“You’re in fucking outer space.”
These are the words that “Girls” ’s Shoshanna hears on last week’s episode right before she ditches her boyfriend and walks home alone through the Tokyo streets at night. As the camera stays motionless and Shoshanna’s isolated back becomes smaller and smaller, one of the most devastatingly beautiful cover songs I’ve ever heard plays and the credits begin to roll.
19-year-old Norwegian singer Aurora’s version of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” soundtracks an out of place and uncertain Shoshanna, and it’s artistic perfection. Sparsely arranged — just a keyboard and a young voice — and stunningly delicate, “Life on Mars” was on constant repeat for me in the days following its airing. I’ve never heard anything like it.
The idea that someone could actually record a superior version of a David Bowie classic is something I’ve struggled to come to terms with in the past week, but Aurora does it. It’s crushing to me how restrained she stays, how she uses nothing but her voice to keep you engaged. She drags out every phrase of Bowie’s surreal poetry, moaning to stick words together, making her voice high-jump to reach the first notes of the choruses, pronouncing “fighting in the dancehall” like her mouth isn’t quite under control. It’s impossible not to be enthralled.
In this particular scene, with the added subtext of David Bowie’s mortality, “Life on Mars” places Shoshanna as this tiny, tiny dot in an unknowably large universe, walking through what might as well be a dream for all its frustrating, confusing twists. She’s looking for life; she’s looking for a spark, trying to find herself in a world that too often feels cold and airless. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get that episode’s closing sequence out of my head.
But if you regularly watch Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” the fact that the show uses music in the most incredible ways is not new news. My introduction to the show was Lee Moses, this old soul guy with a voice like the devil and a thrilling, obscure set of recordings. A friend played his song “Bad Girl,” and its white-hot sound blew me away so much I needed to know where it came from.
“ ‘Girls,’ ” she said. “That’s where I get all my music from.”
I spent the next weeks playing Lee Moses for every single person I hung out with, imploring them to understand just how shockingly, historically, mind-blowing “Bad Girl” was. A year later, I’ve burned through four seasons of “Girls” and now get really excited every Sunday night, because each episode always ends up inspiring me. And “Bad Girl” remains one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard.
And these amazing songs are all over “Girls.” One episode ends with this unbelievably fucked-up bedroom scene that I can’t describe because my mom reads this column, but as the credits start they’re soundtracked by Belle & Sebastian’s “I Don’t Love Anyone,” which taken together is one of the most audacious things I’ve ever seen on TV. In another, Ray argues with a DJ for switching his Smashing Pumpkins to LMFAO, hilariously yammering on about a “breach of contract.” New Order’s “Age of Consent” plays at a party, and that made me totally reevaluate “Age of Consent,” because I always thought of it as this secretly incredible song that could only be passed on by one person playing it for another. Marnie breaks my heart for singing this awful, embarrassing a capella version of Kanye West’s “Stronger” in front of a room full of strangers. Adam punches a car stereo to turn off Maroon 5 and ends up inadvertently quoting The Rolling Stones.
So I’ve been going back over all these great musical moments in the show and trying to figure out what makes them so great. And okay, like 90 percent of it is just Lena Dunham (or whoever makes the musical choices) having incredible taste. But at the same time, “Girls” is the perfect show for maximizing the potential of music to complement characters and scenes.
I see this ability best all the way back in the first season, when Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” closes out an early episode. Hannah is moping and turns on it, proceeding to dance out her feelings. Marnie walks in, they share a laugh about Hannah’s ex being gay and Marnie starts to dances along as the camera pans out. And sure, these characters are not good people, and it’s impossible to truly love them like you would a lot of TV protagonists. But there’s a strange beauty in how music affects our emotions, how it can turn some shitty feelings into an unforgettable moment with a friend, and observing that on a weekly basis is a treat.
“Girls” is, at its core, a celebration of being alone (or, if you want to be more charitable, call it independence). None of its characters are good people, and every relationship over the course of its four-plus seasons has ended up trashed. It’s a little exaggerated, and it’s often a certain brand of flawed, straight whiteness that can be difficult to identify with, but it’s not crazy different from the real world, at least compared to most TV shows. People who think they’re in love sometimes push each other apart, we occasionally act like assholes to our friends and we go through lengthy stretches where we don’t know who the fuck we are.
And that’s when music is there for us. When we want confidence, support, reassurance and fun, we can always turn on a song. Music is there to make us dance with hot strangers or cry in our rooms by ourselves or scream along to with our friends at 2 a.m. Songs are there to start conversations and arguments, to melt away stress or disappointment. Music exists to mend severed connections, and when they’re unmendable, it’s there to make it OK. And whoever the genius is behind soundtrack of “Girls,” whether it’s Lena Dunham or some unknown hero, she gets it. We can be all the way off in outer space, away from our friends or away from ourselves, but as long as we have music, we’re never totally gone.