One of the most crucial ingredients to any great TV show or film is a sensational soundtrack. Why? It isn’t just about the important part it plays in defining the mood, it isn’t even purely about the depth it adds to the plot twists. There is so much dimension in the effect music has on TV. I’m not talking about the quiet background music that shifts with each intended change of tone, but instead the songs on the soundtrack that are incorporated into certain emotionally driven scenes. While there is no denying that a solid score adds a critical, underlying layer to a scene, it is the songs on the soundtrack that produce a memorable effect. The songs work to create a lasting sense of connection between the audience and the characters of the show. When we listen to the soundtrack of our favorite shows, we can’t help but recall the specific emotions the scenes evoked.

Soundtracks have been prominently used in film since its origins. The Graduate proved to be one of the most memorable movies of the 1960’s as it featured a hot mix of new songs by the popular folk duo Simon and Garfunkel. But when we consider great songs on TV, it raises the question: which show started the musical trend? Well, while there were certainly shows that incorporated music such as Dawson’s Creek (1998) or Beverly Hills 90210 (1990), the cheesy, contemporary tracks never made a significant impact. I argue that it all started in the emo-hipster days of the early 2000’s on everyone’s favorite California based teen drama- The O.C.

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As the show is a little outdated in this modern era, I’ll briefly explain the show’s premise for those who are unfamiliar: The O.C is an American teen drama that played on the Fox network from 2003 to 2007. As a classic culture clash narrative, the show follows Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie), an impoverished teen from Chino, as he adapts to a new life in well-to-do Newport Beach after the lawyer supporting his case, Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), takes him into his family’s home. The pop-culture phenomenon differed from the teen dramas which preceded it as the musical soundtrack served as an instrumental element that worked to introduce cool, underground artists. The show jumpstarted the careers of such bands as The Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, and Modest Mouse.

According to an interview between the show’s creator Josh Schwartz, and journalist Alan Sepinwall featured on, The O.C was made to feature awesome music. Apparently, Schwartz wanted music to be a character in itself on the show, and even wrote a few scenes around songs he wanted to use, such as a scripted cover of Champagne Supernova by little known artist Matt Pond. The creator reveals that “the first six or seven episodes was really literally stuff off of my iPod”. Though, Schwartz isn’t warranted complete credit for the show’s innovative tunes. Legendary music producer Alex Patsavas is responsible for most of the music featured on the show, and did the hard work of discovering talent, selecting songs, editing mixes, and incorporating specific songs into particular scenes. The job of a music producer also entails approaching bands and solo artists about recording covers, acquiring licensing permission, and eventually paying out record labels, songwriters and publishers. Her hard work paid off as the end product proved to be pure magic. Patsavas went on to produce incredible music for other great shows such as Gossip Girl (2007) (also created by Josh Schwartz) and Grey’s Anatomy (2005).

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Patsavas in the middle, Schwartz on the right

While the premise of The O.C originally centers around Ryan Atwood, it is Seth Cohen’s (Adam Brody) nerdy charm that ends up stealing the show and setting up the scene for the indie tunes that are featured. The producers made a bold move in deciding to make indie rock (an up and coming genre of music in the early 2000’s) the main focus of the series. The choice in underground musical style matched the outsider nature of Cohen’s character, as well as the laid back beach vibe of the location. Seth Cohen’s room is plastered with posters of his favorite bands like Rooney and Death Cab For Cutie. He also often physically plays the music, such as in a scene where Seth starts a cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall by underground artist Ryan Adams on his record player to dance with his childhood crush, Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) (Could he be any more of a hipster?). The song then streams over into the next scene, where the music plays behind an argument between Ryan and Marissa Cooper (Ryan’s girlfriend, played by Micha Barton), which serves as a prime example of the smooth incorporation of music on the show.

