Soundtrack Saturday: “My So-Called Life”

In January of 2010, I decided to do something special and different with Soundtrack Saturday: I wrote about a televison series. I had every intention of making this a yearly thing, but, well, that hasn’t happened. That’s not to say it won’t — Soundtrack Saturday is on hiatus, but it hasn’t been permanently canceled. 

For the first TV edition of Soundtrack Saturday, I decided to write about one of my favorite TV series of all time, one that I knew a lot of other people my age, particularly women, loved, too: My So-Called Life. I’ve gotten quite a few emails in the past two years, from die-hards like me, asking me to repost this, so I just had to give in. If you missed out the first time around, I hope you enjoy.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing about the soundtrack to My So-Called Life for quite some time, but I kept putting it off because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take this column into the TV realm. But I think I’m ready to expand Soundtrack Saturday’s scope to give myself — and you, dear readers — a little more variety. I likely won’t be writing about TV shows very often, but I figured I’d give it a shot and see how it goes.

When what turned out to be the last episode of My So-Called Life aired almost 17 years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long), I remember how bummed I was when I heard that it might not be returning for a second season. (The last episode aired January 26, 1995, but the show wasn’t officially canceled by ABC until four months later.) And when I finally heard that it wasn’t coming back, I was devastated.

There were no shows like it on TV at the time that portrayed people my age — I was 16 and a junior in high school when it aired — in a realistic way. The characters were believable — they dressed like we did (lots of plaid shirts, combat boots, and floral granny dresses) and even wore the same outfits more than once. They even talked the way we, like, talked. And the story lines covered issues that we were actually dealing with as teenagers in the mid-’90s.

For those of you who’ve never seen My So-Called Life, it centers on 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and her trials and tribulations with her parents, Patty (Bess Armstrong) and Graham (Tom Irwin); her younger sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit); her friends — rebellious Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), flamboyant Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), do-gooder Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa), and nerdy Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall); and, last but not least, boys. Well, one boy in particular — the infamous Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto).

While I did watch the show on ABC during its one-and-only season, I also obsessively watched the reruns on MTV. I even stayed up all night once during my freshman year of college to watch a marathon of the entire series. I connected to it on so many levels and related to many of the characters, particularly Angela (even though I never had a Jordan Catalano to contend with). I don’t think a TV show had ever affected me like that before, and I know a lot of my friends who are also fans of it would say the same.

One element of My So-Called Life that I’ve always loved is its use of music and the integral part it plays in many episodes (19 were produced in all). For example, I can’t imagine any other song besides R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” playing at the end of the pilot. The Grateful Dead is the perfect band to act as a bridge between Angela, her father, and Rayanne in the fourth installment. And episode seven gives us our first taste of Leto’s musical abilities when Jordan sings a song that Angela thinks is about her.

Fans of the show will remember Buffalo Tom, as themselves, performing at a club in episode 12. An entire episode focuses on Jordan’s band, Frozen Embryos, and Rayanne’s desire to join so she can reconnect and spend more time with Angela (we get to hear Leto sing again; this time it’s a cover of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”). And then there’s Juliana Hatfield’s appearance as an angel in the Christmas episode, performing one of my favorite songs of hers, “Make It Home.” Plus, Angela’s I’m-over-Jordan-Catalano dance, set to Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun,” is something a lot of us girls can relate to (“It’s such a relief to finally have my life back!”).

Music was so important to My So-Called Life that an official soundtrack album was released. It contained only a portion of the songs featured in the show, but also a few that never made it into any episode. I’ve managed to gather almost every song; I think I’m only missing the ones sung by the choir in the Christmas episode. I’ve also included a few YouTube clips so you can relive — or perhaps experience for the first time — the joy that is Jordan Catalano’s “Red” as well as Buffalo Tom’s cameo. And if you want to watch My So-Called Life without buying the excellent DVD box set, you can now watch episodes on Hulu, Netflix Instant Watch or on the Sundance Channel.

W.G. “Snuffy” Walden – Theme From My So-Called Life

Episode 1 (8/25/94)
Animal Bag – Everybody
R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts

Episode 2 (9/1/94)
Jawbox – Cruel Swing

Episode 3 (9/8/94)
The Cranberries – Dreams

Episode 4 (9/15/94)
Bettie Serveert – Palomine
The Grateful Dead – Althea

Episode 5 (9/22/94)
Enigma – Return to Innocence

Episode 6 (9/29/94)
TLC – What About Your Friends?

