Disco in the Time of Madness - How Happy Music Emphasizes "River"'s Dark Themes

You wouldn't expect a TV show that begins with a drive-thru scene set to "Mambo No. 5" to emotionally drain you but River, a BBC export that Netflix distributed internationally, does just that. By the way, spoilers.


River is about detective on the hunt for his partner's murderer. The only thing is? His partner helps him do it.

Yes, River sees ghosts, or manifests, as he calls them, of those who have passed on. But I'm not here to talk about the show itself, which is incredible and you should watch it. I'm actually here to talk about the running theme of disco music, the one genre that feels so weirdly inappropriate in such a dark show, but on the other hand, feels right at home.

The prime example of this is the song "I Love to Love" by Tina Charles, a song that occurs three times throughout the 6 episode series. The first instance is when River and his partner Stevie drive through the city, with Stevie goading River into singing along to the happy ditty. It sets the stage for their relationship, their opposing natures, and the clear underlying respect and love they have for each other. Stevie is joyful, boisterous and unashamed as she belts the lyrics to River's quiet and unassuming delight, as all he does is listen. The song is pure joy and excitement, which makes the show every more shocking once we realize exactly what's going on.

The second time the song plays is at the end of the first episode (a clip that is, sadly, unavailable on YouTube), where River goes to karaoke alone, and gives into that push from Stevie, to let go and love to love. The scene is moving and wholly heartbreaking as it splices River dancing around the room with Stevie in his mind, to the reality of him singing to himself.

Compare that to the final scene of the show, after we've gone through a whirlwind of emotions of the series. We've found Stevie's killer and we're back to replaying the night of Stevie's death. The evolution from the first scene of the show to the last is soul-crushing in its intensity. The song remains the same but the emotion is so much more palpable and raw. River dances with Stevie one last time, as the lights flare around them, signifying the end of their journey together. I wept with both sadness and joy, laughing at their triumph, crying because I knew, deep down, like River, that it wasn't real.

This disco track, with its upbeat lyrics and tempo made River what it is: unexpected and wonderful.