It’s no secret that the characters of Big Little Lies have been beyond compelling. From the way Celeste (Nicole Kidman) handles her volatile and abusive relationship with husband Perry (Aleksander Skaarsgard) to Madeline Mackenzie’s (Reese Witherspoon) perfectly imperfect life, it’s been hard to look away from murder mystery dramedy. But one of the most interesting characters of the HBO mini-series isn’t a person: it’s the music.
Music has as much of a presence as any of the dynamic women and men of Monterey, CA on the show. It plays as much of a part in the story as the characters do, providing excitement and suspense. Oftentimes, the show feels like one giant Apple Music commercial, because the soundtrack is curated so supremely and Apple products are usually the catalysts for consumption. Madeline’s daughter Chloe Mackenzie serves as one of the main sonic vessels of the show, playing resident DJ and showing refined musical taste rarely seen from a first grader, often setting the scene for their drives around the affluent community.
When Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) goes running and experiences flashbacks to her rape, the music becomes so raucous, it’s borderline violent, capturing Jane about to break. With Ed, dancing to classic soul as it blares loudly through he and Madeline’s house reveals the contrast between his more carefree spirit and Madeline’s tightly wound persona. Music defines the Big Little Lies characters more than simply providing a soundtrack to the show, and what’s most interesting,is how one song can emotionally fuel separate vignettes simultaneously. (Luckily, fans who have been pining over the release of a soundtrack are in luck: the showrunners just released an official set on Friday.)
Since the power of song has been such an integral part of the seven-part series, we compiled a list of the most memorable musical moments from the show to get you through your first week without the show. (We know — we’ll miss it too.)
The Temptations, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
Music on Big Little Lies is malleable to different situations, and with “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” we see the music being both celebratory and anxiety-inducing. While Ziggy Chapman (Jane’s son) and Chloe are dancing in the Mackenzie’s living room alongside Madeline and Ed themselves, the scene cuts to Jane speeding after confronting her potential rapist (who is also Ziggy’s father). As the music intensifies, it parallels Jane’s instability, anger and nerves.
But with Big Little Lies, songs often guide the narrative throughout an entire episode, and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” does just that. Instead of Chloe being the music’s vessel, it’s Ziggy who has taken to the song, even choreographing a dance routine at home to it. For this particular episode, this song channels Jane’s frustration and Ziggy’s realtively carefree attitude. The juxtaposition on the show is what makes it really interesting.
PJ Harvey, “The Wind”
The recurring theme of having a song really become the score for an episode is something that begins with PJ Harvey’s “The Wind.” While Madeline is driving Chloe to her first day of school in the series premiere, she lets her daughter DJ the ride. Instantly, viewers are made aware of Chloe’s enviable music taste. And it’s the first time a song is really used to narrate more than one scene of an episode, as it also plays over the episode’s end credits.
Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”
Many viewers of the miniseries have been drawn in by the haunting, soulful track in the opening credits by Michael Kiwanuka. At its core, the opening is a rock track supplemented by Kiwanuka’s raspy lilt, but it seems to serve a higher purpose: It’s equal parts suspenseful and soothing, telling a grander story of the women of Monterey, a place where perfection exists only on the surface. “Cold Little Heart” seems to thematically encapsulate the dichotomy between the characters’ facade versus their authentic selves, as Kiwanuka sings, “Bleeding, I’m bleeding/ My cold little heart/ Oh I can’t stand myself.”
Agnes Obel, “September Song”
At the end of the premiere, Agnes Obel’s melancholic ballad “September Song” is a metaphor for the false sense of security that exists for the three main protagonists of the show. While the song plays as the trio separately head to bed for the night, it simultaneously narrates a future scenario where police are investigating the Monterey homicide at the school fundraiser. Obel’s piano track is the calm before the storm erupts in Monterey, and later Jean Marc uses the piece when Madeline mourns her daughter Abigail’s choice to live with her father.
Leon Bridges, “River”
Though “River” doesn’t necessarily highlight the most dramatic parts of Big Little Lies, it solidifies Chloe’s precocious taste in music. When Madeline’s daughter chooses to play the earworm, she confirms that it’s “a beautiful song.” Chloe’s childlike curiosity seems to come out in Madeline, as the song encourages her to daydream. If you first heard Bridges on Big Little Lies, you probably added him to your Spotify queue soon after watching the episode.
Martha Wainwright, “Bloody Mother F—king Asshole”
Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother F—king Asshole” is the embodiment of all of the rage, fear and pain Jane experiences as a result of the rape that got her pregnant with Ziggy. Viewers mostly see Jane’s rage when she goes running on the beach and is plagued by memories of the night she was assaulted, as the character evolves from being a loving mother trying to hold everything together to a rape victim who can no longer contain her emotions.
Irma Thomas, “Straight From the Heart”
On the surface, Celese and Perry seem so grossly in love, Monterey parents often can’t stand them. But behind closed doors, their intense intimacy often turns into domestic violence and emotional terror. “Straight from the Heart” speaks to both sides of Celeste and Perry’s relationship. It plays in Episode 4 right before they have passionate sex, and then again in Episode 5 after Celeste contemplates Perry’s abuse cycle. The lyrics of the song really speak to the impossible choices that many end up making in an abusive relationship: “Tell me we could make another start/ You know I’ll never go.”
Alabama Shakes, “This Feeling”
Chloe’s musical skills are pretty magical when it comes to Madeline. After Abigail decides to move out, Chloe tries to console her mother by uploading a sweet and soulful track to her iPhone. Later, as Madeline gazes at the ocean following a car accident she has with her former lover Joe, the song reprises.
Sade, “Cherish the Day”
One of the most quintessential Madeline moments of the show happens during her dinner with ex-husband Nathan Carlson (James Tupper), his young wife Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) and her husband Ed. During dinner, Bonnie sets the mood with some of her tunes. Madeline can’t get enough of a Sade song Bonnie plays, but tellingly confuses the music for Adele. It’s a brief interaction, but it shows just how out of touch Madeline can be with the world around her, especially since her husband Ed (who plays music all the time) says he has the song. Of course he does.
Ituana, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Rolling Stones Cover)
The final few minutes of the Big Little Lies finale proves on the surface, like most things in Monterey, to be a unifying moment for the five female protagonists. While the serene version of the Stones classic plays as Celeste, Jane, Madeline, Renata and Bonnie sit on the beach drinking white wine while their kids run around, Big Little Lies continues to do what it does best: keep up appearances. Viewers don’t know whether the tranquility between the women will remain, or if they really are okay (despite their smiles and laughter), but the series ends the way it started: giving the illusion of the perfect people that live in Monterey.