‘Fargo’ Uses Pop Songs Better Than Any Show On Television

As prestige TV continues to ape the conventions of cinema, more and more TV shows have stepped up their game when it comes to a device near and dear to my heart — using pop songs to score pivotal scenes. Many of the best and most talked-about shows on television do this very well: The Americans, Big Little Lies, Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, Legion, Halt & Catch Fire. But there’s one show that does it a little better than the rest, FX’s Fargo.

Filmmakers and showrunners utilize pop songs in all sorts of ways. The most basic purpose is to quickly establish a time period — CCR for the ’60s, Donna Summer for the ’70s, Duran Duran for the ’80s, Nirvana for the ’90s, and so on. More thoughtful artists, however, will actually integrate the music into the storytelling, as either a Greek chorus signaling important themes to the audience, or as a window into the inner lives of the characters. Or they’ll revel in the visual possibilities that arise when you take a piece of action and combine it with a particular song, which can elevate an otherwise flat sequence to the dizzying heights of a dance number.

Fargo, especially in its second season, has excelled at using songs as storytelling devices, as well as finding ways to create musical sequences that looked and sounded incredible on-screen. During the series’ forthcoming season, I’ll be writing weekly columns devoted to how Fargo uses music in each episode, exploring the ways in which songs deepen (or possibly detract from) the narrative. (I’ll also investigate the obscure tracks that will inevitably pop up on the soundtrack, for those without ready access to Shazam.) Before that, here are five great moments from the first two seasons.

Season 1, Episode 2: Eden Ahbez, “Full Moon”
Scene: Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench dispose of a body in an ice-covered lake.

Fargo didn’t really hit its stride as a show that scored scenes to pop music in distinctive ways until its second season. But this episode from early in season one exhibits Fargo‘s flair for digging up obscure songs and doing something subversive with them. Ahbez is a cult figure who achieved his greatest success in 1948 when his song “Nature Boy” was performed by Nat King Cole, who turned it into a No. 1 hit. “Nature Boy” was reflective of Ahbez’s proto-hippie lifestyle — he wore his hair long and grew a Jesus beard to go with his usual garb of sandals and white robes. (Ahbez was also living under the “L” in the Hollywood sign around the time that “Nature Boy” became a hit.) On his own, Ahbez recorded deeply strange, ethereal music featuring his starry-eyed, spoken-word vocals, as typified by the strangely hypnotic “Full Moon.”

On paper, “Paper Moon” shouldn’t go with a scene in which a guy his murdered by two hit men. But much like the Billy Batts sequence in Goodfellas, which utilizes Donovan’s similarly hippie-dippy “Atlantis” while Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci bash Frank Marino’s head in, the combination of violence and serene music works in a yin-yang sort of way, conveying the pathology of killers who commit horrible acts with cool efficiency.

Season 1, Episode 9: “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers

Scene: Super-criminal Lorne Malvo, posing as a dentist in Kansas City, hosts a party at his house.

“Green Tambourine,” a likably trashy bubblegum oldie that went to No. 1 in 1967 and was the only hit by ersatz-psych group the Lemon Pipers, would normally be an odd choice to score a party scene that takes place in 2007. But it’s perfectly suited for Fargo, which tells stories that take space during hyper-specific periods of time that also somehow seem to exist slightly out of time.

Lorne Malvo, in particular, looks like he could be a product of any year between 1961 and 1989. It’s part of the character’s destabilizing, “there are no rules” influence on the world around him, represented in a small way by reviving the dated “Green Tambourine” in a scene that takes place 40 years after the song’s original cultural moment. For Malvo, “Green Tambourine” represents normalcy and mediocrity — it’s his way of appearing like a regular human while slyly commenting on how boring he thinks regular humans are.

Season 2, Episode 1: “Children Of The Sun” by Billy Thorpe

Scene: Rye Gerhardt drives to confront a judge at a diner.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Fargo music supervisor Marguerite Phillips said that the show’s creator Noah Hawley “wanted me to explore prog rock and Krautrock” as a musical theme for the second season. This could possibly be related to the season’s sci-fi overtones, though I prefer to believe that it’s also related to the pervasiveness of AOR in the upper Midwest of the late ’70s. (As a native midwesterner born in 1977, some of my earliest memories are scored by pomp-rock riffs and ridiculously wiggy keyboard solos.)

Apparently, Billy Thorpe’s anthemic “Children Of The Sun” was one of the few songs actually written into the script of the second-season premiere. While largely forgotten today, Thorpe did exist on the periphery of FM radio in the late ’70s, which gave him enough exposure for the Australian rocker’s 1979 concept record Children Of The Sun to hit the top 40 on the album chart. In addition to subtly foreshadowing the preponderance of UFOs in Fargo‘s sophomore season, “Children Of The Sun” seems like the sort of song you’d hear on the radio late at night while riding shotgun on a lonely highway road near the border of Minnesota and North Dakota in 1979.

Season 2, Episode 7: Lisa Hannigan, “Danny Boy”

Scene: Bear Gerhardt executes his niece, Simone

The biggest challenge for Fargo the TV show has been overcoming comparisons to Fargo the film. A less confident show would’ve worked overtime to play down the influence of the Coens. But Fargo has instead embraced not just its cinematic source material but the entire Coen brothers oeuvre, though in a manner that’s more reminiscent of an inventive remix than a slavish cover. In the second season, this translated musically by having contemporary artists perform versions of classic songs associated with Coen brothers movies, including Blitzen Trapper’s take on the standard “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” (from O Brother Where Art Thou) and White Denim’s redux of Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)” (from The Big Lebowski).

In the case of “Danny Boy,” which originally scored the remarkable shoot-out sequence from Miller’s Crossing, the Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan was called upon to perform a uniquely beautiful rendition for arguably the ugliest scene in either season of Fargo. As a callback to the Coens, “Danny Boy” stands alone as a memorable music queue on Fargo. It might, in fact, even top Miller’s Crossing, where the use of “Danny Boy” registers as somewhat jokey. But on Fargo, the song’s sentimental depiction of familial love and the passing of generations makes the death of Simone doubly tragic.

Season 2, Episode 10: Black Sabbath, “War Pigs”

Scene: Everything goes to hell in Sioux Falls.

Here we have a song that hits all of the bases for good song usage. It is a strong character choice for Hanzee — I can easily imagine him listening to Paranoid non-stop while serving multiple tours in Vietnam. It comments on the action — clearly, these are pigs at war. It helps to establish the time and place — nothing epitomized evil in middle-American communities in the ’70s and ’80s like Black Sabbath, whose music and iconography functioned as shorthand for the mania against largely non-existentent Satan worshippers.

But set all of that aside and re-watch the sequence another 37 times. There’s something to be said for using a song simply because it sounds incredible when juxtaposed against terrifying action that’s unfolding on a split screen. Much like the Scorsese-esque “Locomotive Breath” sequence from the second season’s seventh episode, “War Pigs” gets over on sheer cinematic audacity. It looks cool because it looks freaking cool.