Follow along in Bite Me!, pp. 286-289.
And if you’re watching Angel:
Follow along in Once Bitten, pp. 209-211.
I hope you’ve set some time aside for tonight’s Rewatch, because it’s a doozy!! I’ve been planning it since the beginning of the year, and it’s taken more time to put together than any of the other weeks, but it’s been worth it. I think almost every song in the episode “Once More With Feeling” will be covered in some form below, so sit back, turn up your speakers, and enjoy!!
Previously… on the Buffy Rewatch:
Before we discuss this week's episode, maybe it's a good time to recap the story so far. (I apologize that I look like a kindergarten teacher singing to children... I think it's from seven years of singing to children...)
Of course, with each week, I know you’re expecting some analysis, so before we begin to unlock the talents of the other Rewatch guest hosts, let’s have an analysis from the one person who can tackle the musical side of Buffy better than anyone: Janet Halfyard. Take it away, Janet!
I am prepared to state with considerable confidence that there is not single episode of Buffy that has been written about by more people than “Once More, With Feeling” (OMwF). It is possible, thanks to Matthew Pateman writing an entire book about “Restless”, the season 4 finale, that there are episodes that have more words written about them, but the number of people who have written about the musical episode at some point is significant enough that it got its own session at both of the first two Slayage conferences; and there were another three chapters on it in Music, Sound and Silence, the book I coedited on music in Buffy to add to all the existing ones in Slayage and elsewhere. So no pressure on me then to find something interesting to say.
The idea of a musical TV episode was not original – it had definitely been done before, not least the excruciating episode “The Bitter Suite” in Xena: Warrior Princess where (not unlike in OMwF) magic led to a great deal of singing, including Xena and Gabrielle singing an appalling rock-ballad duet to each other with some of the most cringeworthy lyrics ever written. [Editor’s note from Nikki: I loved that episode… So melodramatic and maudlin and over-the-top crazy. It was everything Xena was about.] OMwF is different: it is one of the best episodes of Buffy, one of the televisual experiments that made Buffy great, the third of the experiments that centre around sound in significant ways – the other two are “Hush” in season four, where music replaces the sound of voices, and '”The Body” in season five which has no music at all, and which 'composes' its sound design instead. Together, they point to Joss Whedon's sensitivity to the sonic as of equal importance to the visual, and I can't underplay how unusual that is in television as a whole, a medium whose name privileges the visual over the sonic. So the first thing that comes out of OMwF is that it reveals Whedon's creative interest in sound and music; and the fact that this episode is all about singing brings in the element of performance too.
There is, actually, quite a lot of performing in the Buffyverse, from the wonderful Greek tragedy and Cordelia's singing in “The Puppet Show” and Willow's failure to sing Madame Butterfly in “Nightmares”, back in season 1; Oz as the boyfriend in the band; Giles singing songs in the coffee shop; Spike doing his impression of Sid Vicious singing “My Way” in “Fool for Love”; and there's even more singing and performing going on in Angel, mostly thanks to Caritas, the demon karaoke bar. Add to that the fact that Mr Whedon wrote the theme song for Firefly, plus the lovely “Ballad of Jane” telling of the heroic deeds of one of the characters who had become a folk legend on an obscure planet he'd actually been trying to rob; and that he wrote a whole other musical show with Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog, and his interest in music is pretty convincing.
OMwF remains his best known and most written about musical venture, and one of the many reasons it is so interesting is the episode's peculiar relationship with (Jargon alert!) musical diegesis. Quick explanation of that: essentially, there are two types of song possible in film and television: diegetic song (where the characters are perfectly well aware that they are singing) and non-diegetic song, where they aren't. In diegetic song, the song is as real and as normal to us as it is to the characters ie: characters know they are singing or being sung to and the source of musical accompaniment is likely to be visible, be it a karaoke machine, a band or a guitar. Non-diegetic song, on the other hand, relies on the suspension of our disbelief to accept that the characters are essentially unaware that they are singing or being sung to and the musical accompaniment is also usually invisible, coming from the underscore. In these circumstances, we are asked to accept that sometimes in musicals characters will burst into song because their emotions have become so intense that they simply have no other choice if they are to express themselves properly (e.g. Dorothy breaking into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). However, these types of song, whilst clearly being sung, are not perceived as being outsides the normal course of communication by the characters; nor is the sudden sound of music from an invisible source perceived as unusual. At some quite profound level, the characters do not know that they are singing or have lost the ability to know that singing and music are not normal in this context.
