In the US, Riverdale returns on Thursday to bring us closer to solving the ultimate prime time mystery: who among us truly cares about Archie Andrews’ music career? Not that Archie’s music-centric storyline is entirely Riverdale’s fault. Sure, he performed in a shirt and tie at his high school’s variety show. Yes, he almost tore Josie and the Pussycats apart. And certainly, if this was 2006, Archie Andrews’ favourite band would be the Plain White Tees. But Riverdale is merely carrying on the longstanding tradition of teen series using indie music as cultural currency – and not only as a means of storytelling, but as a signpost with which to define a particular era or certain character trait. Which is genius: by aligning themselves with a specific movement or subculture, teen shows become a reflection of the time while acting as a platform willing to boost burgeoning acts. Don’t believe me? Just watch (these shows that did exactly that).
Grown-up indie: PJ Harvey and Gilmore Girls
Considering the show’s theme was performed by pop-rock veteran Carole King, Gilmore Girls’ combo of college-centric radio hits and grown-up indie shouldn’t be surprising – especially since as much as the series was about Rory, it focused equally on Lorelai. And that explains the mix of acts like The Shins with artists like Joey Ramone and Yoko Ono. On one hand, The Shins align with Rory’s age bracket but don’t stray too far into risky musical territory (understandable, since Rory’s original arc was that of a straight-laced overachiever). But on the other hand, Ramone and Ono evoke the era in which Lorelai was a teen herself, alluding to where she came from. Meanwhile, acts like PJ Harvey marry the cultural worlds of Rory and Lorelai, and evoke the rebelliousness of a young Lorelai while appealing to the poet in her daughter. As for the instrumental “la la la” that pops throughout the series? That I can’t help you with.
Emo indie: Death Cab For Cutie and The OC
Without Death Cab For Cutie, how would we know Seth Cohen was an indie-loving soft-boy (besides the Ben Folds Five poster in his bedroom)? Without the montage set to Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, how would we comprehend the emotional havoc wreaked on the Cohen clan? Without Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, how would we identify the mental turmoil that followed Marissa Cooper shooting her boyfriend’s brother? Ultimately, The OC’s soundtrack served two purposes: to set the (literal) tone for the series’ dramatics, but also to align particular bands with certain personality traits. From the first episodes, Seth Cohen used music as social currency, and was shocked to his judgmental core that a person like Marissa Cooper liked punk. And this was the spirit in which bands were presented to OC viewers via soundtrack: they denoted everything from social status to worldview. And if you weren’t down with indie, you might as well put on a seashell necklace, throw on some Taproot and make your way over to water polo practice with the rest of the upper middle class libertarian douches.
Indie rock: Dandy Warhols and Veronica Mars
As on Riverdale, Veronica Mars – both the main character and the TV show itself – focused on solving a murder with music used as a barometer to judge a character’s cool capacity. But that doesn’t mean music didn’t play a part in its storytelling. Set in the fictional oceanside town of Neptune, the series was partly defined by its surfer-meets-preppy aesthetic and used a wardrobe largely made up of American Eagle to coincide with bands like The Faders and Spoon, which were and still are accessibly indie. It wasn’t until the series’ third season did music come into play more directly, particularly as Veronica and friends moved on to college (and acquainted themselves with alt-rock). Before then, it was largely reflective of Neptune High’s white, upper middle-class-centric hierarchy via Bob Dylan’s unlikely favourites Stereophonics. Namely: if you heard it in an American Eagle or in an episode of Laguna Beach, that’s what accompanied characters like Logan Echels.
Mid-00s dance-indie: The Virgins and Gossip Girl
Gossip Girl opted to use Peter, Bjorn, and John’s Young Folks as the first song on a series that strived to defy existing TV norms but still relied on indie as a means to show it was hip. It sometimes went about it in strange ways: lest we forget that Blair and Chuck had sex for the first time to Sum 41 (yikes), or that Crystal Castles appeared on the series’ first soundtrack (never forget). But at the same time, Gossip Girl still subscribed to a pattern. Set in New York, the show enlisted acts like The Virgins to reflect the Humphreys’ comfortably cool Brooklyn upbringing, and acts like The Kills to allude to Jenny’s increasing hipness and propensity to get drunk every now and then. But where music had previously been attached to a setting or character in other shows, Gossip Girl used its soundtrack as a testament to how ahead it was from TV contemporaries like The OC or One Tree Hill. Which makes sense when you remember its season two marketing campaign: hinged entirely on how unique it was, Gossip Girl bought into its own hype and used music specifically to reiterate it.
Meta indie: Father John Misty and Riverdale
Considering Riverdale’s the love child of Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, and even Dawson’s Creek, it makes sense that it’s amalgamated its predecessors’ approach to TV soundtracks (and TV as a whole). Riverdale is special because it uses music and cultural tastes less as a means of gauging a character’s worth and more as an extension of characters themselves. Which is likely why the soundtrack is all over the place: Santigold, M83, Mike Posner, and Tegan and Sara have all made appearances, as well as Mac DeMarco and Nick Cave. Not to mention Father John Misty – an artist whose stage self appeals to listeners (snobs or not) across the board and whose real self collaborated with Beyonce.
Arguably, Riverdale has resonated so deeply because it’s opted to abandon stereotypes for the sake of complex characters whose traits aren’t limited to “rich” or “loves Death Cab For Cutie”. And while the series still features artists that ultimately appeal to young listeners, their placement is less about advertising the series’ cultural capital than it is about reflecting the diverse tastes and temperaments of Riverdale’s characters and the viewers who love them. Which we should all be grateful for: just imagine an entire series soundtracked exclusively by Turin Brakes or whatever band inspired Archie to pick up that acoustic guitar.