Freak Show Used Modern Music (Despite Its Era)

Jessica Lange’s character, Elsa Mars, sang a David Bowie song in American Horror Story: Freak Show, despite the fact that it was set in the 1950s.

Despite being set in the 1950s, American Horror Story: Freak Show featured modern music in its various musical numbers—but there was a particular reason. The fourth season of the horror series followed a troupe of outcasts as they worked to dazzle the world with their various talents and differences, which included more involved musical performances that before. This established a significantly different tone than previous American Horror Story seasons.

Every season of American Horror Story brings a new theme to audiences, and in the case of season 4, it brought the concepts of theater. The season doubled as a social commentary on the perspective that used to be placed—and sometimes still is—on people with body or limb differences and how the actual monsters of society were far more likely to be those who blend in, such as the despicable Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock). To show the world that they weren’t what they seemed, the troupe of Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) would perform surreal musical numbers—many of which were far ahead of their time.

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AHS: Freak Show’s Music Suited The Theme, Not The Era

American Horror Story Freak Show Elsa Mars Sings (1)

The first big musical number featured in American Horror Story: Freak Show was Elsa Mars’ rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” a song that wouldn’t be released for about 20 years after AHS season 4’s 1950s setting. Lange’s performance was certainly memorable, and the production itself was something that any theater fan would love. Still, between the song that Lange’s character shouldn’t know and the seemingly random Glee-like performance, it just didn’t seem to fit.

American Horror Story writer Ryan Murphy has discussed his song choice (via MTV), stating that he had made the decision to feature untimely songs to “pay homage” to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Like the famous musical, Freak Show created an air of mystery and dissonance by shifting the expectation for music and period. This aligned perfectly with the theme demonstrating how “freaks” were misunderstood. However, it did nothing for the horror aspect audiences are looking for in American Horror Story.

Why AHS: Freak Show’s Musical Anachronisms Didn’t Work

Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story Freak Show (1)

There are several ways that the musical choices in American Horror Story: Freak Show fits with the nature of the series as a whole. It may not have contributed to the horror factor, but the series has been playing fast and loose with the rules since it started with season 1: Murder House. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of AHS is how it reuses actors for different characters from season to season. For the most part, audiences aren’t supposed to think of these characters as the same people. In much the same way, the period AHS: Freak Show is set and the music it contains shouldn’t be taken literally.

Still, the surreal music choices didn’t work for American Horror Story as its casting did. This had a lot to do with the levity of these musical numbers, which do nothing to terrify audiences in the way they seek, but it also came down to the foundation of Freak Show‘s premise. The entire point was to show audiences that the outcasts in Elsa Mars’ group weren’t the scary ones. So, interesting song choices or not, spending so much time on their performances wasn’t the way to follow the disturbing themes of American Horror Story‘s first three seasons. The performances were great—but they weren’t what people were looking for.

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