Ryan Murphy’s FX series, Pose, is set in the ball culture world of New York City, 1990. 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. You can read all of our Pose coverage and season one’s music breakdowns here.
For their sixth episode, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the creators of Pose revisited their AIDS cabaret from last season and gave us even more to enjoy. We get performances from Sandra Bernhard, Patti LuPone (even if her character is doing something sinister), a Billy Porter solo and another duet between Porter and Mj Rodriguez.
Nearly all of the songs used in this episode are for the cabaret and are excellently chosen, but there are a just a couple disco tracks we get before spending most of our time in the hospital.
In the first moments, we hear Midnight Star’s song “No Parking on the Dance Floor” from 1983. It’s all about not parking “your booty” on the dance floor and keeping it dancing. The song is the title track from the band’s fourth and most successful album.
During Pray Tell’s first haunting, taunting visitation from Candy, we hear some of Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Released in 1976, this song samples Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and remixes it into a disco beat (the title is a pun referencing the size of a liquor bottle). It’s pretty much Murphy’s only major hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 19 weeks after debuting at 80, but only staying at the top position for a week. Its renown is most likely due to its being included on the massively successful Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. We don’t hear much of it in this scene, but its high-intensity strings accompany the sudden, disorienting appearance of Candy well, illustrating the absurdity and topsy-turvy nature of Pray Tell’s vision.
Finally, the first “cabaret” performance, albeit one that is a hallucination. Pray Tell, dressed in a Met Gala-worthy ensemble that includes a cape with a train weighed down by glowing garbage bags, sings a jazzy rendition of the Judy Garland classic “The Man That Got Away.” The song, a highlight and emotional centerpiece of the 1954 A Star is Born, had music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin respectively. It’s a prime example of what is called a “torch song,” a song in which someone sings about lost or unrequited love. The song is arguably the most famous part of the tortured A Star is Born (the production, release, and partial salvage of which is a long story worth reading). To get it perfectly right, the scene was filmed with Garland in three different costumes, at three different occasions in over forty different takes. Over three days, Garland did about 27 takes, partial or complete. It was eventually well worth it, though, as the sequence is beautiful, richly colored, and the song is stunning.
The performance is perhaps most effective because it’s just Judy singing her heart out. It is additionally an interesting scene to reference because besides the well-known ties Garland and her career have to the LGBTQ community, this specific scene inspired the title of the play The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley. The 1968 play, recently revived on Broadway, is a landmark piece of literature that showcased the lives of gay men from a personal perspective, and in a way that is frank and unapologetic. The title comes from a scene in A Star is Born in which James Mason’s character, Norman Maine, helps calm Esther’s (Garland) nerves by invoking the memory of the “Man That Got Away Scene.” Imagine you’re just “singing for yourself and the boys in the band,” he says. Coincidentally, the 2018 revival is being adapted into a film with the revival cast for Netflix by Ryan Murphy.
For the first real cabaret performance, by Nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard), we get a beautiful rendition of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April.” The ballad is from Prince’s eighth album Parade, which was also the soundtrack to his 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon. The song is about the mourning of a lost friend, Christopher Tracy, but although Prince is singing it he is a sort of omniscient narrator who is singing about Tracy, the character Prince played in the film. Although the song was not initially released as a single in 1986 and was therefore ineligible to chart, after Prince’s death in 2016 the song’s individual sales moved it onto several European singles charts. The melancholy song is an apt choice for our characters who know that sense of loss all too well.
Next, we get a Patti LuPone performance. Although the show stretches a bit to get her character, Frederica Norman, to this AIDS Cabaret, Pose is not going to exclude Patti LuPone from its musical episode. She sings “I’m Still Here” from Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies because naturally, LuPone must sing a Broadway tune. The original recording was done by Yvonne De Carlo, who had a long career on stage and screen and who you might recognize as the matriarch of The Munsters. The song is a classic “survivor” song, with the character looking back on her life and what she’s been through and outlasted, and how it has made her the strong woman she is today. You can imagine Frederica sees herself this way, like a bulldog who’s fought her way to the top, but it also applies to those people she looks down on, especially Blanca who is not getting pushed aside without a fight.
The next performance is used for comedic effect, but it’s a perfect character choice. Elektra, who is decidedly not a singer, performs Madonna’s smoky ballad “Sooner or Later.” This song is coincidentally also written by Stephen Sondheim and it was written for the film Dick Tracy, which Madonna starred in as an archetypal “gangster’s moll,” Breathless Mahoney. The song won the Best Original Song Oscar in 1991 and was a successful release for Madonna. The song is included in the Madonna album/Dick Tracy soundtrack I’m Breathless, which also has “Vogue” as a closing track. We’ve already seen Elektra’s fandom of Madonna and her aspirations towards being her, so it makes perfect sense that she would likely have bought I’m Breathless and gotten familiar with each of the songs, particularly the sultry style of “Sooner or Later” even if she can’t quite pull it off herself.
The cabaret wraps up with Blanca beginning her performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” eventually being joined by Pray Tell. The song is from Wonder’s 1976 hit album Songs in the Key of Life, and it is entirely perfect for Pose, and fitting with its mission statement. Wonder sings: “The force of evil plans to make you its possession and it will if we let it destroy everybody… We all must take precautionary measures if love and peace you treasure.” Every week we see the characters of Pose struggle to keep the love and the light in their lives, even when up against monumental obstacles. Sometimes Pose itself fights the same battle.