Can music explain Nashville? Is it the key to the series’ soul? Because there are numberless shows about attractive people doing scandalous, attractive-people things, and many of them have zingy dialogue and a degree of poignancy, and some of them even make you care about the leads, but none of them are Nashville.
To be Nashville, you need to intersperse your plot points—your character arcs and surprise romantic couplings—with pauses in the form of songs. These scenes don’t go anywhere but just hover, vibrating, like feedback from a guitar chord. They are often beautiful or exciting and they reinforce and develop themes that have already been introduced. (For instance, Deacon and Rayna’s heartbreaking duet at the Bluebird insisted on their special connection. Juliette’s acoustic performance last week showed us how serious she was about retooling her brand.) Mostly, the songs interrupt the flow of events to provide an experience that is qualitatively different from the one we’re expecting—an aesthetic arrest or state of pure contemplation, something that lifts us not only out of our own lives but out of the messy personal lives of the characters.
That is good news for the characters. Though with music, they are somehow perfected and beyond reproach, without the music, some of them tread dangerously close to being boring or unappealing. (It is odd how, the moment Gunnar and Scarlett step up to the mic, all frustration at their cartoonish mooning wafts away like one of those aerial melody lines.) Nashville remains a soap opera in which the leading men and women almost by definition have to make horrible choices. Juliette steals and gets married for three minutes and behaves cruelly towards her mother, a recovering addict. Rayna seems content to string Teddy along while pining after Deacon or Liam. (So many gorgeous hunks to fret about. Damn those dramatic imperatives!) But when either character starts to sing, you forget how petty or diva-ish she acted in the scene before.
It’s not only that the songs distract us from characters’ misbehavior. Nashville’s musical interludes elevate the singers too, briefly exposing their best selves. Rayna may be willing to compromise her romantic life, but she won’t budge when it comes to her sound. (On tour, she is the type of hellish micromanager who fiddles with the guitar riff kicking off a particular number.) She has the courage to defy her record label and team up with a grungier, rockier producer, whom she then fires when his divided loyalties come to light. And Juliette proves at least Rayna’s equal in vision and passion. Despite success as a sequiney pop tart, she continues to push for a more authentic style. Nor does the show question Juliette’s desire to be taken seriously as an artist. Sure, appearing onstage in jeans and a button-down to debut a ballad before hundreds of tweenybopper fans takes guts and integrity, but it also requires talent to back up the grand gesture.
All of which is why I find myself subscribing to an odd form of Nashville dualism. On one hand, there’s the world of personal drama: sordid affairs, dirty politics, addictions, rivalries. And just above it, almost touching, floats the world of song, where all is pure and backlit. The song world can’t really solve the problems of the real world. But it’s the best reason to watch.