Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene. View all
Tom Waits – Way Down In The Hole
If you've never seen The Wire, I promise there will be no spoilers here. Every episode begins by going right into the action with a short minute or two vignette that's usually comical or sets you intensely into the plot. This opening section also functions to make a general statement about the nature of particular characters, or generalizations about American culture, the city of Baltimore, or its the social, civic, and political components. After this, the opening theme fades in and the credits begin. The opening song to every season is a different rendition of Tom Waits' "Way Down In The Hole" (except for Season 2, when it's actually Waits) and it's set over a quick cut montage of scenes from the season, and all seasons prior.
I can't even express how perfect of a choice "Way Down In The Hole" was. It's biblical imagery and insistence on fighting temptation and the workings of the devil allude to the all of the character's personal struggles with morality and the chaos of the city surrounding them. I feel like it would have been easy to choose a popular rap song as an opener, but Waits' snarl and viciousness on this track go a long way towards immersing you in The Wire's world.
For me, the city of Baltimore is ultimately the main character of the show, and every plot line, character, and scene is in service of defining the city. This idea became solidified for me after seeing the opening vignette from the first episode of the third season (no spoilers here so watch and see for yourself). With that in mind, I agree completely with Kyle in regards to the songs temptation theme. Baltimore is a city rich with diversity, a flourishing arts community, resilient citizens, and nostalgia. However, it is also a city that struggles with violent crime, drugs, a dwindling middle class, and a declining economic and residential population. In this environment, temptation is the perfect word for it.
Moreover, one of the most brilliant aspects of the show is the strength of its writing, and its ability to show how both sides of the dime – cops, drug dealers, murderers, politicians, union reps, journalists, students and teachers – all play the same game if they want to get ahead in their lives and careers. Everyone is subject to red tape, and everyone has to serve somebody sometime. The lyrical content of Way down in the Hole perfectly expresses this paradox, and juxtaposes the idea of good versus evil to typify the city every episode.
Blake Leyh – The Fall
Now, as great as the opening track is, the instrumental original composition by The Wire's music supervisor Blake Leyh that ends every episode may be even more important. Again, if you haven't seen The Wire, each episode ends with an iconic shot that is never really a cliffhanger, but always leaves you without a sense of closure. The screen then fades to black as the music, entitled "The Fall" begins. It's an organically electronic track filled with various noises and strings. The impact of the composition is in the song's ambience. It sounds dark and foreboding and often echoes like it exists in a cave. Furthermore, it's various instruments prod at all the emotional peaks you've just experienced watching the show.
Baltimore can be a humbling town to live in. It only takes one block to change the idea of safe or unsafe, and you never need to look too far or hard to see someone who struggles with addiction, poverty, or hunger. Within one block of Baltimore's cultural distract you can find a strip club, a soup kitchen, a bail bondsmen, and a penitentiary. From this block you're also only a stones throw from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Peabody Music Conservatory, the Walters Art Museum, and the Maryland Institute College of the Arts; juxtaposition indeed.
The idea that every episode ends without closure is perfectly accurate. It's an honest ending at each episode and one the reinforces The Wire's primary lesson – every character is an archetype, and each arechtype is fulfilled again with the passing of generations. The struggles and triumphs of the city are cyclical in nature and these character archetypes will continue on with a new face as soon as the previous one falls. As such, the closing composition, The Fall, is an impeccable choice for expressing this. Its melancholic nature and quiet confidence captures the mood of the city, while the combination of strings alongside electronic instruments further reinforces the idea that Baltimore is a town of mixed emotional content.
These two songs are classic examples of the ability of music to enhance and amplify the visual product of television. Plus, they're both just really cool songs. You dig?