I want to talk about the greatest use of music in a TV show that I have ever seen — season six, episode two of “The Sopranos.” Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) puts on “American Girl,” the ’70s Classic Rock Radio staple by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for her husband Tony, who’s in a coma after being shot.
Even if you know nothing about the show, I think you can be touched by watching this scene. Falco’s performance — talking and reminiscing and working through nostalgia then intense desperation then guilt and bargaining while her normally fearsome, hulking husband lies inert with an enormous breathing tube sticking out of his mouth — is astounding, and when those tears come at the end, I’m absolutely crushed by all of her emotions. In a series with a plethora of consistently incredible moments, this, to me, beats all the rest.
While I want to take nothing away from Falco’s, it’s Tom Petty who makes this moment. Before I watched this scene, I thought “American Girl” was exceedingly lame, that it should sit on a shelf gathering dust with “Slow Ride” and “Life in the Fast Lane” and all those other “classics” that I guess were pretty good at the time they were released but should probably be forgotten now. But in this episode, the second Carmela started playing it out of that little radio, I knew something special was coming.
It starts innocuously, and you’re familiar enough with the song’s verses that you almost think it’s going to just be background music for this grand emotional scene. But no, as Carmela starts talking about their trip to the beach, her memories and my memories intermingle. I think about going to the beach with my cousins and hearing Songs About Jane or Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
And then I think about a scene earlier in the show’s run where Carmela finds out Tony is cheating and they get into one of the most terrifying TV arguments I’ve ever seen. Or I remember seeing Tom Petty perform this song at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and then for some reason this random memory of playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater while “I Won’t Back Down” plays. Now Carmela and Tony are in a pool together last season, as Carm reluctantly realizes that she’ll never be able to get Tony out of her life. And then I think about my friend’s lakehouse this summer, and hearing Petty’s hits being blasted from someone’s boat on the 5th of July and we’re sitting on the deck while the sun beats down and the wind messes up our hair. I see Carmela in the hospital and hear classic rock and I remember the hospital the last time I saw my aunt before cancer took her while I hear her sing Fleetwood Mac years earlier as we play Rock Band at my house.
I want to buy into the idea that, as fucked up as Tony and Carm’s relationship is, Tom Petty can fix it. At its core, “American Girl” is such a simple, lovable song. The drum beat bounces and makes you smile, the familiar rock structure immediately comforts and the lyrics evoke images of perfectly picturesque suburban cities where teenagers get together on weekends to courageously flirt with their crushes and discover new romantic feelings that lead to fondly remembered embarrassments. I want Carmela and Tony to rediscover their young love just as badly as I want Carm to just for the love of God get out and never talk to him again. Her words of encouragement, her compliments ring hollow but still I believe and accept them.
Then the song climaxes just as Carmela’s love, exhaustion and despair hit their peak. Her voice cracks, saying “You’re coming back here,” just as the guitar soars and the wordless backing vocals crescendo. You’re overwhelmed with everything at once. Her tears escape and I think about visiting relatives in the hospital and abusive relationships and all the pressures of trying to be an adult but at the same time Tom Petty’s song surprises me with how amazing it actually is and I hope that maybe, despite everything, all that shit will work out in the end.
The emotional power of song is the closest thing we have to a time machine. That’s part of why I love music. Geniuses and novelty acts alike bring back the past. In our memories, “Summer Girls” can be as exalted as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Toto’s “Africa” can occupy the same space as “Big Poppa.” Whenever I turn on the radio I can be suddenly bombarded with old fragments of my life; when browsing through my iPod I unconsciously have the ability to pull back long-forgotten times — good and bad.
The endless tree of associations that we have with music connects us, comforts us and fills us with more than we can handle. And though I’m not always thinking about all of this when “American Girl” comes on the radio and I use it for pure escapism, rolling down the windows and singing along because I’ve come around to the fact that it’s a blissfully fantastic rock song, there will also always be those strangely wonderful nights where it feels like every song that comes up on shuffle has several random half-lost moments attached to it and I can’t help but reminisce on the people, places and emotions the music inspires.