowman competition. Uncharacteristically, the girls build a snowman in Björk’s likeness. Some douchebag is showing off and power-buffing his own sculpture nearby, forcing the Gilmores to search for faith and commitment to their more modest sculpture, whose head then falls off. While the idea of snow and Iceland (Björk’s home country, duh) fit together, their affinity for the eccentric singer comes from left field.
The episode ends with Rory and Lorelai taking a horse drawn sleigh home as the singer’s “Human Behaviour” plays in the background. While my memories of the internet and its capabilities in the early 2000s escape me, I can assure you that I went on whatever the equivalent of a YouTube Björk binge would be.
KORN = SCARY
Lorelai “Trix” Gilmore, often referred to as “The Third Lorelai” by fans, arrives in episode 18 and makes things difficult by adding on another dysfunctional female-to-female relationship. As Richard’s mother, Trix’s scorn for her daughter-in-law Emily (Lorelai’s mom) is overt and intense, even belittling the difficulties Emily has with her own free-spirited daughter. After presenting Emily Gilmore as head bitch of all things uptight and superficial, the show’s writers have Trix burst in to take the throne.
Richard’s mother gains major bad bitch points by telling her son that she did not just come to town to celebrate his birthday with him, rather, she has some business to take care of. She’s been renting out her home in Hartford to a band she distantly knows as Korn. In all honesty, I know next to nothing about these guys besides my personal belief that they are terrifying, nu metal is really scary, and the one on the far right looks like a dread-locked James Franco here to haunt me forever. As Trix remembers them, “They were fine tenants. Took wonderful care of the place. They planted some lovely tulips in the front yard.” She does not give one fuck about Korn’s image or reputation, making hers all the more petrifying.
LANE KIM, OBVIOUSLY
While there’s a lot to compete with, Lane is perhaps the most hardcore aspect about Stars Hollow, as well as Rory’s best friend. The daughter of a highly religious and intolerably strict Korean mother, Lane’s character is a fervent rock and roll enthusiast stuck in the body of a teenager whose hardly allowed to leave the house.
Lane hides in her closet to listen to her record player, pays a music store owner to let her play the drums in the shop, and has Rory three-way call her when Lane wants to talk to boys (in order to block the conversation from Mrs. Kim). When she’s filling out a list of her favorite groups for a “drummer-seeks-rock-band” ad, Lane ends up going through three entire sheets of paper, single-spaced. The band is named Hep Alien (an anagram of the show’s producer, Helen Pai), and they had a small reunion show back in October.
While her strict upbringing would normally make it difficult to be friends with Rory and Lorelai, music creates a bond and a bridge between these two nonconformist girls.
Also, Lane's first kiss with Dave Rygalski (played by Adam Brody) is set to David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which is diametrically opposed to the aforementioned “la las” that play during Rory’s romantic encounters—Lane is not a Gilmore and this angsty contrast continues throughout the show. Lane eventually moves into an apartment with her struggling band—all boys—while Rory goes off to her prestigious future at Yale. In typical Gilmore Girls fashion, the show’s creators brought in Sebastian Bach (pictured below) of Skid Row to replace Dave as the band’s guitarist after Brody left for The O.C.
LORELAI NAMES HER DG “PAUL ANKA”
In season six, Rory and Lorelai have an unprecedented falling out after Rory gets arrested for stealing a yacht (of course) and in turn decides to quit Yale, believing that she is not cut out for it. After Lorelai warns Rory that she is making a mistake that will affect her life heavily, Rory moves in with her grandparents and has minimal contact with her mother. Assumedly attempting to replace her now-estranged daughter, Lorelai adopts a dog and decides to name it Paul Anka after the Canadian singer and actor.Anka’s “Lonely Boy” topped the charts in 1959.
Anka actually appears as himself in the seventh season. While just a dog, Paul Anka actually plays a pretty major role towards the show’s end. Lorelai often treats him like a second child, putting up with his strange quirks (somewhat reflective of her own idiosyncrasies) like his fear of lint, CDs, and picture frames.
During each season of the show, we witness the girls apply their sharp tongues and temperamental, culturally attuned wit, slapping us with the fact that we don’t really know shit about film, celebrities, authors, and of course, music. The girls were simultaneously way ahead of their time and yet mostly appreciative of bands whose careers had tired in comparable pop culture. There was a lot of mom music, sure, but it was still cool. So if you haven't seen any of Gilmore Girls, jump on this seven series tome: it remains gloriously relevant even almost a decade after it ceased transmission.
Mathias Rosenzweig has dedicated many weeks of his life to Gilmore Girls and he is not ashamed. He's on Twitter.