Episode 7 (10/6/94)
Jared Leto (as Jordan Catalano), “Red”

Episode 8 (10/20/94)
Buffalo Tom – Soda Jerk

Episode 9 (10/27/94)
Elvis Presley – Blue Moon
Shelley Fabares – Johnny Angel

Episode 10 (11/3/94)
Toad the Wet Sprocket – Fall Down
The Juliana Hatfield Three – Spin the Bottle
The Lemonheads – Down About It
The Juliana Hatfield Three – A Dame With a Rod

Episode 11 (11/10/94)
Archers of Loaf – South Carolina
The Lemonheads – Dawn Can’t Decide
Urge Overkill – Dropout
Sunscreem – Pressure
Haddaway – What Is Love?
Billy Pilgrim – Try

Episode 12 (11/17/94)
The Afghan Whigs – Fountain and Fairfax
Buffalo Tom - Late at Night

Buffalo Tom performed both “Soda Jerk” and “Late at Night” in a scene set at a club:

Episode 15 (12/22/94)
Juliana Hatfield – Make It Home

Episode 17 (1/12/95)
Violent Femmes – Blister in the Sun
Sonic Youth – Genetic

Episode 18 (1/19/95)
Live – I Alone
Frente! – The Book Song

The following songs were included on the My So-Called Life soundtrack album but didn’t appear in any episodes:

Madder Rose – Drop a Bomb
Daniel Johnston – Come See Me Tonight
Further – Petty Core

  • Eric S.

    You can certainly date this soundtrack as 1995-1996 by the songs/artists here. Urge Overkill and Billy Pilgrim were two of my nineties favorites that I hadn't thought much about lately. The Toad The Wet Sprocket, Live and Violent Femmes songs have stuck with me. At least back then “Everybody Hurts” hadn't been used to death as the mopey, “I'm so sad” anthem it's now become.

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  • EightE1

    I agree with Eric, in that the music dates the soundtrack, but in a good way. I'm close to a decade older than the target demo for MSCL, so the show didn't move me like it moved others, but the music brings to mind a period in my life that I recall fondly.

    Thanks, Kelly. I just figured out what my Saturdays have been missing the last month.

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  • Jill

    Kelly, this is, like, very awesome. I have the series on DVD & the CD soundtrack and this is one of my favorite shows. Even though I was a bit older when MSCL was on I could completely relate. Thanks :)

  • bill b

    Never a huge fan of the show I did buy this cd around the time it was released. Now I will have to dig it out again and throw it on the stereo. thanks!

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  • JT

    I watched the show growing up and was sad to see it go.It sort've became the replacement for the “Wonder Years”. I would suggest trying to do a Soundtrack Saturday to that show…but as we all know, the show was not released on DVD due to the costs of the musicals rights etc…which I have to ask Kelly (or anybody) does the DVD version of the MSCL have all the music listed above throughout the show?

  • KellyStitzel

    Yes, all the music in the latest version of the MSCL DVD set is intact. In fact, the book that comes with the set lists the songs featured in each episode.

  • hatinghate12283

    Nice Post!! I actually just checked out the whole season on dvd from my local library this past week and my wife and I can't get enough. I watched this show when it originally aired, but was too young to truly appreciate it(11 years old). A local used cd store has this soundtrack in their “dollar bin” and I've been tempted to buy it. After this post, I don't need it for the songs, but I might buy it anyway for the nostalgia. Also, ironically enough, I made a facebook post about My So Called Life a couple days ago, and it attracted more comments than any other post I've ever made. Most of it was a debate about wether or not Jordan Catalano was a likeable guy. Anyhow, thanks for the awesome post.

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  • drcastrato

    Madder Rose! Completely forgot about them. Thanks for all of this.

  • robynstevens

    This is like, seriously…the BEST Soundtrack Saturday you've ever done, Kelly. It's so beautiful, it hurts to look at it.

  • acatalephobic

    I'm…so happy in my heart that this show is featured in your first foray ito television soundtracks.

    This show has always been close to my heart…and reviewing the soundtrack has only deepened my respect for it.

    Kudos. And face-hurting smiles. :}

  • David Ragland

    One of my favorite shows. . . thanks for filling in the soundtrack gaps! Awesome post.

  • David Ragland

    One of my favorite shows. . . thanks for filling in the soundtrack gaps! Awesome post.

  • rose

    ugh I wish the files weren't gone, because i just finished watching this whole show and i would love love love the music.

  • kathy

    Very cool blog, thanks! Keep up the great work and have fun checking out one of my favorite artists: Catya Maré…you won´t regret it!
    She recently won both the Billboard World Song Contest and Hollywood Music in Media Award and released her third album last week….

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  • Superkato15

    It won’t let me listen to any of the mp3s! The video’s work but not the mp3s. :( I was so psyched to find this site.

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  • Anonymous

    Eric – you should check out Urge Overkill’s comeback record “Rock And Roll Submarine”. It’s really good.

  • Anonymous

    Funny you should mention watching a marathon of the show. That’s how I saw it, back in ’95 or ’96 during a flu-addled weekend.