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Analyzing The Music Of ‘Fargo’ Season Three, Episode One: ‘The Law Of Vacant Places’


The season premiere of Fargo 3.0 offered a lot to unpack — an incongruous opening sequence set in a totalitarian regime, two Ewan McGregors, David Thewlis’ terrifying gums, Scoot McNairy’s stoned late-night philosophizing, hidden sci-fi novels, and that falling air conditioner. But what about the songs? As arguably the best show on TV when it comes to utilizing pop tunes to assist in storytelling, provide valuable insight into characters, and score dazzling sequences, Fargo always has lots to offer on its soundtrack every week. Join me as we do a deep dive into the music of “The Law Of Vacant Places.”

Song: “Kukushka” by Ural Cossacks Choir
Scene: That weird opener set in late ’80s East Berlin in which Jakob Ungerleider is mistaken for Yuri Gurka.

If the first season of Fargo felt like a hybrid of the original film and No Country For Old Men, and the second season felt like an insane extrapolation of Miller’s Crossing set in 1970’s middle America, season three in the early going has a Serious Man vibe. The opening scene — which otherwise has no discernible link to the story that follows – seems to be a metaphorical meditation on the very Coen brothers theme of insignificant people being controlled by larger, not wholly sympathetic forces. Whether it’s God, fate, or sprawling government bureaucracy — poor Jakob is stymied by all three — the unseen hand that guides all mankind’s timelines has long been a cruel, unpredictable force in the Fargo universe, as evidenced once again by all of the things that we’ve already seen happen to Emmit and Ray Stussy in the season premiere.

The sense that season three might unfold in the manner of a folk tale is underscored by the music. “Kukushka” (or “The Cuckoo”) is an old Russian folk song that’s often interpreted to be an allegory about resilience in the face of continual hardship. (The specific version used in Fargo wasn’t available on YouTube.) Some believe “Kukushka” was inspired by the Russians withstanding Genghis Khan and the invading Mongols in the 13th century. “My son, come on, look at me / my palm turned into a fist /and if there’s gunpowder, give me fire / that’s how it is,” goes the chorus.

The Ural Cossocks Choir is presently based in the Netherlands, but it originated in Russia and for a time existed in Germany. The group specializes in performing ancient Russian folk and religious songs like “Kukushka.” In the region’s folklore, a common convention is the story of two brothers, where often one is rich and one is poor. This Slavic fairy tale, for instance, opens in a manner that’s similar to the start of Fargo‘s third season. As you can see, this particular story doesn’t end well for the rich brother.

Song: “Crazy On You” by Heart
Scene: Ray and Nikki drive from Emmit’s party and swoon over being simpatico.

Classic rock was the predominant soundtrack of season two, but based on the first two episodes, Fargo‘s soundtrack has shifted to less familiar music from other countries, particularly Eastern Europe. So using a well-worn FM radio warhorse like “Crazy On You” is suddenly the exception rather than the rule. The role of Heart in this scene seems pretty straight-forward — Ray is clearly the sort of guy who would still keep a cassette copy of Dreamboat Annie in his Corvette, and the intense infatuation expressed in the song obviously parallels the cute (but probably doomed) relationship between Ray and Nikki.

As for the subtext, Heart is a band founded by two siblings, Ann and Nancy Wilson, who have not been getting along lately, to put it mildly. Just last week, Rolling Stone published a stunning article about a rift between the Wilson sisters stemming from an outrageous incident last summer involving Ann’s husband Dean Wetter, the couple’s dog, and Nancy’s twin teenaged sons.

According to a detective’s report in court documents obtained by <em>Rolling Stone</em>, “Dean became immediately upset and began calling [one of the teens] names … slap[ping] him on the back of the head, causing pain.” The teen asked why he hit him, with Wetter responding by “punching [the teenager] in the back of the head with a closed fist, causing [him] to be stunned and see stars.” After Wetter grabbed him by the throat, Nancy’s other son intervened. Wetter grabbed the other teen by the throat and, according to a police report, began “squeezing [the other son’s throat] to the point that [he] could not breathe. [He] said that he was unable to breathe or talk and that he feared for his life and felt pain in his neck.” Police arrested the then-66-year-old Wetter, charging him with two counts of assault, one felony and one misdemeanor.

Now, there’s no way that the war between the Wilson sisters was intended to underscore the war between the Stussy brothers. It’s just a weird coincidence … or it could be another example of that unseen hand creating tragic harmony out of the chaos of real life. For now, this Heart situation seems a lot worse than one brother cheating another brother out of a stamp collection. Let’s hope the former cools and the latter escalates.

Song: “Prisencolinensinainciusol” by Adriano Celentano
Scene: Ray and Nikki make a grand entrance at the bridge tournament.

I thought Ray and Nikki’s slow-mo strut was compulsively watchable — I rewound the sequence three times the first time I watched the episode. But the video above featuring the awkward dancing of Italian music legend Adriano Celentano and a bunch of models dressed as school-children might be even more infectious, if also twice as strange.

A Jack of all trades who sings, dances, acts, produces and directs — he turned 79 earlier this year — Celentano got his start by repackaging Americana for Italian audiences, covering early rock and roll hits such as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blueberry Hill” in the late ’50s. By the early ’70s, he had moved on to the proto-disco of “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a novelty hit in which Celentano affects a decent American accent — he sounds a bit like the era’s top swamp-pop star, Tony Joe White — and chants American-sounding gibberish over a heavy drum beat and saucy horn blasts.

When this video became popular on the blog Boing Boing a few years ago, Celentano was asked to explain the song’s nonsensical lyrics by NPR’s All Things Considered. “I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate,” he said. “And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.”

The “Prisencolinensinainciusol” sequence in Fargo is subjective — we’re seeing Ray and Nikki as they see themselves, a triumphant power couple that can’t be stopped. As viewers, of course, we’re supposed to know better. That doesn’t mean we can’t get lost in the fantasy for a few moments, even if we’re aware that what we’re seeing and hearing is nonsense.

BONUS TRACKS

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Song: “Swing de Paris” by Django Reinhardt
Scene: This instrumental by the French jazz guitar great can be heard at Emmit’s party before his meeting with Ray.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldXi8bs6PSw

Song: “Moanin” by Lambert & Hendricks & Ross
Scene: This rendition of a traditional field-holler by a popular jazz vocal trio of the late ’50s and early ’60s montage scores Ray’s never-ending string of urine tests for parolees.

Song: “Yellow River” by Bobby Welch
Scene: This mellow ultra obscurity plays on Maurice’s radio as he talks on the phone with his therapist.

Song: “Oskus Urug” by Radik Tyulyush
Scene: This haunting number by the traditional Tuvan throat singer Tyulyush plays as Gloria searches her step-father’s house after he’s murdered.

Song: “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Scene: This oft-used soundtrack staple — it frankly seems kind of stock by Fargo standards — plays over the closing credits.

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