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The Heartbreak (S01E19). Seth and Summer dance to the record
player.  Wonderwall -Ryan Adams

The early 2000’s marked a time of serious change in the music industry, as people were beginning to get all of their music online rather than through traditional CD and record shops. Richard Lawson, a film and TV critic from Vanity Fair, says on the Showstopper podcast that The O.C worked as a “bridge between an older distribution and newer one,” referring to the fact that people could discover new songs and artists without the internet. By the second season, the show incorporated a live music venue called The Bait Shop to introduce and promote local artists, and other up and coming alternative indie-rock bands such as The Killers and Modest Mouse.

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The New Era (S02E04). The Killers perform at the Bait Shop.  

Jimmy Tamborello, producer of The Postal Service, argues that the only reason the show sought to use underground, indie artists was to pay significantly cheaper pricing. While it is true that a single song by an established artist could cost up to $30,000, I do believe there was further strategizing in using such songs. Their method actually worked to create a cycle of benefit between the producers, the artists, and the audience. The show was able to use great, scene-enhancing music for cheap, all while supporting local bands by broadcasting their music to a massive audience, while still paying them more than they would have gotten paid during a tour. All the while, the show’s music benefited the audience by introducing a hip, new style of music.  After Rooney was featured on the show as one of Seth’s favorite bands, their sales went up by 200%. Youth Group’s cover of Forever Young received over 5,000 downloads on iTunes. California by Phantom Planet, the theme song featured during the opening credits, became an instant classic, and other bands such as The Killers and Death Cab For Cutie skyrocketed into successful careers after their live shows were featured during scenes at The Bait Shop.

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The Dearly Beloved (S02E24). Dramatic season 2 finale, when Marissa is forced to shoot Ryan’s brother, Trey. Hide and Seek -Imogen Heap 

Patsavas describes it as a method of balancing storytelling with marketing. Indie-rock played a crucial role on the show from the start as it worked well for Seth Cohen’s nerdy character to like outsider music. Schwartz always intended to incorporate his own unique taste into the complicated lives of the teens of Newport Beach. This means that the use of indie-rock went beyond the pricing, as it was always the intentions of the producers to introduce a kind of hipster culture.

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 The Rainy Day Women (S02E14). Summer shows Seth that she chose him over Zach. Champagne Supernova  -Matt Pond. 

Producers of The O.C were not “too cheap” to use big name artists, and big name artists were not opposed to using the huge success of the show to promote their work. Patsavas was able to get the rights to the Paul McCartney song “Maybe I’m Amazed,” for a cover by lesser known artist, Jem. One of the greatest scenes from season 2 featured “Fix You” by Coldplay, which worked to promote the British band’s latest album. This scene in particular demonstrates the way the show utilized perfectly fitting songs. The scene begins with Seth running on stage to his girlfriend Summer’s rescue, while she’s awkwardly standing alone and sad as a prom queen without a king. When his silly but sweet speech wraps up, the piano of Coldplay’s song slowly slides in over the background score in a smooth transition. The camera then moves to Marissa, who’s face quickly switches from a smile to a solemn glare when she realizes that she is alone at prom. The moment she decides to leave she finds that Ryan has come to her rescue when she sees him waiting outside for her. The song then serves a third purpose when Julie (Marissa’s mom played by Melinda Clarke) has to jump in a pool to save the life of her estranged husband who has just fallen in due to a heart attack. The song comes to an end with Sandy asking his wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), “what are we going to do about you?” referring to her alcoholism. “Fix you” then becomes the theme of the four intertwined moments of rescue, where one character has to “fix” or help the other. This is a solid example of the strikingly genius way The O.C used music on the show.

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The O. Sea (S02E23). Prom scene. Fix You -Coldplay

All in all, The O.C proved to be an innovative show of its time, as it introduced an entire nerdy, hipster culture, mixed underground music with pop, and revolutionized the use of music on television. If it weren’t for The O.C, we not have other shows with great music such as Gossip Girl (2007), Grey’s Anatomy (2005), The Vampire Diaries (2009), HBO’s Girls (2012), and much more. If you aren’t interested in watching the outdated show for its cheesy narrative, then I advise anyone to tune in for its genius use of music .



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