This Music Monday, Alex Casey finds beauty in the horror of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s bizarre musical numbers. //
If there is one thing that Glee, Nip/Tuck and Popular have taught us, it’s that producer/writer/director Ryan Murphy loves a good pop soundtrack. If he can integrate that soundtrack into the diegetic world of his TV show, even better. If he can actually get the characters themselves to SING the soundtrack – voila. That, ladies and gentleman, is how sparkly tap dancing Glee babies are made.
American Horror Story: Freak Show is the perfect example of the Murph’s musical stylings. I must confess that I have stopped watching the show (I think things went a little downhill around the introduction of the three-breasted woman), but I remain impressed by the show’s peculiar, ephemeral musical numbers. By no means a musical show on paper, American Horror Story: Freak Show is an unnerving horror-drama that has integrated Glee-style techniques. It sounds like a train wreck of an idea, but this directorial choice actually became essential in aiding the surreal ambience of the show, and fleshing out the diverse range of unusual characters.
You could almost say *puts sunglasses on* the show became a stylistic freak show in itself.
Seeing the various freak show members (it’s fine to call them that, right?) perform onstage turns AHS into a dreamlike backstage musical which works to tell their darker backstories long after the dusty curtain has dropped. To see the characters in “performance” changes the mode of address for the audience dramatically – we are reminded that they are the outsiders, and we are the privileged observers. It’s an uncomfortable but necessary shift (almost as unsettling as when Twisty the Clown takes his mask off) that powerfully enhances the themes of exploitation, marginalisation and subsequent empowerment.
For example, the performance of Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ is an essential part of conjoined twins Bette and Dot’s story. Forced to stay in the Freak Show world through their own misdemeanours on the outside, the carnival has become a place of sanctuary. You could interpret the lyrics of the song pretty literally – they were indeed bad, bad girls that time they casually stabbed their own Mum.
What the song does, more importantly, is work to further (metaphorically, of course) separate them. One of the incredible feats of AHS is it’s skilful ability to differentiate between these two, despite their digital fusion and identical faces. The meek Dot excels, taking the lead from the previously dominant Bette. She throws seductive glances at Jimmy Darling, finally coming into her own in a world she resisted for so long. Backstage, jealous owner Elsa Mars steams away at their talent – plotting to get the spotlight back A.S.A.P. The performance tells you more about these characters than 2 mins of dialogue ever could.
The character of Elsa Mars (played by the recurring and inimitable Jessica Lange) in particular, is a crucial part of the AHS musical numbers. The owner of the carnival, she comes from a tortured past and has long held on to unfulfilled dreams of fame and fortune. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it – but she certainly hasn’t had a leg up in the entertainment industry. Always gunning to be the headline act, she embraces her musical numbers as her one opportunity in the spotlight, a chance to shine despite the dark shadows of her past (and her bloody present, for that matter). Her rendition of ‘Life on Mars’ is a rowsing showcase of her talent but, as always, is underpinned with the major blues (and I’m not just talking about her eyeshadow).
As we learn more about Elsa, her performances become more and more layered in irony. The Lana Del Rey cover below shows her delusional superiority complex over the rest of the freak show members as she sings “in the land of gods and monsters, I was angel.” Those in the know will know she is far closer to the “monsters” than any damn angel. If anything, Meep is the angel. God bless you Meep.
If you look at his back catalogue, it’s no surprise that Ryan Murphy is able to pull these stylistic antics off effectively. He’s known for pushing the boundaries of representation in terms of gender, sex, age and ‘otherness’ onscreen. In a way, it makes perfect sense for his final subversion to be of genre itself.