Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Music of "Entourage"

"I put in work and watch my status escalate,” rapper Guru, the vocal half of Gang Starr, proclaims as Vince and the boys walk in to a Bentley showroom in the first season of HBO’s wildly successful comedy Entourage (Episode 2, “The Review”). Of course, Guru had no intention of summarizing in 1998 the premise of a television show that didn’t premiere until 2004. The producers—or editors or sound engineers or whoever gets the enviable job of choosing a television show’s soundtrack—however, have their ears on the pulse of the music scene. They also have a time machine, because they have a knack for finding songs from various eras. By not limiting themselves to whatever the top 10 charts say that month, they can find whatever sound fits the scene best.

That’s not to say Entourage doesn’t date itself. Years from now, when our children look through and watch our DVD collection from the ‘00s, they will laugh when they hear both “Hey Ya!” by OutKast and “Cold Hard Bitch” by Jet in the pilot episode. They will also cringe when they hear “Ms. New Booty” is Turtle’s ringtone (“Crash and Burn”). In order to keep the show current and hip, the soundtrack needs to have some of those regrettable track choices.

Entourage, since its inception, has always had a strong relationship to music. Unlike a more serious show in which the entire score is orchestrated and rehearsed and arranged and composed, Entourage is more like a Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof comes to mind) movie in that most, if not all, the music comes from prerecorded pop songs. This gives a facet to the show that further engages the music nerds in the audience. I remember watching my first episode of Entourage in the summer of 2006 and feeling very proud for recognizing Jane’s Addiction as the performers of the theme song. I’ve also been known to send my friends very excited texts saying things like, “Holy balls, The Cool Kids just came on Entourage!” Not only does it make me feel cool to recognize a little-known group on a big-name show, but it also makes the show look very “with-it” to include something like that. Street cred all around!

Entourage, beyond using music well, has been a unique source for new music. In season three, Turtle became the manager for an up-and-coming rapper, Saigon. Saigon is an actual rapper who got a gig on Entourage to play a fictionalized version of himself, illustrating how his manager helps him become popular. Unfortunately, even after being on the show and putting his raps in the soundtrack, Saigon is still a relative unknown and it appears as though his fifteen minutes are over. He did prove, however, as Turtle explains to Ari, “All rappers act!”

Saigon isn’t the only rapper to have a debut on Entourage. Before Episode 53, “No Cannes Do,” America had not heard the song “Good Life (feat. T-Pain)” by Kanye West. To promote the album “Graduation,” Mr. West made a cameo. Thanks to him, and his superior thoughtfulness and success, the boys can go to the Cannes Film Festival on ‘Ye’s private jet; apparently he and Turtle are close friends. However, debuting “Good Life” on Entourage was a smart move; the show becomes an important player in pop culture, and Kanye caters to a target market.

In addition, HBO’s website offers an episode-by-episode breakdown of the songs used and in which part of the episode. If you hear a track you like, you can jump on your laptop and see that the song played during the end credits of Episode 74 (“The Sorkin Notes”) was Yeasayer’s “Sunrise,” another musical sighting (hearing? listening?) that triggered one of my blast texts.

Which brings us to the end credits. In any motion picture, from TV commercials to feature films, the music in the background tells the audience how to feel about what’s happening on screen. The score sets the tone. Think about it: would Up have made you cry without sad orchestration in the background? The music adds another emotional dimension, and nowhere is this truer than in Entourage. Every episode, almost without exception, ends on only a handful of feelings: happy and auspicious, dubious or doubtful, or completely dejected. Usually, the characters will say something that illustrates this emotion, there will be a short pause while the characters look at each other, and then a corresponding song will play over the entirety of the final credits. It’s an excellent formula, because no matter how you feel, it makes you want to watch next week. If you’re happy, you want to keep that going. If you’re worried about Vince’s next career move, or how he and E are getting along, then you want to keep watching next week to see if things get better. All these thoughts are set to a song that tells you how to feel. For example, when we learn that Vince may not get to act in “Smokejumpers” because Ed Norton has the lead and the project is fronted by a man who hates him, we’re a little bummed (“Fire Sale”). But then we’re totally skeptical when Cold War Kids’s “Something Is Not Right With Me” comes on and we hear singing that’s just off-key enough to be off-putting, rather than grating.

Season 6, the most recent iteration, has continued the show’s tradition of excellent music, crossing boundaries of genre, chronology, and obscurity. Some artists included this year: Eazy-E, The Cure, The Verve, Santigold, LL Cool J, The Buzzcocks, Paul McCartney, Van Halen, Three Dog Night, NWA, Testo, Vi, Yeasayer, Cut Chemist, Aqua, Pop Levi, Marvin Gaye, Andre Allen Anjos, The Stooges, and, of course, Michael Jackson. Admittedly, there are some obscure names on this list, and there are people who I’ve honestly never heard of before. However, even those little-known artists are talented. I’m not sure if I’ve consciously said to myself this season “Damn, that scene was cool, but that song sucked!” That only happened when Gnarls Barkley’s dismal cover of The Violent Femmes’s “Gone Daddy Gone” came up during season 3 (“Vegas Baby, Vegas!”).

Unfortunately, if you were to go on Amazon and find the CD soundtrack for Entourage, you’d be disappointed. Because of the nature of ongoing TV series, the official soundtrack for the show is lacking. Only 14 tracks long, HBO released the disc in 2007, so it’s already several seasons behind. The show’s songbook is too vast to be released on a compilation CD. To truly nerd out and appreciate the show’s repertoire, even a casual viewer will need the DVDs and an Internet connection, perhaps with a bookmark to Wikipedia.

Entourage is not the kind of show to jump the shark or start declining in quality as it gets older. This is partly because of HBO: being a premium network, it can afford to cancel shows that are still going strong, such as Rome. The feeling is that more important than keeping a show running is making sure it stays a quality show. However, Entourage is also too tight a show to slip, and it is too broad in scope. The characters are well rounded, the show is exceptionally well-written, and there will never be a dearth of things for our five main characters to do in the heart of Hollywood and the movie industry, which is itself vast enough to fuel a series such as Entourage. Not only will the show continue to be great television, but its soundtrack will never be exhausted. Music, new and old, mainstream and indie, will continue to “put in work” for Entourage, always creating another level to the narrative of the lives of Vince and the boys.

- Adam Lauria

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