You'd Trade It For Youth
Recognizing when music you love goes from the soundtrack of your party to being the soundtrack to your life (which is scary)
Getting older is funny. Recognizing the more subtle signs that you’re getting older is even funnier. It varies for everyone, and doesn’t happen at some uniform time. It might be one thing, it might be a bunch of things. But when you see a sign that you’re exiting youth aside from muscle pain or gray hair, you typically know it.
Despite the world we live in having all of these streaming services available to us, with seemingly endless amounts of content and endless amounts of money to throw at people to make content, each one has like … three shows at absolute maximum that are any good. They each sort of have their own distinct vibe, too. You know a Netflix show when you see it. Same goes for Hulu, HBO, etc. The Apple TV brand seems to be some form of forced-positivity-by-way-of-heartbreak. Concisely, “dramedy.”
After first trying to get its footing with attempts at legacy TV like “Servant” or that show where everyone is blind except Jason Momoa or whatever?, Apple found its biggest success in a show based on a commercial for Premier League on NBC, where Jason Sudeikis played a well-meaning but clueless American football coach tasked with managing friend of the Substack Tottenham Hotspur FC.
“Ted Lasso” has obviously grown on its own into something way larger than a commercial. They took Lasso the character and scaled the idea, now managing the fictional AFC Richmond. They took the idea of the quirky, heart-of-gold fish out of water and said, Man, people love this guy. He’s so silly and charming.
What if he got divorced?
“Ted Lasso” was developed from commercial to TV show in part by Bill Lawrence, also known for creating “Scrubs.” With the success of “Ted Lasso,” Apple gave Lawrence another opportunity to bring his brand of dramedy to the streaming platform with “Shrinking,” a show where another generally well-liked Jason (Segal) plays a cognitive therapist dealing with the sudden loss of his wife, the difficulty of raising their teenage daughter alone, trying to help others when he can’t help himself, etc.
“Shrinking” is literally about therapy. The almost prescribed positivity of Ted Lasso feels a bit like therapy on its own, laundering the issues its viewers might be going through like divorce or loneliness with soccer and funny moments.
As I watched “Shrinking,” though, I realized that instead of just comedy and soccer to force the viewer to confront these situations, it uses certain music choices.
I’m turning 31 soon. (Reggie Miller year, baby!) The bands I once felt cool for listening to are now being played at theme nights at bars, or they’re playing shows advertised as “An evening with…” if they’re still around at all.
Part of getting older is seeing the things that were cool when you were young fade from the popular zeitgeist and into either ironic nostalgia or nothing at all. The “old” bands you think of your parents listening to were once the hot new thing.
And as millennials transition from 20-somethings to 30-somethings, bands from the Millennial Youth have transformed from the soundtrack of fun to the soundtrack to Real Adulthood Shit. It no longer plays in the background of college pregames. It plays while you overcome real-world issues for what is, for some of us, the first time.
A couple months ago, I was in a brewery in Philly that was not only kid-friendly, it seemed like it was directly geared toward parents to bring their kids. In addition to normal bar stuff, there was a full-sized wooden playground pirate ship, which was full of children running around. Parents held their $8 IPA’s while they tracked their toddlers’ movements. Groups of adults never truly locked in on each other during conversation, instead glancing at one another during conversation before returning their gaze to the playground. Maybe for a split second they’d check the score of the basketball game on TV, but then it was back to parenting.
I noticed that the music the bar was playing was straight out of an early/mid 2000’s indie rock playlist. Vampire Weekend. Guster. Spoon. All of the music that also soundtracked these parents’ youthful heydays was now reassuring them that they were still young and energetic and cool enough to be having a good time at the bar, but at an appropriate volume, at 1 PM instead of 1 AM, and with the caveat that they have to keep an eye on the kids.
The dream of the 2000s was alive here.
The theme song for “Ted Lasso” is sung by Marcus Mumford, best known for dressing like he lived in the Dust Bowl and playing a large part in the 2000’s folk revival, damning us all with the “Stomp-Clap” music of the Lumineers and all of the other Big Hat and Suspenders bands.
The theme song for “Shrinking” is by Ben Gibbard, the brainchild of Death Cab for Cutie, the messiah of emotional indie rock, the patron saint of 30-somethings with thick-rimmed glasses.
While I watched “Shrinking,” I started noticing the music like I did in the bar. In one episode alone there were multiple Vampire Weekend songs again. There was Arcade Fire. Florence + The Machine.
“Huh, that’s two Vampire Weekend songs in one episode,” I thought. “What’s the angle here?”
