Culture

Mapping Every Musical Reference in ‘The Sopranos’

From AJ’s Coal Chamber hoodies to the ACDC blasting at Bada Bing!, David Chase's iconic HBO show made unparalleled use of musical references.
15 July 2020, 8:30am
Mapping Every Musical Reference in ‘The Sopranos’
Photo via Alamy.

Within moments of hearing an unhinged harmonica cry and a throaty voice recounting your morning steps (“got yourself a gun”), Tony Soprano has arrived. "Woke Up This Morning," the now infamous title track to The Sopranos, was unknown when the pilot dropped in 1999. It’s a song that melds the blues and acid house by Alabama 3, an unloved electronic band from Brixton. It had swagger and what suburban mothers might call "street smarts", but pointedly was not the 60s rock or classical music that soundtracked gangster films before it. This was a show about modern day Italian-American mobsters, with domestic anxieties and Prozac dependencies. The theme song instantly indicated, as Alan Sepinwall wrote in The Sopranos Sessions, “that isn’t the gangster story you’re used to seeing.”

An elevator pitch of the show: The Sopranos is a crime drama that follows Tony, patriarch of a traditional family and a mob family in his quest to stop his panic attacks while also gaining power and prestige, providing for everyone he cares about and doing what or whoever the fuck he wants along the way. It’s a searingly smart show that seamlessly marries high and low art, monied sophistication and garish desperation, psychoanalysis and speaking in fists. While it’s remained popular since its conception in the 90s and early 00s, it’s currently having a renaissance. Shortly after the pandemic hit, abstract aspirations of fitness or more concrete goals (“write a screenplay” or “learn Japanese”) were quickly abandoned. It seemed more manageable to passively consume Culture and by May, with two new lockdown podcasts about the show launched by leading cast members, Talking Sopranos and Made Women. GQ published a piece with the headline “The Sopranos Is the Hottest Show of 2020”. Everyone, it seemed, had the same idea to balance out the trash TV with watching arguably the best show of all-time.

Far from the relentless moralising of the majority of modern TV shows, The Sopranos allowed small screen audiences to draw their own conclusions on the psychology of the characters and the inhumane, demoralising and capitalistic ways of Western society. The music was central to that philosophy. Kathryn Dayak, the music editor, David Chase, the show’s creator and Martin Bruestle, producer – all of whom were intensely knowledgeable about music – chose from their own personal collections. Some songs were written into the script by Chase. “I think we’re like-minded on this show, in that David, Martin and I all feel that underscore, as you usually see it in films and TV, can be a little over-the-top and manipulative,” Dayak once told Mix Online. “As in: ‘Here’s a cue that’s sad, so we’d like for you to feel sad.’” Perhaps, she concludes, there is more impact in not telling people how to feel.

Each character was perfectly matched with their own music taste. AJ Soprano is the obvious example of that: what would every teenage mosher do with infinite funds from daddy? In many scenes, AJ is decked out in metal and nu-metal merch, and his bedroom walls are covered in rock posters. In season three, episode three, he wears a Coal Chamber hoodie while Tony tries to bond with him after a sports match, further highlighting the differences between father and son. He wears a Nine Inch Nails Fragility Tour shirt (S3E6) and later a Pantera shirt at the traditional Soprano Sunday dinner (S4E1). The scuzzy frustration of Slipknot’s “Eyeless” plays from his bedroom (S3E2) and his Marilyn Manson shirts would make any rocker nerd weep. Incidentally, prior to filming the Sopranos, a ten-year-old Robert Iler, who plays AJ, starred as a scared kid in Marilyn Manson’s 1995 “Dope Hat” video. Obviously, his music taste matches his existential questioning and apathy. “The first thing to consider for AJ’s musical taste was that a lot of young men or boys his age are death-obsessed, morbid,” David Chase once told Noisey.

To contrast, the other Soprano child, Meadow, is situated as more intelligent and popular with an indie taste. When she’s lying on the floor watching music videos with her school friend, it's to see a generic indie college radio band Morphine (S1E9). Besides an *NSYNC poster, her rooms at home and college sport neatly placed Hole and No Doubt posters (hello, independent woman). When she dances enjoying one of her last moments of freedom before becoming another cursed adult like her parents, it’s to the whimsical romance of The Corrs – “Breathless” (S3E5).

The true and only benevolent presence on the show, though is Adriana.

