The opening credits to The Young Pope go as such: The titular Pope Pius XIII aka Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) walks down a hallway of religious paintings, each depicting a different biblical scene. As he passes them, the paintings light up and come to life, as if Belardo himself has the ability to unfreeze them from statis. Belardo is cool and collected as he walks — anyone who’s seen any of The Young Pope (which you can stream anytime on HBO Now), even just a trailer, gets that that’s kind of his whole vibe. At the end of the hallway and conclusion of the credits, he turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and winks at the viewer. It’s perfect: A combination of cool and a little mystical, all set to Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.”
Except — hang on — it’s not… well, it’s sort of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” but it’s really an instrumental version of British rapper Devlin’s “Watchtower” produced by Labrinth that samples both Dylan’s original and Jimi Hendrix’s riff from his own cover. It’s a remix through and through, kicked up a notch with a pulsating electronic beat surging through the background of it.
That’s the paradox of The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s new series airing on HBO, isn’t it? Usually popes are old, but this one is young. Catholicism is a stuffy, old religion, but he’s a revolutionary. There’s classical music, but hey, why not make some room for electronic music? In fact, The Young Pope has made the best use of electronic music in a television series to date, if only because it adds all of the appropriate tension needed for a show whose stakes are that high — like, “fate of the Catholic Church” high.
This isn’t a chatty television program with tossed-off conversations held for the sake of showing how smart it is, nor is it relying on the twists and turns of other supernatural thrillers. It’s purposeful with slow, thoughtful conversations about religion or long, sweeping shots of Vatican City (or very often, both). In turn, that’s what makes its use of electronic music feel equally important; in a show where every choice matters, so does the choice of a Bob Dylan remix of all songs for its opening credits. In turn, its use of electronic music isn’t so much a gimmick per se as it is tried and true scoring, on par with the show’s use of an “Ave Maria.” This isn’t the first time we’ve seen modern music highlight a seemingly dated idea; look no further than Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, Marie Antoinette, scored by anyone from New Order to Aphex Twin. Much like Coppola’s film, what makes The Young Pope feel so good and so fun is how deliberate it all feels.
A cursory Google search will lead you to believe that electronic music is bad. Type in “Is EDM good?” and the first result you’ll get is an op-ed entitled “EDM Is Headed For The Trash And That’s A Good Thing.” That’s, uh, not encouraging, to say the least. But take it from me, an extremely biased person who saw Diplo in concert last August, electronic music is fine. It might even be really good. At its best, it’s a highly percussive and creative genre of music focused more on memorable rhythms than melodies (though sometimes both!).
There’s an assumption in part, if you are a person, like me, who watches a lot of prestige television, that any kind of enjoyment of pop music or electronic music is done so ironically. It’s tongue-in-cheek. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. I love it. There’s nothing more I can say than that. Electronic music is by no means life-changing nor will a movie starring Zac Efron save the genre, but it has its merits, no doubt, namely the ability to slowly build up to a drop and then, you know, drop. There’s a built-in urgency to it. At the very least, you always know where an electronic track is headed.
Which is why, in part, I just about lost my mind at the initial advertising for The Young Pope. Consider composer Max Cameron’s “Beat The Clock” which is used in one of the show’s earliest trailers. Electronic music isn’t just rave music. It’s not all beats and drops and flashing strobe lights and tank tops. There’s suspense. You don’t know where it’s going, only that you can’t help but follow. Recondite’s “Levo” plays in the backdrop of several scenes throughout the show, a pulsing, ambient heightening device. There’s tension without anything being said. The music doesn’t need to speak for the pope, it just needs to raise the stakes around him.
But then, of course, there is the scene.
Beyond the occasional remix or ambient electronic scoring, The Young Pope pulls out one of the best musical stops of all time in its fifth episode which aired this past Sunday. As Pope Pius XIII prepares himself to address the other cardinals at the vatican, LMFAO’s 2011 hit (yes, it was a hit) song “Sexy And I Know It” plays in the background. It is an astounding sequence, worthy of one or two thousands words in and of itself, if only because of how deliberately it serves the narrative. It is the ultimate getting-ready montage, complete with all the expected shots from an ’80s comedy (“no” to these red shoes but “yes” to those red shoes, a quick adjustment of hair after throwing on a papal gown of some sort, etc.). The absurdity is sublime: It is decadence scored by the height of trash.
The heightening of the use of music in The Young Pope is also essential in making a scene like the “Sexy And I Know It” montage work. A precedent has been set with both the “Watchtower” remix and other types of wordless electronic music in the background that a music choice like LMFAO wouldn’t be unnatural, per se, but it is so heightened and so unexpected in context that it’s pulled off like a magic trick. Like a dove inside of a top hat.
In another episode, that begins with the Kronos Quartet’s “String Quartet No. 4,” The Young Pope definitively proved it can meld these genres of music together to keep its viewers guessing. It’s purposeful, modern, and interesting to use electronic music to support and add color to musings on religion and faith. In the second episode, Belardo goes so far as to cite Daft Punk as an inspiration for how he wants to be viewed: Unknowable, unseeable. Is there anything more suspenseful than that?
In a time where it feels like we often cannot or do not “have it all” (whatever that means to you), I feel like The Young Pope is giving it all to me. I mean, how many Radiohead songs did I have to google after an episode of Westworld? But now we have both a show that is considered, by all accounts, “very good” using a type of music typically deemed “very bad” but in a “good way.” Kill the scare quotes and what you have is effective electronic musical scoring within a genre of television that would have previously ignored it. It’s a confounding relief and joy to see audiences unite over the prevalence of electronic music in The Young Pope after years of trusting and knowing something like this could really, really work. It might not be a religious experience, but it’s almost a miracle.
Fran Hoepfner is a writer and comedian in Chicago. Follow her extremely good tweets here.