Everybody Hurts: The Soundtrack of My So-Called Life

How the seminal series became a masterwork in scoring teen angst, one lawn-twirl at a time.

August 15, 2016

Soraya Roberts is a writer in Toronto who has contributed to Harper's, Vanity Fair, The L.A. Review of Books and other publications. She is currently...

My So-Called Life’s ode to joy doesn’t arrive until its seventeenth episode, “Betrayal,” but it’s worth it. By then we have spent ninety percent of the ABC series watching fifteen-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) emancipate herself from mousey suburbanite to scarlet-haired Jordan Catalano scholar—a premise I explore in In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, my new book dedicated to the show’s feminism.

In “Betrayal,” we awake with Angela, the camera trained on her face, her head on her pillow, her mien neutral. “I loved Jordan Catalano so much, and talked about him so much and thought about him so much, it was like he lived inside me. Like he had taken possession of my soul, or something...” *PREGNANT PAUSE* “...and then one day… I got over him!” The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” electrifies a now-ecstatic Angela, turning her into a whirling, bopping, lip-syncing dust devil. “Let me go on,” she mouths, “like I blister in the sun/Let me go on... big hands, I know you’re the one.”

This is not a song about masturbation. Violent Femmes frontman and writer Gordon Gano told the Village Voice as much in 2013. For him it’s about drug addiction; for Angela, guy addiction. “It was like he had been surgically removed from my heart and I was free,” she says of Jordan—and the tune presages their messy breakup. “While the familiar, catchy song perfectly captures Angela’s blissful awakening,” writes Kelly Maloy in “Their So-Called Scene,” an entry in the MSCL essay collection Dear Angela, “the song’s arrangement is unsettling, staccato, and in places unrhythmical and avoids an unrealistic suggestion that the Angela-Jordan relationship has been resolved.”

Critics lauded the series back in 1994 for Angela’s unreliable narration, but when she isn’t speaking her mind, the show’s music does it for her. According to Maloy, MSCL’s soundtrack “often highlighted characters’ nuances or illustrated their inner turmoil.” Mixing up Beverly Hills 90210’s legacy, the show bypassed hokey mall acts like Color Me Badd to feature musicians more akin to Peach Pit headliners The Flaming Lips. Animal Bag, Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield all appeared in various scenes within its single season. “Buffalo Tom itself typifies the music that characterizes the show,” Maloy writes, “a scrappy band (and one of several Boston-based groups featured in the show) formed by three college students whose lyrics focus on feelings of longing and emptiness.” But it was Hatfield, another Bostonian, who was granted the biggest storyline of all in the episode “So-Called Angels” as a street kid with angelic pipes. At the time, the singer-songwriter with the diminutive voice and the lofty lyrics was a teen girl idol:

Everybody’s watching, everybody’s looking
She’s such a sucker, he don’t want to fuck her
He is gonna kiss me, if he doesn’t miss me
I am ready for it now, already on the ground
11Hatfield’s “Spin the Bottle” plays over a scene in which Rayanne and her friends prepare her house for a party.

Hatfield refused to lie down for the patriarchy, choosing instead to stand shoulder to shoulder with the third wave’s riot grrrls. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna described this feminist contingent in the 1992 fanzine “Girl Power,” in a manifesto entitled “riot grrrl is,” which included the line, “BECAUSE we want and need to be encouraged and to encourage in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of ‘authorities’ who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and who attribute any validation or success of our work to girl bandwagon hype.” So when Angela is alone for the first time with Jordan, the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” music video soundlessly flickers across the scene in the foreground. We can’t hear it but we can see it, and we know what lead singer Christy Amphlett is saying—this is the paean to onanism we were looking for:

I don’t want anybody else
When I think about you, I touch myself
Ooh, I don’t want anybody else
Oh no, oh no, oh no

Released in 1990, the lead single from the Aussie band’s fourth studio album, diVINYLS, became infamous for deigning to promote female masturbation. Four years later, a teen girl on primetime was giving solo sex a sweaty-palmed handshake.

