Analyzing The Music Of ‘Fargo’: “The Law Of Non-Contradiction”

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This week, Fargo left the central time zone and became Fargo Crime Scene Investigation: Los Angeles. There were flashbacks to the ’70s — and to the classic-rock flashiness of Fargo‘s second season — as well animated sequences and a mystery about a sci-fi writer that sort of went nowhere. As always, the music offered lots to ponder. Let’s turn it up!

Song: Three Dog Night, “Liar”
Scene: Thaddeus Mobley is seduced during a screen test.

In a 2016 interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night lamented that his band “was mostly categorized as oldies” by radio, as opposed to classic rock, and this has affected how 3DN is perceived by historians and cultural gatekeepers. Especially galling for Negron is the failure of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame to properly honor one of the most commercially successful American rock groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s. At its peak, Three Dog Night scored 21 consecutive Top 40 hits, including future radio staples such as “One,” “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” and “Joy To The World.” And yet Three Dog Night is saddled with “oldies” rather than the relatively prestigious “classic rock” tag.

“You have a group, the Velvet Underground. Never had a charted record. Not even the top 200. They’re in the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame because (Atlantic Records chairman) Ahmet Ertegun, who (helped) start the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame, his record company produced them and they were an Andy Warhol band,” Negron complained. “How can you put someone in that had no success?”

So, is Three Dog Night actually better than the Velvet Underground? Of course not. However, just as Lou Reed’s seminal gutter poetry still evokes the glamorous sleaze of New York in the late ’60s, there’s something about Three Dog Night’s show-business spit-shine of hippie-era rock that conjures the underbelly of ’70s Hollywood. Along with the “oldies” classification, what really does Three Dog Night in, reputation-wise, is that thorny bugaboo known as authenticity. There’s just something about three handsome guys in extravagant mustaches and skin-tight slacks that reads as phony, even smarmy, like they know how phony they are and get off on how they’re getting away with it. Put another way: Three Dog Night sounds like Hollywood’s dark soul.

The most memorable use of a Three Dog Night song in a movie is “Mama Told Me Not Come” in Boogie Nights — it’s the scene where Eddie Adams first shows up at Jack Horner’s house after getting into a fight with his mother. It’s similar to the scene in this week’s Fargo — the song title is literally describing what is happening in the scene, while at the same time leaning on that Three Dog Night smarm to hint at the rot lurking beneath the flashy exterior that our naive protagonist can’t quite sense yet. “Liar” underscores the con being played on Thaddeus, but even without that big chorus, the smarmy sound of Three Dog Night spells doom.

Song: Riders In The Sky, “Blue Shadows On The Trail”
Scene: Gloria searches for her rental car at LAX as the opening credits play.

If you’re like me, hearing the old Western swing standard “Blue Shadows On The Trail” performed by the comedy and kiddie music group Riders In The Sky as Gloria enters the foreign, sun-drenched domain of Los Angeles reminded you of hearing “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” at the start of the Coen Brothers’ most-LA LA movie, The Big Lebowski. For the Coens, Lebowski was an excuse to make a cinematic version of a Raymond Chandler novel, in which an out-of-his-element hero stumbles from one misleading encounter to enough under the guise of investigating a mystery, only to find his confusion deepen every step of the way.

This episode of Fargo had that same Chandler feeling — Gloria’s investigation into Thaddeus’ life in Hollywood leads to some interesting places, but ultimately winds up sending her in one big circle. She knows more about her step-father, but none of that information is pertinent to his murder.

Riders In The Sky formed in Nashville the late ’70s, taking its name from an album by The Sons Of The Pioneers, one of the earliest Western swing groups whose version of “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” is used in The Big Lebowski. Riders In The Sky later went on to star in a Saturday morning children’s series in 1991 on CBS — Pee-wee’s Playhouse was the model — that was canceled after just one season. As we’ve already discussed, the brightest Hollywood dreams often don’t seem to work out.

(By the way: This is not the same “Blue Shadows On The Trail” that’s featured in The Three Amigos. That “Blue Shadows On The Trail” was written by one of the great chroniclers of LA’s seedy side, Randy Newman.)

Song: Gene Autry, “Silver Bells”
Scene: Gloria visits Thaddeus’ ex at a diner.

The fun part about doing a deep dive into the music of Fargo every week is learning all sorts of things that you’d never discover otherwise. For instance, I had no idea that Gene Autry wrote one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Autry was a prodigious performer of holiday music during his illustrious career, though perhaps not as illustrious as Bing Crosby, who popped up in a diner back in Minnesota in last week’s episode. But it’s fair to say that Autry was to Los Angeles what Crosby was to large swaths of middle America. Along with “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Autry sang “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which means he remains a fixture of childhood to this day.

Autry’s main claim to fame during his life was as “The Singing Cowboy,” a reputation he earned as one of the famous performers on radio, movies, and television in the first half of the 20th century. While he was born in Texas, Autry became known as the one of the most prominent citizens in Southern California, helping to launch the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels in 1961 and acting as owner until 1997, one year before his death at age 91. (The Angels finally won the World Series in 2002.) Weirdly, Autry died less than three months after another famous singing cowboy (and favorite of another LA visitor, John McClane, in Die Hard), Roy Rogers.

What does any of this have to do with this week’s episode? I’m not sure. I’m on my own aimless Chandler-esque journey here.

BONUS TRACKS

Song: Moncho y Su Wawanko Gitano, “Orisa”
Scene: Thaddeus meets Howard Zimmerman.

Song: Santana, “Jingo”
Scene: Thaddeus and Vivian go out to a bar.

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