Tuning in to different audiences: how vintage TV soundtracks resonate online
Call it the Golden Age of Television or call it peak TV, streaming and network series are amongst the greatest driving forces in modern culture. And aside from introducing audiences to ideas and aesthetics, the 2022 TV show also acts as a delivery system for other forms of media – particularly music.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on HBO. The network has cultivated a reputation for iconic music, from the driving orchestras of Game of Thrones and Succession to the blues-infused title tracks of The Sopranos and The Wire.
The latter show revitalized and recontextualised ‘Way Down in the Hole’, a song more than a decade old. And it’s this type of needle drop that has fallen with increasing regularity in recent years. Following on from Euphoria, which introduced younger viewers and reacquainted older viewers to the likes of Sinead O’Connor and CAN, two prestige shows from 2022 have adopted broadly similar approaches – with very different results.
Both Winning Time and Peacemaker utilize genres rooted in the eighties – West Coast Hip Hop and Classical Rock – to help create a particular vibe. Using Pulsar TRAC, however, we can trace the divergent way this has played out amongst audiences and fandoms.
First, the commonalities:
Each show follows a particular pattern, with the premiere causing a reflexive nod of approval or frisson of excitement among fans, before a succession of weekly drops helps build a growing appreciation (or, in some cases, dissatisfaction) for a show’s music.
— Helena (@Helena_LB) May 21, 2022
A positive response is rarely a judgment on the music alone, but rather a verdict on how the whole show is hanging together. For studios, selecting the right sequence of songs can act as a shorthand for creating a particular vibe or aesthetic. Traditionally, this technique was monopolized by movies, but increased television budgets have led to increased ambition on the part of creatives and networks.
The use of popular music also helps deliver a more immersive, fully-imagined world, all the better for the creation of fandoms and the proliferation of shareable moments and clips across social channels. It also provides food for those who might wish to engage with the show on a deeper level, particularly across forums and subreddits:
In cases where the same entities own both television studios and music back catalogs, meanwhile, it can create a great opportunity for cross promotion.
And yet a cursory look at each soundtrack’s engagement levels, from the number of conversants talking about it on socials to the number of plays clocked on Spotify, makes it clear that the Peacemaker conversation took place on a far larger order of magnitude. To understand why this happened, we can take a closer look at the audience of each.
Use the slider to toggle between the participants taking in place in each conversation
Peacemaker’s relative success appears partially attributable to bringing the show’s other core fandoms, like DC and Wrestling fans, into the music conversation. Winning Time, on the other hand, appears dominated to a far greater extent by Hip Hop aficionados and TV obsessives.
One element that reflects (and to a large extent causes) this disparity is the response to the two title credits.
The Peacemaker credits quickly developed a reputation among online conversants for being funny, unexpected and, essentially, unskippable.
I will NEVER skip the intro credits scene for Peacemaker!! pic.twitter.com/Zadlosn3ob
— SuperFamicomLuvr (@tkbryant74) January 24, 2022
Winning Time, meanwhile, opted for a cooler, detached approach, which only featured its star cast in brief flashes among a montage of vintage footage.
This underscores the qualities of the song, and led to a very significant uptick in both plays and conversation around rap group The Coup – but it didn’t impact popular culture in the same way that Peacemaker’s more outre effort did.
Why is it important to know who’s talking about these soundtracks online? It matters because it helps us understand why the two conversations played out so differently.
Again, use the slider to toggle between the two networks.
Aside from the size of the respective conversations, one thing that’s immediately clear is that posts about Peacemaker were amplified to a sometimes massive extent. In stark contrast, many of the posts about Winning Time may have garnered likes, but the retweet button escaped hardly touched.
Music icon Questlove epitomized the contrast:
Me: they need to cut the Winning Time people some slack yo…….wtf?!
Also Me: “that bootleg “Not Just Knee Deep” that Magic had on his boombox is an abomination!! how dare they disrespect Clinton’s legacy like that!!? What kinda amateur hour music clearence is this!!???
— Questo (@questlove) April 27, 2022
Not only is this tweet one of the most shared, with a paltry 13 retweets, it also reflected the kind of high level discourse, gatekeeping and semi-ironic reaction that saw Winning Time’s soundtrack elicit a number of disparate, disconnected ‘takes’.
Compare this with Peacemaker, where the music conversation was driven by some of the main names involved in the show, from creator James Gunn to star John Cena. This kind of post helped whip an already enthused fan base into something approaching a social movement:
“Do You Wanna Taste It” is Number One on the iTunes Rock Chart. Originally released in 2009, it’s been a long time coming, #WigWam (it’s always been an incredible song, glad #Peacemaker could help more people discover it.) 🧜♂️ pic.twitter.com/leQNyRvWm7
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) February 22, 2022
As the musical back catalogs owned by media companies swell with each passing year, the power of prestige television to recast and reimagine once-popular songs and albums for new audiences is only set to grow and develop in increasingly novel ways.
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