“If I could’ve had another job in real life I would have worked in the music industry and that’s why David Chase gave my character the nightclub and made her want to be a music manager. He always took pieces of people’s real lives and incorporated them into the show,” explains the actor who played Adriana, Drea de Matteo, over the phone. Born and bred in New York, de Matteo’s life involved going to shows in Manhattan, or travelling up to Jersey for shows. “I was a rock chick and very much in the rock ’n’ roll world. I would come to work on The Sopranos having been up all night watching bands and being in these nightclubs and David Chase just wrote it into my storyline,” she laughs today.

Sadly, Adriana’s dreams could never be fully realised. When she tries to be a music manager, her band Visiting Day (a name that could’ve come from a second wave emo generator) were terrible by any parameters. Plus, the music she really loves is Bon Jovi. But of course: Chase’s choice plays on the humour that people from Jersey are proud to be from there and probably would stand by Bon Jovi. Perhaps more so than the other characters, her music choices show how honest she is to herself.

The moody rock ‘n’ roll – à la local or national college bands that would’ve frequented Jersey clubs in the 00s – played at Adriana’s Crazy Horse club is different to the rock playing at Bada Bing!. The music at Tony’s strip club has to soundtrack nights out for men who cheat, engage in casual violence and/or treat boobs like horns. Besides fairly anonymous psychedelic rock, they play typical (but brilliant) 80s and 90s strip club music: ACDC's "She Shook Me All Night Long" (S3E6), "Lick It Up by KISS" (S1E11) or Metallica's "The Memory Remains" (S2E12). At sharp contrast to these traditional tracks that play while Silicon breasts shine under garish lights, pigtails swing and lost men nurse drinks, a well-placed song can cut through to complicate drama. The episode that Ralph kills pregnant stripper Tracee outside the club (S3E6), The Kinks – “Living On a Thin Line” plays with its poignant marching melody and dark humour. This is the reality of their lives (“All the story have been told / Of Kings and days of old / But there’s no England now”). The track, and the show, is about the deterioration of identity, of morals and of patriotism, and of family. These, as Tony says himself in the show, are the end of times.

Plenty of the soundtrack directly revolves around Tony and his psychological development (or lack of). Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone's chief TV critic and co-author of The Sopranos Sessions tells me that, “You have these two different styles of rock – basic and crowd-pleasing for Tony, more artistic and complex for Chase – that together combine to paint a picture both of the life Tony thinks he leads (happy-go-lucky but powerful family man) and the life he is actually leading (sociopathic predator).” To Sepinwall, this musical recipe is the show’s “secret sauce”. It mixes iconic tracks like “Smoke On The Water” with obscurities like John Cooper Clarke’s strange British spoken word song “Evidently Chickentown”, “yet both are instantly stamped as unofficial property of The Sopranos”.

As much as a viewer might think he's scum, there is a Tony Soprano: Normal Guy who exists in the world. When Tony is safe in his own bubble, strolling down his driveway to collect the newspaper as he does in season openers or rocking out in his car alone, it’s to Steely Dan or Derek and the Dominos. With featherlite humour, music is used to highlight the subtlest of absurdities: The Clash’s iconic “Rock The Casbah” (S5E7) when Tony gets into a needless car chase with Leotardo or when he is exercising poorly at home to “Hotel California” (S3E2).

There are so many of these memorable musical Tony scenes that it's difficult to one single out as the greatest. For Sepinwall, it’s when Tony is out driving at night and hears “Oh Girl” by The Chi-Lites on the radio (S4E7). He starts crying for reasons he can’t understand, though he remembers hearing it right after he found out that Assemblyman Zellman was dating his ex-girlfriend Irina. He feels vulnerable, which he loathes, so he drives over to confront Irina and Zellman and whip the latter with his belt.

“The whole scene is like a magic trick: James Gandolfini conjuring up this storm of emotions while acting against thin air, with only this old song as his foil,” Sepinwall explains. “The tune has to be sentimental enough to trigger those tears (even if they're not really about Irina), and beautiful enough to serve as a counterpoint to the horrible violence Tony unleashes as a result of hearing it. It's perfect. But then, pretty much every song choice is.”

If The Sopranos had scored its episodes with orchestral tracks, as you'd expect, there'd be mood and ambience. Instead, it used a soundtrack to imbue every scene with a complicated three-dimensional personality. The music is at turns dark, funny and speaks depths about the psychology of each cursed situation.

My personal favourite is probably when a plastic mounted fish called Big Billy Bass sings Al Green’s “Take Me To the River”. It communicates exactly what a guilty Tony, deep down, is thinking. He’s transported back to a nightmare in which he saw the friend and colleague he murdered as a talking fish. But also, straight from the bass’s existential mouth, the music asks: no really, what is the point is living? What is the real meaning of it all?

@hannahrosewens