How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

5
Nip/Tuck

Popular Music

BEN ASLINGER

Abstract: Most analyses of television programs focus on a program’s visual and nar-
rative construction, but neglect the vital element of sound that is crucial to any
show’s style and meaning. Ben Aslinger listens closely to Nip/Tuck’s use of music,
exploring how it helps shape the program’s aesthetics and cultural representations.

Nip/Tuck’s (FX, 2003–2010) pilot episode featured an extended sequence in which The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” plays as Sean McNamara and Christian Troy perform a facial reconstruction on a man who they find out later is a child molester trying to mask his identity. Most reviewers of the pilot (July 22, 2003) drew attention to the importance of popular music to the program’s style, noting “the eerie use of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’ to dramatize a facial reconstruction even before mentioning the plot or the performances.”1 Nip/Tuck’s emphasis on surgery, style, and music was even reinforced in promotional materials, most notably the flash-based “Can you cut like a rock star?” game on the FX website. The uses of popular music in Nip/Tuck distinguish the series from older medical dramas such as Dr. Kildare and more contemporary series such as ER, as well as point to the ways that industrial imperatives surrounding popular music licensing impact the formal properties of contemporary television texts.

Some critics have argued that the tracks used in Nip/Tuck are perfect sonic illustrations of the skin-deep, youth-obsessed, superficial Miami culture chronicled by the program. However, television scholars should be skeptical of critical commentaries that sum up popular music licensing and scoring practices in broad strokes but fail to pay sufficient attention to specific production practices. While such trade and popular press pieces might work to get at a superficial sense of a show’s use of music, they fail to address the complex ways that popular music interacts with visual elements to convey meanings, and the multiple ways that

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