The riot grrrl was “grunge’s indie sister,” according to Dear Angela’s Michele Byers. Grunge, meanwhile, that offspring of punk and heavy metal paired with angsty lyrics about alienation, entered the mainstream in the early ‘90s on the backs of Nirvana,22Lead singer Kurt Cobain makes a brief appearance in MSCL on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine’s memorial issue from June 2, 1994 (he had died on April 5th). “I can’t look at him,” Rayanne says (along with the rest of us). Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots (a band Angela claims she listens to). “There’s a feeling of burnout in the culture at large,” Simon Reynolds, author of rock subculture chronicle Blissed Out, told The New York Times in 1992. “Kids are depressed about the future.”

Composer W.G. Snuffy Walden attempted to musicalize that zeitgeist in MSCL’s theme song. He “stole” the words out of Angela’s new best friend Rayanne’s (A.J. Langer) mouth, the ones she initially uses to propel Angela towards freedom: “Go. Now. Go!” But Walden needed “more of an electrified teen angst,” so he threw in some guitar riffs as well. When that still wasn’t enough, he brought in his friend, singer Julian Raymond, to add the pièce de résistance. “Just soar,” he told him. The result, Walden believed, “spoke to that youth.”

So did Claire Danes. Though she was only thirteen in the MSCL pilot, her instinct was already as much physical as it was intellectual. In one of the sweetest scenes in the series, after the second time Angela and Jordan kiss—in the show’s second episode, “Dancing in the Dark”—Danes performs an “impromptu ballet” on the empty lawn of her family’s glowing house, floating not along the music but the magic of the moment. “I had to find something that caught her emotion,” Walden said. So with the camera hovering above her, a glockenspiel drops notes down from the heavens like rain and Angela blooms into the tiny ballerina that twirled through our pubescence.

If Walden offers one of the more joyful musical moments of the series, REM provides its most melancholy. At the end of the pilot, Angela returns home from a club late at night to find her dad, Graham (Tom Irwin), at the end of their block in a passionate argument with a woman who is not her mom. As she watches them, “Everybody Hurts” drifts in:

When your day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Michael Stipe reportedly wrote the track after hearing about a suicidal fifteen-year-old girl at his sister’s school. Released on the band’s 1992 album Automatic for the People, “Everybody Hurts” appeared that year on the soundtrack for the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I’ve never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” guitarist Peter Buck wrote in the liner notes of their best-of album, In Time, “but the idea that high school is a portal to hell seems pretty realistic to me.” The band chose simple lyrics precisely because they wanted to speak to those students. As Buck told MOJO magazine in 1994, “trying to reach a seventeen-year-old and say, ‘it’s OK—things are tough but they get better’ involved economy and directness.”

Equally economical and direct, though slightly less critically acclaimed, is Enigma’s “Return to Innocence,” which provides the closing soundtrack for MSCL’s twelfth episode, “Self-Esteem.” The German new-age group’s 1993 single is an uplifting slice of electronica that samples—sans permission—an aboriginal chant, which it pairs with basic lyrics that trumpet self-acceptance. The song rises up as Angela, who recently battled a bad zit, watches her mother and sister perform in a fashion show and comes to realize the ubiquity of beauty:

Don’t care what people say
Just follow your own way
Don’t give up and use the chance
To return to innocence

A rather crude reminder of the recurring theme of Angela’s coveted (in various ways) innocence, MSCL’s soundtrack also serves to narrate her sexual awakening. Buffalo Tom’s shoegazing ballad “Late at Night” has such a presence in episode 12 that the Boston band actually materializes in a club scene, the trio serenading Angela’s public confrontation with Jordan (who is himself in a band, appropriately named Frozen Embryos), with whom she has been regularly making out in private in the boiler room. Here the song actually serves as Jordan’s voice:

I, I close my door at night
But she gets in all right
So I turn on the light

Though he attempts to ignore Angela, at the end of the episode, as the song predicts, Jordan finally brings their relationship into the light by grabbing her hand in the school hallway in front of all their friends. Despite Angela’s 1000-watt grin, however, the lyrics imply Jordan is still fumbling:

