Music in American Horror Story

American Horror Story: ApocalypseAmerican Horror Story incorporates music in many of its seasons to advance the plot. I’m not talking about the soundtrack or background music used to set the mood, but rather music that is part of the actual story. Here are descriptions of these various creative uses of music.

Season 2: Asylum

At the Briarcliff Asylum, the 1963 hit “Dominique” by the Singing Nun plays over and over on the record player. The repetitions of this relentlessly upbeat song become another torture endured by the inmates under strict disciplinarian Sister Jude.

Season 3: Coven

Season 3 of American Horror Story perhaps packs the most punch in its use of music and music references.

The music of Stevie Nicks, a self-declared “white witch,” advances the plot in several episodes. Swamp witch Misty Day reveres Nicks and her music—especially “Rhiannon,” a Fleetwood Mac song that Nicks wrote about a witch—and even dresses like her. She cares for Kyle after his botched reanimation by Zoe and Madison, but he destroys her beloved recording in a sudden rage. Despite her fondness for Kyle, his violence convinces her to return him to Zoe’s care.

Later, Stevie Nicks herself visits Miss Robichaux’s Academy at Fiona’s behest and sings “Rhiannon.” Fiona is demonstrating to the girls one of the many benefits enjoyed by being the Supreme witch. In another scene, Nicks sings “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You” for Fiona. In the final episode, during the ritual of the Seven Wonders, Nicks returns to encourage the aspiring supremes and sings the Fleetwood Mac song “Seven Wonders.”

Coven incorporates several historic personages, including the New Orleans serial killer dubbed “The Axeman,” who slaughtered residents during 1918-19. He purportedly spared anyone who played jazz in their homes. Coven credits the sudden end of his killing spree thanks to the women of Miss Robichaux’s Academy luring him to the school to murder him. Zoe and Madison unwittingly release his ghost through a Ouija board, and he resumes his spree while initiating an affair with Fiona. Coven represents the killer as a saxophone player, in a nod to the “axe” nickname for the instrument.

Season 4: Freak Show

Carnival freak show owner Elsa Mars uses her troupe to lure customers so she can resume her former career as a chanteuse. Her signature song is “Life on Mars” by David Bowie (even though Bowie wrote the song in 1971, long after the story’s 1952 setting). Elsa’s pursuit of stardom as a singer propels the plot to its conclusion, when she performs on Halloween and summons an evil spirit that leads to her demise.

Jimmy Darling, aka the Lobster Man, sings Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” during one of the troupe’s performances—another anachronistic choice but appropriate lyrically for the theme of society’s cast-offs asserting their pride to be who they are.

Season 8: Apocalypse

Reprising Asylum’s torturous repetition of an upbeat song, the leader of a high-end fallout shelter plays the song “The Morning After” every day. The song—a recording by Maureen McGovern from the 1973 disaster film The Poseidon Adventure—perfectly fits the theme of Apocalypse. It’s the only song that plays on the radio, and it drives the survivors crazy, as perhaps leader Wilhemina Venable sadistically intends it to do. Then one day, Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle” inexplicably replaces it, prompting a comment from one of the survivors. Later, the radio shifts again to another 70s song, Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman,” written and sung by Stevie Nicks. Referencing a song by Nicks hints that the witches of season 3’s Coven will be returning. Indeed, Nicks makes an appearance to perform “Gypsy” for a gathering of the witches and warlocks.

Season 9: 1984

This homage to 80s slasher flics climaxes with a planned nostalgia music festival at Camp Redwood, at which proprietor Margaret Booth intends to unleash mayhem on musicians and audience alike. The first band to arrive—the 80s one-hit wonder Kajagoogoo—ends up murdered by Richard Ramirez. Everyone else, including headliner Billy Idol, is turned away thanks to the intervention of camp counselor Trevor Kirchner.

Season 10: Double Feature

The first half of this season, titled “Red Tide,” concerns a black pill that unleashes artistic creativity, but at a devastating cost. We first meet two parasitic writers as they sing the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton hit “Islands in the Stream” in a Provincetown bar. Their fondness for singing duets leads to a tense encounter later on when agent Ursula Khan interrupts another performance with harsh criticism. Writers Austin Sommers and Belle Noir now view Ursula as a dangerous enemy. Later, we learn that Belle introduced Austin to the black pill after his humiliating drag performance of “Magic Man” by Heart. The song is appropriate given the magic lure of the black pill.

Season 11: NYC

Taking a detour into historical drama, season 11 sets its plot in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Bathhouse owner and cabaret singer Kathy Pizazz—loosely inspired by Bette Midler’s early career performing at the Continental Baths—performs her shows for the bathhouse patrons. We hear her singing the Peggy Lee classic “Fever,” an apt choice with lyrics about feverish desire. She auditions a drag queen singing the Cole Porter tune “Anything Goes.” Again, an appropriate choice that reinforces the theme of sexual liberation. After she hires him, we see him practicing “Witchcraft,” a song made famous by Frank Sinatra. The song reinforces the role that tarot cards soon play in the plot.

A vision of Kathy appears bedside when the detective Patrick Read is dying, and sings the haunting ballad “Calling You” by Holly Cole. The song, performed by Jevetta Steele, first appeared in the 1987 movie Bagdad Café and includes the lyrics “and I can feel a change is coming, coming closer, sweet release.”

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