Pop CultureMay 31, 2016

God defend our free land: A patriotic celebration of Kiwi music in international TV shows


As we come to the end of NZ Music Month, Joanna McLeod remembers the most iconic times that NZ music weaseled its way onto international prime time television. 

The year was 1994. It was stinking hot, because of course it was. May in Tokyo was sweaty, and the American School I attended didn’t have air conditioning. We were restless eighth graders, so close to graduation, anticipating three months of holidays – spent back where we came from, instead of this crazy city. Teachers accepted that our minds were elsewhere, and TVs on trolleys made more frequent visits to classrooms.

Sometimes what we watched loosely tied into lesson plans; but at other times, it was actual video tapes sent in the actual mail (rather than the “my aunt sent it to me on VHS” euphemism used for torrenting these days) from their friends back in the States.

One of those videos was the brand new Stephen King miniseries The Stand. It caught my attention straight away because, according to CNN at the time, this was supposed to be Molly Ringwald’s big comeback. But something else in episode two grabbed me even more.

As one by one characters died off from a mysterious plague and the power went out, Molly’s Ringwald’s character found a record player that ran on batteries, and an “old” record to play along with it. Instantly familiar were the guitar chords that came out of it, and the lines in an accent similar to mine.

There is freedom within, there is freedom without… try to catch the deluge in a paper cup

The song shifted from the crackle of a record player to the soundtrack of a montage of empty streets, abandoned shopping carts, bodies and a teddy bear washing up on a shore alone.

I haven’t seen that clip in 22 years until I found it while writing this, but it always stuck with me. It had the power of something I knew so well, a song that was part of my heritage, juxtaposed over something new and terrifying (though now I see all the cinematic cliches in the mix). I remember sitting in that classroom beaming with pride, like “THAT’S ME! THIS SONG IS FROM NEW ZEALAND! See, I’m cool and not just someone you think fucks sheep!” Like many deeply personal moments, no one actually cared.

If you think of NZ music on television, you will naturally think of the timeless classic ‘Tonight’ from Popstars, and how little old New Zealand basically invented reality television competitions.

But there’s much more to it than that. For as long as I can remember, and probably before that too, New Zealand’s musicians have been making money providing the soundtrack to pivotal moments in the lives of fictional characters. Urban legend has it that Andrew Brough of Bike bought a house with royalty payments from all the times ‘Save My Life’ was played in the Bayside Diner on Home and Away.  

I tried to confirm that legend by speaking to someone from Mushroom Publishing New Zealand, but in a move that would surprise no one familiar with the music industry, they had closed down. My email question about whether a jukebox in Summer Bay could pay for a house ended up with Josephine Choimes of the Mushroom Group in Australia instead.

Umm – depends! With a show like Home and Away that is played over the world and maybe repeated a lot – then maybe, yes! The licensing fees themselves, especially in this territory, are not huge”

But some New Zealand music artists must be making money off their music. A quick google shows that Lorde’s ‘Royals’ has been played in at least half a dozen shows including The Vampire Diaries and Revenge.

It makes sense in Suburgatory for quirky alternative student Tessa Altman to strut down the school corridor in slow mo to that anthem for disaffected youth. It’s quite another thing, though, to use it when Liz Hurley is flouncing around fake Buckingham Palace as the fake Queen of England on E’s first scripted drama The Royals.

There’s tongue in cheek, and then there’s tongue so firmly lodged in cheek that it’s coming out your nostrils.

Speaking of cheeky, not only are the bloody Aussies pinching our political history using the title The Hollowmen for a TV show, they also went and used an instrumental version of The Bats’ ‘North By Northwest’ for the credits. It’s a shame the lyrics got missed out, because I think they’re a perfect summation of working in politics and/or dealing with the public in general:

“Some people are happy most of the time
But they don’t know they’re in line
I don’t know what to do with you
I don’t know how to deal with you”

Thieving Aussies aside (I kid, I kid, I’m sure it’s all above board), of course it’s beneficial for NZ artists to have their songs appear on television shows. It’s not just for the royalties but also for the exposure. Remember Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’? You couldn’t get away from it for a year or so after it was used to great effect on Grey’s Anatomy (because who wouldn’t want to be reminded of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s grin? Damn son). So when Nelson/Wellington band Minuit had a song on the show, it was all over the local media.

I asked Josephine at Mushroom how songs get chosen.

“We deal a lot with music supervisors (as well as productions companies). They come to us with specific briefs. They also receive monthly samplers and albums updates from us – and they might have chosen something for that. Or yes, they might just love a particular song for a scene.”

Case in point: in season four of Gossip Girl, Blair Waldorf is promoted from intern to writer of a column at W magazine, handed five different cellphones, and told to expect a call from Milan at 5am. It wasn’t enough to have narrator Kristen Bell state that sometimes having your dreams come true can feel like a nightmare. Oh no.

The producers needed a tune to capture the feeling of being young and feeling invincible, something that was so very now. ‘Young Blood’ by the Naked & Famous, flavour of the month in 2011, was the perfect choice.

Elsewhere, when the New Girl crew took a trip to the desert and were treated to Nick Miller’s mixtape, producers needed to demonstrate how very uncool Nick was. They chose a string of one hit wonders, sandwiching OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’ in between ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and the Crash Test Dummies. They couldn’t have made better choices for a man whose life peaked in 1994.

Basically, we’re a wee little nation down the bottom of the world. Sometimes it’s nice when other people pay attention to us. These are of course just a handful of examples. I’ll leave you with the irony of using Broods, who were fêted by some as the heir-apparent to Lorde’s crown, on Reign – a TV show about a woman who’ll never actually become queen (no shade!).  

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