What makes the Succession theme worth ignoring the 'Skip Intro' button every time
Here is a deep dive into what makes Nicholas Britell’s Succession theme an unmistakable earworm that remains with you long after the opening credits.
If Adele could get Spotify to remove its Shuffle option for her album, surely a wishful global petition should make streaming platforms (like Disney+ Hotstar in India) delete that wretched “Skip Intro” button from a show like Succession. Because seriously, how dare it?!
The resounding downbeat-helmed introduction of Nicholas Britell’s Succession theme is an unmistakable earworm that you believe remains with you long after the opening credits. It is a trippy tune that is both rich in its dark classical sound from the 1700s, yet groovy like Coolio was composing it on a Steinway. The song resonates with the glorious dissonance amongst the characters of the show, causing you to irresistibly head bang for the first four bars of the song (at least).
Very few shows actually have title themes that are so powerful and alluring that they stand tall despite all the drama or comedy that ensues. Take for instance RJD2’s 'A Beautiful Mine,' whose first chord would instantly transport us to the world of Mad Men. It is so easy to instantly recognise Ramin Djawadi’s iconic opening credits of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Similarly, Devlin’s modern interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s blues rock cover of the Bob Dylan classic 'All Along The Watchtower' gives The Young Pope just the oomph it needs to radiate the contrasts between religiosity and irreverence. Long after the song is over, you still feel it lurking in your consciousness, reminding you of the themes it holds within.
Succession takes that to another level. This HBO satirical classic has a huge fan-following around the world that is growing despite dropping an episode a week at a time when full seasons are dropped on OTTs. Fans are unanimous in their appreciation for Britell’s reverberating title credits, many of them unable to understand what about it makes it such a hit piece of instrumentation.
To start with, the song is bang on the "downbeat," which in musical terms, is the first beat of a measure. It is also its strongest beat. When the rhythm of a song starts on the downbeat, it creates a decisive beginning that dominoes into a pattern of optimising the downbeats as the bars recur through the score. Barely does one settle into the opening beat than the first chord (C Minor) immediately establishes the dissonance with a pesky, unnecessary B note. A series of accented dissonances where chords feature notes that are not meant to be there, constantly jolt you into thinking that something is potentially out of place here. It conjures up a feeling of uncertainty, stubbornly refusing to resolve the moment for you. Like a piano that is detuned or a novice just banging their hands on a piano, tone-deaf to how discordant it feels in the ears and eventually through our bodies.
Powerful bass notes denote a sense of immovable wealth whereas the looming string section oscillates between tension and superficiality that showcase the fragile façade of relationships on the show.
The dark classical grandeur is complemented by hip-hop sensibilities underlining a kind of duality that is representative of the show’s themes. Where on the one hand, there are outrageous heights of luxury and obscene exploitation of power, the other hand holds within the quirks of humane vulnerability that hides behind the absurdity of one’s misplaced sense of self. It is cyclical in its very nature because every oppressor operates from a space of fearing victimhood, and every victim in the show has a false, egoistic perception of how they have perhaps scored a home run in manipulation. There is neither clarity of morals nor vision, and the title theme heightens this obfuscation with striking distortion effects.
If the title song is not addictive enough, Britell uses it as the foundation of the score, and evolves it into various smaller pieces in the course of the show. One hears many versions of the main title score as the same chords are played very differently, and often on different instruments, helping characters and scenes navigate through complex emotions and predicaments.
The Succession theme plays like a dramatic ostinato for television, making it a compelling character on the show as it revels in a sense of foreboding as well as relishes in being the harbinger of impending success. Or so we think. Britell’s mastery lies in how he has woven grand musical dissonance into filial dysfunctionality, and made us unwitting, compulsive spectators. It iis almost vicarious the excitement we feel when we hear the opening chords, evoking in us a response that would make Pavlov happy.
Just to tease us further, Britell’s 2019 release of Puppets, the official remix with American rap bad boy Pusha T is precisely the kind of collaboration a Kendall Roy would seek but thankfully, it is nowhere as cringeworthy. The rapper gives verse to the haunting score, vocalising themes of power, family, avarice, betrayal, and of course, money. This version is the height of combining the old and the new — in terms of people, wealth, and musical styles, where King Lear and Hamlet meet Britell and Pusha T.
As the season finale of Succession inches closer, we have to contend with listening to this on loop until the next season releases. #SpotifyWrapped 2022 will have no idea what hit it.
Succession Season 3 is streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar with a new episode dropping every Monday.
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