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.
Pose certainly kicked the heat up a notch or two this week, in every way you can imagine, and it starts before the credits even roll. The unexpected romance between Pray Tell and Ricky begins with Babyface’s “Whip Appeal” emerging onto the soundtrack as soon as their lips meet. If you’re going to have sex in the 90s, you might as well listen to Babyface. The song was released in February 1990, as the third single from the R&B artist’s second album, Tender Lover. Babyface is one of the most successful R&B writers and producers ever, with writing or producing credit on 26 number-one R&B hits and 11 Grammy wins.
The next song we hear comes courtesy of the radio in the House of Evangelista while Damon and Ricky make a frozen foods dinner. “Feels Good” by Tony! Toni! Toné! is what we hear before Ricky shuts off the radio to tell Damon about his shattering diagnosis. The single was a number-one hit for the group, as well as their first top-ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The optimism of the song –“don’t ever change/cause I’m so into you/And you know it feels good/to know that you’re by my side”—makes it a bitterly ironic choice to hear before Ricky tells Damon that he’s positive, which means he did have sex with Chris when he said he didn’t, and which means Damon might be at risk. Damon is understandably upset and shaken to hear this, and it doesn’t get easier when Damon surmises that Ricky and Pray have started a sexual relationship as well—and just moments ago Damon was telling Ricky he was ready to get back together with him. Moments ago, it may have felt good for both Damon and Ricky to be by each other’s side, but now Damon has made it clear that he can’t trust Ricky like that anymore.
Fortunately, Damon as progressed as a dancer so much that he doesn’t let these personal torments upset his routines. We see his graduation performance at the New School, set to Alvin Ailey’s “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” with Evangelista and even Elektra and Lulu watching on in the audience. Alvin Ailey was an African-American dancer, director, choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, with the purpose of nurturing black artists and expressing their experiences through dance. This song comes from one of the seminal Ailey ballets, titled Revelations which also happens to be the title of this episode. Revelations was first produced in 1960 and tells the story of African-American’s faith and tenacity from slavery to freedom in America. Ailey, having grown up raised by a devout Christian mother, incorporated various spirituals and gospel music into this work. “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” is the second song of the first section, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” which depicts characters grasping for freedom that isn’t yet within reach. Revelations was released as an album, and features other songs that are likely familiar to you, like “Wade in the Water” and “Sinner Man.”
Although Damon gives an amazing performance, and everyone appears to be in a celebratory mood, Damon’s graduation lunch at Evangelista takes a downturn quick in a ferocious scene that sees a still-reeling Damon revealing everyone’s hypocritical secrets and sparring with Angel over her drug use and Pray Tell over his relationship with Ricky. It’s a firecracker of a scene, and notable at the very least for being a scene at a table in which Elektra is largely silent.
Coming down from that altercation, we head back into the ballroom where “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground plays during some kind of muscle man contest which Papi wins. The 1990 song, sung by Shock G’s alter ego “Humpty Hump,” created by Shock G wearing a fake glasses-and-nose combo mask, is a song that is very much of its time. It’s so much of its time that it lost the MTV VMA award for Best Rap Video to MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This.” That said, it’s a fun song that has enjoyably daffy lyrics (“I like the girls with the boom/I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom”) so I can’t blame Pose or the ballroom dancers for wanting to dance to it.
The next ballroom track is “Give it to Me Baby” by Rick James from 1981. This song and two others from the same album, “Super Freak” and “Ghetto Life,” topped the American dance charts for three weeks in the summer of 1981. While the song is, of course, a funk-dance bop, because it’s Rick James, the lyrics are better not looked too deeply into, as they’re mostly about a guy trying to convince his girl to have sex with him even when she’s tired and he’s being obnoxious. However, the song has been sampled or interpolated on several other popular tracks including “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy,” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)” by Jay-Z and “P&P 1.5” by Kendrick Lamar.
The next notable ballroom song accompanies Damon’s takeover of the banjee boy/vogueing category, in which he channels his feelings and his certified dance skill into a routine that scores perfect tens across the board. The song we hear is “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, released in 1988. The song, which you’ve most likely heard at some point in your life, is a great track for this moment because it has the propulsive energy to be appropriate for a dance competition, while Base’s rap contains enough charisma and braggadocio to feel fitting with Damon’s somewhat aggressive, attention-demanding performance. It’s got swag, basically.
The episode ends on a melancholy note, with Angel and Papi moving out of the Evangelista apartment and Damon leaving for a European tour with Malcolm McLaren, who has a successful hit with “Deep in Vogue.” Mariah Carey’s “Love Takes Time” plays over a montage of goodbyes, reminding us and the characters that “love takes time/to heal when you’re hurting so much.” Earlier in the episode, Blanca tells Angel that they’re family, and families fight, and they come back together. We can see here that the wounds that were lashed open or re-opened at that dinner fight will take time to heal, but they’re already on their way. Pose gave us some fire this week, but it leaves us in a classically Pose way, with a message of love and the hope that things will get better sooner rather than later.