What makes you pick up one book amidst the hundreds of books that may be seeking your attention? A friend’s recommendation? The synopsis? The cover? When I picked up a copy of Big Little Lies with a candy lover’s worst nightmare on the cover, I wasn’t quite sure when I would get to this book or what to expect from it. Little did I know that I would be getting to it immediately after reading the first paragraph, and it would offer up a nuanced portrait of lives unraveled, one that I would be unable to put down, would sneak into work with me, read under the desk in the lull between customers.
Then, at the beginning of this year, after faithfully withholding for two years, I saw the first episode of the first season. I felt a similar spell cast over me, watched in 20-second spurts, during slow hours at work, on my iPad after my husband and baby were asleep. I couldn’t think it could be done, but they had elevated the story to another level. The creators of the show, along with the cast, had captured the awkward silences of everyday life, of when you say something so spiteful that there is no going back. It also captured the little bursts of passion and energy that makes life exciting, forget cliff diving, whether the bitter truth you just uttered can be taken back or not, that’s where the adrenaline rush lies.
Thoughts on the Big Little Lies Soundtrack
Using the Soundtrack as Foreshadowing
A big device that the show uses to its advantage is its one-of-a-kind soundtrack to maintain the suspense and tension through the big and the small moments. The main title track, “Cold Little Heart” by Michael Kiwanuka, goes, “Did you ever want it? / Did you want it bad? / Oh my, it tears me apart,” speaking to what the characters in this show are seeking, looking for: attention, fulfillment, and absolution.
Using the Soundtrack for Character Development
The writers also use the music to brilliantly develop the character arcs. They convey the intensity of what any character might be feeling at the moment that the soundtrack plays in the background. This serves as non-diegetic music, that is, music that is not heard by the characters. The choice of “River” by Leon Bridges is used to capture the distance that two married couples are desperately trying to close, to prove their love more superior to the other.
The choice of “Ball and Chain” by Janis Joplin shows how all the characters even after trying their best to escape from what binds them, are unable to escape. Joplin says it best with “Somethin’ came along, grabbed a hold of me / And it felt just like a ball and chain.”
Using the Soundtrack to Further the Plot
Then there are parts of the soundtrack that are deliberately chosen by the characters in moments of transition and turmoil, serving as diegetic music. Like when Perry, Celeste’s husband, chooses Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” for furthering his performative mind games on Celeste and ends up fooling us as well.
There’s also a preference for Elvis Presley’s music that all our characters harbor, from Madeline’s husband Ed putting on a costume to charm his bored wife to the end of the year event that rings in a deceptive singing contest for “The Wonder of You,” while, somewhere, someone lies dead.
There is not a lot that can be said about the music track choices without giving away the story. The timing of the tracks chosen however is truly sublime, something you cannot escape for days after you have lived through the music through that particular character’s eyes.
Other Thoughts on the Creative Use of the Big Little Lies Soundtrack
Unlike other HBO shows, the main opening song was not particularly written for the show. But according to Cosmopolitan, the lyrics were shifted around for the show.
Over at The Guardian, they see this as a beginning to a new age in TV music, from the 80s nostalgia-inducing vibe of Stranger Things to the piano cover versions on Westworld.
If you want to hear the soundtrack without having watched the show, or simply cannot get enough of it, you can stream the playlist here. And if you are looking for more creative ways music is being used to tell stories, check out this piece.