I don’t watch much television. It’s not that I don’t like it; I do, everyone does. It’s that I know what it is and because I do, I’ve learned to avert my eyes. At least somewhat. Television is the salt, fat, and sugar of the entertainment world. It’s what we crave. Hell, it’s what we’ve craved since time immemorial: low hanging, highly caloric food that sates us immediately. It’s the effortlessness of television that’s most interesting isn’t it? You sit in a comfortable chair and then, with a click of a switch, beautiful (or least interesting looking people) appear on the screen. You reach for the remote, turn up the volume and the beautiful ones make their amusing comments. Now, you’re stimulated; pupils fully dilated, attention undivided.
I worked as a composer for network television shows for more than a decade. For those of you who don’t what I mean by “composer,” it means that I sat watching and making the little segments of music that underscored several of your favorite television shows. I’ve written music to literally hundreds of hours of television. That’s all to say that I have a somewhat informed perspective about how television works its magic on a viewer.
My job in a nutshell was to make scenes more emotionally connective. For example, one of the shows I worked on needed music to communicate that the principal characters were deeply feeling, deeply empathic. So I added soft piano notes, slow moving acoustic guitar ostinatos. Another show required that I write funny music. That’s a challenge because a composer’s job is always to support the action on screen, not to draw attention to the music he or she has written. So with comedy the task isn’t so much to make people laugh, as to allow them to laugh; to suggest that what was happening in a particular scene was funny. And so, with the subtle direction that my music provided, people would actually be more prone to laughing at things that were not otherwise very funny at all.
Another show I worked on had an interesting conceit: Take very smart, very good looking people and have them solve crimes while making sexually charged comments in close proximity to mutilated bodies. Call it a dark comedy, hung on the frame of a crime drama. When watching any episode, a viewer would typically ask himself two questions: ‘Who murdered whom?’ Followed by, ‘When will the lead actors finally have sex?’
What I learned through my experience as a television composer, is that with rare exceptions, television’s purpose is to hold people’s attention so that the advertisements, which are in any case the main event, will be seen by people in a hyper suggestible, semi-hypnotic state. The TV formula is simple: 1.) Get viewers to stare, 2.) Hypnotize viewers either by fear, sexual stimulation, or low-brow humor, 3.) And finally, lure viewers into buying whatever it is that the networks are selling.
This year, the exercise of democracy has become just another television show. With the events of our recent political season, I’m afraid we as a nation have finally succumbed. We the people… who have helped to serve this great nation with our resources, with our brawn and with our blood are being led into sheep pens. But we’re laughing all the while aren’t we? Because whoever doesn’t know what’s befalling him is always laughing.
But I leave you with some good news: This year’s show is so entertaining it doesn’t even need music!