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.
Proving that they are maybe the current show that cares the most about its music, this week Pose features one song and foregrounds its importance to a character as a key component to that character’s mental and emotional state. That song, “Love Is the Message” by MFSB is playing during at least three scenes in this single episode, but it is not the only emotional musical choice we get.
We first hear “Love Is the Message” in the first scene when Pray Tell is tending to his dying boyfriend, Costas, in a sparse and grim hospital room. The song follows him into a ball, where he emcees the event despite being intoxicated and clearly suffering. We’re told that this is the third ball he’s been playing “Love Is the Message” at, over and over again. The younger characters are over it. In this scene Lil Papi complains that he’s tired of “hearing this old-school shit,” and at the next ball at which we hear the song, Lulu and Candy Abundance are groaning about Pray Tell’s obsession as well. Showing a bit of her age amongst the youngsters, Elektra tosses of their complaints with a “what are complaining about now? This song is a classic.”
MFSB, or “Mother Father Sister Brother,” was a house band of more than thirty musicians based at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios. They began performing as MFSB in 1972, and their most well-known song is probably “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” better-known as the Soul Train theme music. “Love Is the Message” was one of their earliest hits and has spawned countless remixes, with three different versions by MSFB alone currently streaming. Its reputation as an “old-school classic”—as Papi and Elektra describe it—was solidified in 2004 when the record became one of the first to be inducted into the new Dance Music Hall of Fame. The song has been around for a while, even by 1988, and so has Pray Tell. But we’ll get to that later.
Perhaps to lighten the heaviness of Pray Tell and Costas’s storyline this week, we are given a cute B-plot of Blanca being flirted with and considering going on a date with “corny but cute” Darius. A few bouncy, joyful pop songs are included in her scenes this week that help keep the energy of the hour up enough for us to have a breather between crying jags (Thanks, Pose!). While Blanca talks to Darius and is finally convinced to set a date, the beginning of Whitney Houston’s “You Give Good Love” soars just at the end of the scene when she is smiling and full of those excited flirty feelings. The song continues quietly in the next scene as Blanca works at the nail salon, drawing a direct line between her talk with Darius and her scene with Pray Tell in which she discusses her upcoming date and potential romance. The song acts as a mirror to her feelings: soaring as the first flush of a new crush hits, and playing softly as Blanca continues to think about him when he’s not near her.
However, Blanca’s crush soon comes crashing down. While shopping for her date outfit, the speakers of the clothing store play “Hooked On You” by Sweet Sensation. The lyrics—consisting of lines like “nobody else could make me feel this way/ could it just be that I’m curious… but something tells me that it’s serious” underline Blanca’s crush, as well as her embarrassment when she discovers he isn’t a potential serious guy, but a playboy who has slept with all of her friends already, and that she let herself be taken in by his extreme corniness.
Before we can reach the catharsis of the finale, we are treated to two golden performances by Pray Tell (Tony-winner Billy Porter) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez). While hosting the sad, but very warm, “Cabaret” for the AIDS-patients in Costas’ ward, Pray Tell performs “For All We Know” in the style of Donny Hathaway. The song is originally from 1934, written by J. Fred Coots and Sam M. Lewis, and has been covered by dozens of artists. In 1972, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack released their version on a duets album. The song is sad enough when imagining singing it to someone as a regular goodbye song, but when singing it to someone you love who is dying… it’s a whole new kind of sad. The song is short and simple, its main sentiment being: “for all we know/ we may never meet again… we won’t say goodnight/until the last minute.” This moment, or in this context life itself, may “only be a dream,” so it’s worthwhile to love as much as you can while you can. The most heartbreaking lines come near the end: “Tomorrow was made for some/ tomorrow may never come/for all we know.” That feeling is especially relevant to the characters at this moment, with the hospital patients, Pray Tell and Blanca all affected by AIDS or HIV, and who have no guarantee of “tomorrow” in the way that HIV-negative people do. This song also relates to what Costas tells Pray Tell later in the episode: that after Costas dies, he wants Pray Tell to grieve, but he does not want him prolonging his suffering. Grieve mightily for one day, then “get on with your life”—not in a heartless way, but in a way that Pray Tell usually lives: hungrily, and with love and desire for all that life can give him, because tomorrow is never a guarantee, now more than ever.
