So if you’re like me you’ve spent the last seven Sunday nights prone in front of your television, biting your nails, sweating, watching one of the best whodunit crime shows of our generation: True Detective. The show, whose conclusion airs this Sunday night at 9 p.m. on HBO, tells the story of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, two detective who are trying to answer the pesky question of who keeps killing all these women and children in rural Louisiana.
An underrated aspect of this show, in my opinion anyway, is the music. True Detective doesn’t smack you over the head with its soundtrack — other than its haunting, rootsy opening credits music, odds are you can’t remember a single song from this show.
This is a good thing in a visual work of art. There is music in this show, lots of it, but the director Cary Joji Fukunaga and the music supervisor, the immortal T Bone Burnett, have done such a good job integrating the music seamlessly and making it a part of the fabric of the show that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The music isn’t there to show off how cool and knowledgeable the showrunner is (see: Treme) and it isn’t there to show how wacky, offbeat and chic he is (see: like every single Tarantino movie ever.) The music exists to add to the mood, to bring these characters’ world to life. If music isn’t needed, Fukunaga doesn’t use it.
And yes, before I go any further, I should point out that very little music on the show is actually from the state of Louisiana. The theme song is “Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family of Albuquerque by way of Chicago. They’re a roots group that covers songs from 50 years ago, and if you want to get into the whole “time is a flat circle” Rust-Cohlian philosophy of the whole thing, they’re a pretty perfect choice for the whole show. History is nothing but actions — and songs — repeating themselves.
I know some of my Louisiana music critic friends (I lived there for six years, started my writing career covering music down there) will be perturbed that so little of the soundtrack features born-or-bred Louisiana musicians, and I can testify that there are a ton of musicians down there who could fit any bill that Burnett and Fukunaga were looking for. That being said, strangely, I think the music of True Detective does a better job representing a lot of what Louisiana is about than a show that is about Louisiana music — Treme.
Treme sucks. I mean, I love Treme, I love that it features musicians I used to write about, I love that it tries to tell the story of New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina, which is when I moved there, and I love the actors in the show and the sets and the props and the restaurants it features. All that being said, the show is really terrible. It’s terrible because the writing isn’t that interesting and it’s inufferably self-involved and impressed with itself, but it’s also terrible because it force feeds you (admittedly incredible) New Orleans music with the same tact of a mother jamming cough syrup down a kid’s throat. Here, America, I’m David Simon and you better listen to this music because it’s GOOD for you.
True Detective, to veer back to the whole stupid point of this article, doesn’t bother with that. Yeah, a lot of the music isn’t from Louisiana, but what Fukunaga and Burnett understand in a real way is that the music doesn’t need to be local to tell a place’s story. And even though True Detective was originally meant to be set in Oklahoma, the music and the show get to some uncomfortable truths about Louisiana that Treme never does.
What do I mean by that? Louisiana is a magical, gorgeous, mystical place. The music is part of the culture, and by turns it can be distracting and fun, lively and soulful and sad. Treme gets those parts right. But Louisiana is also a place of serious violence, corruption, sin. The state, like many around it and too many in this country, has an awful track record of treating women, children, gays and people of color horrifically.
What the music of True Detective does, rather than play a sad soul song straight from the New Orleans Music Starter CD, is capture the hysteria that these two men feel — and by turn, the viewers — as they unpack this grotesque history. The 13th Floor Elevators are a psychedelic band from Austin, TX who played for four years in the sixties, and have no serious connection to Louisiana that I know of, but when their song “Kingdom of Heaven” nails you in the gut at the end of the second episode, you understand something about these characters that no Kermit Ruffins trumpet solo is going to tell you.
Likewise, very few Louisiana historians would cite Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front” as a classic example of New Orleans rhythm and blues, but that song, playing gratingly in that incredible scene in episode four when Cohle enters the housing project with the biker gang, is so perfect it’s hard to distinguish it from the scene itself now. That song is 20 years old, and I’ve listened to it 500 times probably, and when I just played it I could only picture Cohle nervously walking through the front yard of a place he doesn’t belong. That’s the power of great filmmaking, and the signs that Fukunaga and Burnett really know what the hell they’re doing. The music serves the show, unlike Treme, which too often is the other way around.
I can already hear the grumbling of my Louisiana music friends about this article, and that’s OK, I think. Yeah, Burnett should’ve thrown some scrill and publicity at some Louisiana musicians with this show. That being said, I think it’s refreshing that a show can tell a Louisiana story without feeling the David Simon-esque guilt to feature musicians he likes to see when he gets drunk and feels adventurous for wandering six blocks off Bourbon Street, which I promise you, buddy, isn’t as unique and interesting as you think it is.
When I lived in New Orleans I covered some incredible bands, bands like Caddywhompus and Sun Hotel and John Michael Rouchell and Brass Bed and Archanimals and Native America and Hurray for the Riff Raff and The Deslondes, but because they were indie or noise pop or folk bands and didn’t fit into some pre-set, romantic idea of what New Orleans music is supposed to be, no one gave a shit. They’d be playing to nearly empty rooms while 50-year-old dudes in leather jackets sat proud of themselves at a bar on Frenchman St., thinking they were “local”, while in truth they were sitting in a room full of other 50-year-old white dude tourists in leather jackets who were all just as proud of themselves.
I’m rambling a bit, but the point is this: I’d rather watch and support True Detective (a show that doesn’t care where music is from) to tell the story of Louisiana than a show that uses the music some romantically inclined old dude decides is “true Louisiana music.” Get over it.
And let’s be honest, all the music out there is derived from NOLA anyways.