The Best Music Moments of ‘Transparent’

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 11.03.14 in Features

Transparent, the groundbreaking new series from Amazon, tells the story of the Pfeffermans, a secular Jewish family in Los Angeles. Jeffrey Tambor, (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show), plays Maura, who is in the process of transitioning from a man to a woman, but is still known to her family, for most of the series, as the Pfefferman patriarch, Mort. Throughout the series, Maura’s daughters Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), son Josh (Jay Duplass), and ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) work through her transition while dealing with their own existential drama.

The show is as much about the familial relationships as it is about Maura’s transition; it is equal parts comedy and gutting heartbreak, and the cast is impeccable. But part of what makes the most powerful scenes resonate throughout the first season’s 10 episodes is the music that accompanies them. As Transparent takes place in L.A., much of the soundtrack nods to the breezy guitar-driven folk of the ’60s and ’70s — but there’s often more to the music-and-plot pairings than just the sound. And there’s a musician-heavy cast, too: Ali’s best friend Syd is played by Carrie Brownstein, and the members of the band Josh manages are played by Alison Sudol of A Fine Frenzy (Kaya) and Clementine Creevy of Cherry Glazerr (Margaux). Here are some of the show’s key musical moments.


Jim Croce, “Operator” (Episode 1)

Josh, the Pfeffermans’ resident womanizer and man-child, works in the music biz and likes to shower girls with his musical knowledge. We first see this in the pilot, when he and sister Ali are sitting on the floor at their dad’s house looking through his records. They stop at Jim Croce’s Photographs & Memories – His Greatest Hits, the cover of which is a close-up of the singer’s face — mustachioed, eyes squinted mid-laugh, and an enormous nose. They loved Croce when they were kids, and Josh, who now works in the music industry, laments that he’d never be able to sign an artist like him today. “Look at that schnozz,” he says. “You could not get that nose on TV today, in a million years.” He and Ali break into Croce’s song “Operator,” which music supervisor Bruce Gilbert has said is about “self-delusion and making sense of the past.”

Since the band Josh is managing, Glitterish, is comprised of young, wispy blonde sisters and not a curly-haired man with a big schnozz, he brings the song to Kaya (while they’re in bed, because he’s sleeping with a member of the band’s he’s managing and that’s what he thinks about during sex — she is not impressed). Later the girls are on a picnic blanket dressed like ’60s flower children as Margaux strums an acoustic guitar and sings “Operator,” with Kaya harmonizing. Josh is using a song from his past, when life was much simpler, to try to move his career forward.
Laura Leebove


Neil Young, “Razor Love” (Episode 2)

In Episode 2′s closing sequence, backed by Neil Young‘s gentle “Razor Love,” Josh tries to convince an accidentally pregnant Kaya not to have an abortion (“We could go to the woods and you could just like get fat and like a ripe peach” is his gross suggestion, to which she responds, “But I don’t wanna be a peach”) and then proposes to her — or, rather, declares, “We should get married” — with a ring a relative saved from the Holocaust (Kaya’s response: “Ew.”).

Meanwhile, Maura and her friend Davina watch as the man who passed away at the LGBT housing complex gets rolled out on a stretcher, and then they walk through his empty apartment, where Maura will soon move in. There’s also a flashback to Mort in 1994, where he leaves his office and throws the women’s blouse he bought in the trash.

“Razor Love” gently echoes moments in the Pfeffermans’ past and present. Young sings, “I’ve got to bet that your old man/ became fascinated with his own plan/ Turned you loose, your mama too/ There wasn’t a thing that you could do,” which nods to the beginning of Maura’s transition, as well as the root of Josh’s delusional relationship with women (as a result of Mort and Shelly’s negligence, Josh spent his teenage years sleeping with his babysitter — which, if the sexes were reversed, would more quickly be classified as rape). Also fitting for Maura is “Looking through/ the window at a silhouette/ Trying to find something/ I can’t find yet/ imagination is my best friend,” as she watches herself, when she was Mort, with her family 20 years ago. — L.L.


Heart, Dreamboat Annie (Episode 4)

Early in Episode 2, we see Josh and Syd in bed together — an odd sight, given that Syd is his sister’s best friend and that Josh has just gotten Kaya pregnant. But, hey, sometimes people land in bed with their sibling’s friend. When the two are clothed and out of bed, Syd scours Josh’s extensive record collection, landing on Heart‘s Dreamboat Annie to borrow. There are always ways to stick your claws into a one-night stand if you’re looking for something more, particularly if the person is a peripheral constant in your life, and borrowing records is a classic strategy. Unfortunately for Syd, the music-nerd conversation quickly shifts into one about keeping quiet about their tryst. She reminds Josh that she’s a lockbox of Pfefferman family secrets, rattling each off before revealing she knows that when he was 15, his 25-year-old babysitter was taking advantage of his “sweet little teenage bod.” The conversation ultimately devolves into an argument that leads Syd to storm out with Annie in tow. “Wait, let’s listen to Dreamboat Annie,” Josh calls after her. Her response — “You really don’t wanna be alone, do you?” — almost foreshadows that the album represents Josh’s need to cling on to things and that, because she may ultimately have to return it, it will pop up again in the season. — Claire Lobenfeld