After Pray Tell’s performance, Blanca steps up to sing “Home” by Diana Ross from The Wiz soundtrack. The song is sung by Dorothy (as The Wiz is an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz) when she is yearning to go home again after her adventures away. This song is perfect on many levels: it’s sung by Diana Ross, it’s from The Wiz (and the relationship between The Wizard of Oz and the LGBT community is a long and unique one) and it perfectly fits in with the message of the show, as “Love Is the Message” does too. “When I think of home,” Ross sings, “I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” Early in the episode Angel had called the balls her “home” to Patty Bowes, which Patty took literally. Angel had to explain that when she means home, she means “community.” To Angel, Blanca, Pray Tell, Costas and countless others, “home” is something more than a house or a blood relation: it’s wherever you find love overflowing and this episode cements that there is a massive amount of love to spare in this community.
All of the songs incorporated into Pray Tell’s plot this week come from the 70s or early 80s—the “good old days” he spends the hour being sentimental about, and yearning for. We hear “Love Is the Message” once more before the episode ends, but this time it is a kind of celebration of Costas’ life and their past together, rather than a premature mourning for it. Earlier in the episode, Pray Tell tells Costas why exactly this song means so much to him at this moment, and why the younger kids just don’t understand. The speech in full—by the fantastic episode writers Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock—is below:
“I didn’t give the magic of that song away to those ungratefuls. I didn’t tell them what it was like in 1980 when we danced all summer to that song. There wasn’t none of this AIDS mess goin’ on. We were truly free. Free to love, free to fuck, free to be our gay-ass selves in this beautiful little shithole of a town. They’ll never know that feeling. What it’s like to love without worrying that you’re gonna’ die, or worse yet, that you’re gonna’ kill somebody. I don’t know what’s shittier: having that freedom taken away, or never having had it to begin with. Either way, ain’t no going back now.”
Delivered by the heartbreaking and deeply-felt Porter, this speech illustrates the experience of living before and then during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and how it forever changed the community. The first “generation” of LGBTQ people to perhaps really have the opportunity to live publicly and happily was also the one decimated by this disease, and every subsequent generation has had the deathly specter hanging over them to varying degrees. Eventually, there will be no one left who remembers what it was like to be gay before AIDS.
After all of the emotional heaviness of this episode, we get two simple musical moments before the episode ends. At another ball, while Blanca and her friends confront Darius—forming a “sister circle,” ready to tear him down—we hear “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. The classic anthem, coincidentally from 1980, the summer Pray Tell reminisces about, is a great song about independence and freedom to help the characters and viewers breathe a cathartic sigh after a trying week. And finally, it wouldn’t be a Stan and Angel scene without a dramatic and slightly worrisome music cue, and we get one here to end the episode with as the two—who have spent some time apart—are reunited at Show World. As the screen goes up on Angel’s box to reveal Stan sitting there, Whitesnake’s “Is This Love” plays. The titular question rings in our ears like it would with Angel and Stan, who can’t seem to quit each other. Like most Stan-Angel cues, though, this song has me slightly worried. The singer thinks about how he “can’t make it on my own/ wasted days, and sleepless nights/ … I can’t wait to see you again,” drawing up a slightly unhealthy fixation that he thinks “must be” love because the feeling is so strong. Knowing that Stan’s wife is leaving him after discovering his affair with a “transsexual” sex worker and that his job is potentially in danger after an office brawl, seeing Stan’s face here doesn’t exactly scream “love” to me, but something else. Whatever that “something else” is we may find out in the final two episodes.