Wednesday nights have become a powerhouse for television shows about the music industry. Empire (airing at 9pm on FOX) focuses on music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and the struggles he faces running a powerful hip-hop label. Nashville (airing at 10pm on ABC) focuses on country music legend Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and her struggle to keep her career on top. The two may deal with two very different music genres, but the shows (and their approach to music) are surprisingly similar.
Any nighttime drama has to deliver just that – drama. And Empire and Nashville definitely do thanks to the cast of characters surrounding both Lucious and Rayna from complicated family members to cutthroat industry colleagues to competing artists. But at it’s core each show is about one thing – the music.
Empire’s Lucious Lyon is not just a hip-hop mogul – he is a street-smart hustler who came up through the industry as an artist himself. Lucious’ now ex-wife, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), played an integral part in his career by helping him with his music, but also helping him get the money he needed to start his company. Now faced with a life threatening disease, Lucious must decide which of his three sons will take over the company and their family’s legacy.
Nashville’s Rayna James may have been the queen of country music for the past few decades, but thanks to an ever changing music landscape, new artists, and her complicated family life, Rayna’s reign might be coming to a close. Taking matters into her own hands, Rayna has started her own record label, Highway 65, and now finds herself both an artist in the industry and a businesswoman working to help shape the industry.
When Nashville first started, the main conflict at the center of the narrative was the competing careers of the legendary Rayna James versus the up-and-coming Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Rayna was an artist known for writing her own music while Juliette was amassing millions of young fans thanks to her flash and spectacle. Empire has a similar musical “war” brewing between brothers Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y. Gray). Like Rayna, Jamal is a subdued artist more focused on the craft of writing songs instead of performing them and much like Juliette, Hakeem is the young gun looking to prove himself (and make as much noise as possible while doing it).
Nashville made the smart decision to push Juliette’s character beyond just these first impression stereotypes and show her as a real artist with the desire to write her own music and be more than just her good looks. Juliette may come on to one of Nashville’s best known songwriters, but she slowly leaves the bravado behind in seek of real help improving her songwriting skills. Empire seems to be following suit by showing Hakeem in the studio as he is pushed to be more than his image and dig down deep to showcase his true talent.
This is where the true heart of these shows lies – in how important the music is to each character and what it means to create it. Hakeem may demand millions of dollars to make an over-the-top music video, but Empire undercuts moments like these by also showing his vulnerability when he begs Jamal to help him with a song he’s struggling to write. Juliette may play it up on stage, but if the audience is not responding to her music, you see how crushed she is the second the lights are off.
Neither show shies away from the “glamour” of the music industry, but each counterbalances it by showing the struggle of what it means to be an artist and staying true to your craft in the face of all the noise and demands of being in the public eye.
T Bone Burnett helped produce the music of the first season of Nashville and set the tone for the show’s solid repertoire of songs. Timbaland is doing the same on Empire making sure Jamal’s R&B tracks are just as catchy as Hakeem’s raps. The sound of Empire is rounded out by composed pieces from Fil Eilser who explained, “The songs really become another character in the show. I have to write music with the right energy to not only hit the scenes before and after with the right emotion, but to segue seamlessly with the songs.”
Songs never just “appear” on either show, you also get to see how they are brought to life. Nashville will show songwriters struggling through the writing process in their living rooms or brining in collaborators to try and help with troublesome verses. Empire will take you into the studio and show how the right producer can help elevate a song or get a better performance out of an artist. Eilser noted that while the score in Empire often plays to the “weight of the drama” it is the songs that are usually “the fun side” of the show.
But the most interesting part of each show is how it develops the songs just like it would any one of the show’s characters. Nashville’s Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and Scarlet (Clare Bowen) can write a beautiful song together, but it is not until it is turned into a duet between artists like Rayna and Luke Wheeler (Will Chase) that the song suddenly takes flight. Empire will show Jamal recording a killer track that is sure to be his first single, but it is not until Cookie suggests they bring his vocals to the front that the song truly shines.
Seeing how these songs come to life is a big part of both shows, but so is watching those songs get performed live. Both Nashville and Empire take full advantage of their talented casts letting the different characters perform together on stage and bring new life to otherwise solo songs. Rayna and Juliette may be rivals, but they are also great duet partners. The same is true for Jamal and Hakeem whose blend of hip-hop and R&B jump off the screen when paired together.
There are numerous dramas on television with fantastic music driving their complex story lines, but Empire and Nashville have set themselves apart by not only setting themselves in the music industry, but by also delivering memorable and original music week-to-week. Whether you are a fan of country or hip-hop, each show takes you behind the curtain to appreciate the talent and craftsmanship that goes into creating quality music, regardless of genre.