Music in (Quality) TV Series – Conference in Kiel

Last week, Sven and I were guests of the „Music in (Quality) TV Series“-conference at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel from February 27th to March 1st. The conference organizers Willem Strank and Tarek Krohn had put together an impressive list of participants and papers ranging from music studies to communication studies, American studies, and, of course, film and media studies. The overall quality of the 22 lectures was refreshingly good and inspiring – a rare thing for a conference this big.

On the first day, Kai Hanno Schwind (Lillehamer, Norway) compared the opening sequences of the British sitcom The Office with two of its adaptations: The US-version The Office and the German Stromberg. Most striking was Kai’s description of the long lasting outright denial of the Stromberg-producers regarding the series being an adaptation of The Office and the very obvious likeness of its title melody and the Aphex Twin-song “Flim”.


Stromberg vs. Aphex Twin

Guido Heldt (Bristol, UK) gave an inspiring presentation on musical episodes in current TV shows. We all know the amazing special episode “Once More, with Feeling” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also the lousy attempt Grey’s Anatomy did with “Song Beneath the Song”. Honestly, Sara Ramirez was fantastic, but the rest of the cast – as they say ‘stay with what you know’. Anyway, Guido focused on “My Musical”, the musical episode of the comedy-drama television series Scrubs. He wonderfully analyzed how the audiovisual style of the episode follows the subjective perspective of Patti Miller (played by Stephanie D’Abruzzo) and her mysterious disease turning the Sacred Heart Hospital into a musical extravaganza.

Following this, Stefan Drees (Essen, Germany) captivated all with his paper presentation on “What remains of the present: Diegetic music in the Star Trek series as references to the cultural legacy of mankind”. As Star Trek fans, we were really looking forward to this presentation. Stefan focused on a short selection of episodes in Star Trek: The Next Generation (of course, with references to Data, played by Brent Spiner) as well as Star Trek: Voyager (Harry, please be understanding, but “we want to see the Doctor” …). If Star Trek presents a glimpse into the future, popular music will not really matter at all. Opera and other so-called high culture music seems to be the future prospect of mankind’s musical legacy. However, Stefan’s presentation was very insightful and – for the eighth lecture on the first day – hilarious! Jacqueline Löscher (Berlin, Germany) had the difficult last spot on a long day but kept everyone attentive with her analysis of the function and significance of popular music in Scrubs and its drawing upon cultural memory.

On the second day, Annette Davison (Edinburgh, UK) took us for a very eloquent ride through British TV series history with allusions to The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives! and Life on Mars. She focused on the shows’ opening titles and their musical arrangement (including some very entertaining vocal performances on her part) which was particularly interesting for us since Felix’ paper “Cold Open, Opening Credits, and Music. The Innovative Case of The Good Wife” dealt with a similar topic from a US point of view.

Beware the similarity between the title song of Adam Adamant Lives! and Goldfinger!

Martin Kutnowski’s (Fredericton, Canada) take on both the British and the American House of Cards series was especially fascinating for us as media scholars. His close analysis of the title melodies based on their respective sheet music and though we are no musicologists he made it very easy to follow his conclusions. If you have not started watching season 3 you should do so now and pay attention to the driving bass and the rather unusual main melody.

At the end of the second day, Marjolaine Boutet (Amiens, France) gave an amazing presentation on the use of music in the American crime series Cold Case. As she explained, Cold Case may never be released on DVD because of the music. The series soundtrack comprises about 1,030 popular songs – from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” via Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car”. Copyright rules for music license still hinder the series‘ release on DVD, as Marjolaine explained, “making it too expensive to be profitable and threatening to doom the series to oblivion in the years to come”. Did you know that a couple of episodes are written solely to process the lyrics of a selection of pop songs, e.g. by Bruce Springsteen, into the audiovisual design of a whole episode? Actually, that turns popular music into agents of TV storytelling far beyond of what contemporary popular (TV) culture does occasionally.

Sven Stollfuß in Kiel

Sven Stollfuß in Kiel

On the last day, Sven continued with popular music in his talk on “’Dance in the Memory of Bombs and Corpses?’ The Cultural and Political Connotations of Music in Queer as Folk” followed by the highly entertaining take on musical dramaturgy in The Simpsons by Peter Motzkus (Dresden, Germany).

But what surprised us most: A single episode in more than 80% of all Turkish TV series last longer than 90 minutes. If you add previously-ons and advertisement, the average episode usually runs for three (!) hours. (Just imagine Derrick investigating the same case for three hours… How many times Harry would have had to fetch the car…?) And the surprise doesn’t end there: In the five best rated shows more than 80% of screentime are accompanied by music. As a comparison: In most Breaking Bad episodes music is played in 10-20%. On the very last paper presentation, Cem Pekman and Ahmet Ilgaz (Izmit/Kocaeli, Turkey) gave a highly insightful and mind-boggling presentation on Turkish TV culture.

Ahmet Ilgaz and Cem Pekman on Turkish TV series

Ahmet Ilgaz and Cem Pekman on Turkish TV series

“The Over-Use of Music in Turkish Serials” was quite an understatement. The most up to date serial contains music in each second of about three hours. That is more like an “over-over use” of music! But – get this! – the success of Turkish TV dramas depends on the use of music, as Cem and Ahmet. So much for cultural differences. In Turkey, television is one of the major (economic) factors. While the Western world is talking about the end of TV “as we know it”, television in Turkey is still one of the most influential media players until today. Again, so much for cultural differences.

All in all, the conference in Kiel is definitely among the best we have visited so far thanks to a very smooth and unagitated organization and the astonishing number of interesting papers.

Block B – Unter Arrest: Der neue Frauenknast im deutschen Fernsehen

Gesten war es nun endlich soweit. RTL schickt die neue Frauen­gefängnis­serie Block B – Unter Arrest ins Programm­rennen und will damit an die Qualität inter­nationaler Produktionen an­schließen. Die Briten können es (Bad Girls, ITV 1999–2006), die Australier können es (Wentworth, SoHo seit 2013) und die Amerikaner sowieso (Orange Is the New Black, Netflix seit 2013). Und auch das deutsche Fern­sehen kann mit Hinter Gittern – Der Frauen­knast (RTL 1997–2007) immerhin auf einen Versuch zurück­blicken. Block B – Unter Arrest hat aller­dings mit „Walter“ (Katy Karrenbauer), „Uschi König“ (Barbara Freier) und dem Ensemble aus Hinter Gittern nicht viel gemein – und das ist auch gut so. Aller­dings: Auch wenn Block B seiner unmittel­baren Vor­lage Wentworth zum Ver­wechseln ähnlich sieht, haben die beiden Serien seltsamer­weise auch nicht viel gemein.

RTL-Trailer Block B – Unter Arrest (© 2015 RTL Television GmbH)