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. It would be criminal for the Pose team not to use their clearly massive budget in order to fill out the balls and these characters’ lives with the best music out there. 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 three episodes have already aired, these run-downs will not reference any of those “future” episode events. Read along as you catch up!
The first song we hear is “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner, a dance hit from 1981. Its dance-ready rhythm plays over a shot of the two men of the House of Abundance voguing in their humble abode with their sisters and Mother. At once we’re in the 1980s and immersed in the world of these characters that live and breathe this music and this dance. It’s a great song for dancing, but the title doesn’t hurt – this music is the “heartbeat” of the show, moving it along and pumping it full of some extra life.
The first big moment of the episode, the robbery of the museum to gather the best Royalty outfits the ballroom scene has ever known is soundtracked to the oh-so-appropriate “In My House” by the Mary Jane Girls. Ryan Murphy productions have a tendency to be very on-the-nose with their musical choices, and Pose is no disappointment in that respect. Here, we get our first real introduction to the House of Abundance at work and of course must hear “In My House.” The thing is, Ryan Murphy productions also have a tendency to choose really fun and great music, so who cares if it’s on the nose—this song rocks. It’s from 1985, shortly before this season is set, 1987, and was written, arranged and produced by Rick James. The video is absolutely amazing and just about as stylish as Elektra herself.
After the cold open—a brilliant one—we move to Allentown, PA to get introduced to sweet dancer Damon. After a snippet of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” at Damon’s ballet class (a fairly typical ballet song to choose) we follow Damon home on the bus and into his room with the opening beats of, and then the first part of, Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” Summer’s tenth top-ten hit of her career, this single produced by disco-god Giorgio Moroder was released in 1980. This is an excellent song choice for Damon because it’s eminently danceable but it makes sense that he would have access to it. It’s a few years old and it’s a top-ten hit; he isn’t going to be aware of niche club hits way down in Allentown, but he will know about “On the Radio.” Coincidentally, this Donna Summer choice has a bit of an ironic flavor because during the mid-80s, shortly before the timeline of Pose, Summer—who was by then a born-again Christian—was alleged to have made a statement that AIDS was a punishment from God for the “immoral lifestyles” of the gay community. Summer always denied this and wrote a letter to ACTUP explaining the misunderstanding, but that incident acts as a ghost hanging over the scene that follows Damon’s carefree dancing, in which his father beats him and kicks him out, and his mother tells him that “that disease” is what he will get for acting on his gay desires.
Back at the House of Abundance, Rufus with Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” plays, leading up to Elektra and Blanca’s volcanic confrontation about Blanca’s desire to leave and to become the mother of her own, new House. “Ain’t nobody can love you better than me,” Khan sings and perhaps, deep down, that’s what Elektra—Blanca’s first House Mother—feels about Blanca. Elektra never seems to have complimentary words for Blanca, but it’s hard to imagine someone not being a little hurt when one of their children decides to flee the nest.
Next, for a brief moment, while Damon gazes longingly inside of the New School for Dance, we get a bit of the first movement of John Adams’ “Hallelujah Junction.” This is the first song so far to break the time period of the series, as it was written in 1996, way after Pose takes place. However, this same part of the movement was used last year in the gay romantic drama Call Me By Your Name. It plays over the opening credits, depicting several photographs of “impossibly curved” statues with “not a straight body” among them. I don’t necessarily think Amanda Krieg Thomas, the music supervisor of Pose, was trying to explicitly connect the show and the film but it is an interesting, even if coincidental, connection to other “gay narratives” being told right now—and it won’t be the last one.
The next few musical cues are used for their dance-ability and appropriateness. Damon dances to Danish new wave duo Laid Back’s 1983 song “White Horse” in the park to earn change, where he meets Blanca (who might as well have arrived on a metaphorical white horse to save him? Eh, maybe that’s too much). “Meeting in the Ladies Room” by Klymaxx plays at the first ball Damon attends, and “Love’s Theme” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra plays in its full ‘70s disco cheesiness to accompany the Executive Realness looks served on the ballroom floor.
