1. Bob Dylan, playing but not singing in Dharma & Greg. Too funky for him?
What makes a musician want to appear in a TV show? ‘Cause one thing is appearing in programmes singing a song or doing an interview, promotional mechanisms so common that are almost dull, and another very different one playing a part in a fictional plot.
It is obvious that this inclusion in the cast of an episode, even if it’s just a short cameo, reeks of promo mechanism too, of course. It’s another way of gaining visibility, though maybe of a more, well, prestigious or rare or unforeseen kind and, for that reason, probably better. But these appearances can also suppose, as it is the case with cinema, the addition of yet another layer to a musician’s career and, at the same time, a widening of the imaginary and intertextuality of a show.
For this to become a win-win situation, though, as much for the show as for the musician, and for it to go beyond the mere anecdote, certain conditions need to be met. If the musician in question has also worked as an actor, be it good or bad, this won’t be so special: his/her appearance in a screen won’t be much of a novelty. It isn’t too striking either to appear in shows which use this kind of cameos a lot due to their pro-musical nature: The Young Ones, Treme, Portlandia, Nashville or even Rockefeller plaza.
The thing starts becoming original when, all of a sudden, a musician unexpectedly appears in a show (or expectedly maybe, as I was saying earlier about it being a kind of veiled promo), in most cases playing his or herself. When this happens, apart from telling us about the musical taste of the directors of the show, they’re no more than a conspiratorial wink. The integration of the group or solo artist in the episode is usually… non-existent. It’s like a musical mushroom popping up in the middle of the plot and, more than once, one can even see the remains of the Vaseline they used to force the cameo in: it’s fiction being adapted to the artist instead of the other way round.
Despite all this, it would be quite easy to come up with a quick top 10 of outstanding cameos. Any blogger both into music and shows could do it; even I could, if I put my mind to it. So now we’re at it, why not? These are the first ones that come to mind (without mentioning Elvis Costello, who seems to appear nearly everywhere):
by Joan Pons
3. Death Cab For Cutie in O.C. In fact, they were kind of a recurrent group in a show that helped increase their popularity a great deal.
4. Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys in Neighbours, socializing with the desperate housewives of the neighbourhood.
5. Boy George lending a hand to The A Team. For one episode at least (Cowboy George it was called), Mr. T wasn’t the weirdest looking character around!
7. The Flaming Lips playing the octopus in the garage of Beverly Hills 90210. This is when they started selling loads of records!
9. Violent Femmes helping (and flirting with them even!) their witchy fans in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
10. Stevie Wonder improvising with every single member of the Cosby family in… The Bill Cosby Show, of course.
Apart from all those, we should open a special folder for guest appearances in animation series. We all remember a dozen groups appearing in their yellow version in The Simpsons. Although the ones who’ve won gold medal are NRBQ, the only ones who have appeared non-animated (at the end credits of episode Take My Wife, Sleaze) and were the nearly-official resident band during two seasons (making all sorts of songs, like this one), thanks to Mike Scully, executive producer and script coordinator of the show, being a huge fan.
It isn’t easy to forget either the clash of the titans, pure Kaiju style, between Barbra Streisand and Robert Smith in South Park (we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Isaac Hayes, always with one foot on acting, was the voice of the chef). Quite less known, although equally astounding, is the appearance, as a sort of retro style villains, of David Bowie, with Iggy Pop and Klaus Nomi, in the cult series The Venture Brothers. Although, on this occasion, they didn’t use Bowie’s voice (nor Iggy’s, nor Klaus’). But, in fact, that doesn’t even matter: the appearance of any musician in an animated series is one step more towards their blending with the show; they’re no longer themselves, but an interpretation, a caricature.
Finally, on the tip of the pyramid of musician cameos in TV shows, we find the artists that do NOT play themselves, but a small part. In these cases, you can see that they’re big fans of the show they appear in, because this time it’s them who adapt to the plot and not vice-versa. Besides, although their cameo is meant to be a kind of conspiratorial wink as well, if you don’t have a clue who they are when they appear as extras, it doesn’t really matter (they’re just a minor character, after all). Though, if you do, well, that’s much better. For that reason, I’m going to leave you with another one of those top 10 lists I know you love so much…
1. Johnny Cash in Columbo. The voice of thunder against the husky voice. The man in black versus the man on the trench coat. But, hey, no mis-castings here: Cash interprets Tommy Brown, a gospel singer (slight variation of style) who’s a murder suspect. A true murder ballad!
The moral of the story: if you’re doing a cameo, don’t get out of your comfort zone.
2. Frank Zappa in Miami Vice: when you have that moustache, that swag and that sarcastic and twisted smile, it’s no wonder you’re offered the part of a Latin drug dealer (Mario Fuente) with an outboard motor boat in the hippest TV show.
The moral of the story: playing the baddy is cool.
3. Leonard Cohen in Miami Vice as well. Lenny’s look between Various positions and I’m Your Man, half gentleman, half scoundrel, was perfect for this French-speaking character: François Zola, collaborator of the INTERPOL. Ted Nugent, Miles Davis or Phil Collins also appeared in this show created by Michael Mann.
The moral of the story: playing the baddy is cool; but playing an ambiguous character who nobody knows if it’s a baddy or not it’s even cooler.
4. Michael Stipe in The Adventures of Pete & Pete. R.E.M.’s singer caught in the act with his ice-cream van. He wasn’t the only one to appear in this teenage show: Iggy Pop, David Johansen, Luscious Jackson, Marshall Crenshaw, Katie Pierson, Gordon Gano and Debbie Harry were talked into it as well.
The moral of the story: if you’re embarrassed to have written a song as absurdly happy as “Shinny Happy People”, try to get over it with a ridiculous part on TV; at least it won’t be part of your discography.
5. Steve Earle in The Wire. As if it was a step more in his real-life detox programme, this country-rock titan played Walon, a junkie trying to get straight, this time in fiction. David Simon counted on him again for Treme.
The moral of the story: who says a cameo can’t be of help in your 12-step detox programme?
6. Justin Bieber in CSI Las Vegas. OK, let’s do it, let’s suspend our scepticism and buy that Justin is a troubled teenager who makes things explode during burials. The cameo as proof that you can play a bad guy. Thug life galore!.
The moral of the story: it’s difficult to get a cameo that both your fans and haters love: you don’t see a teen idol riddled with bullets every day!
7. Henry Rollins in Sons of Anarchy. Absolute role reversal: very literate and left wing legendary punk singer plays dumb one-neurone nazi skinhead.
The moral of the story: it’s better (and a lot more fun) not to play oneself.
8. Patti Smith in The Killing. By the end of the third season, Patti Smith was so into the show that she started writing possible plot twists for detective Linden (and sending them to Veena Sud, creator of the show). Her passionate fan fictions were awarded with… a cameo playing a doctor on the fourth season!
The moral of the story: Appearing in your favourite show is possible! (Particularly if you’re a celebrity, of course…)
9. Britney Spears in How I Met Your Mother. Yep, on paper it might look as though the best way to get rid of the crazy-has-been label might be playing a flirtatious secretary. A sort of “girl next door” part. But you won’t fool us with those crazy eyes…
The moral of the story: if your life as a star hasn’t been exactly normal, you can always try playing a fictional normal character.
10. Marilyn Manson in Eastbound & Down. Blimey! It seems that the urban legend that said that Brian Hugh Warner was the kid with the glasses in The Wonder Years was false. What it’s really true, though, is that unless someone tells you it’s him, his scene playing a waiter in this dysfunctional HBO series is a total bore.
The moral of the story: without make-up, you’re someone completely different.