I, I held her hand too tight
Too hard to make it right
So I could sleep at night

It’s Jordan’s own song, “Red,” that most powerfully highlights their dissonance when Angela mistakes it for a song about her (“Oh my god,” Rickie says, touching a piece of Angela’s hair, “‘Red,’ that’s you”):

I was goin’ nowhere, goin’ nowhere fast
Drownin’ in my memories, livin’ in the past
Everythin’ looked black ‘til I found her
She’s all I need, and that’s what I said

Oh, oh, oh

I call her ‘Red’
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I call her ‘Red’
Yeah, yeah, yeah

She’s my shelter from the storm,
She’s a place to rest my head
Late at night, she keeps me safe and warm

I call her ‘Red’
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I call her ‘Red’

The ballad is in fact about Jordan’s car—Angela, again, “makes everything too complicated” by assuming it’s a metaphor.33Of course, for the viewer, it is a metaphor for Jordan’s masculinity, which Angela is perpetually threatening to undermine. Writer Winnie Holzman says in In My Humble Opinion that she was partly inspired to write the scene because she knew Jared Leto could play the guitar and sing. “I wish now that I’d gone to Jared and said, ‘Let’s write a song,’” she says. “At the time the whole thing was just happening so fast. I think, honestly, I might have been too shy.” In retrospect, she wishes she and Walden had imbued the lyrics with more “violent or dark imagery” in the context of Jordan’s tough upbringing. As it is, the truth is not illuminated for Angela and she continues to believe the song is about her while every other tune riffs off her inability to make her and Jordan happen:

All my life
Is changing every day
In every possible way
And all my dreams
It’s never quite as it seems
Because you’re a dream to me (a dream to me)
- “Dreams,” The Cranberries

Trust in dreams to begin
try to keep it all in sight
And try to work it all out
try if you will, try if they won’t
You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t 
- “Try,” Billy Pilgrim

Because I’ve been dying 
And I’ve been trying 
For ways to get through 
Days to get through 
- “South Carolina,” Archers of Loaf

Dawn can’t decide if there should be more of this porch
She’s sick of being inside, he reads the signs
And now they’re making out in Lancaster, just to pass the time
- “Dawn Can’t Decide,” The Lemonheads

Even the show’s Halloween episode wears its detachment on its mohair sleeve. Angela drifts back in time to meet the Jordan-esque Nicky Driscoll (“Nicky Driscoll is going nowhere, and I’m not going there with him,” his girlfriend says, echoing the lyrics in “Red”). The strains of “Blue Moon” are heard in the distance as Nicky approaches his untimely death, leaving him stuck in the first verse of the 1934 ballad (sung here by Elvis):

Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

It’s a song that could very possibly be a staple of Angela’s CD collection. Billie Holiday released a version of “Blue Moon” in 1952 and Angela tells her dad that she is a fan of the jazz singer, in addition to The Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine and Porno for Pyros. “Her interest in Billie Holiday highlights the melancholy that is a fundamental characteristic of her personality,” writes Kelly Maloy in Dear Angela, “and her familiarity with other bands, which can be vaguely classified as ‘alternative,’ position her in a scene that is as foreign to Graham as [The Grateful Dead] scene is to her.” Music often betrays Graham Chase’s age.44At one point he mocks Angela by saying, “Wild parties, Axl Rose,” at another he asks Danielle why she isn’t going as Madonna for Halloween. “Dad, Madonna peaked,” his youngest daughter responds.

As much as the Dead represents Angela’s alienation from her dad, the jam band godfathers are also an example of how music can bring individuals together. “The Grateful Dead is this thing we totally share,” Rayanne says of her mom, so it’s not that shocking that she is so excited about Angela’s dad giving her his Dead tickets. For Graham, it’s his way of sharing his life with his daughter. For Rayanne, it’s Graham sharing their life with her. And vice versa. Angela is introduced to Rayanne’s world through Animal Bag’s “Everybody,” which she hears in the pilot at the house party her new friend invites her to, while Sharon is invited back into Angela’s entourage through Buffalo Tom (“I am sick of being perfect,” she says, after agreeing to attend the band’s gig). When Angela rejects the Dead, she is not only rejecting her dad, she is rejecting Rayanne too.

