TW: Mentions of slavery and domestic abuse
In the climactic scene of Big Little Lies’ first season finale, the five mothers at the centre of the HBO series’s inter-familial feud arrive at a fundraiser for their children’s primary school. It’s a warm NorCal night and, from a huddle of SUVs and hybrids, they emerge with their glowing complexions and shimmering gowns. There is a red carpet and cameras are flashing; white teeth and air kisses. They stream towards the outdoor tent for cocktails, guided by the glow of burning torches and the swaying rhythm – Elvis Presley’s 1960 ballad It’s Now or Never. The music fits the theme: the affair has compelled the women to dress up as Audrey Hepburn, and the men as Elvis. Some have been preparing their costumes for weeks. It’s for a good cause too: a display of support for their children’s ‘private quality, public price tag’ school (the luck of living in this part of Monterey), and a chance to look radiant in front of ex-husbands and status-conscious frenemies.
But in addition to inspiring the fathers’ Aloha shirts and fitted leather jackets, Elvis is also a fitting introduction to a debate surrounding the use of music in the series and the way in which it raises questions about artistic ownership in the context of US race relations. Was Elvis a champion of rhythm and blues who propelled legendary black American performers including Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard to the prominence they deserve? And/or was he a self-serving thief who perpetuated black oppression by stealing the work of marginalised black artists at will?
This debate resonates in the context of recent controversies about cultural appropriation, from accessories at Coachella to the whitewashing of Hollywood, and has given rise to a more recent backlash in its defense. As Kenan Malik writes, “The accusation of cultural appropriation… is the insistence that certain beliefs and images are so important to particular cultures that they may not [be] appropriated by others.” But Malik’s argument does not consider the myriad voices that recognise the futility of arguing over who has permission to appropriate and are instead asking how we might define a type of borrowing that is sensitive, nuanced, and creative.
The creators of Lies should be included in this conversation. Director Jean-Marc Vallée and his music supervisor Sue Jacobs’s soundtrack choices (including several of Elvis’s sultry melodies) have been widely hailed as testaments to their love of both popular and under-appreciated music. Mainstream media outlets have applauded their emotional savvy in weaving preexisting songs into a brand new story world, mirroring and amplifying key moments and identities. The music is also racially inclusive where the narrative is not. Alongside contemporary folksy singer-songwriters (Martha Wainwright, Agnes Obel) and ‘70s rock heroes (The B-52s, Fleetwood Mac) are the rich and writhing voices of black soul past and present (Leon Bridges and Otis Redding are among the first to emerge). In moments of helplessness, injustice, violence, and respite, these voices crescendo, speaking to the aspirational, bourgeois-melancholy lives of a predominantly white cast. (Of the five mothers and four fathers, Zoë Kravitz’s character is the only person of colour.)
But is the use of music in the series in service to its artists too? The songs speak to each other as well as to their respective scenes, laying a bedrock of emotional context from which the story draws. These emotions are universal but hold nuances that attest to the history and origins of each piece within American culture. And when it comes to black artists, these nuances must be investigated. How can we ensure that music is used to enrich visual narratives with intelligence and empathy while moving beyond dismissive accusations of appropriation?
Reflection and inner lives
In the Lies opening credits, Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Heart, the ode to loss and grief from his 2016 album Love & Hate, is used to introduce the five women protagonists. One by one, we see them drive along the dreamy ocean horizon of their coastal town (the upscale Monterey, California). Though we share the enclosed, intimate space of their cars with each mother (and her child/ren), the women are turned away from us, their expressions barely discernible.
Did you ever fight it? / All of the pain, so much power / Running through my veins / Bleeding, I’m bleeding / My cold little heart / Oh I, I can’t stand myself
The song speaks to the lonely contemplation of the mothers, each the self-appointed leader of their clan. Trapped in the hollow disconnect between public image and private doubts, she might be asking herself: Should I go to yoga today? What birthday parties are coming up? Why did my daughter decide to go and live with her father? Is my marriage good enough? Is this life of leisure ‘it’ for me?
The sequence suggests that these moments of vulnerability are analogous to those invoked by Kiwanuka. But the roots of their respective sorrows and self-doubts reveal uncomfortably disparate worlds. Kiwanuka is a Londoner, the son of Ugandan immigrants. Another single from Love & Hate, Black Man in a White World, hints at his experience:
I’ve been told all my life / I’ve got nothing left to pray / I’ve got nothing left to say
This exasperated, spirited defiance of stolen dignity (and the yearning for the space to realise oneself fully) trickles into Cold Little Heart, a reprise of struggle and isolation. The music video for the song, awash in grey and blue, is a meditative six-minute depiction of a black teenage boy’s agony at losing a father figure. His helplessness is a world away from the women’s pain.
Though their pain is poignant too, it is also a marker of privilege. Each mother owns their private space: comfortable vehicles that afford them an opportunity to consider their lives, their children, their social status. One mother, the sparky and restless Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon), knows she must defend her emotional wellbeing against an ever-present ex-husband and a haughty arch-nemesis, Renata Klein (Laura Dern). But she also leads the charge, rallying her powerful friends, a doting husband, her younger daughter, even her ex-husband’s peace-loving new wife, to bolster her queendom: she is able to take control of her own future. Maddie’s melancholy is glamourised by Kiwanuka’s song, but her struggles are only interesting and beautiful to watch because she has the autonomy to consider and act on her existential discontent. Kiwanuka’s song, then, gives voice to Maddie’s complexity, but the heart of Kiwanuka’s story, a testament to the struggle and triumph against broader forms of oppression, is washed away.
