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In 1990, a TV show unlike any other aired. Imagine, if you will, a hybrid of serious police procedural drama interspersed with full-blown musical theatre numbers that feature everyone singing their secret intentions to synthesizer music. That juxtaposition of gritty vice subject matter — drugs, prostitution, even police violence — with Broadway song and dance choreography was exactly as bizarre as it sounds.
When it first aired, nobody knew what to make of it. Some thirty years later, that’s pretty much still the case. So how in the world did such a strange show get conceived, let alone greenlit?
The brains behind the show were Stephen Bochco and his writing partner William Finkelstein. While Bochco’s name may not be immediately recognizable, you surely know his work: Hill Street Blues, Dougie Howser M.D., L.A. Law, NYPD Blue. It’s no surprise that ABC would instantly greenlight another show with this pedigree.
But given Bochcho’s previous successes, Cop Rock is pretty darn outside the box. The idea fell into his lap when a Broadway producer suggested doing a musical version of Hill Street Blues. And while that concept ended up falling apart, the idea of a cop musical stuck — and Cop Rock was born.
The show is head scratching, cringe inducing, troubling, and even sometimes honestly, if not unintentionally, hilarious. But it does have its charms, and some of the songs actually do manage to get stuck in your head. Here we’ll go through the musical hits and misses of one of the most bizarre TV experiments of all time. Enjoy.
“Under The Gun”
The theme song to the show, and among the best songs in the entire 11 episode run, is written and performed by multiple Grammy and Academy Award winner Randy Newman. This song fits the show not only lyrically but in its style too — it’s a fun, quirky, slightly goofy ’90s-typical TV theme, likely meant to turn your Miami Vice frown upside down. It also theoretically gives the show’s audience a preview of what they might expect when they keep watching.
Where it takes a turn to the slightly inexplicable is that the main characters are all just sitting there, in a dark studio, or backstage somewhere, watching Newman’s band play. Are they here in character, or are we just watching the actors chill in their “off time?” Are those the producers? Writers? Is this supposed to be some sort of “casual Fridays police briefing” thing? We have no idea, and it’s never explained; the next time we see these folks, they will be in uniform (or costume and makeup), and almost definitely singing.
Honestly, it kinda works. Although perplexing, the song stands on its own pretty well even aside from these unusual trappings.
Setting: a tense courtroom. The lawyers for both sides, court reporters, victims and accused are all breathlessly awaiting a verdict. The no-nonsense, down to business judge looks over and asks the jury if they’ve reached a verdict. The foreman sombrely says they have. The judge then snaps his fingers, points to the bailiff, and says “hit it!”
One ghost bar later, we’re smack in the middle of a sultry Gospel-infused ballad. Why read the verdict when you can sing it? (Said nobody, ever.) The “courtroom as church” metaphor, aided by the visual wardrobe synergy of the judge’s robe with the Gospel choir’s pulpit gowns, is accented and amplified when everyone in the room gets up to join in on the gleeful occasion of a man being sent to jail. And according to the lyrics, it would seem, simply on the basis of his “guilty eyes.”
The entire number lasts about two minutes, becoming increasingly more raucous – the defendant hams it up somewhat hopelessly by crooning that he was “abused as a child.” If “He’s Guilty” is supposed to be humorous, it fails, but as a work of song it has some merits, and is incredibly lushly arranged. While far from the worst song Cop Rock puts on display, it’s hard not to be taken aback by how ridiculous and off-kilter this number is.
Aside from more problematic implications inherent in this song, this one is just… not very good. Whatever humor they attempted to manifest with the silly lyrics, it’s just a straight miss. A female cop in this scene essentially sexually assaults her partner in their cruiser after being “turned on” at a crime scene. Within seconds, she’s bellowing about how she loves “fisticuffs” and rough sex while literally chasing her terrified partner around the scene.
In one of the more concerning moments, she throws him on the trunk, straddles him, and sings the questionably chosen lyrics: “I wanna go BUMPTY BUMPTY! I wanna go woozy woo woo woo.”
What little this song has going for it — and I’m really going out on a limb here — is that this actress at least delivers the notes with great, theatrical gusto. This one’s a permanent cringe inducer and a head scratcher; likely not the reaction the show’s creators were going for.
“For The Record”
Here, a mob of reporters swarm around two people — a white cop who shot a Black civilian, and a civil rights leader — yelling for media quotes. It very quickly devolves into a fully-choreographed musical number, of course, with reporters peppering the two characters with numerous inappropriate, loaded questions (one guy actually croons “would you agree this case has racial overtones?”).
While the very song itself may have felt contemporary, perhaps even cutting edge to some viewers, at the time, the cheeseball synth timbres and distorted guitars that provide its backbone haven’t exactly aged well. It’s almost impossible not to hear it as a cheap Top Gun karaoke template. What’s worse, the subject matter depicted in the scene — police brutality against minorities — is as important and urgent an issue as ever.
In one terrifyingly glossed-over moment of monologue, the police offer in this scene actually tries to defend himself by saying: “I’m not a racist. I’m just a cop.” And the media’s unabashed requests for comments that are “sensational” and “confrontational” only further reinforce how far we haven’t come as a society since this originally aired.
Arguably the most famous song from Cop Rock (thanks to being lampooned in a recent episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight), but if you haven’t heard it in its full glory yet, please take a minute to do so.
In the song, a sleazy, sinister figure promises a childless couple that he can provide them with a baby, for a fee, no questions asked. Slinky bass and cheesy synths only up the ridiculousness of the subject matter, but the syncopated lyrics are really the coup de grâce: “Baby merchant, Tots ‘R’ Us. I give you all the service and no damn fuss!” Bizarrely, it actually does sing like a jingle for a service that kidnaps infants and sells them on the black market — and effectively. It’s painfully catchy. Have fun getting this one out of your head.
“We’ll Rise Again”
Here we are. The finale. The capstone. The final song of the final show is no less bizarre than the rest. Two characters emphatically break the fourth wall and commiserate about the show being cancelled, how much they loved their characters, and how they didn’t get to sing more songs.
They seem to think, however, that it’s not really over, and the song is predicated on the possibility they’ll be renewed or picked up by another network. Well, sorry guys, this party died hours ago. But the whole crew shows up anyway, instruments akimbo, singing a Rockabilly hop about the show and how unusual it was (“we tried to give you somethin’ you ain’t never seen before”), how expensive it was (“our show almost cost as much as heaven’s gates,” really?), and how it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings. Right on cue, a sequin-bedazzled woman descends from the ceiling on a swing and sings a verse before being whisked back up into the rafters.
Are they trying to guilt trip the audience for not tuning in? Who does that? It feels too meta to actually satirize the cancelling of a television program on its own network, during the air time of the show itself… Nonetheless, here’s one of the more absurd finales you’re ever going to see on network TV.
While Cop Rock was undoubtedly a critical and commercial failure, you can easily see its musical theatre DNA show up in shows like Glee, Nashville, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. One might reasonably argue that it was ahead of its time in some ways, or that if done slightly differently it could have caught on. As it stands, it is a fantastically cringe-filled adventure through some of the most outlandish television ever created.
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