In Defense of Teen Soaps

Maria Maita-Keppeler on The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy, and the syncs that shaped her.

The year was 2004, and I had just crossed the fateful threshold into my teenage years. I  recall neither my 13th birthday nor any ceremony undertaken to usher in my  teenage-hood. In those years, my sister and I were shuttled between my mother’s  apartment in Eugene, OR and my father’s home in the neighboring town of Springfield, our bedrooms dictated by the day of the week and a divorced-household schedule that  was more complex than necessary. In some ways, 13 was not all that was infamously promised: boys remained hypothetical, and experiments in inebriation were still years away. In other ways, it marked the discovery of my first love, the formation of what I still refer to (in half-jest) as my primary relationship. It was the year I would fall in love with music, and it would happen because of The O.C. 

Music had been my close companion before then, of course. I traveled with an orange walkman and a plush CD case that was doubled stuffed with albums I had burned off my friends. No Doubt, My Chemical Romance, Eminem, Shakira, Kanye West. They were albums that graced Top 40 radio, artists who emerged on the covers of  teen magazines. I don’t discount these artists; they signified a shift in their own right, a divergence from parental taste, an opportunity to get swept up in powerful pre-teen  fandom. It was this same phenomenon that first drew my friends and me to FOX network’s teen soap, a mainstream guilty pleasure that would serve as an unlikely Trojan horse for intimate songwriting and independent music. 

The show was crammed with music I had never heard before. The O.C. first aired  in 2003, a year before Natalie Portman would promise The Shins “will change your life” in Garden State, two years before Pandora would blow our minds. In the first season alone, I was introduced to Belle and Sebastian, Spoon, Stars, and Modest Mouse, to  name just a few. These introductions would stick, because with them came the imprint  of teenage drama, of emotional storytelling. These songs were part of the story, and the story became part of the songs. I still surprise myself when I recognize an early 2000s  band that has since sunk into dormancy and can trace it back to the moment when  Ryan and Marisa first kiss on the Ferris Wheel, or the moment that Seth stands on top of the coffee cart to declare his love for Summer, or (how could we forget?) when Marissa shoots Trey and Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” drops in for the gutting season two finale. Even as I write this, some part of me cringes and I fight the urge to  backtrack, to rewrite my history with a more respectable entry point into independent  music.  

Even today, I nurse a healthy dose of imposter syndrome when it comes to my music taste. I wish I could lay out my listening history in phases, the way some of the kids I admired did in college. I wish I could say this was my ‘60s punk phase, or this was my riot grrl phase. I wish I could distinguish between sub-genres of hip-hop or could neatly organize decades and their sonic counterparts. I wish I could chart out musical entities throughout history and pinpoint where The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Jimi  Hendrix lay on this map. Unfortunately, history was never my strong suit. Emotional memories, however (to the chagrin of anybody who has to date me), will never leave  me. 

With The O.C. as my blueprint I began my own path of music discovery, driven solely by feel. I researched the names of the songs that would appear in each episode, unearthing artists such as Azure Ray, Of Montreal, and Rilo Kiley. I borrowed dozens of CD’s from the public library based on artist names alone, stumbling upon quite a few decidedly mediocre indie albums that were given an innocent, wide open chance at succeeding because of their proximity to Seth, Ryan, Summer, and Marissa. I didn’t care. The songs didn’t need to grab me right away; I was patient, optimistic. I grew to forgive pitchy vocals, lo-fi recordings, and imperfection (which is ironic considering the show’s glossy sheen). The O.C. made me long for my own “Bait Shop,” perhaps the biggest fantasy of all: An all ages venue where one could watch Death Cab or The  Killers or Modest Mouse from a moderately crowded balcony, where personal dramas could unfold against a backdrop of live music (with perfect sound). Perhaps most importantly, the show first taught me the depths to which a song could make one feel, a lesson that would go on to inform my craft as a songwriter. 

Throughout middle school and high school, I became obsessed with pairing music with storytelling. When I graduated from a walkman to a Walmart MP3 player, I fell asleep inventing dramas to accompany the artists in my ears. I mapped out entire trilogies in my head and fantasized about laying my precious indie artists over scenes of drama and intrigue. At the time, my own life was hardly the stuff of cinema. I was introverted inside and out, I often preferred the company of books and music to my friends, and I felt unconfident in  my ability to hold anyone’s attention. In public, I listened and observed. The deeper I dug into these artists, the more I realized that I had my own confessions, that music could be a place to explore feelings beyond what was being expressed on the radio. I could write about existential angst, uncertainties, insecurities, and subtle emotion. When I finally began writing songs in high school, they emerged melodic and melancholic, attempting to capture the deepest wells of emotion both sonically and lyrically. This remains my goal with songwriting today.  

In the years that followed, other music-centric TV shows hit the scene. Grey’s Anatomy delivered me Tegan and Sara, Regina Spektor, Inara George, and Laura Veirs, artists who would coax my soft voice out into public. How many young folk artists of the mid-2000s have had their songs cemented to the tragedy of a surgery gone awry? A patient’s untimely death? Another break-up between Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd? When Pandora and other music recommendation engines hit the scene, I already had a beloved family of artists at the ready. My library exploded, as did my concept of what consisted of a good song, a worthy song. When I listen back to some of those songs today, I am sometimes underwhelmed by the writing, the playing, the singing. I carry criticisms that it didn’t occur to me to have as an early music consumer. I think in some ways my lack of criticism was a vital element to my music discovery: It made creating music seem within reach. It was unpretentious, a club that I was cool  enough to join. 

This is where I place the largest importance on this often derided medium of  mainstream TV. It is difficult to imagine the other paths my music discovery could have  taken as an introverted young girl growing up in Eugene, OR. I had no older siblings. My  parents were both working full time jobs to keep the family afloat and didn’t have time to  focus on their musical tastes. (My mother refers to this era as her musical “lost years.”) I  could see myself neither in the shimmery bravado of the Top 40 artists, nor the local  alternative rock station, which as a rule spun only one female-fronted artist for the duration of my childhood (Evanescence). When the middle school boys began forming punk bands and covering The Ramones and The Clash with their impossibly cool electric guitars, I didn’t see myself. Instead, it was in the weekly dose of soap-operatic malaise that I first became introduced to a musical world that could one day include me. 

This is what compels me to stand in defense of The O.C.s and the Grey’s  Anatomys of the world: They put indie music in front of an audience that may not have heard it otherwise. Both shows aired on network television, free and available to the public regardless of one’s economic status. Both shows were arguably written for and  consumed by adolescent girls, a demographic that at the time was offered few mainstream entry points into the world of music outside of pop. Both shows could be  consumed in the quietude of one’s home, reaching the introverts, the shy kids, the  friendless. Yes, the episodes were not always good; sprawling essays could be written  about the shortcomings of these shows. Still, for those of us who were offered our first  doses of Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith, and Mazzy Star through the snowy static of a screen every Thursday night… what a gift. 

MAITA is a Portland-based band led by Maria Maita-Keppeler. Their album Best Wishes is out May 2020 via Kill Rock Stars.