A hit musical TV show that used Jonathan Coulton”s work without permission turned out to be his path to getting his songwriting on BrainDead, the new series from the creators of The Good Wife.
“This is the standard path for any musician. Anybody who wants to end up where I am making recap songs for a show should definitely start by covering a rap song from the “90s,” Coulton deadpanned. “No, it”s this strange, circuitous path, and I would be lying if I said any of those steps made sense at the time.”
In 2013, Glee covered Coulton”s acoustic cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot”s “Baby Got Back” – original melody, his line “Johnny C”s in trouble” and all – without giving the indie artist any credit or payment.
The hullabaloo that followed became the inspiration for a court case in The Good Wife episode “Goliath and David.”
Coulton got a cameo appearance in that episode that aired in 2014. Shortly after filming, Good Wife co-creator Robert King told the singer-songwriter a bit about this weird comedy/political thriller he was developing, asking Coulton if he”d want to be involved in the music. “I said, ‘Well, yes, of course,”” Coulton recalled.
Two years later, King kept true to his word, asking Coulton to write musical recaps for BrainDead. Each week, the episode opens with “previously on BrainDead…” segments, told in wacky tunes written and sung by Coulton.
The show is a political satire laced with some sci-fi, so it”s a good fit for Coulton, whose songs tend towards geek culture. In the comic-thriller, which premiered on CBS earlier this month, politicians” brains are being eaten by alien bugs.
Coulton”s approach of writing the recap songs is “I am a fan watching the show, and these are the things I would tell my friend about what happened in the last show.”
That approach gives him the freedom to supply a little commentary and a bit of speculation on the series” events. As an example, in the recap airing at the top of episode 3 (you can watch that recap exclusively on HitFix in the video player below before the episode airs on CBS tonight), he muses over whether Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is crushing on Aaron Tveit”s senator aide character. “Does Laurel like him? Kinda, sorta, maybe. Yes, she does,” Coulton sings.
After Coulton views each episode, King gives him a list of key items to mention in the recap. Then it”s up to Coulton to choose how he wants to fill the rest of his one minute-or-so, whether by highlighting other plot points or mentioning random, amusing moments. The line about Scarlet in the recap video above is one the singer found to be a funny moment in the show but wasn”t essential for viewing the new episode, he told HitFix. After Coulton“s song is finalized, the BrainDead editorial team edits footage from previous episodes to the song.
Each week, Coulton grapples for different ways to lay out the premise of the show in his recap.
“It”s standard to do a general recap at the top of your recap in a show at least halfway through the season,” he explained. “You have to say, ‘Oh, by the way, there”s a meteor, and it”s filled with space bugs, and we”re in Washington, D.C.” Already it”s been an interesting challenge to come up with several different ways of conveying that information at the top.”
Another challenge: Rhyming with political words. Coulton admits he”s cheated a bit, singing “Republican Senator” as “Sena-TORE” so he could rhyme it with “for.”
Coulton and reps for CBS tell HitFix that there are currently no plans to release the recap tunes as downloadable songs. Time to start clamoring for that, DeadHeads and Coulton fans.
Oh, and if you”re wondering how long we have to wait until Coulton collaborates in some way with BrainDead star and Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit, here”s what Coulton had to say about that: “I don”t know. That would certainly be fun.” He mentioned the music video for the fictional ripped-off song in The Good Wife episode he inspired as being akin to what they might be able to put together with the cast of BrainDead. It”s certainly a wacky enough show where a musical number wouldn”t be out of place.
As for an update on where things ended up with Coulton and Glee, the indie artist never took any legal recourse.
“[Fox] made it pretty clear that they were going to make it very difficult for me, which is what you do when you”re a lawyer and somebody”s trying to get something out of you,” Coulton told HitFix. “When I talked to friends who are lawyers they said, ‘Look you could do this and you could maybe get satisfaction out of this, but keep in mind this would be your job for several years,” and it was like, well, when you put it that way…”
Though Fox refrained from commenting to the press throughout that controversy, Coulton says in his conversations with folks at the network, Fox contended that they were not legally obligated to credit or pay him for a cover of a cover and that he “should be happy for the exposure,” Coulton wrote on his blog, “even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it”s my version – so you know, it”s kind of SECRET exposure.”
The outcry ended up bringing greater attention to Coulton, as did his re-release of his “Baby Got Back” cover with the proceeds of its first month of sales on iTunes going to Glee-related charities It Gets Better and The VH1 Save the Music Foundation.
“You look at the comments on those tracks [on iTunes], and it”s basically filled with people being angry at them for what they did to me,” Coulton told HitFix. “I felt like I had already shamed them as much as they could be shamed, as much as they had the capacity to feel shame for what they did. So I decided to call that a victory and move on.”
Move on he did, to BrainDead and other geektastic projects, like The SpongeBob Musical.
Coulton”s catchy recap songs will be at the top of each BrainDead episode, airing on CBS this summer on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.