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Music Monday: Josh Pfefferman and How Transparent Nails the Music Industry

This Music Monday Henry Oliver and Duncan Greive discuss an underrated element of the phenomenal Transparent: its unnervingly sharp portrayal of LA’s music industry. //

Henry:

Transparent was an interesting show for so many reasons, all of which could/should be discussed at length. There were issues in the show: gender (obvi) and the ‘new’ American family (see also: nearly every recent US sitcom), and issues with how the show was made: the development of new media business models (the Amazonizsation of everything).

But, one of the things that tied the two together was the use of music, both on the show (the amazing and high budget soundtrack) and in the show (the way the characters interact with music and the portrayal of the LA music biz).

Obviously Amazon went to town on this show. Great creative team, great cast, etc. but I was taken back repeatedly by how baller the music choices were. Like, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen AND Neil Young. And not just a little Neil Young, but like five minutes of Neil Young. That shit can’t come cheap. Plus the Gotye/Kimbra cover. It was pretty relentless, and not at all the kind of thing US television shows usually choose to spend their money on.

What did you make of it? 

Duncan:

I thought the show was incredible, for any number of reasons. Took a topic which screamed worthy-but-dull and made it anything but. Literally every character exists on a spectrum between Annoying and Horrifying, while simultaneously remaining a show I have deep, abiding affection for. Took on a whole bunch of subjects that any sane writer should know were going to get them flayed on the internet, and just did it anyway. Brave as hell.

But as you say, one element within the show I have barely seen discussed is the way music exists within it. The stuff you mention is dead on – it’s beautiful not just to look at, but in the way it allows music to breath.

I also found the sliver of the music industry we saw through Josh Pfefferman, the exec/A&R son and brother, fascinating and extremely worthwhile. It rang true too. That band of folky faux-Haim sisters, Glitterish. His lechery-masking-deep-insecurity. The way he realised too late how the power dynamic works in that fantastic breakdown at the record company offices.

I guess what I love about that stuff is that I totally buy it. So often music feels forced into other culture as a way of showing off the author or creator’s interest in it. I’m thinking Rebus or Stefanos’ constantly inserting CDs or tapes (admittedly mostly cool ones) and having a big justify in Ian Rankin or George Pelecanos’ crime novels. Or even parts of the music scene in Nashville. I love that show, and actually feel they nailed the commercial end. But the exec, the manager, and particularly that ludicrous Jack White ‘alt’-dude – they snap me out of the show. Or rather, make it a soapy abstraction.

Josh does the reverse, amping up the plausibility and the pathos of Transparent. 

Henry:

When the pilot came out earlier this year, I thought the likeability of the characters might be an issue for the show. Sure, you don’t need to like the characters to like the show, but usually when you’re meant to like disliking someone, the show makes its intention super clear. And I felt that with all the characters except Josh.

I couldn’t help but dislike him even more than the show was telling me to. He just rang too true. Like when characters are dressed in clothes that are fashionable enough to be fashion but a year or so out of date, and then you click ‘Oh no, he’s supposed to care about clothes but be a little behind the times’. That was Josh’s whole character. And his music biz-ness had a lot to do with it.

I thought about Nashville too. I like the music biz aspect of Nashville largely because I know very little about how that world works, but I’m intrigued by it as one of the last big industry-lead (as opposed to fan-lead) corners of the music world. From the outside it seems like the Nashville machine is still this Hollywood-studio style system where the performers are subject to the will of the machine much more than pop music. Like in Nashville, stars are anointed from above and radio play and industry awards matter much more than pop, where a soul singer from Tottenham can sell millions more records than a Disney star.

Josh seems to perfectly encapsulate that world. He thinks he’s this talentspotting genius, but really he’s just a dude with expensive sneakers ‘teaching’ good looking girls about ‘good music’. And that seems true to a part of the music industry right now. It’s harder than ever to tell people what to buy and harder still to know what they will. But there are a bunch of dudes like Josh who still think they know.

Duncan:

Exactly. Josh’s career is almost an aside for the show – one facet of a relatively minor character – but it’s so deadly accurate that it seems to add authenticity to all the many areas (trans culture, liberal Jewish American life, LA bohemianism) about which I know nothing, or only what I’ve experienced through other media.

I feel like his relationship with the band was incredibly well-observed and weirdly poignant too. Obviously at some point he’d been kingmaker, wandering into their lives with his status and the dreams-fulfilled he embodied. And he’d sleazily exploited that by sleeping with one of them, and then convinced himself he was in love as a way of providing a fig leaf of decency for his behaviour.

We catch them as the dynamic shifts, their ascent has its own momentum and his role changes from that of facilitator to something like an encumbrance, or at least an unpleasant reminder of their past situation.

When he realises that and the desperation starts seeping out of his every pore, visible in his every action, it’s such a pitiful scenario. That scene out back of her place, where he’d never ventured and which symbolised his indifference to her as anything other than a status symbol or lifestyle accessory – that seemed so potent. Not only for the pop music industry’s ruthlessness and binary success/failure dialectic, but how relationships more generally can go alter so swiftly. To your fashion point before – like a favourite pair of jeans you wear to death until suddenly you can’t stand the sight of them.

Can you think of any other on-screen depiction of ‘the industry’ – on film or television – which has been so well realised, and functioned so elegantly? 

Henry:

Umm… Nashville, the Altman movie? Again, that’s separate a little bit. But nothing recent. It’s been difficult for Hollywood to fictionalise. I love TV shows and movies set in the entrainment industry, and both film and TV have done a great job of portraying themselves (or the other) in varying degrees of seriousness (favs include: Network, 30 Rock, Barton Fink, The Larry Sanders Show). But I can’t think of the same for music.

I have to add that I quite like the fictional band, Glitterish. Earlier this year I really liked this song by Cherry Glazerr whose singer/songwriter is the younger sister. In S01E03, when Josh visits the band rehersal that doesn’t include Kaya, they’re playing this song:

I’m assuming that’s not supposed to be the full band Glitterish, because Josh doesn’t expect to find her there. The duet was fine, but the show hints that it wasn’t their usual sound. I could have done with a full Glitterish performance TBH.

Duncan:

Big time. They’re a surefire contender for inclusion on a forthcoming list of ‘great plausible TV bands’. But that’s another post entirely…

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