Another important distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic song is the element of volition. In diegetic song, the character must choose to perform. Sometimes this decision is made under forms of duress, but consent is still given. Rose’s first strip-tease in the musical Gypsy, when she is cajoled by her mother into performing is one example of this, as is Willow’s attempt to sing Madame Butterfly. However bad, half-hearted or unwilling the performance, the character has made a conscious decision to (try to) perform. Non-diegetic song, however, is imposed from outside the narrative: the character makes no decision to sing, but sings nonetheless.
Buffy has played some quite intriguing diegetic games, “Once More, with Feeling” (OMwF being one the most elaborate (“Normal Again”, later in this season, is going to take that to a whole new level), although this was not the first occasion that something of this nature was introduced. In the season four finale, “Restless”, Giles’s dream, like Willow’s, takes the form of a performance event, if a very strange one. We see him performing, as we have done earlier in the season, but now he is on stage at The Bronze, and instead of singing a song, he simply sings his dialogue. This creates a somewhat tangled diegetic web. On one level he is clearly perfectly aware that he is performing: he climbs onto the stage, the audience cheer, there is a visible band accompanying him. He grasps the microphone, and his body language bears all the hallmarks of a straightforward diegetic song, an impression reinforced by the fact that the audience responds to his singing by holding their lighters aloft, flames glowing in the semi-darkness. Yet at another level, what he actually sings, which is his continuing dialogue with Willow and Xander, makes it clear that he and his audience are unaware that this really isn't normally diegetic (Giles singing a song in a club) or non-diegetic (Giles compelled to express himself through song). It's a lovely reversal: in a conventional non-diegetic song, the characters’ actions usually indicate that they believe themselves to be speaking their thoughts, whereas in fact they are singing a song. Here, Giles’s actions indicate that he believes himself to be singing a song, although he is in fact delivering his dialogue. Effectively, this song manages to be both diegetic and non-diegetic simultaneously. Although Giles does clearly know he is singing, he and everyone else fail to perceive what is clear to us, the audience, namely that the song itself is abnormal, the usual rules of musical diegesis having been suspended by the dream-state.
A comparable circumstance underlies OMwF, although here it is a spell rather than a dream that suspends the normal rules, and the web of diegesis is further complicated by the nature of the relationship between a character and the actor who plays it. Normally, if a song is non-diegetic, the actor knows that he or she is singing in a situation where singing would not be considered normal, but the character does not, and this situation remains fixed. It creates a very clear boundary between them, placing the actor in the privileged position of having knowledge the character does not share. There is always going to be an imbalance of knowledge between character and actor, but it is normally hidden by the fact that the actor is rendered largely invisible by the presence of the character being played.
In non-diegetic song, only the character has the abnormality of the singing concealed from them. Both the audience and the actor are aware that singing is occurring in a fictional environment where it would not be occurring in the real world; and the act of singing can itself render the actor slightly more visible than usual. The suspension of disbelief is stretched a little further, with the technical demands of singing potentially making us more aware of the artifice of performance. In fact, the production of OMwF demonstrates an awareness of the heightened level of separation in the actor/ character relationship in a musical, as the episode's trailer combined clips from the forthcoming show with footage of the actors both rehearsing in a dance studio and singing in the recording studio, out of costume, out of the Sunnydale diegetic context and therefore evidently out of character. This would seem to be highlighting the extent to which the actors were occupying a privileged position in the context of non-diegetic song, threatening to undermine the coherence and credibility of the characters they had been playing for just over five seasons by this point.
However, in the episode itself, songs are only non-diegetic whilst they are being sung. Whilst the songs are in progress, the characters generally behave as if singing in this context is perfectly normal behaviour, as one would expect in non-diegetic song: but once the songs are finished, they realize that they have been acting abnormally, that they have been singing despite having made no decision to sing, a sleight of hand that allows a non-diegetic song to become retrospectively diegetic.
