Bobby’s Bubbling Water
by Sean T. Collins | Vulture | December 13, 2018
Don’t cry, don’t raise your eye, it’s only the best music cues of the year. And as in past years, there’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Certainly, the sounds of the ’80s remain television’s staple crop when it comes to using preexisting pop and rock songs to complement, comment on, and enhance the action onscreen: Pose, Narcos: Mexico, The Americans, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace feature almost nothing but. Yet the approaches they take are as varied as their styles and subject matter, and when you factor in other eras and genres, the soundscape opens up tremendously. There’s more to a good music cue than syncing a great song to an important scene: Ideally, the song can put into words and music what the characters, and the world surrounding them, can’t quite express themselves. That’s what music does for all of us, after all — why should fictional characters be any different? Here are the ten best moments from a year of TV music that belong on everyone’s playlist.
2. Billions: “Street Punks” by Vince Staples
Unlike nearly every other show on this list, big recognizable songs are the exception on Billions’ soundtrack, not the rule. With an approach less like a smash jukebox musical and more like Quentin Tarantino’s grab-bag approach to pop-rock history, the show tends toward songs with no preexisting mainstream cultural associations, selected because they match a scene’s message instead of being relied on to convey that message themselves.
The show’s use of Vince Staples’s atmospheric, thumping “Street Punks” is the finest example of this strategy. When we first hear the song, well, it’s not clear what we’re hearing, as hedge-fund kingpin Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his wily right-hand man Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) ride an elevator downward from the meeting where they confirmed his latest narrow escape from the law. Soon it’s clear we’re hearing a huge hip-hop beat, and the two men start smiling. The elevator doors open, and Bobby emerges into a surprise party thrown by Wags in his honor — in which every guest, other than them, is an absolutely gorgeous woman.
At this point, Staples’s song is just so much background noise, something the show licensed because it needed a party jam. Surely that’s how Bobby hears it, as he starts pounding back drinks and winding his way through the crowd, slowly stripping naked as he does so. He winds up climbing into a hot tub with three equally naked women. The whole thing is so sleazy, such a portrait of how rich and powerful men can commodify the whole world and everyone in it, that you practically expect Mel Brooks to show up in a period costume and say, “It’s good to be the king” to the camera.
But as Bobby sinks deeper into the bubbling water, something changes. The lyrics of the song, berating some random loser for acting like a big deal when he’s really just a fraudulent nobody, seem to eat away at Axe’s good time. Doesn’t he, too, make a living based on lies? The bass, once joyous, now sounds claustrophobic. The party goes from bacchanal to inferno. As the happiness leaves Bobby’s face completely, the show cuts to black, allowing the song’s bleak instrumental outro to be the episode’s last word. The scene picks up energy from the song; the song gains currency from the scene. It’s a perfect marriage of sound and vision.
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