The next musical highlight comes during Stan and Angel’s hotel room meeting, and it’s the most on-the-nose choice yet. The soundtrack staple “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc plays on the radio during this paid interaction, in case we didn’t understand the vibe of this moment. (Of course, the singer of the song is insisting he’s not in love because he is so in love). Here some of the action actually fits in with the lyrics like a delightful, self-aware puzzle. As Stan watches Angel undress, 10cc’s Eric Stewart sings “I like to see you, but then again, that doesn’t mean you mean that much to me.” As Stan and Angel grow closer we hear 10cc sing “don’t tell your friends about the two of us.” The song plays as a reminder—or maybe a warning—to both characters that they can’t afford to be in love, so they should insist on claiming that they aren’t. But we can’t all be that careful with our feelings, as Stan and Angel soon illustrate for us.
As Stan returns Angel to her spot, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” by Kate Bush plays on the radio (Stan knows how to find those good stations, huh?). Released in 1985 as part of the classic Hounds of Love album, this is—in my oh-so-humble opinion at least—one of Bush’s absolute best songs. Even better, it is a musical choice here that avoids being completely on-the-nose and does a lot of work in creating an emotional texture for the scene, as well as the entire Stan-Angel relationship, as it is used two other times in this episode. While the song contains the too-easy line “come on, angel”—relevant as we look at Angel as the music plays—it is one of the most thought-provoking songs about the relationship between a man and a woman, and all of the large and small power imbalances, misunderstandings and miscommunications that inherently exist between them, and the desire to eradicate those differences by swapping lives with each other in order to begin to truly understand. Angel, a transwoman of color working as a sex worker, and Stan, a white, cisgendered middle-class-and-rising businessman, and family man may have more power imbalances than most couples. It remains to be seen how their differences—or their similarities, whatever they may turn out to be—will affect their relationship or their lives.
During another instance of voguing at the pier, The Peech Boys’ “Don’t Make Me Wait” plays. While we check in on Stan and his wife out to a fabulous lobster dinner, tony instrumental pieces by Glenn Miller (“Moonlight Serenade”) and Bernard Herrmann (“I Still Can’t Sleep”) play over their evening, with the latter song’s title is an indication of Stan’s very strong feelings for Angel that cloud his mind at all times. However, the song is also from the Taxi Driver score, as the unofficial theme for Betsy, the woman Travis Bickle is, erm, a little obsessed with. Hopefully, this doesn’t have any bearing on the future of Stan and Angel.
Back at the ball, The Houses of Abundance and Evangelista have their first face-off to “Swept Away” by Diana Ross. Released in 1984, this song is such an experience, and completely perfect for this emotionally charged moment. The song is about the singer’s realization that she was “swept away” by a lover, and fell in love foolishly, as she catches that lover cheating on her. Again, it’s a song with a message that could be applied to the dynamic between Elektra and Blanca. Elektra is possibly hurt by Blanca’s decision to abandon Abundance, and Blanca is hurt by Elektra’s lack of support and blessing for Blanca’s pursuit of her dreams. The song’s undercurrent of betrayal and anger lends itself to the drama of Elektra and Blanca.
The biggest and best musical moment of the episode comes near the very end, during Damon’s eleventh-hour New School audition. Here we listen to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in full, watching Damon react to and live the music, as he works out his choreography and his nerves to eventually lose himself in the music entirely. It’s an incredibly joyous, and triumphant, moment and it is the perfect song for it. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this year’s other use of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and choreography, in a “future sequence” during Love, Simon. Simon, who is “masc” and straight-passing, and who happens to be portrayed by a non-dancer and non-gay man, imagines that when he gets to college he will come out and then, to make up for his old closeted life, will be “super gay.” Then he imagines himself joyously dancing around the campus to Whitney Houston’s hit—until he stops the dream and says “well, maybe not that gay.” Well, Simon, Pose is that gay, and it’s amazing because of it.