In contrast to the doleful indie rock to which Angela gravitates, Rayanne’s musical taste is more frenetic, like she is. Aside from the Dead, she and her mother also share The Ramones. Rayanne chooses to sing “I Wanna Be Sedated” from their 1978 album Road to Ruin—fittingly—for her first, disastrous, performance with Frozen Embryos. Before the gig she stands in front of the mirror with her mom, both of them singing the track which unites them in every way:

Twenty twenty twenty four hours to go
I wanna be sedated
Nothing to do, no where to go,
I wanna be sedated

Just get me to the airport, put me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane
I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brain
Oh no oh oh oh oh
55Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Fall Down” delivers a similar message earlier on in the season in the episode (“Other People’s Mothers”) which leads to Rayanne’s almost-death: "When the good times never stay/And the cheap thrills always seem to fade away/When will we fall?/When will we fall down?"

The music video, released in 1988, actually stars a young Courtney Love—pre-Grunge coronation—and shows The Ramones quietly eating breakfast while a busy array of sped-up excitement unravels around them. “We would be on the road 360 days a year, and we went over to England, and we were there at Christmas time, and in Christmas time, London shuts down. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go,” singer Joey Ramone explained in a video interview. “Here we were in London for the first time in our lives, and me and Dee Dee Ramone were sharing a room in the hotel, and we were watching The Guns of Navarone.” It’s the same itch that leads Rayanne to drink, the same itch that leads to her relapse.66If The Ramones’ album title wasn’t clear enough, the use of Afghan Whigs’ “Fountain and Fairfax” in the background of the gig scene is: "Angel, I'm sober/I got off that stuff/Just like you asked me to/Angel, come closer/So the stink of your lies/Sinks into my memory." Right before, Rayanne slips into a jazzy77The genre itself is a nod to her freneticism—as J.J. Johnson put it in an interview, which appears in Downbeat: The Great Jazz Interviews, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.” rendition of the “Sesame Street” theme tune. She claims she still watches the show every day and the 1969 song captures her inability to find her way to Xanadu:

Sunny Day
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street

Meanwhile, her friend Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) doesn’t need a utopia, he just needs a home. Juliana Hatfield thus composed “Make It Home” for MSCL’s Christmas episode, which is devoted to Rickie’s tetherless lot as a young gay man in the ’90s:

Open a window, let in the snow
Cold is all I know
Go to the fire, stir it around
There’s a warmer place for you to go

According to Cruz, the soft-footed dirge actually inverts the melody of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night.” And when Rickie runs into the arms of Angela’s mom, Patty (Bess Armstrong), at the end of the episode, it’s to the choral group Inner Voices singing “I Feel Like Going Home.” It’s a relief, then, two episodes later when Rickie carves out a space for himself. At their school’s World Happiness Dance, he and the girl who is crushing on him, Delia Fisher, are shuffling their feet on the sidelines to Haddaway’s “What is Love?” After wordlessly agreeing to hit the floor, the two of them begin to move with the crowd. Then World Happiness is actually achieved (if only briefly) as Rickie suddenly chucks all his inhibitions and explodes into his own personal ode to Paris Is Burning:

Oh, I don’t know, what can I do?
What else can I say, it’s up to you
I know we’re one, just me and you
I can’t go on

What is love?

In Dear Angela, Andrew Coomes calls it “possibly Rickie’s most powerful moment in the series.” He and Delia form their own gravitational pull, rearranging their peers into a circle around them, turning all eyes towards them. And at the end of the song, the claps of the crowd embrace Rickie and Delia as they embrace one another. This is love.

Soraya Roberts is a writer in Toronto who has contributed to Harper's, Vanity Fair, The L.A. Review of Books and other publications. She is currently working on a memoir as well as a book about My So-Called Life (ECW, 2016).