This, in effect, renders the actors invisible once more as the characters reassert control over knowledge of their actions. The characters become aware that their universe has been infiltrated by the non-diegetic (even though, by the end, all elements have been accounted for within the series’ diegesis) and so the characters themselves are allowed to share the awareness of the actors who play them that they are singing non-diegetic songs. Rather than destroying the fabric of the Buffyverse, this scenario manages to reinforce the credibility of Buffy’s world, because the characters are able to perceive the abnormality of this externally imposed singing in a situation when normally, fictional characters would remain oblivious, a kind of diegetic double bluff.
There's a second area that is worth mentioning that connects to music but takes the idea in a different direction, and that's the idea of myth. This episode is the culmination of an exploration of the Orpheus myth that goes right back to season 1, although I have neither time nor space to go into all that right now. However, the important elements of the myth are that Eurydice dies and Orpheus, the great musician, is so distraught by her loss that he ventures into the underworld to find her. Hades and his mortal bride Persephone are so enchanted by his music that Hades agrees to release Eurydice, on the sole condition that Orpheus does not look at her until they have crossed back into the world of the living. It all goes wrong, Orpheus looks at her and she is lost once more.
The idea of the hero crossing the threshold into the underworld to undergo trials is at the heart of the idea of the hero's journey that we find again and again throughout Buffy (pretty much every episode) with Buffy as Orpheus the hero; but OMwF alludes to the myth while at the same time reversing essential elements of it, reinventing it. Firstly, we have the fact that Willow, Orpheus-like, has retrieved Buffy from what Willow thinks was hell, casting Buffy as Eurydice, this time rescued (and did Orpheus ever stop to ask Eurydice whether she wanted to be rescued?). Meanwhile, a demon has been summoned to Sunnydale, apparently by Dawn, and the demon asserts his right to take the summoner back to the underworld as his bride. This brings in a new myth: now, Buffy plays maternal Demeter to Dawn’s Persephone, bargaining with Hades to save her daughter; but the Orpheus myth is laid over the top of this. Buffy sings and dances her willingness to take Dawn’s place, so casting herself also as Orpheus singing to Hades to release Dawn as Eurydice – the actual staging of the scene precisely mirrors the staging of this section of the various operas written on this myth, with Hades and Persephone on thrones on a raised platform, looking down at Orpheus as he performs in front of them. Buffy reveals to the rest of her friends for the first time that they tore her out of heaven, so putting Willow back into the role of the selfish Orpheus to Buffy’s own reluctantly returned Eurydice; and finally, as Buffy is about to dance herself to death (a bit of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring thrown into the mix), Spike steps in to save her.
Spike pulls her back from death, an Orphic reversal where his sudden capturing of her gaze pulls her out of hell rather than sending her into it, giving us another suggestion of and variant on an Orpheus/ Eurydice pairing here too. If Willow is the bad Orpheus in Buffy’s resurrection scenario, Spike is the antidote, the anti-Orpheus who truly brings Buffy’s Eurydice back to life, who saves her by seeing her.
So, we have myth, and we have music, and we have a myth about music underpinning this most remarkable episode in the remarkable Buffyverse. The third and perhaps most important point about this episode is that it is a good musical, with fantastic lyrics and music that, while it's not quite up to Sondheim's standards, holds its own and manages to be catchy and witty, exploring song genres at the same time as pointing out just how many genres there are (re: Anya's anxiety that her duet with Xander was not a breakaway hit but merely a book number, whilst Giles muses on witness arias and Marti Noxon laments her parking ticket). And as if that in itself was not enough, it is not an aside in the season arc, but an essential part of it. The songs are not isolated moments where characters sing about their feelings, while all the action and development remains in the dialogue: the songs themselves push the narrative forward, and set up ideas for future episodes (spoilers - highlight to view) – Giles's decision to leave; Tara's discovery of the spell Willow has cast to remove her memory of an argument, leading to Willow's final and disastrous attempt to use magic to fix her relationship with Tara in “Tabula Rasa”, which in turn reveals her spiralling addiction to magic and the terrible events following Tara's death; the collapse of Anya and Xander's relationship on their wedding day in an episode where we revisit the events of the musical for Anya's heartbreaking “Mrs Xander Harris” song; the beginning of Buffy's complex sexual relationship with Spike. For all these reasons, “Once More, with Feeling” is not an experimental digression away from the main business of the show but a pivotal episode in the development of the central characters and their relationships with each other that will have repercussions until the end of season 7.
