Kyle MacLachlan, left, played FBI agent Dale Cooper and Michael Ontkean is Sheriff Harry S. Truman, investigating the murder of high-school homecoming queen Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. (ABC)
You can find traces of Laura Palmer’s Theme everywhere, most recently in the fade-out from Drake’s two-month-old Get It Together: Translucent synths come from nowhere, both eerie and lovely; rising, falling, then disappearing as life moves on.
Drake’s song is about damaged ties that still bind, making the flicker of Palmer’s spirit more than apt. A quarter-century ago, Twin Peaks spent two seasons exploring the repercussions of the late Laura Palmer’s toxic relationships, and Angelo Badalamenti’s Fender Rhodes-composed theme always tied the show’s many loose narratives back to her – music as a figurative ghost.
As the show’s improbable giant once said, it is happening again: Twin Peaks returns this weekend after a generation-long wait. In ways big and small, that generation has been inexorably shaped by Badalamenti’s original soundtrack.
Since the prime-time Pacific-Northwest soap stopped airing in 1991 with a snarled vision in a smashed mirror, its image has been reflected across pop culture.
But beyond the heaps of praise for its role in shaping today’s prestige TV, Twin Peaks left just-as-indelible marks on pop music – including the very ways it reaches listeners today.
Badalamenti has a long history in pop – he co-wrote music for Nina Simone, briefly collaborated with Paul McCartney, and brought Julee Cruise into Twin Peaks’s roadhouse – but he’s become best known for his soundtracks, in large part thanks to his Grammy-winning work on David Lynch’s small-screen creation.
He’s described his style as “beautifully dark” – bittersweet music, a tangled mess of terror and longing. “His music has the ability to romance or disturb the listener even when removed from the cinematic images it often accompanies,” writes Clare Nina Norelli in a just-released book on the music of Twin Peaks.
Since the show aired, tributes have shown up in name alone, such as Toronto-based synth-rock band Windom Earle and, yes, Chicago’s Twin Peaks.
There are spiritual tributes, including the longing outro of Drake’s Get It Together, and in ghostly pop the world over. Formal tributes, too: Polaris Music Prize-winner Owen Pallett performed at a 2015 celebration of the music of David Lynch projects, including Twin Peaks, at the Sydney Opera House.
Some potential connections might never be confirmed. When the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley turned Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah into a sparse, finger-picked-guitar classic in the mid-1990s, it sounded like little else that decade – except perhaps the similarly picked song Just You from Twin Peaks, played on-screen by the character James Hurley, who also shared Buckley’s affinity for 1950s-style cool distance.
The show’s biggest influence in pop music, however, was channelled through genre-twisting producer Moby.
Traces of Twin Peaks have long showed up in music through sampling – including by the rapper El-P and the inimitable DJ Shadow – but Moby best bent the show’s sounds to his will. In late 1990, he was a young New York techno DJ working on a song called Go when he had a fit of inspiration watching Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer’s Theme struck him: those big, suspenseful chords were what his song needed. He plunked the heavy opening lines onto his Yamaha SY22 keyboard, added some more flourishes, and gave Go the “Woodtick Mix” to his label head.
“It was an odd remix, but I thought it worked,” Moby writes in his 2016 memoir, Porcelain. He was right: the Palmer-aping song launched his career as a recording artist.
And despite many subsequent setbacks – laid out in intricate detail in Porcelain – the early success eventually gave him a platform to release his 1999 album Play.
First a flop, Play’s fortunes were transformed after Moby licensed every song on the record for commercial use. They showed up in films and TV shows and ads, over and over and over.
The feat is widely considered an industry record – certainly a first – and helped him eventually sell 12 million copies of the album, nudging electronic dance music into the American mainstream. Play’s release scheme was just as influential as its sound, ushering in a new era of laxer attitudes towards “selling out.”
At the turn of the century, as the record industry began crashing from its all-time highs, the strategy behind Play was a turning point for how artists release music: they needed money for their creative work, and it wasn’t coming from album sales much any more. Play marked an attitudinal change: it was a statement that selling songs to corporations wasn’t as bad as everyone used to say it was.
“Licensing the music so widely never presented him with an ethical dilemma,” writes Jace Clayton, also known as DJ Rupture, in his definitive 2016 book on music’s digital transition, Uproot.
There were inherent problems with this – the album liberally sampled voices of poor southern African-Americans, which he profited from – but it nonetheless made Moby “a transitional figure.”
Moby couldn’t have made Play without Go, and he couldn’t have made Go without Twin Peaks. Play became a standard-bearer as Napster fuelled an industry collapse; commercial licensing went from uncool to crucial income stream.
Less than a decade later, the once-anti-corporate Sonic Youth was selling compilations at Starbucks, and now corporate collaborations have become an industry norm. It’s a trend that will forever frustrate many grassroots artists – but then, Twin Peaks has spent a generation frustrating its grassroots fans.
Thanks to Moby, Laura Palmer’s sonic ghost will haunt music for generations to come.