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Constrained Frequencies: The Wire and the Limits of Listening

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 441-459 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0049

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"The first thing that music is doing, rather than highlighting emotion, it's creating a sense of place. If it's a scene with Michael's crew standing on the corner, we need hip-hop to go in there." These are the words of Blake Leyh, music supervisor for The Wire during the five seasons it aired on HBO between 2002 and 2008. Much has been written about The Wire's use of music and whose music it uses, from critic Jeff Chang's liner notes for the show's first soundtrack in 2008 to the numerous print and radio interviews with Leyh. And the show's music certainly merits this interest: The Wire featured an estimated six hundred separate pieces of music during its five-season run.

Further fueling interest in the show's musical practices was the real-life feedback loop that occurred between The Wire and local Baltimore musicians. While the show prided itself on its attention to the specificities of the local, The Wire rarely included any Baltimore hip hop or house music in any of its scenes during its earliest seasons. Despite this slighting, local musicians and producers eagerly expressed their appreciation for The Wire through their music, culminating in the local release of a series of mixtapes titled Hamsterdam (2005), a nod to the show's third-season experiment in "legal drug-trafficking zones." Upon hearing these mixtapes, the show's writers attempted to make amends by both incorporating the work of local musicians into its final two seasons and releasing a second official soundtrack titled Beyond Hamsterdam: Baltimore Tracks on "The Wire" (2008) to publicize the Baltimore urban music scene, which, despite some high-profile wrangling amongst the pop-music literati about its authenticity and the ethics of its ever-eminent, if perpetually delayed, crossover, had never broken through to the mainstream. The eventual use of Baltimore-based music on the show and its soundtracks, according to Leyh, provided "one more way 'The Wire' [could] give back to Baltimore."

The omission of local music from The Wire's first few seasons was a critical misstep for a show so invested in keeping faith with its self-imposed standards of musical realism. From the start, the show distinctively used music diegetically, meaning that any music heard by the audience emanated from a source within a scene. With certain exceptions like the season-ending montages, if the viewer hears music while watching the show, the characters can hear it, as well. Within the diegetic landscape of The Wire, the jukebox, car radio, and boom box serve as music's primary vehicles, working to make "that environment more believable and more real" as opposed to the nondiegetic musical practice of layering music over scenes in order to "manipulate emotion," as Leyh explains. On The Wire, characters and viewers share the same sonic landscape, a technique of televisual realism that bars the viewer from accessing a higher plane of sonic emotive cues unavailable to the characters themselves.

With the show's creed that its environments be as grittily authentic as possible, its interest in underclass characters and narrative arcs of degeneration, and its emphasis on environment as a key determinant in individuals' lives, The Wire aligns itself with the literary genre of naturalism. The show finds a home next to the stark urban texts of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, sharing their antiromantic convictions about the systemic nature of social divisions and the power of preexisting societal structures over individual agency. Music does a great deal of work to legitimize the bleak authenticity the show aims to perform, standing in as a realistic detail organic to the show's characters rather than as a heavy-handed instrument of sentimentality laid over its characters from above. Leyh explains that "[w]e put music in there as a device to push you away from the people a little bit," marking music as a carefully placed barrier that prevents the viewer from forming an eased "melodramatic" identification with the show's characters. Through The Wire's self-imposed tenets of musical realism, one can hear the show's creators chafing against its urban detective show predecessors such as New York...