One of the great benefits of watching pre-recorded television is that you can fast-forward through terrible theme songs, specifically "This Life," the atrocious roots-rock theme to the FX biker drama Sons of Anarchy. (There's an even worse Celt-ified version from the season partly set in Northern Ireland.) Unfortunately, it's not as easy to skip a musical montage. This show has a lot, and suffering through them is one of the great drawbacks to watching television at all.
Some viewers are outraged by SOA's graphic violence, implausible plot twists, or the shocking deaths of beloved characters; I am outraged by its soundtrack. Series creator Kurt Sutter has frequently underscored how important music is to the show, to the point where he commissioned his own pedigreed house band, the Forest Rangers. Bandleader Bob Thiele is also the show's musical supervisor, and thus responsible for executing Sutter's vision, which has resulted in some of the most considered, carefully curated, integral music on TV.
It's consistently awful. It is, if you do not like sincere-rocker-guy music, enormously painful. I am afraid that Sutter will yell at me on Twitter for saying this, since that's something he does—hopefully he's still too busy dealing with the series-finale-spoiler thing—but the fact that I've been driven to write this is really a testament to how invested I've become in the characters, since I've stuck with the show despite loathing its music. Take it as a compliment.
SPIN, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly have extensively covered the show's music, with no mention of how uniformly bad it is. In all fairness, bikers like terrible music—here is a song that I have personally witnessed bikers go absolutely nuts for in a bar. It's one of the worst songs you'll ever hear. I grew up in Austin, Tex., a city that put a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan downtown; the formative trauma of a youth spent exposed to the sounds of Bob Schneider, Eric Johnson, early Ian Moore, anyone who'd play at Antone's, 80 percent of what you'd see on Austin City Limits in the '90s … none of that has left me. Music by a white man with a guitar (who stole everything from an older, more talented black man with a guitar) that is primarily described as "authentic," "real," or "soulful" triggers an adverse reaction in me. Even this terrible garbage music can have deep emotional resonance for some people, and I do not deny them their experience, but I am allowed my own reaction, which is the correct one.
Sutter's wife, Katey Sagal, sings one song a season on SOA's soundtrack. This can feel confusing, as she also plays club matriarch Gemma—she's not singing in character, but it feels a little like she could be. In any event, this expression of marital devotion can stand as an example for husbands everywhere, because her singing is terrible. What's worse, there's often an extremely literal pairing of lyrics and action involved. In a September EW story about the season-seven premiere's use of a cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," Thiele notes that when viewers hear the line "Mama, just killed a man" in the song, "that's really what's happening onscreen. Kurt obviously knew what was gonna happen when he came up with this idea." Well, sure. You wouldn't want to waste an opportunity to sing the words that describe exactly what is happening. We aren't watching this show for its subtlety.
Thiele also talked about another questionable aspect of the cover: "We later said, 'What if it's little kids singing it?'" And so little kids sing the first section of "Bohemian Rhapsody." But here's a better question: What if you didn't have little kids singing it? What if you didn't make loud things soft, or soft things loud? What if you didn't have Ed Sheeran soundtrack a montage? WHAT IF?
So far, SoA has featured melodramatic takes on "Boots of Spanish Leather," "All Along the Watchtower," "For a Dancer," "Baby, Please Don't Go," "Everyday People," "As Tears Go By," "Bird on a Wire," "To Sir, With Love," "Son of a Preacher Man," "What a Wonderful World," "Strange Fruit," "Fortunate Son," and "Never My Love." Not one of these has improved on the original. "Sympathy" loses its menace, "Never My Love" its pop charm, "Everyday People" its funk. The classic cover is the show's signature musical move, especially for season finales. To recap, here are the last six season-finale montages, almost all of them featuring a cover of a famous song, and all with a "GET IT?" level of lyrical tone.
Season One: "John the Revelator." Series antihero Jax is handed another copy of his father John's memoirs. It's a REVELATION from JOHN.
Season Two: "Gimme Shelter." Jax desperately chases the IRA member who has kidnapped his son. He's going to go to WAR, and there's CHILDREN.
Season Three: "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)." We hear excerpts from John's letters to his second family in Ireland (clearly THERE'S MORE TO THE PICTURE THAN MEETS THE EYE), and the Sons head to prison (where they'll BURN OUT instead of FADE AWAY).
Season Four: "House of the Rising Sun," with the reference to "New Orleans" changed to "Charming Town," Charming, Calif., being the show's setting. Jax takes his seat at the head of the Sons of Anarchy club table. The SON is RISING.
Season Five: "Sympathy for the Devil," by Jane's Addiction. It ends with Jax's mother Gemma standing behind Jax after his wife Tara is arrested, because Gemma is the Devil, and because by this season what's CONFUSING us is the nature of this show's GAME.
Season Six: "Day Is Gone," by Noah Gunderson. The only original season closer ever, maybe they didn't want to play a cover over Tara's death? Anyway, the DAY is Tara, and she is GONE.
The Sons of Anarchy season finale airs tonight, and Sutter and Thiele have really built up the musical aspect, telling the press that they've got something spectacular planned, involving someone who rarely allows his or her music to be used on television. Taking this into account, my husband and I started playing a game called What Classic Song Will SOA Butcher for the Series Finale? "When the Levee Breaks," by John Popper? Katey Sagal singing "Hallelujah?" Maybe "Born to Be Wild" by Bon Iver?
I leave you with my educated guesses, safe in the knowledge that whatever actually closes the show is likely to better them, by which I mean be much worse.
* The Wallflowers' "One Headlight," as covered by Bob Dylan, with Jax riding solo down the highway, on a motorcycle, which has ONE HEADLIGHT.
* Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," the Ugly Kid Joe version, but redone by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We watch Jax's son, Abel, grow up in fast-forward, and Jax sees that THE BOY WAS JUST LIKE ME.
* The Eagles' "Hotel California," by Ryan Adams. Jax sighs as he unpacks the bag he was going to take as he left town, having realized that YOU CAN CHECK OUT ANY TIME YOU LIKE, BUT YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE.
* Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," by Dan Auerbach and Adam Duritz. Wendy and Nero, whose hearts have been broken by Jax and Gemma, respectively, are driving the boys out to the farm, hoping there's still time to CHANGE THE ROAD they're on.
* Motörhead's "Ace of Spades," by Sufjan Stevens. Jax walks toward sure death at the hands of a rival gang because he DON'T WANNA LIVE FOREVER.
* Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," by Haim. Jax discovers a book written by Clay, his other dad/former club leader, detailing his own struggles with the club and revealing that John Teller was evil, and so truly Jax sees life from BOTH SIDES NOW.
* Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland," by the Deftones and Craig Finn. Scenes of an impending standoff dissolve from the CHURCHES (August Marks) to the JAILS (the Chinese) to Red Woody, where the club is taking their STAND. Everyone dies during the sax solo.
* Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," by Marilyn Manson. It all ends with Wendy waking up on the floor from the overdose she suffered in the show's very first episode, because the whole thing was just a DREAM.
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