Inside The Music Of Scandal: Reframing The Legacy Of Black Music Icons

Photo: Courtesy of Mitch Haaseth/ABC.
You will find the first truly defining needle drop on Scandal in the show's third episode. For me it was in "Hell Hath No Fury," when Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" plays while the action happens around the long-dead Amanda Tanner (Liza Weil), that I got what the soundscape of Olivia Pope's (Kerry Washington) world was going to be. It was not what I expected; it was better.
When the show launched, creator Shonda Rhimes and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas had been working together on Grey's Anatomy for several years and built the show's brand as a place to find new music. Patsavas crafted a reputation as the go-to music supervisor for the indie soundscape of 2000s TV on shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl, even working on the Twilight saga. But she is a music lover whose tastes run deep and wide, and when Rhimes told her that the sound of Scandal would be based in the older soul, R&B, and pop music from a world of predominately Black music, Patsavas was ready for the challenge.
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"When Scandal started, I sat down with Shonda and [executive producer] Betsy Beers, and we just talked about the script," Patsavas recalls. "The characters had not come to life on the screen yet, though they had certainly come to life on the page. Shonda always knew, from the very beginning, that she wanted to delve into catalog music, using songs that were extremely personal to her. When we started, it was with music from the '60s and '70s." That it makes sure that specifically Black artists are showcased, and remembered, is more than poignant: It makes a move to right the wrongs of segregating music, on the radio and MTV, from the heyday of all these artists. Highlighting these songs in the Scandal universe helps to reframe and extend their legacies.
As the seven episode long first season went on, Patsavas would showcase some iconic songs and musical giants who weren't often heard on primetime: Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," and Edwin Starr's "War" among them. "There had been such a switch to brand-new music in television [when Scandal premiered] that moving back into songs that people have such a deep, visceral connection to definitely took people by surprise," Patsavas says.
It makes sense: the music industry is about promoting the newest thing, and the newest thing usually gets the majority of marketing money. Streaming services have killed the greatest hits album — if you have Stevie Wonder's catalog on Spotify, why do you need to buy his greatest hits? Just find a playlist with all of them. It's because of shows like Scandal that generations of people who might not know these iconic artists can discover them again in a marketplace full of more music than they could ever consume.
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Aretha Franklin made her first sonic appearance in season 4, with her cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," after which she would become a staple voice, including a long string of uses of her catalog in season 5. The indisputable voice of Scandal, however, is Stevie Wonder, who has had far more of his songs placed in the show than any other artist. He, along with Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and Franklin, could be described as the musical core of the show, based on the number of times they're played, but Patsavas and Rhimes fill out Olivia Pope's world with tracks by Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Roberta Flack, Bettye Lavette, Patti LaBelle, Etta James, and Dionne Warwick.
In season 4, Scandal started doing something interesting: It broke the fourth wall with music. Patsavas and Rhimes had frequently chosen tracks to speak to the action in the scene, but with the introduction of Olivia's mother Maya Pope (Khandi Alexander), they winked at the audience through song. Michael Jackson's "Ben," the song about a boy and his best friend (a killer rat), from the 1972 film of the same name, played over a flashback to Olivia's childhood memories and punctuated the action as Olivia realized Maya is a rat and a killer, entirely different from the mother she remembered.
Scandal did this again in a more serious episode: season 4's "The Lawn Chair," which reimagined the events Ferguson, MO, for its universe. Placing the storyline in Washington, D.C., with Olivia Pope on the scene, the show presses play on Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me" and Nina Simone's "I Shall Be Released" — two artists known for their personal activism on behalf of the Black community, and two songs that speak to what the conscience of a nation should feel when watching police treatment of Black citizens. Patsavas says these moments were "hand-picked" by Rhimes.
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The show would go on to pay tribute to Prince when the duo placed songs by him into Scandal and Grey's Anatomy only a few weeks after his death in 2016. "For me, reaching out to his estate in a time of obvious turmoil, and being able to turn the request around was very special," Patsavas says. "I was really grateful they allowed us to use the music."
One thing Patsavas won't confirm is the theory that Rhimes wanted to send a message to the world about Black women with her Janet Jackson-scored episode ahead of the Super Bowl in 2018. Still, she does laugh and confirm that the requests to use those songs "had a short turnaround," which is perhaps a hint from her that they were a rebuke to the NFL and Justin Timberlake. Or, if that's too strong a sentiment, at least they were a timely reminder of the way we systematically downplay the achievements and greatness of Black women.
Scandal also saw the emergence of Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia's love theme, "The Light" by the Album Leaf. This electronic project of producer Jimmy LeValle was picked up by Sub Pop Records (also the original home of Nirvana, the Postal Service, and the Shins) during the mid 2000s and became a lowkey part of the indie rock boom in that decade. Several of his tracks have appeared in the background on Scandal, but "The Light," which plays in so many of the Liv and Fitz love scenes throughout the series, is instantly recognisable to fans. It's one of the few contemporary moments Scandal weaves in and is central to the world the show has built.
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The legacy that Scandal's use of catalog music (in the music industry that is any music that is "past its prime") in a primetime TV show leaves is significant for not just this show, but for Black icons in the streaming era. When the show debuted in 2012, there was no Apple or Amazon subscription music service, and Spotify had 5 million subscribers worldwide. As of 2017, there are over 112 million subscribers to streaming music services driving 50% of the music industry's profits. Scandal has a Spotify playlist of all the songs in the show. This is music two generations removed from Millennials, three from Gen Z. If it wasn't what they were listening to before Scandal, hopefully the show (which is also discoverable on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime) has helped them discover their own relationship to the foundational soul and R&B music that exerts so much influence on their era's most popular genre: hip-hop.
Scandal's legacy for the artists it has featured is money. If that sounds craven, consider that so many artists of the '60s and '70s were not paid (at all or the amount promised) — on top of that, Black artists were frequently segregated in record stores, on tours, onto Black record labels and publishers, and on TV appearances which caused them to have less opportunities and be paid less for them. Motown was notorious for not paying their artists and cooking the books. Dionne Warwick declared bankruptcy after decades of mismanagement. White men ran nearly all of the labels that signed and made their money from Black artists and audiences. In the ensuing decades, many artists who we now consider icons have regained control of their own catalogs, and these placements in a hit TV show, along with the spike it gives them in streaming across a multitude of platforms, are an important source of income. They get a substantial payout for the song used in a show, and that use begets more interest in the song, generating money for streams on a multitude of platforms where their music is available.
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Centring the world of Scandal on a Black woman was historic, something that hadn't been done in 40 years. Centring the soundtrack on Black artists, highlighting Black excellence, achieves another important feat: it gives us another avenue to relate to and support the songs, both hits and deep cuts, of some of the most impressive artists in music's history.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information about Allen Klein's relationship with Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones.
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