Healing & reconciliation
Maddie’s daughter Chloe (Darby Camp), a first grader, is the precocious onscreen DJ of the series, setting the mood at dinner with Babe Ruth’s cover of Frank Zappa’s King Kong and doling out songs as therapy to heartbroken peers and family members. When her older half-sister Abigail decides to live with Maddie’s ex-husband, it is Chloe who introduces her mother to Alabama Shakes’s This Feeling; she later tries to reconcile two classmates in conflict with Leon Bridges’ River.
Chloe has an endearingly mature understanding of the emotional core of these songs and, with the purest of intentions, uses them to direct her loved ones towards comfort and healing. Her innocence betrays a ‘colour-blind’ approach to music. Without an explanation of where Chloe’s advanced taste comes from, it’s easy to assume that she is passing along the emotions of each song without awareness of their origins. River is indeed a song of healing, but Bridges sings it as a message of hope in response to the 2015 Baltimore protests (against police brutality towards African Americans). Borrowing Bridges’ song without acknowledgement of the context of collective pain it represents crudely filters out the underlying stories of injustice and defiance.
River can express Chloe’s emotional innocence but its usage inadvertently adds a dimension that is too unwieldy for the story. Could a clearer suggestion of a more socially aware source of Chloe’s musical tastes (e.g. her ageing hipster dad, Ed) have inched the narrative toward a more considerate and empathic application of the song?
Heartbreak – all pain is valid, but not all pain is the same
To its credit, Lies features and thus champions the contemporary relevance of some of soul’s most respected and powerful voices, among them Irma Thomas, Naomi Shelton, and Charles Bradley. Most of the songs by these veterans of soul are paired with Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman with widely lauded sensitivity and restraint), who is in passionate love with, and beaten regularly by, her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). When we first see Celeste, the ocean breeze brushes back her hair in wistful slow-motion as she relaxes on her home’s wraparound deck. Bradley’s Victim of Love plays:
Victim of love, I see a broken heart / You got your stories to tell / Victim of love, it’s such an easy part / And you know how to play it so well
Later, we witness the violence that makes Celeste a ‘victim of love’. The intensity of her pain and longing for respite is clear, but the voices of soul singers who were black in America during the ‘60s and ‘70s (and onwards) evoke uncomfortable questions too. As James Baldwin writes in The Uses of the Blues (1964),
“I want to talk about the blues not only because they speak of this particular experience of life and this state of being, but because they contain the toughness that manages to make this experience articulate.”
Is Celeste’s heartbreak analogous to the ache of strength and resilience in Bradley and Thomas’ bodies of work? And are the tragedy and triumph in Bradley and Thomas’ voices honoured when superimposed over the Nancy Meyers-inspired off-white interiors of breezy ocean-front homes?
They are, in a way, because human emotion transcends racial boundaries. But grounding the voices of black soul artists in stories of privileged white Americans risks filtering out the richness of the songs’ full history and meaning to jarring effect. Blues and soul give heart-rending gravitas to Lies’ pivotal moments, but at the cost of divorcing the music from an inextricable history: one of social consciousness, and a dignified, passionate realisation of black identity.
Moving forward, we might consider perspective over permission. Borrowing from other cultures (including communities within one’s own culture) reflects, in part, an artist’s sophistication. Besides recognising the embedded meanings of what they’re adapting, those who borrow might cultivate an understanding of their outsider status within those meanings (not just as an insider looking outward at the periphery) and use that position as a strength – think the respectful, nuanced knowledge of Eminem versus Iggy Azalea’s admiring but hollow interpretations of hip-hop culture. By thinking of responsible, intelligent borrowing as part of the creative process, we can include and honour beloved works of art without taking away the artistic freedom of well-intentioned filmmakers like Vallée and Jacobs. To know what one is referencing is to create a sound that infuses narrative with added meaning, without erasing those which already exist.
There’s a moment in the middle of the series that does this well. Celeste smokes alone on her deck, watching the dusky horizon. A ‘retired’ lawyer, she has just successfully defended her friend Maddie’s play against moralistic censorship from the local government. Afterwards, she tearfully confides to Maddie how much she’s missed the passionate independence of working, living a life of her own outside of her kids and controlling husband. Now, cautiously hopeful, she basks in her own power – could this somehow work out?
Her headphones are in and Irma Thomas is singing:
Make me forget / The pain that you caused / Understanding is a great thing / If it comes from the heart
Celeste closes her eyes and the music rises to fill the scene. Her moment isn’t narrated by Thomas’ song – like us, she is simply a listener. Like us, she is coaxed into wondering whether the picturesque life she’s chosen is worth the sacrifice. She exhales, surrendering momentarily to uncertainty, content in the camaraderie of Thomas’ voice – this voice, pleading but strong, sympathetic but knowing, that also once lived and survived a life of its own.
Michelle Fan is a filmmaker and commercial semiotician in London. She has recently produced a short film, The Feast (with producer/director Gaëlle Mourre); it is currently in post-production.