The Uncanny Sounds of David Lynch, Part 2

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Part one of this article looked at how David Lynch uses Americana-flavord pop standards in his films, their symbolic significance especially. Part two will look at the other sorts of music that Lynch uses and how he uses them.  

               At least in the context of Blue Velvet, Lynch uses pop standards to signify the façade of wholesomeness that exists in his settings. Likewise, over the course of that particular film, the façade gets flimsier and flimsier until the pop standards almost seem to mock both audience and characters for buying into it in the first place. As alluded to above, in Lynch’s worlds there always seems to be darkness and corruption lurking under every brick. It isn’t just a trend in Lynch’s late 80s/early 90s output either, as he would use pop standards in the same fashion into the 2000s, most notably in Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. However, that does not mean that Lynch sees the world as nothing but a hollow Potemkin village. There is one sort of music Lynch uses that seems to signify the presence of unqualified good: dream pop. Especially dream pop performed by Julee Cruise.   

Twin Peaks and Julee Cruise plus Dream Pop

               While Julee Cruise performed the vocals for the original track “Mysteries of Love” for Blue Velvet she made a much greater impact on Lynch’s most famous creation, Twin Peaks. A genre-bending ball of madness that inspired works as diverse as The X-Files and Silent Hill, Twin Peaks paved the way for much of modern television. Julee Cruise performed the series iconic opening theme, which she co-wrote with Angelo Badalamenti, and several songs also featured in the show’s soundtrack.

               These tracks are generally associated with the good and tender parts of life in Twin Peaks while the dark forces that surround the town have a menacing jazz motif. Cruise herself appears in a few scenes in the follow-up film to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as a sort of dram pop light in the dark during some of the film’s many distressing scenes. The jazz element, on the other hand, is best exemplified by the first appearance of the Black Lodge, the seat of evil and the collective name for the villains of the show, set to the jazz balled “Sycamore Trees” performed by Jimmy Scott.

               This use of dream pop in general, and Julee Cruise in particular, continued into the show’s much belated third season. The use of this genre is not restricted to Twin Peaks, however, a good example of this outside of Twin Peaks is the use of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” in the 1989 film Wild at Heart. Isaak’s reverb-tastic dream-country contributes handily to the film’s eccentric, but gently romantic, atmosphere, and Lynch uses the song multiple times thorough the film’s running time.

From Dreams to Nightmares

               For sequences that are outright horror, Lynch will sometimes lean on avant-garde music. This generally indicates that the things depicted on the screen are taking place independent of any sort of recognizable logic. Returning to Twin Peaks, Lynch uses Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” in the third season’s eight episode, which details the creation of the series’ main villain, Killer BOB. While topical, as the episode depicts the Trinity Nuclear Test, it also brings the audience deeper into the world of the show’s supernatural creatures using a cavalcade of surreal imagery reminiscent of the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One particularly memorable (and hideous) moment involves the appearance of a featureless grey-skinned humanoid who proceeds to vomit a stream of creamed corn with jewels in it, one of which appears to contain BOB.

Even for Twin Peaks this is outlandish, and Penderecki’s music drives that home for the viewer. Basically, the more Lynch tortures your ears, the worse things are. This is also notable as one of the few times Lynch is totally unambiguous in his approach to a scene.

Jazz and Chaos

               As alluded to earlier, in Lynch’s world jazz is usually associated with mischief or outright criminality. Or even, as in the Black Lodge example, dark supernatural forces. However, while jazz can be associated with outright malice, this is not always the case. For example, the scene in the third season where Dale Cooper rediscovers the joys of coffee, with the necessary context that he is in a supernaturally induced state of extreme mental impairment, is set to David Brubeck’s “Take 5”. This is not a remotely sinister moment, merely off-kilter and humorous, even a little sweet. This tonal flexibility perhaps reflects the flexible, extemporaneous nature of jazz itself.  In fact, Angelo Badalamenti contributes numerous jazz tracks to Lynch’s works, including tracks that include improvised raps by Badalamenti himself. Still, the one thing that jazz never seems to signify in Lynch’s works is unqualified good, instead being neutral to evil. Perhaps more accuratly, jazz represents chaos and randomness.

                    While the different genres Lynch uses are rather far apart, one thing that unites them is their Americanness. While classical is derived from European traditions, and therefore appears to be the exception, so is much of American culture. So, it fits, if a little imperfectly. Dream pop and jazz, on the other hand, are musical inventions that definitively American in origin. Avant-Garde, however, is by definition alien no matter which culture it comes from.

Lynch and America

               This choice of genres is very likely deliberate, as much of Lynch’s filmography deals with various aspects of America. From the examples above, it is clear that Lynch has rather divided thoughts where the subject of America is concerned, with some critics going as far as to say that he has a heaven-hell complex about the US. The way he uses music suggests that this is true to some extent. Especially since he essentially uses different American musical genres to represent different aspects of the American character. Where this complex, if that’s what it is, comes from, on the other hand, seems to have something to do with Lynch’s childhood.

Probable Origins

               Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana and moved all around middle America. At least according to him, his time there was spent surrounded by beautiful pastoral scenery and a generally wholesome environment. However, Lynch was a keen observer and noticed that as beautiful as his environment was, there were always ugly or frightening things in it. Since much of his filmography involves terrible things hiding in normal-seeming environments or the simple madness lurking beneath the mundane, these childhood experiences may have been a primary influence. In his own words, since his childhood was so perfect, the imperfections of the world stood out all the more to him. The influence this has had on his films, and the music he uses in them, is obvious.

               Lynch has been called a master at invoking the uncanny valley in his films, and this is true. But it just wouldn’t be the same without his musical choices reinforcing that invocation. At the risk of belaboring a point, what makes an artist’s work his or her own isn’t any one thing they do, but a combination of elements. Likewise, each of these elements is fairly complex in its own right, but feeds into the others. If they didn’t, there would be little point in having them. And so it is with Lynch and his music.

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