Gilmore Girls, the dramedy series starring Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, has all 7 seasons streaming on Netflix. (As well as the 2016 reboot, A Year in the Life.) Every episode of Gilmore Girls opens with the memorable theme song, “Where you Lead,” written and performed by legendary songwriter Carole King. The GG showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino originally asked King to be the show’s musical composer, but she declined. So, Sherman-Palladino turned to composer Sam Phillips. She’s the mastermind behind all those “la la”s you hear in the series soundtrack. Why the “la la,” as opposed to lyrics — or simply instrumental music?
Why most of the ‘Gilmore Girls’ episodes — other than the theme song — are soundtracked by ‘la la’s
Phillips, the American singer and songwriter began her musical career in the early ’80s in contemporary Christian music. However, she transitioned into the more mainstream industry in the ’90s. After releasing several EPs and albums, she was eventually nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
When it came to meeting with the Gilmore Girls showrunner, Phillips understood what Sherman-Palladino wanted and tried to produce music which complemented the show. She described her work with Sherman-Palladino on the podcast Gilmore Guys as highly collaborative and innovative.
“Somehow, we saw eye to eye, and she liked what I started doing, which was background vocals with guitar and percussion,” Phillips continued. The music was also very much character-based, rather than a plot device.
“[Sherman-Palladino] said, ‘I want the score to be this music to be another character, the music in Rory and Lorelai’s heads,’” Phillips recalled.
Sam Phillips says the ‘Gilmore Girls’ cast talked so much and so fast, wordy music wouldn’t make sense
Considering the series is known for its extra-long scripts and fast-talking characters, needle drops — or songs in the soundtrack that came from artists other than Phillips — were fairly far and few between. There couldn’t be too much going on behind Graham and Bledel’s quippy, reference-heavy lines.
However, Sherman-Palladino still asked Phillips to sing on the soundtrack.
“She said she wanted my voice to be on the score, but she didn’t want lyrics. Because, obviously, it’s so dialogue heavy,” the Gilmore Girls composer said. “… I thought maybe we can do something with background vocals.”
Thus, the “la la” score was born. Phillips went on to explain that she pulled from previous work and added in some new ideas.
“I had some other melodies that had not turned into big songs to put on records, and so I started working with those,” she shared. However, even when you hear several voices harmonizing in the Gilmore Girls soundtrack, that was all Phillips.
“There’s only one ‘la’ – it’s me,” she told the Gilmore Guys hosts. They also asked why some scenes are more “la-la,” and others more “bop-bop.”
“I think the bop-bop are a little more spicy, jaunty,” she explained. “I just couldn’t do la-las for every single cue.”
Beginning in season 1, the composer didn’t want to overdo the soundtrack
Phillips and Sherman-Palladino were also careful not to insert music where it was not needed or did not add to the scene. Other shows, even on the same network as Gilmore Girls, might have played up the violins for big emotional beats. But Phillips knew that the show’s actors and writing could pull off that kind of scene without any extra help.
In the Gilmore Guys interview, the composer recalls many instances where her recommendation would be to “leave it, let’s not put in any music.” Phillips felt the acting was “so good,” the show did not need wall-to-wall music.
Still, Phillips found writing the score for Gilmore Girls challenging. Coming from a songwriting background, coming up with short little TV cues was much different. Phillips explained:
Having to write music that was so short – that’s the thing that startled me in the beginning, because I was used to being able to go as long as I want to with a song. Having to write a piece of music that does make some kind of emotional impact or a melody in just a few seconds was difficult for me at first. It was a great challenge. … It was completely different from anything I’d ever done before.