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Ode to Gilmore Girls: Behind the Musicality of TV's Beloved Show

Ode to Gilmore Girls: Behind the Musicality of TV

Hep Alien. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Television.

As a smart-talking, endearingly-pretentious, pop-culture reference machine, Gilmore Girls has always taken its music very seriously. You are what you listen to -- especially when it comes to Lane Kim, who best encapsulates the ‘audiophile' mentality of the show, acting as a mouthpiece for the Gilmore writers/producers who aren't shy about separating the real deals from the poseurs.

By Ada Tseng

LANE: [On phone] "No, wait, wait, wait. Progressive rock is a really passé style now, but I listed it as an influence because it was a progenitor of great things that came afterwards. I mean, I contend that you can draw a straight line from Yes to Jethro Tull to the Jam to Nirvana, bing bang boom… [pauses]. Who are the Jam? That's disturbing."

Lane Kim (played by Keiko Agena) -- lead character Rory Gilmore's best friend -- is obsessed with music. Snap judgments made on the account of less-than-stellar musical taste, while a habit of many of the inhabitants of the Gilmore world, is taken to extremes when you're dealing with Lane. She lives for music; she breathes music; she regularly orchestrates intricate, elaborate schemes, mobilizing friends and fellow townspeople to implement her strategic secretive missions, in order to get her hands on new music that her mother forbids her to listen to.

Music has had many different functions in Gilmore Girls. Plot-wise, the show has, on many occasions, made use of music's deep-seeded powers to explain motivations and drive a story forward in ways that words and actions might fall short.

It can act as a catalyst to unlikely friendships. When Lorelei encouraged Rory to invite her Chilton classmates to a Bangles concert, it was the first step to smoothing over animosities, and it allowed Rory and former nemesis Paris Gellar to forge a lasting connection of loyalty and trust.

It can symbolize inherent incompatibilities. When Lorelei rejects Christopher's marriage proposal, she argues that he cannot possibly be ready for marriage, because The Offspring is his favorite band. "The Offspring have, like, one chord progression. They use it over and over. They just popped on new words, called it a single and… I don't want to talk about this anymore!" The lesson here is this: "Metallica" (one of Lorelei's favorite bands) and "The Offspring" can never be on the same level.

It can separate the mundane from the exquisite. When Lane puts up an ad to form a band, she must sort through the idiots who don't know that Kim Deal was in the Pixies before the Breeders, or that Jackson Browne actually wrote some of Nico's best songs, and ultimately finds a male counterpart that is just as intense as she is. And sparks fly.

But in Lane's case, it's more than that. Music is her dream. In season two, Lane passes by a music shop and feels a magnetic pull to go in. Moments after laying eyes on the shiny red drum set, she begs the store-owner, guest star Carole King, to give her drum lessons, and it's a turning point that changes her life forever: "I have found my calling… My future, my path, my destiny, my thing, my scene, my bag. I'm talking about the number one item on my cosmic to-do list…. I am Keith Moon, I am Neil Peart, I am Rick Allen, with and without the arm, because I am rock ‘n roll, baby!"

The fact that music is such an integral part of Gilmore Girls reflects the seriousness in which the Gilmore team – especially wife-husband executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino -- takes their music choices in reality.

Breaking from the network format -- other WB shows unabashedly use music for marketing purposes and advertise for the artists at the end of each episode -- Gilmore Girl's tendency leans towards bringing back the old, edgy and true, rather than promoting the young, pretty, and brooding.

Carole King records a special version of her hit "Where You Lead" for the show's opening credits, and Sam Phillips provides the background music and score for the show. Over the years, they've secured the talent of Grant Lee Phillips (picture below) to play their town troubadour, and well as Sebastian Bach (of Skid Row fame) for a reoccurring role as one of Lane's band members. Other notable figures who have guested on the show include The Shins, The Bangles, John Gion, and Paul Anka (also the namesake of Lorelei's dog).

But, the essential piece of continuity that has tied everything together musically, providing a constant outlet for the Gilmore "official" opinions, is none other than Lane Kim – the "Nico-obsessed, Exene wannabe with forty Korean Bibles under her bed" -- who will always express what is right and belittle those who do not understand or meet the standards of artistic eruditeness.

"Dan is hugely into music," says Helen Pai, a co-producer of Gilmore Girls and the inspiration for the Lane character. "You walk into their house, and they get a new speaker every week. I think Amazon has a direct line to their house. Once Amoeba moved in, it was over, essentially. He has, like, 100 ipods."

Pai, herself, is a music fanatic, which is fortunate, because, "with the show, [music] takes up a lot of time." With Pai's involvement behind the scenes of the show, fact and fiction intertwine. In season two, as mentioned above, Lane meets Dave Rygalski (played by Adam Brody) who becomes her first boyfriend and helps form her first band -- along with bassist Brian (John Cabrera) and lead singer Zach (Todd Lowe.)

Dave Rygalski is actually the name of Helen Pai's real-life husband, a comedy writer who currently works on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The real-life Rygalski, who is also a musician on the side, plays the bass for Brian's character on the show.

