Right now I’m listening to a Spotify playlist called “Chloe’s iPod.” Made by a stranger (a user named Clark Camp), it contains all the songs which, over the past six weeks, have become synonymous with HBO’s Big Little Lies: Michael Kiwanuka’s stirring theme song “Cold Little Heart,” PJ Harvey’s whispered reverie “The Wind,” and, of course, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the Temptations classic strung like a bass-line backbone throughout the series’ most recent episode. The show’s 14-song soundtrack is officially coming out on Friday, but it’s this 34-song, user-generated playlist that I think best captures the spirit of the show, and, most crucially, the philosophy of Yung Chloe’s iPod.
Chloe — the eerily precocious daughter of Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and her second husband, Ed (Adam Scott), played by 9-year-old Darby Camp — has been an object of fascination and online discussion (and occasional derision) since the series premiered. (The Clark Camp behind the Spotify playlist appears to be Darby’s dad.) “How Does the First-Grader on ‘Big Little Lies’ Have Such Killer Music Taste?” a Pitchfork op-ed wondered recently. The Atlantic called Chloe the show’s “otherworldly, beyond-her-years spiritual DJ,” while Thrillist noted Chloe’s “NPR-honed tastes.” Vulture went so far as to say that the show’s “children [have] the most refined musical tastes in recent television history.” But is it really musical taste we’re talking about? I think it’s something at once simpler and more complicated than that. Chloe’s playlist acumen isn’t that remarkable when you consider her generation’s access to music. A friend, in conversation, called Chloe “Spotify Discover incarnate.” She is the first TV character to accurately capture the feeling of being born into the streaming era — and all the existential dread that evokes in any viewer older than she is. (Which, hopefully, is each and every person watching this show.)
When we first meet Chloe in the series premiere, she’s in the backseat of her mom’s car, controlling the music through her iPod touch. (It’s definitely an iPod and not an iPhone; in a later episode, Madeline lets slip that Chloe has a smartphone hidden inside one of her dolls. “Don’t start with me,” she snips at a disapproving Ed, “it’s only for emergencies.”) The song she’s chosen to soundtrack the coastal drive to her first-grade orientation? “The Wind,” the third track off PJ Harvey’s 1998 record Is This Desire?. Admittedly a hell of a lot cooler than whatever I listened to in my mom’s car when I was in first grade (at best, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous on cassette tape; at worst, The Little Mermaid soundtrack), but that’s not terribly surprising, considering that Chloe spends practically all her screen time with a glowing iPod in her hand, with access to an infinite amount of music and information about it at practically any time.
Like a tiny human algorithm, Chloe prides herself on always knowing the perfect song for the moment. In an episode when Madeline and Ed are fighting, Chloe plays for her mom the Leon Bridges song “The River.” “How can you not wanna make up to this song?” she asks, subliminally Parent Trap–ping her mom and dad. Madeline takes her advice, though, and it works like a charm: Later in the episode, she puts on “The River” and, in a romantically lit scene, Madeline and Ed finally settle their differences. (If Chloe has a particular musical taste, it’s not bound by genre or era so much as an overall vibe — soulful, rather than “soul.” Contemporary pop music and anything even adjacent to hip-hop is omitted from her sonic vocabulary — which often feels like the least realistic thing about the children’s relationships to music on the show.) Chloe suggests a relatively obscure Elvis song for her father to sing at a karaoke fundraiser (“You need to pick a song that no one else will sing,” she says, wisely, vetoing his pick of “Suspicious Minds”), and she later assuages her mother’s sadness about her oldest daughter moving out of the house by quietly uploading — call her DJ Tinker Bell — the Alabama Shakes song “This Feeling” to Madeline’s iPhone. Chloe soundtracks car rides and family dinners. During one particularly fraught meal-time argument, she breaks the tension by asking, “OK … what are we listening to?” (Otis Redding, Chloe decides.)
TV and movie characters defined by their love of music is nothing new. But what separates Chloe from, say, The O.C.’s Seth Cohen (leaving aside for a moment their gender and huge age difference) is that her musical identity isn’t centered around loving or possessing encyclopedic knowledge about one particular artist or even genre. (Find someone who looks at you the way Seth Cohen looked at Ben Gibbard.) Chloe, on the other hand, just loves “music.” The closest she comes to fandom for any artist is Janis Joplin, because she’s the only artist who’s played twice in the Big Little Lies universe, and because we see Chloe lip-syncing her heart out to “Call on Me.” But for all we know, these could be the only Janis songs she knows. She was raised on playlists, not full albums. She very well may know nothing about these artists at all, but this does not make Chloe love these single songs any less. And I’d imagine this is why she freaks so many viewers out. She is a threat to the type of cool we spent years of our lives oh-so-carefully cultivating.
For generational comparison’s sake, it might be helpful here to take a semi-embarrassing detour through an earlier era. I “discovered” PJ Harvey when I was maybe 13, when I stumbled upon a CD copy of Rid of Me at my local library. I loved it. I burned a CD copy for myself, as you did in those days. But for many, many years, that was the only PJ Harvey album I’d ever heard. The library didn’t have any of her other discs, and none of my friends knew who she was; this was the beginning of the Napster age, and although I spent a lot of time on file-sharing sites, the 56k-modem internet connection in my house was strong enough to download only one song at a time. For some reason, at some point, I’d downloaded “Good Fortune,” the single from Harvey’s 2000 album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, but until probably my early 20s, that was the only non–Rid of Me PJ Harvey song I knew.
The above memory now feels like a dispatch from the Mesozoic era. YouTube launched in 2005, Spotify in 2008, and by the time the fictitious Chloe was born (let’s say 2010), they’d become ingrained enough in the culture to change the way music was accessed and experienced forever. The idea of not having access to every single PJ Harvey song at all times would be bizarrely foreign to Chloe — as would, on the other hand, the experience of living with every nook and cranny of just one of those albums, out of necessity, for the entire duration of her teen years. Even younger than I was on that fateful day at the library, Chloe has instant access to all nine PJ Harvey LPs, not to mention her demos, and her videos, and Wikipedia entries telling her very plainly which are most critically acclaimed. And I’m speaking as someone who had (albeit limited) access to the internet at that time. In an afternoon, Chloe could listen to as many Janis Joplin songs as someone in the ’60s or ’70s could track down in years.
Admittedly, Chloe is a construct and an exaggeration. When asked about “the children’s sophisticated music tastes,” the music supervisor of Big Little Lies said that they’re there as a “device,” essentially a way of getting diegetic music flowing through the atmosphere, since it’s such an important part of the show’s rhythm. Still, hyperbolic as she may be, there’s a generational truth at the core of Chloe’s character, which is part of what makes her so genuinely unnerving. It’s not that she has “killer taste” so much as a digital native’s savvy in navigating the infinite flow of the stream.
In one way, though, Chloe provides a comforting corrective to the smartphone-era stereotype. We’re used to the idea that personal music players and ubiquitous earphones have made everybody isolated in their own personally soundtracked movies — that listening to music has become a lonely, private experience. The sweet thing about Chloe, though, is that she’s always sharing her songs; she uses them to connect to others rather than tune out their chatter or secretly look down on them. In another era, Chloe might have been a music snob, lording her obscure knowledge over the other characters — excluding them, perhaps to justify the sheer labor it used to take to be “really into music.” (I’m sure I’m speaking personally, here.) Instead, she’s generous. Once a song is out there in the stream, she figures, it’s a part of the collective consciousness. It’s hard to cling too tightly to anything when the cloud is all you’ve ever known.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.