Ryan Murphy’s new FX endeavor, Pose, is set in the ball culture world of New York City, 1987. The show is visually stunning, the costumes and sets are gorgeous, and naturally—necessarily—the music is fantastic. The music is such a large part of the viewing experience that you could spill hundreds of words discussing what each song means, and/or how awesome it is—and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing here! Each week I will list each remotely notable music choice, complete with a thorough Spotify playlist to match, as well as some discussion of what the song’s significance might be to the world of our characters. If you find yourself scrambling to Shazam each musical selection or you want to hypothesize about what a certain music cue means for a character, join me here to move through each Pose episode—beat by beat.
A Note: Although the first four episodes have already aired, these run-downs will not reference any of those “future” episode events. Read along as you catch up!
God bless us all, everyone, Pose has already given us a Christmas episode (never mind that it aired in June), and it is one of the best Christmas episodes I have seen in awhile. The strength of the episode lies, of course, in its strong performances, but the holiday décor and use of true-blue holiday musical staples helped wrap up this episode to make it shine like a star atop a Christmas tree.
The episode begins perfectly as we follow the House of Evangelista as they pick up their Christmas tree and carry it home. Scoring their picturesque journey is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. This selection instantly places us into the cozy atmosphere of Christmastime, where songs and carols like this fill the air and play as people decorate their trees with their family. That Evangelista listens to it while decorating their tree only works to underscore that, yes, these people are not related but they are just as much of a family—if not more so—than any “real” family you can find. The innocence of this song, with the children’s voices singing, and the undercurrent of melancholy is also perfect for this episode. The children of Evangelista and Abundance spend some of the episode dreaming about getting to have the Christmases they always wanted, or that they miss, or just Christmases in which they aren’t abused or harassed for expressing their “inappropriate” desire for golden robes or red pumps. In a way, they are kids again—like many of us are during Christmastime—just hoping for something magical to happen. Especially now as adults, every Christmas is a chance to replace the sad, hurtful and heartbreaking memories of their childhood Christmases with new, joyful holiday memories created with their chosen family.
Of course, because this is Pose we still get some banging disco and pop tunes to listen to at the balls. “It’s All Over My Face” by Loose Joints plays during Ricky’s first walk as “Billy Dee Williams in the Lynx coat,” with the music perfectly crafting the cool, slick vibe of all the contestants in their luxurious coats.
Next, we check in on Angel as she goes to the apartment Stan chose for her. Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” released in 1987, aptly scores Stan and Angel’s sex scene. In keeping with the rest of the music choices for these two—their music tends to be tied directly to their actions, more so than any other music used with other characters—the song works as a commentary on the moment. “Let’s Wait Awhile” is essentially about a couple deciding they should wait to have sex until they know each other better, their feelings are stronger and more certain and “before we go too far.” Like the previously foreboding uses of “I’m Not in Love” and “Slave to Love,” this song—while being a tender song to use for a relatively tender scene—works to undercut their intimacy by suggesting that sometimes waiting is better, and might they be rushing into this relationship? Their not-waiting also pushes forward the idea that they’re both being pulled towards each other and not thinking too clearly about what fallout they may be putting themselves at risk for. By the end of this very episode, Stan has disappointed Angel and broken a simple promise, already putting a few dents into Angel’s relationship with him.
During a brief, but fun, scene of Damon coaching Lil Papi on how to follow choreography, we hear The Jets’ “Crush On You.” It’s a great, fun song of the times and is indicative of Pose taking every opportunity they can to place their favorite tunes and cultural references into this show, because why not when they’re this good.
At Helena St. Rogers’ class, we hear them dancing briefly to the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” from The Nutcracker. This song choice is a little bit heartbreaking, as The Nutcracker was what Helena’s dying student is imagining dancing in when she goes to see him, and he even sees her as the lead, Clara. It is entirely feasible that Helena and her students were already dancing to The Nutcracker—it’s Christmastime in a dance school, after all—but you can also imagine her picking this music because she had the ballet on her mind after seeing her student and played it to include him in her classes somehow.
The next familiar Christmas tune comes courtesy of Elektra and her children’s Santa robbery scheme. Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love plays during their escapade, and it’s glorious. This is one of the best Christmas songs, from one of the very best Christmas albums, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, released in 1963. Ignoring the vaguely threatening undertone of that title now, this album features artists like The Crystals, The Ronettes, and Darlene Love singing pop Christmas songs behind Spector’s famous “wall of sound” so popular in the ‘60s pop scene.
While Stan shops for jewelry at the mall, “O Holy Night” plays, as performed by the King of “shopping at Christmastime” music, Johnny Mathis. This song was released on Mathis’ first Christmas album in 1958, Merry Christmas, which in 2016 was ranked as the tenth-highest selling Christmas album ever. His voice is unavoidable at Christmastime.
During the too-brief glimpse of the Snow Ball, we hear Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin.” Released in 1979, the single is essentially a rehash of old pop Christmas carols, told through a modern perspective. Hopefully, Pose will use more of Blow in the future, as he was the first rapper to sign with a major record label, and his 1980 hit “The Breaks” was the first certified gold rap song. Including artists like Kurtis Blow, even for a fun Christmas moment, is just the kind of interaction with history and time and place that Pose is proving to be so damn good at.
It wouldn’t quite be Christmas if we didn’t hear “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, and we finally hear it on Christmas morning as Ricky and Damon exchange gifts and have a romantic moment, while Stan and his family have strife and in-law-stoked marital tension. Cole originally recorded the song in 1946, but his re-recording in 1961 is considered to be the definitive version, and it’s the one you know best. This ultimate Christmas-cozy song playing over two different versions of Christmas morning—and Damon’s first Christmas away from his childhood home—helps us further compare and contrast what kind of Christmas you can have, with two different kinds of families. Like many moments of the show, it also works to “normalize” the families of the ball world, to explain that they are indeed families, who decorate trees and tease each other and look after each other, and eat together on Christmas Day in the same way any other family may be expected to do.
Another delightful musical moment comes during the montage of Angel preparing her apartment for a Christmas night with Stan. She dresses up, she bakes cookies, she compliments herself using a delightful British accent, and all to Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” If you ask me—and you haven’t, but I will answer anyway—this is the only version of this song that ever needs to be played, forever and always. It’s cute, it’s sexy, it’s charismatic and commanding—and it’s perfect for Angel’s excitement here, which helps us feel her disappointment later when Stan doesn’t show up.
Before the episode ends, we get a snippet of “Jingle Bells” by Kitty Wells playing in the Evangelista apartment as Blanca burns the turkey (and launches it out the window). This is the most filler-song of the episode, as it’s a fairly standard rendition of a Christmas standard. However, most of the songs in this episode—while being classic choices—are really smart picks. In keeping with most of the series’ music choices, nearly every singer of each featured Christmas carol in this episode is a person of color, just like the series’ lead performers. In this case, the songs are truly classic, which is a good enough reason to play them, but they are also songs that you can imagine the characters themselves choosing to listen to. They’re not going to want to listen to the blindingly white side of Christmas carols, but from artists that feel more familiar. Also, the major Christmas songs used here were primarily released in the early ‘60s, with the version of “Santa Baby” being the oldest from 1953. This would mean they were a lot newer and likely played a lot more when most of these characters were children in the mid- and late-1960s. These are the songs that are going to remind them of home, of childhood, and of Christmas—because even when they’re bad, the way you celebrate holidays as a child are the memories that really make an impression on you.