The Specials – Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

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Operation Ivy / Dexys Midnight Runners / Elvis Costello

The start of the Fall TV season is, allegedly, upon us this week. I say allegedly because I’m working off hype and hearsay. A new TV season is a lot like the start of a sports season for me: mostly immaterial to my interests. TV tends to be something I put on and have on the background. I love things like Food Network for this, because it literally does not matter if I’m watching or not—it’s not like I’m missing anything. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of shows I have watched in my life, and many that I love what I’ve seen, even if I never make time specifically to catch them. It’s just not how I operate. I couldn’t even wake up at 6am to see Thundercats as a child, so I’m not sure why I’m going to take time out of a busy night, no matter how funny Parks and Recreation might be.

The last show that made me want to sit down and make time for it from the start was House. My family and I loved Hugh Laurie in his British comedic roles, so we were interested to see him tackle an American drama. Much can be said about the show’s formula, of course: saving the world at the 8:52 mark every week, a treatment failing before every commercial, yadda yadda. It’s amusing, because every show has its own formula and rhythms. If you watch TV for something different in that regard, you’re going to be very disappointed. The things that make TV worth watching are the elements that surround the formulae. For House, it was the dialogue and the character interaction. Dr. House himself, the cynical wise-ass genius with a chronic limp, was a character I couldn’t help but identify with, even as he did things far beyond my own capacity for assholery. Sure, there was a formula, but after a while, who was watching for the “medical mystery?”

How does this relate to music? For starters, House was my introduction to the now passé practice of ending every episode with a generic downtrodden folksy song. It also made me give Massive Attack a second chance, vis-a-vis the main title theme. Laurie himself also plays guitar and piano, and these elements were incorporated into his character. Some of the show’s best bits had a musical reference to them. In this instance, however, it’s all about manipulating a song to completely change the feeling, and how that new feeling interacts with the episode.

“Enjoy Yourself” is a ska staple taken from a jazz-era standard. The genre makes it almost impossible not to take the title to heart: the staccato chords, strummed on the off beats, the bursts of horns… it’s easy to see how this translated from the equally joyous big bands that make up most early versions. Listening to the song, one grasps the meaning: “Life is short, so have fun!” So what? Well, take the same song, same melody, same words, but spin it a bit. Put it in a smoky jazz context, slow it down, have a vocalist take that iconic chorus and twist it hauntingly around the microphone. The context immediately changes, doesn’t it? It’s no longer about the enjoyment of life, but about our borrowed time. In most renditions, the song focuses on that titular theme. When House used it first, toward the end of Season 5, the writers made it clear they were emphasizing the second part of the thought: It’s later than you think. In the context of the episode, sung basically a cappella over that classic “ambient tension drone” that TV shows so love to use, it was clearer still. Following that particular storyline of House descending into madness made it crystalline. And having been following along since being punched in the gut at the end of the fourth season, I cannot listen to the song in any form without having the air knocked out of me again. Art is like that: it becomes more potent the more layers you pack onto it. When the right song shows up at the right time in film or TV, hours of backstory can flood straight into it, distilled into an image that will keep cropping up to give you that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It is entirely worth watching two seasons of a medical drama just to see how it all falls into place.

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Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

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