"Dave and I got married during the first season of Gilmore Girls," says Pai. "And when you become family, you start having to go to these family events. And my parents would ask him to do insane things. They're very active in the religious community, but we're not religious, so it would be one of those things where I'd be dragging him out. So, one week, they wanted to go perform for a retirement home, and they wanted us to sing. And Dave was so sweet, he'd say, ‘Oh, I'll play the guitar!' And I, was like, ‘No, we're trying to get out of this!'

"So Amy would hear stories about this, how Dave gets pulled into so much of this stuff, and he does it so willingly. So, that's where the character of Dave Rygalski comes from. And they just decided to name the character after him."

So Dave on the show volunteers to play guitar for Mrs. Kim's church services so he can spend time with Lane. He pretends to be a devout Christian in order to get Mrs. Kim to allow him to take Lane to the prom. Although the Lane's onscreen relationship didn't last – Adam Brody departed for The O.C. -- her band, Hep Alien (an anagram for Helen Pai), continued on without the fictional Dave Rygalski. They replaced him with guitarist Gil (Sebastian Bach), and Zach eventually became Lane's new love interest.

When Gilmore Girls first started, Pai was a script coordinator, taking notes in the writer's room: "I type like a madwoman," says Pai. "My typing speed is insane, and I think Amy was always impressed by that." Through the years, Sherman-Palladino grew to trust her, and the producers put her in charge of outside projects, like the Gilmore Girls novels, one of which Pai wrote entirely herself. By the end of the sixth season, and now continuing onto year seven, Pai had become involved in everything from set design, publicity, DVD special features, and legal clearances, to sound mixing and post-production tasks.

Pai is also the coordinator who is in charge of any scene in Gilmore Girls in which Hep Alien performs on-camera.

"She's pretty much been there consistently from the beginning to help out with that aspect of the show," says Agena. "She's at rehearsals trying to translate what Dan is envisioning, and to make sure we know what we're doing."

"We get together and work out the kinks," says Pai. "A lot of shows, when they have music on, they'll go into a studio, pre-record it, and then play it back in their ear. But we actually will try and shoot it live, which is a real challenge."

Agena started taking drum lessons. "It was definitely a highlight when I got a phone call saying that they wanted to teach me how to play the drums," says Agena. "Because I would never learn to play an instrument this late in life, unless it was for something like this."

"These are the things that Amy wants," says Pai. "It was a reality factor. We wanted her to learn so it looked more realistic."

The biggest, and most exciting, Gilmore Girls musical project to date, occurred during the Season 6 season finale, "Partings" [original airdate, May 6, 2006], where they had their own "Gilmorepalooza" in conjunction with Amy Sheman-Palladino and Dan Palladino's last episode with the show.

"It was something Amy and Dan had been thinking about for a while," says Pai. "Having a troubadour contest." The story they came up with was that Grant Lee Phillips, Stars Hollow's town troubadour, is discovered by Neil Young's manager; as a result, musicians from all over the country flock to the small town thinking it is the new hot spot to display their music. The story essentially gave the Gilmore crew the opportunity to fulfill a wish list of all the musical acts that they would want to cameo in the show, to bring them in as street musicians.

"Sonic Youth somehow got in touch with us, because they love the show and wanted to come visit," explains Pai. "They happened to be there when Sebastian Bach was singing ‘Hollaback Girl' – which was fantastic.

"And they [Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore] were so unbelievably nice. So, somehow Amy got on the topic of – ‘Would you guys like to be on the show?' And, they said, ‘Sure!' And from there, we started finding others. I am friends with the bass player of Yo La Tengo, and I knew that he was a huge fan of the show and that Amy and Dan loved them, so I thought we'd see if we could throw that into the mix. And, we loved Joe Pernice and his music...

"The Sparks had contacted us, not to appear on camera, but because we had been working with them on a musical collaboration for the show. So, when they called, we went after them to appear on the show. And lastly, there was Sam Phillips, our music composer, who we weren't sure would be interested in appearing in front of the camera. But she said, ‘Absolutely. I'll do it.'"

"I loved that episode," beams Pai. "Musically, that was it. I don't even need to do any more. This is the top of what it's going to ever be."

The crowning touch of the musical Gilmore episode is probably the most unnoticeable troubadour performance of them all. But, it's one that epitomizes the ultimate overlapping of reality and TV magic.

"Daniel Palladino was one of the troubadours," laughs Pai. "It was the scene that starts out with Sonic Youth, the night scene where Taylor (Michael Winters) is walking through. And, at the end of the scene, there's Dan Palladino singing, with a guy playing stand-up bass, and another guy playing the acoustic guitar.

"The guy on stand up bass is my husband [the real Dave Rygalski]. And, the guy who plays guitar is the guy who plays Sebastian Bach's guitar off-camera. So, with that scene, the guys who are literally behind the curtain, playing for Lane's band, are finally out in front of it."

Fellow Gilmore Girls TiVo-ers, knock yourselves out.

Season 7 of Gilmore Girls premieres on September 28th, 2006. 8pm on CW.

The soundtrack of the show is "Our Little Corner of the World: Music From Gilmore Girls." The album booklet features stories from Amy and Dan Palladino about the huge impact music has had on their lives.


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Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2006