Thank you, Janet!
And now, onto the pure entertainment portion of the Rewatch!
Going Through the Motions
When my daughter was younger, I would play the soundtrack in the car and she’d listen along. Of course, I’d say something to her, like “So, how was school?!” very loudly every time Anya would sing, “His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe,” or when Spike sings later, “I’m free if that bitch dies!” So I think to this day she’s a little foggy on a couple of the lines. But she LOVED Going Through the Motions. She’d sing it all the time in the car and around the house, so two years ago, when she was just five, I recorded her singing it, and the result was hilarious. Here’s that recording from two years ago (her then-two-year-old brother is behind the camera with me, singing and humming along; my husband is on the couch beside her, and interjected unexpectedly, hence the surprised look on her face). Watch for the “How can I repay?” bit, which had me in stitches.
I’ve Got a Theory
I’m cheating a bit on this one, because I’ve already posted it here, but in case you missed it, here’s my whole family performing “I’ve Got a Theory.” For those of you who watched it when you hadn’t yet seen the episode, NOW you know what we were doing!
They Got the Mustard Out!
In one of my “last-minute” contributions (read: I realized that I was this close to having every song represented so I recruited people at the last minute to fill in some blanks), I sent a note to Matthew Pateman just yesterday asking if he might sing “They Got the Mustard Out!” on video and send it to me. I didn’t realize he was on his way to the airport when he got my message, but he was a trooper, and went into an airport bar with a friend and they recorded a zany little sketch that they sent to me an hour later. What can I say, the man is brilliant. (And I think the glass of beer in the background may be a clue to what you’re about to see…) For everyone who thinks of Matthew as the scholarly Brit, now you can see the side of him that I’m far more used to. ;)
Under Your Spell
Amber Benson’s beautiful voice, the dancing girls, the bridge. And oh, some pretty euphemistic language. What IS this song about?
Beautifully we were in awe
Her voice was like an angel’s
You couldn’t pick out one flaw
But read between the lines
And find all the euphemistic signs
This song’s about sex!
How else could it be
Oh my god, why can’t you see?
It’s so darn obvious
Talk of ecstasy
And being “come”-plete.
Oh sure the sexual metaphors
Are hidden all over the place
With talk of “donuts” and “crullers”
And Anya’s tight… embrace
Network censors are spry
But these just slipped right on by
This song’s about sex
They’re making whoopee
These lyrics were quite gutsy
Oh Joss I’m damn impressed
Bowing before thee
As I have throughout Buffy
You make me
Incidentally, when I went on the Buffy tour back in 2003 that I mentioned a few months back, one of the places we visited was the park where they filmed “Under Your Spell,” and my friend Sue and I sang to each other on the bridge like nerds, and then went down to the water’s edge and danced around like bigger nerds. It was awesome.
I’ll Never Tell
The wonderful Evan Munday, he of the amazing “Ted” and “Hush” videos earlier in our Rewatch, was going to tackle “I’ll Never Tell” with a friend of his, and they were going to do the complete song and dance routine that went with it. But time got away with him, and he very apologetically emailed me this past weekend to say he wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew he would have done something genius with it, but I also thought this one was too good to just skip. So I hit up the only two people I thought could do an equally brilliant job: Dale and Ensley Guffey (you last saw this married academic couple on “The Body” rewatch). So, two days before the Rewatch, I was begging them to try something. They emailed back to say they couldn’t sing, but they’d definitely come up with something. And a few hours later, I got it: their version of an overwrought telenovela, complete with Ensley doing the accent. God, I love these two. And you will, too!
When I sent out my note to contributors asking who would be up for it, Rhonda Wilcox wrote me back to say she’d love to, but she was swamped, and wished me the best. I knew she was the lead singer of a band (oh yes, the Mother of Buffy Studies has many, many talents!) so I emailed her and asked if she might be able to record herself singing a song, and suggested “Parking Ticket” as a lark. She totally took me up on it, and delivered in her beautiful voice. Did I mention our guest hosts are immensely talented?!
