Adult Contemporary is the Unsung Hero of ‘Divorce’ on HBO

Megan McLachlan explores the meaning behind the HBO comedy’s soundtrack and what it says about Frances and Robert’s relationship. Divorce Season 2 concludes on HBO Sunday, March 2 at 10 pm ET.

At the end of the Season 1 finale of HBO’s Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Frances berates her impending-ex-husband Robert (played by Thomas Haden Church) in a voice message. “You have made a terrible, awful, irreparable mistake,” Frances says, her voice growing emotional. “And you’ve lost, Robert. You’ve lost everything now.” Then, right before the credits roll, the music of Little River Band’s “Lonesome Loser” swells to a painful crescendo.

Usually, an obvious music choice like this one might make audiences cringe (after all, Robert is the clearly Lonesome Loser in this circumstance). But the syrupy, Lite FM quality of the song offsets the drama of the situation, so that it’s the clear choice. It’s unexpected and nostalgic, the corny schmaltz a reflection of the winsome hope this couple once held in their youth. Parker’s previous HBO television show, Sex and the City, was often called out for having a fifth lady character in the form of the setting of New York City. And in her second HBO series, the additional integral character to the show is its Adult Contemporary soundtrack.

“I’d like my Eagles’ albums. . .”

In Divorce Season 2 (which concludes Sunday, March 4), the music continues to color the demise of the DuFresnes, while also serving as a meaningful relic in their relationship. In the first episode of the second season, during the signing of the divorce papers, Robert says, “I’d also like my Eagles’ albums, Hotel California, Live, and Best Of Volumes I and II.” Behind all of the fighting, cheating, and heartbreak, what keeps these characters connected, besides their children, is the sentimentality of where they used to be in their relationship and even before they met, often represented by the music they listened to. And nothing captures this wistfulness more than the soft rock score, with Season 2 music selections including “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc, “No Matter What” by Badfinger, and “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan.

Soft Rock, another term for Adult Contemporary music, gained popularity in the early ‘70s, with artists like Captain & Tennille (whose “Do That To Me One More Time” is featured in Season 1, Episode 7, “Weekend Plans”) and Supertramp (“Just Another Nervous Wreck” is featured in the Pilot) growing their fan bases by churning out harmless pop hits. The music is believed to be a reaction to “harder” rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. A 1971 Billboard Magazine article highlighted the differences between hard rock and, the guiltier pleasure, soft rock, with Alvin Lee of the blues rock band Ten Years Later saying of the lighter genre: “I listen to soft rock, but only when I’m in my car. I’ll listen to Fairport Convention, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens, but it’s not the kind of music I’d play myself.”

Waiting for It To Be Over

divorce season 2

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Today, soft rock songs are still associated with driving, especially when they appear on Lite FM stations or Delilah, but they’re also frequently heard in doctor’s offices, for their inoffensive appeal. Many associate these songs, which may include tunes by Amy Grant and Al Jarreau, with interminable waiting—waiting to be seen, waiting to be heard, waiting for it to be over—which makes the Divorce soundtrack even more flawless. Frances and Robert are in limbo, the demise of their relationship not quite official, nor never really over in the grand scheme of things. They’re seated in a metaphorical waiting room, with their marriage—and lives—on pause.

The early 70s and 80s time period is also noteworthy because during this time, this is presumably when Frances and Robert were growing up, as Generation X children, post-Baby Boom. With divorce rates starting to skyrocket during the ‘70s and ‘80s, either their parents or their friends’ parents were probably getting divorced (although on the show, we meet Frances’s parents who are somewhat happily married). In many ways, the Divorce Soft Rock/Adult Contemporary playlist represents a soundtrack of Gen X youth, when this generation was watching families break apart, hoping they would grow with the hindsight to avoid the same.

And that’s where the soundtrack pokes at the tragedy in this comedy, these songs, impressions of lessons wasted. Frances and Robert couldn’t avoid the unhappiness their parents experienced and are forced to repeat the same mistakes, like a broken turntable.

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