Gotye Feat. Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Episode 7)”

A significant chunk of Transparent‘s soundtrack relies on songs from the past. But in one of the show’s most powerful moments, a more recent song comes into the fold. When Maura and Davina decide to perform a duet at Trans Got Talent, they opt for Gotye‘s once-ubiquitous breakout single “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a seemingly off-kilter choice for two women who don’t plan on making their performance about romantic love. But their decision — and the decision of the music supervisor — is especially spot-on. By eschewing the roles of heartbreaker and heartbreakee, as the song goes, and instead singing it as two autonomous people, they are really serenading their respective selves from their closeted past. Here, the “somebody that I used to know” is not two past paramours culling through the wreckage of failed relationship; they’re the people Maura and Davina presented as before embracing their true selves. That Maura’s children can’t bear to sit through their entire performance is even more representative of this — by essentially singing to herself pre-transition, Maura is waving a flag to them. Whether they know it or not, they feel it and that’s why Maura’s performance ends with all of her children gone from the audience. — C.L.


Deee-lite, “Power of Love” (Episode 8)

In the show’s only full flashback episode to 1994, Maura and her buddy Mark (aka Marcy, played by Bradley Whitford) steal away for a weekend to a drag getaway Camp Camellia. This is the episode where the audience is fully submerged in Maura’s identity, shirking Mort, while Mark insists Marcy is just a hobby. But before these friendship-shattering revelations — and a booze-soaked evening with Connie, one of the only wives who come to camp, played expertly by Michaela Watkins — the two attend a welcoming dance party. The scene is brief and features Deee-lite‘s “Power of Love,” which is significant for more than just its fabulousness. Lyrics like “What is it that can make a lost soul found?/ Love/ And what is it that can make the coldest day seem warm?/ Love/ And what is it that can bring a smile through to strangers?/ Love, love, love, love,” seem to help push Maura toward self-acceptance. — C.L.


Sylvan Esso, “Coffee” (Episode 9)”

Tammy’s ex-stepdaughter Bianca (Kiersey Clemons) represents a bit of a sea change for Josh. Bianca gets kicked out of Sarah’s home for smoking weed and swimming in the pool with Josh while she is supposed to be babysitting — although it’s much less salacious than the situation suggests, and it leads to her crashing at Josh’s for a few days. Out of a job, but falling in love with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Han), Josh’s world is opening up. It is while he is blissed out with Raquel that he discovers another potential new door to open, when the two overhear Bianca singing in his living room. Slouched on the floor, we see Bianca in headphones soulfully crooning Sylvan Esso‘s “Coffee” — the only song in the series that roots it in 2014. When Josh complains that she never told him she could sing, Bianca offers the old, “You never asked.” It’s not only the signal that something new is about to happen for him, it also functions as a slap across the head to him to do a little bit more exploring about what’s underneath the surface. — C.L.


Leonard Cohen, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (Episode 9)

In a ranking of best-named songs to fit plot points, this is easily the most brilliant. In Episode 9, Shelly’s second husband Ed (Lawrence Pressman) is in a coma and Shelly is in agony waiting for him to die, as her kids are all too selfish to realize she needs help and is lonely, and Maura is the only one there to comfort her. While the Pfeffermans are in the kitchen plotting to off him with Percoset (save for Ali, who’s disgusted and the only one who’s shown any concern for Ed), we see Ed pull himself out of his bed and plunge toward the front door to escape. Then we cut to a scene early in Ed and Shelly’s relationship, where he tells a joke involving Alzheimer’s and the clap, and he says with a smile, “I’m just here to make you happy.” Ed raises his glass with a toast of “l’chaim” (“to life” in Hebrew), and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” by Leonard Cohen plays through the credits. It’s a sweet ode to Ed, who, while unable to speak in the present day, has always come across as endearing (when he escaped early in the show, he returned with a caricature and cotton candy), even though Shelly wrote him off as a pain in her ass. “Yes many loved before us, I know that we are not new/ in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,” Cohen sings, “But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie/ your eyes are soft with sorrow/ Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” — L.L.


Heart, “Dreamboat Annie” (Episode 10)

There’s been a lot of talk about Heart and “Dreamboat Annie” in particular, and we finally hear it at the start of Episode 10, as coroners wrap up poor Ed’s body and Josh and Raquel get ready for his funeral. The song has the line “No one knows the lonely one whose head’s in the clouds” — which fits Josh’s need to always be attached to a woman. Here it’s not Heart singing the song: It’s Margaux from Glitterish and Bianca. After Josh discovers in the previous episode that Bianca can sing, of course he began scheming and got her together with another young singer. (In Episode 9 he mansplains A&R to Raquel: “The only thing that matters is being the first one to find that band that’s untouched, and then when you find them, just like having the instinct to know this is the sound that’s gonna break through.”) Josh looks at them like a creepy older brother, watching his “little ship of dreams,” like in the song, and asks rhetorically, “Were you guys even aware of Heart before today? I think we got a hit on our hands.” — L.L.