Rest in Peace
One of the first people to sign up was Cynthea Masson, who has written some brilliant posts for us on the Rewatch so far. I was excited about what she was going to do, and all she said was she was going to give me a parody version of Spike’s “Rest in Peace.” What I didn’t know was that she’d rewrite it, recruit people to do other parts, and film the entire sequence in a hilarious send-up of what goes on behind the scenes when pop culture academics are trying to pitch a television course to the department. So THAT’S how you guys do it!! Watch this one, Slayage peeps: you’ll love it.
Dawn: Does anybody even care?
I just wanted to mention, in case you saw his photo in my book (I have a longer analysis of the episode in Bite Me), that Adam Shankman was the choreographer of this episode. As in, that hyperactive adorable guy on So You Think You Can Dance who was absent for most of last season and who I missed terribly. Come back, Adam!
What You Feel
I wanted to stop with the videos for a second and look at Sweet’s song, which is the perfect number to look at and get a sense of Joss’s writing style. What I loved most about the way Joss wrote the lyrics in this episode is how not only created a/b/c/b rhymes, but a/b/a/b ones, and even rhymes within the lines. Look at the beginning of this song.
Don't you like my style?
Why don't you come and play?
I guarantee a great big smile
I come from the imagination
And I'm here strictly by your invocation
So what do you say?
Why don't we dance awhile?
Check out that rhyming pattern: a/b/a/b/c/c/a/b. All of these lines have perfect end rhymes. It’s remarkable, and never feels forced. He does the exact same pattern in the next bit (and I’ve always been in love with rhyming “a-running” and “fun in”).
I'm the twist and shout
When you gotta sing,
When you gotta let it out
You call me and I come a-running
I turn the music on; I bring the fun in
Now, we're partying
That's what it's all about
The real fun begins a few stanzas later, when Dawn joins in and her halted and nervous rhymes are carried over a stanza apart, and she follows an a/a/b…a/a/b rhyme, with him interjecting in between.
Cuz I know what you feel, girl
No, you see
You and me
Wouldn't be very regal
I'll make it real, girl
What I mean
So, this queen thing's illegal
And once again, it never feels forced.
Not only is “Once More With Feeling” an episode with amazing dancing, catchy tunes, and a devastating ending, but the lyrics themselves are rather extraordinary. It’s one of the reasons people consider it Joss’s masterpiece. (I reserve that term for “The Body,” but “OMWF” is a close second.)
Standing in the Way
I asked my husband if he could try this one. The guy’s been recording an album for months. MONTHS. He’s got all the effects, pedals, four electric guitars, two acoustics, a bass, loop pedals, you name it, all in his office, and I said here are the chord changes, could you do it? No problem, he said. I asked him again a few weeks ago, when the producer was actually here and staying at our house. Sure, we’ll do that and we can do it all fancy in the midst of recording, he said. They didn’t. I asked him a week later, “Of course!” he said. Finally, I nabbed him on the weekend and he did a quick version of this, which frankly I thought was pretty awesome despite him knowing the chord changes for all of 3 minutes before we did it. He's about the furthest thing from a perfectionist that I know, except when it comes to his music, so he needed to do several takes of this. And somehow the kitten just sat there through all of them. So please welcome my husband, Robert!
Walk Through the Fire
Here’s a newcomer to our Rewatch, but he may be one of the best known people in it. If you haven’t heard of Tony Burgess, you should go look him up. He’s a Canadian writer of horror fiction whose most well known novel was turned into a brilliant zombie film by Canadian director extraordinaire, Bruce McDonald, called Pontypool (even if you don’t like horror films, go see this; it’s the thinking person’s horror film, and it’s stunningly brilliant. And I say that NOT liking horror movies very much).
Years ago, when "Once More With Feeling" first aired, I was working with Tony as his editor on a book of short stories called Fiction for Lovers (a book we both won the ReLit Award for!). Tony lives up north in cottage country in Stayner, Ontario, and he’s joined a community theatre group. He loves to sing and act – and he’s really good at both – and after this episode aired, he’d call the office during the day, I’d pick up, and he’d immediately begin belting out a Buffy number. If no one else was in the office, I’d sing back, but since that was rare, I generally just sat there giggling and listening to him sing away. One day we were discussing the lyrics themselves and he said to me how much he loves the moment in “Life’s a Show” where Buffy looks directly into the camera and says, “And you can sing along…” So when I was watching the episode last week to prepare, the episode got to that part and I thought, “Tony! I bet he’d do something!” One email exchange and a couple of hours later, I had this video in my inbox. He went with “Walk Through the Fire” after I gave him the choices, and I could NOT stop laughing when I watched it. This is funny if you don’t know Tony. If you do know him, it’s even funnier.