At first, I thought it was just that the show’s creators were just behind the times, using the popular songs of yesterday because they didn’t know better. The kids still like Florence + The Machine, right?
I kept watching. The characters became more fleshed out with their story arcs about grief and divorce and commitment issues and aging parents, and I realized:
Oh … shit. This show is made for people around my age who are now confronting things like this, and the music is to help us relate.
The trick these shows pull off is delivering both sugar and medicine in one. The medicine is a real depiction of sad and upsetting situations that happen to good people, maybe even you and your loved ones. The sugar is a song from 2008.
There’s an article that I frustratingly can’t find right now that examined the phenomenon of filmmakers projecting their own tastes onto characters as a way of ostensibly adding depth, but really it creates a character that isn’t believable in the real world. Think about the kid from “Big Little Lies” who somehow has a perfectly curated, vibey Spotify playlist on deck at all times. Or Zach Braff’s weird detour in Garden State to tell us all about The Shins via Natalie Portman.
Filmmakers create this person they wish existed when they were a kid, or maybe the kid they thought they were, and paint their past with rose-tinted glasses as if they always had flawless taste, but everyone around them just liked the bullshit radio hits, man. Can’t wait to get out of this town.
The opposite end of this spectrum, brought up in the article I can’t find, is Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, whose precocious early 2000’s girl also probably wishes she lived in an anther decade, but is still obsessed with the extremely popular-at-the-time Dave Matthews, namely the song “Crash Into Me.”
And “Crash Into Me” isn’t used throughout the movie as a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink, irony soaked singalong. Ladybird turns to that song when she feels her worst and needs a good cry, because the music you listened to and got emotional about as a teen doesn’t always stand the test of critical time, even if Pitchfork retconned their original review to fit the current perception.
You listened to embarrassing shit when you were a teenager. You probably also listened to some cool shit, too. And now dads Jason Segal’s age in “Shrinking” listen to Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire and, yes, The National. Sometimes even when they’re sad.
One episode of “Shrinking” takes the idea of using extremely out-of-fashion songs like Sugary Ray’s “Every Morning” and Nine Days’ “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” but only makes them the butt of a joke for a second, and only if you want it to be the joke.
I just don’t think Zach Braff is that good at writing movies, so the difference between using “New Slang” in Garden State and using “New Slang” in something like Shrinking is that Braff mistakes ennui as a substitute for a plot, and therefore using a song as a substitution for a real emotional moment. If he were to use “Crash Into Me,” for example, it would come with the caveat that this song is dumb and bad and only being listened to ironically.
So, what you end up with is Braff falling into the camp of filmmakers trying to show off their musical taste rather than worrying about making something that resonates, even if it’s kitschy and sugary and twee.
There aren’t two sides to Natalie Portman’s infantilized manic pixie dreamgirl character giving Zach Braff big-ass headphones to play him “New Slang.” It’s a hack moment from a hack filmmaker who wanted to show off his indie cred in the early 2000s and write himself as the love interest for a girl as pretty as Natalie Portman, patting himself on the back for his thoughtful rich-kid whininess.
However, there are definitely two sides to “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” being used as morning music while a character drives away from the house they share with their soon-to-be ex-husband.
Later in the show, the same character listens to Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” with her boss, played by Harrison Ford, who is dealing with telling his adult daughter about his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
And in that moment, if you want to watch it this way, it’s fun on the surface to just enjoy Harrison Ford singing along to Sugar Ray. It’s goofy! There’s no way Harrison Ford knew the lyrics to “Every Morning” before he had to learn them in order to obtain a paycheck!
But at the same time, you could watch the character driving use it as comfort food for while she deals with the collapse of her marriage.
I want to make it clear that I think these shows are fine. This isn’t a recommendation or celebration of these two shows. I think most of these shows take a lot of shortcuts to emotional depth. But my point here is that if the show meant to use this particular era of music to hit a certain demographic in a type of way and add some depth to the on-screen drama and the themes in play, then they did it. I realize I’m getting older, and I see myself in moments where something sad or scary is happening and I turn to something I know inside-out.
But it’s OK that you’re sad. You feel like you’ve dropped the ball a little bit parenting, but you’re going through your own stuff and you’re trying! Here’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
You’re stressed about money right now, and that’s totally normal. Here’s “Mr. Brightside” while you file your taxes. You’re worried that you’re not present enough in your aging parents’ lives or helping them out enough. You should call them, but you won’t right now. And that’s fine. Here’s “Time to Pretend.”
Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is The Menzingers.