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RNCM Research Forum – Professor Nicholas Reyland

“Let’s hope the hear this”: boxset TV, ostentatious scoring, and screen music’s mastery of puppets

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“Let’s hope they hear this” mutters Dustin in the final episode of Stranger Things 4 (Netflix 2022), plugging in the guitar lead that allows Eddie to perform Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986) in the terrifying realm of the Upside Down. Dustin is concerned that a cauldron of bats won’t hear the guitar and be diverted away from the Big Bad they are guarding. Yet Dustin needn’t have worried. Despite the founding text of modern screen music studies being called Unheard Melodies (Gorbman), there is little chance that audiences, supernatural or subscription-based, will fail to the hear the Metallica. Epitomizing the confluence of commercial and creative innovation in the era of ‘TV plenty’ (Ellis), TV soundtracks from the late 1990s to the present have turned many conventions of screen music… well, upside down. The ‘Master of Puppets’ moment and even more central narrative role of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ (1985) in Stranger Things 4, for example, seem to invert the demand of earlier eras of TV scoring for functional yet unobtrusive (i.e., unheard or unnoticed) music. The Stranger Things scenes, moreover, are just a handful of the hundreds of ostentatious musical moments in recent television that demand to be noticed, and thus theorized and critiqued, for their contribution to the must-hear allure of “complex” (Mittell) or “high-end” (Dunleavy) TV. The critical question of audibility, for instance, is not trivial. Do shows like Stranger Things and the active audience behaviours inspired by their soundtracks banish the notion of subjugated audience criticality at the heart of Claudia Gorbman’s classic study, with its focus on music’s ideological puppeteering of thoughts and subjectivities? Or do the defining traits of peak TV scoring help to transpose those functions to a different realm in some of the most culturally and commercially significant popular artworks of the early twenty-first century?

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