So watch Tony as he gets ready to save the day, or maybe… get distracted at the end by other things. Love ya, Tones. (Please ignore the weird watermark at the top corner; the file came to me in an odd format and the only conversion program I could find embedded that stupid thing there…)
And go see Pontypool! Now that you’ve seen Tony, he’s in the film three times; can you find all three appearances?
Life’s a Show
One of the hardest things about writing books about TV shows is that you have to explain to people what you mean when you say you write books about TV shows. I can’t get my family to understand it, so it’s hard to explain it to a stranger. “You write books… about… TV? What do you mean? What more is there to say? Do you, like, write scripts or something?” Once I went in for a parent-teacher conference with my daughter’s teacher, and the teacher laughed at one point and said my daughter had said the funniest thing. “She said you wrote books about the TV show Lost, hahahahaha!” I smiled, and said, “I do, actually.” “Haha… ha… ha. Um… really?” For me, it’s become more of a fun challenge to see how I can explain it to the next person. So that’s how I tackled this next song, since many of the guest hosts have also written books about TV shows – and have taught courses on them – so we’re all in the same boat.
“It must be just a phase”
No, I’m really this crazed.
I love TV, and I’m glued to that screen
From Slayers who are teens
To Flight Eight-Fifteen
Watch the shows
Pitch the show
Go to Slayage
Explain just what I do
Because people will always ask you,
“Books on TV?
What can that be?”
I write books about TV shows!
Yes, I WRITE BOOKS ABOUT TV SHOWS!
Why not novels
Or books of poetry?
I mean, they’ve gotta be
Mom and Dad
Are mightily confused
When their friends ask for news
They say I’ve hit the booze.
“Oh she’s do-
She tells us that
She’s writing on
Lost, or… something
That soon she’ll change her mind
Maybe she’ll become more inclined…
To be a lawyer
Or maybe a doctor! [Yes, a doctor!]”
In between books
Find your next show,
You never know
When it’s co-ming…
You watch everything
Hoping you’ll look
And find your next book
It’s got to be forthco-ming…
‘Cause everyone is ask-ing…
What your next book will be…
Even though you’re taking a break…
So give me something to write about!
Please… give me something!
Where Do We Go From Here?
If you thought I was a huge nerd already, you’re about to find out I’m even more like the Troika than I’d like you to know. Yes, I have Buffy action figures. Lots of them. I have a Willow shelf that’s just various versions of Willow, through her various incarnations right up to the end of season 7. What I don’t have is Dawn. (Who wants Dawn?!) So for my next trick, I decided to pull them out of their cabinet and use them to act out the big group sing. Unfortunately, Xander, like the Tin Man, had been standing in his position for so long I couldn’t get the hatchet out of his hand, so I apologize that he looks rather menacing. And I went into my daughter’s Barbie drawer and found the most insane-looking doll I could find (confession: it was mine when I was a kid. I think I might have been the one who did that to her hair) and that was going to be Dawn. I used the first and only take of this, and so it’s not the best, but hey, I was getting to the end and running out of ideas! ;) I draped a purple towel over the couch and was reaching under it, but in this clip I appear to be wearing it. I assure you, I do not have a sweater that makes me look like Grimace. ;)
The Big Kiss
And hey, if action figures are good for a group sing, they’re good for a snog, too. Here are Buffy and Spike, bringing us to the big finish!
Cue end credit music! (And if you didn’t watch all the way to the end of the credits, make sure you do… the Mutant Enemy guy is worth it!)
Thanks to everyone who helped me out, many of you very last minute! I really, really couldn’t have done it without you! ;)
Next week: Back to being SERIOUS. Dale Guffey, she of the Telenovela, will be here to walk us through the next three episodes.
6.8 Tabula Rasa
And on Angel, we’ll be watching:
See you next time!