Battle Of The World's Biggest Yaz Fans
Every show is putting 'Only You' on its soundtrack, but which one is using it best?
I know it's thirty-three years old, but "Only You" may end up as my favorite song of the year.
Despite my ardent love of pop music -- with particular emphasis on the synth pop that Yaz helped pioneer -- I somehow missed their entire catalogue until just a few months ago. So for me, it's a brand-new track! Plus, prestige TV has so completely embraced "Only You" this year that it might as well be a 2015 hit.
Consider this: in the last six months, the epic ballad has played a significant role on Looking, The Americans, and Orange Is The New Black. Toss in the fifth-season premiere of Fringe, which started this trend back in 2012, and it's Yaz-apalooza on basically every series cool kids love. (I guarantee you that if Mad Men had flashed forward far enough, little Eugene would have had his first same-sex experience with some New Wave-y British boy while "Only You" played on the tape deck in his Yugo.)
But with all this exposure, I have to ask: which show makes best use of Yaz?
Where can we hear the longest snippet of the song?
That prize goes to Looking, which sounds the opening notes over the final moments of Kevin and Patrick's romantic breakthrough, then plays the rest over the episode's credits sequence. It's this extended clip, in fact, that convinced me to download the song myself (as well as "Don't Go," which we'll talk about later.)
Which use provokes the most darkly beautiful feelings?
Because come on, y'all. "Only You" is a perfect template for mopey '80s Britpop, where every breakup provokes a heartrending rumination on the exquisite torture of being alive. Alison Moyet's sobbing voice, combined with those low notes on the keyboard, are both raw AND controlled, letting you know she's falling apart...but in an elegant way. (And if I could go back in time, I'd force both The Smiths AND The Cure to release albums called Falling Apart In Elegant Ways.)
In other words, if you're gonna put this on your soundtrack, you'd better damn well earn it. Looking does a good job throughout that episode of suggesting that Patrick and Kevin's relationship is headed for disaster, so Yaz leaves an ironic smudge on their lovey-dovey conversation. Similarly, "Only You" is the first track on the imaginary mixtape Alex gives Piper after they agree to call each other girlfriends -- imaginary, you see, because they're not allowed to make real mixtapes in prison. It's kind of perfect to open a fictional set of songs with a tune that sounds like heartbreak in 4/4 time.
Feelings get much thornier in The Americans, since "Only You" gets played while Kimmy and Philip smoke up in front of some D.C. monument. She's falling for Philip's fake lobbyist while also trying to prove that she's adult enough to grasp what Alison Moyet is singing about. He's using her to indirectly spy on her father. Sounds like perfect fodder for a Culture Club ballad!
But really, there's no beating the emotional onslaught of the Fringe episode. After getting his brain fried YET AGAIN, Walter wanders around a post-apocalyptic New York, wearing nothing but his PJs and wishing he could hear music again. Then he sees some kind of tree-like sculpture made of CDs, pulls off a disc labeled "Road Trip 6," and pops it into the stereo of a burned-out car. And hey...everything works! He gets to hear music! But he's still in a terrible hellscape! So while his wish has come true, it's shot through with agony. Clearly, then, "Only You" is the only acceptable song to be playing in that busted-ass Corolla.
But what about symbolism?
This is a battle between Fringe and The Americans. Like I said, Fringe uses the song to represent the emergence of dark joy, and it pairs the music with a shot of a dandelion growing out of the concrete, even though the earth in this scorched kingdom is supposed to be barren. So in this context, Yaz = grudging hope.
But on The Americans, "Only You" (and really, the entirety of Yaz) represents the web of lies that Philip and Elizabeth have to spin to "protect" their children. Philip learns about the band from Kimmy, then promptly buys their album for Paige's birthday. She's delighted that he so cool, and he's conflicted that he gleaned his pop cultural wisdom from a young girl he may have to sleep with for the sake of Mother Russia. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is furious at having her place in Paige's heart usurped by some goddamned album, and by the time Kimmy is blasting hits, the very sound of Alison Moyet distills a thousand layers of deceit. When you think about what happens with Paige later in the season, this particular spin on the consequences of tradecraft seems especially relevant.
Winner: The Americans.
Which show most skillfully pairs "Only You" with other hits?
Earlier in that Looking episode, Patrick and Kevin slow-dance to Jessie Ware's gorgeous "Say You Love Me," which was also one of my top ten songs of last year. It's sad and beautiful, and it pairs well with Yaz. I also like Alex's playlist logic, on Orange Is The New Black, when she follows "Only You" with tracks by Tegan & Sara and Miguel. It's good to transition into peppier rock before committing to R&B sexiness.
However, The Americans takes this prize by using "Don't Go," the other great single from Yaz's first album, as the soundtrack for Stan's frantic search of a diner bathroom for proof that Zinaida's a spy. Way to showcase an upbeat song from the same band while simultaneously proving that their symbolic embodiment of destructive deception can extend to other characters!
Winner: The Americans.
Which show's characters seem most likely to be Yaz fans?
Bless his heart, but I don't think Walter can really appreciate what he's listening to. I feel like he'd be crying just as hard if "Road Trip 6" had started with "Bump 'n Grind." And while I certainly think the boyfriends of Looking and the teensters of The Americans are in the Yaz sweet spot, you just know that Alex Vause used to dye her hair and cry while blasting Upstairs At Eric's in her bedroom.
Winner: Orange Is The New Black.
All four series do it justice, but The Americans depicts "Only You" as both a vital cultural touchstone and a powerful dramatic tool. Plus, it's actually set in the early '80s, which seem like it has to count for something.
Winner: The Americans.