I, like half of gay-male America, watched the superbly disturbing HBO series Big Little Lies. The show was a powerhouse of big actors like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, (gay icon) Laura Dern, and the semi-newcomer (and oft-scene stealer) Zoë Kravitz. Big Little Lies is ultimately a story of varying forms of abuse and survival, but the main character of the series, some would argue, was not the A-list celebrity cast, but the music that hung thickly to every to scene. The soundtrack is superb and fitting for a powerful story and used to full effect in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s show.The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber writes that:
There’s no composer for Big Little Lies, and it has no orchestral score. Instead, pop songs—rock, soul, R&B, tending toward classic-radio picks—intrude consistently. And a large percentage of this music is, in one way or another, diegetic: When the audience hears a song, that often means someone in the show is hearing it, too. But once a track has been introduced into this world by a character, Vallée freely cuts to characters elsewhere in the world for striking tonal juxtapositions.
One song called to me in particular, and no it wasn’t the anthemic Martha Wainwright song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” or Zoë Kravitz impressive cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t,” but Leon Bridges winding song “River.”
I’ve listened to Leon Bridges album before, yet somehow his debut album's final track was missed by me. In episode 2 of the series, it takes center stage as Witherspoon’s character’s young daughter, Chloe, shares his work. Kornhaber also makes an interesting point when he claims the song is meant as a salve for the characters – that the music being played is always meant as more than what it seems. Kornhaber goes on to say that:
Chloe plays Leon Bridges’s “River” a lot, but she does it to foster affection—between her parents, or Ziggy and his schoolyard maybe-rival Amabella (Ivy George).
Chloe herself is the otherworldly, beyond-her-years spiritual DJ of Big Little Lies. In the show’s very first scenes, she announces that she wants to one day be the head of a record label, and she guesses correctly that Ziggy is named for a David Bowie character. Later, she counsels her dad to pick an obscure Elvis Presley tune to perform at the upcoming fundraising gala. The biographical source of her expertise isn’t yet clear—maybe it won’t ever be. But her love of music seems like a beacon of simple, positive passion in a show otherwise defined by darker, more complex desires. Her personality and Ziggy’s name are signs of a matchup between the power of music and the nature of childhood.
I found an article that specifically reviewed the use of Bridges “River,” in the episode, yet it focused solely on the show-side of things. The article, found in Atwood Magazine, aptly claims that “Big Little Lies brilliantly uses “River” by Leon Bridges to show the influence music has in changing perspective and bringing even the most unlikely of pairs together.” The problem I find myself facing, is the meaning behind Bridges’ lyrics, and not in how beautifully the song sounded. When you hear him describe what inspired the song in an email to NPR, it becomes clear:
A river has historically been used in gospel music as symbolism for change and redemption [...]. My goal was to write a song about my personal spiritual experience. It was written during a time of real depression in my life, and I recall sitting in my garage trying to write a song which reflected this struggle. I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother. I had little hope and couldn't see a road out of my reality. The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.
When thinking about how to best visually represent this universal battle, I reflected on the depiction of black communities in our media and particular experiences within my own life. This video showcases the unique struggle many black men and women face across this country. However, unlike the captured images which tend to represent only part of the story, I wanted to showcase that through all the injustice, there's real hope in the world.
I want this video to be a message of light. I believe it has the power to change and heal those that are hurting.
It’s meant as a black story with its lyrics and gorgeous music video. But in this case in Big Little Lies, it is a song from a black artist being used to create sympathy for a largely white cast. It’s being used to create another story, and, on one hand, I find the universality of the lyrics powerful – that we as an audience can relate to these messy Malibu housewives through this song – I also find it unsettling to see this song, meant to emphasize and focus on the marginalization of black families in America, being used this way. It deserves mentioning at the least. To recognize origins.
It’s also written as a religious song according to Bridges. Something I, as a recovering Mormon, find further complicating. It’s a reminder to me that religion, religious symbolism, is something I actively try to suppress. I’ve lived my life in recent years with a forced ignorance. I find much of (Christian) religion pervasive, controlling, and perverse, and therefore try to ignore much of the Christian symbolism I find in literature and music as nothing more than a side note. Just something that may have affected its creation, but no longer holding importance. When someone says that Aslan is Jesus, I remind them Narnia is incredibly boring to read anyways. I do all of this not out of spite, but an attempt to subvert its control. Where I was raised, Christian religious stories were taught with such authority that my active ignorance has often felt like a form of resistance to the only narrative put forward. Like fighting some sort of good fight. But really … maybe it’s just invalidating someone else’s story. This realization felt familiar.
I had this moment watching the episode of Big Little Lies using Bridges “River”, this incredibly uncomfortable moment, where I cried during the song’s use (more so than necessarily called for by the show’s story). It was beautiful and spoke to me of starting over at a time when I was questioning my own relationship. When I could feel the cracks more than I could see them. Hear the water rushing before seeing the river. I felt my own big little lies in the song, but after learning the truth of the lyrics, I too feel like I’ve appropriated something not mine. That somehow with this song, while we as humans constantly seek validation through others – in person, through poetry, song, TV – I was also invalidating its greater purpose than me. Recognizing this was a challenge to selfishness.
Take me to your river
I wanna go
Oh, go on
Take me to your river
I wanna know
Tip me in your smooth waters
I go in
As a man with many crimes
Come up for air
As my sins flow down the Jordan
Oh, I wanna come near and give ya
Every part of me
But there's blood on my hands
And my lips aren’t clean
It’s a complex topic, and is complicated further by the levels of abuse each character suffers in the show. It’s a subject I, as a white person, do not presume to be an authority on, and I would also never say that someone can’t enjoy a song even if the lyrics aren’t written for them. But the use of Bridges beautiful song could be argued as another primetime example of whitewashing, and of putting white families above others. Another aspect that muddles the narrative is that it’s a child sharing the song, and while the show often props Chloe up as a wise-beyond-her-years type, the full story and impact behind the song could be lost to her at her age. In the end, I’m still unsettled. By Bridges sublime voice, the poetry of his lyrics, by the show, and the life of the song now spinning out of control, taking on a new life of its own. Ultimately, the best part of the songs use is its exemplary power to affect.