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Led Zeppelin Is a Perfect Fit for Sharp Objects

Alice (Sydney Sweeney) and Camille (Amy Adams) share a Led Zeppelin moment. Photo: HBO

Camille Preaker, the damaged protagonist of HBO’s Sharp Objects, is obsessed with Led Zeppelin. This week’s episode, “Fix,” finally explains why: In a series of flashbacks, we learn that prior to her return to Wind Gap, Missouri, Camille (Amy Adams) checked into a rehab center and became roommates with Alice (Sydney Sweeney), a fellow cutter whose favorite escape from reality is plugging in her iPhone earbuds and listening to Led Zeppelin. The band is important to Camille because Alice introduced her to it, but the band is also important for deeper reasons, too.

Before episode’s end, it’s revealed that Alice killed herself in rehab and Camille discovered her body. Suddenly, Camille’s fixation on the ‘70s rock gods makes even more narrative sense: Hearing their songs allows Camille to feel connected to Alice and, most likely, her half-sister Marian (Lulu Wilson), another girl to whom she felt bonded and who died far too young. It’s also a way for Camille to revisit her pain by, sonically speaking, pressing into a raw, open wound. Listening to Led Zeppelin over and over is the musical equivalent of cutting into her skin, again and again.

But why Led Zeppelin as opposed to any other band? There are no references to Zeppelin in the Gillian Flynn novel that inspired the series, and their music pre-dates the time period in which Camille would have grown up in Wind Gap. On first listen, hard classic rock from a bunch of old British men seems like an odd choice for a show principally about women from Southern Missouri. But after considering the band’s history and the qualities of the specific tracks that play in the show, it’s clear that, tonally and thematically, Led Zeppelin is perfect for Sharp Objects.

Led Zeppelin is not only one of the greatest rock bands of all time, but a band well-known for engaging in excessive behavior. In a 2003 Vanity Fair piece, veteran music writer Lisa Robinson recounted her experiences on the road with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, a time when their U.S. tours became famous for their debauchery. “Just when big music and big money came together,” Robinson writes, “Led Zeppelin gave new meaning to ‘sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll.’ Everything was offered to them. They turned nothing down.”

In other words, these guys really liked their women, their drugs, and their alcohol. Drummer John Bonham famously drank to such an extreme that he died in his sleep because of it; specifically, he choked on his own vomit after drinking 40 shots of vodka. I doubt he sipped the vodka from Evian bottles like Camille does, but still: His alcoholism is just one way that the history of Led Zeppelin connects to the story Sharp Objects is telling. Camille’s behavior in private is nothing if not excessive.

The band’s questionable behavior involving young women is another connection. During Led Zeppelin’s heyday, guitarist Jimmy Page dated the underage Lori Mattix, a relationship that, while consensual, would have qualified as statutory rape since Mattox was 15 at the time. There were loud whispers of other scandalous sexual encounters, too. From Robinson’s Vanity Fair article: “I remember the rumors: Jimmy traveled with a suitcase full of whips. One time he was naked, covered with whipped cream, put on a room-service table, and wheeled into a room to be served up to a bunch of teenage girls. The band attacked a female reporter from Life magazine, ripping her clothes, until, in tears, she was rescued by the band’s manager. And, in 1969 at Seattle’s Edgewater Inn, in a notorious episode that has achieved mythic proportion, the band violated a teenage girl with a live shark. (‘It wasn’t a shark,’ Richard Cole [the band’s tour manager] told me years later. ‘It was a red snapper. And it wasn’t some big ritualistic thing; it was in and out and a laugh and the girl wasn’t sobbing — she was a willing participant. It was so fast, and over and done with, and no one from the band was there. I don’t think anyone who was there remembers the same thing.’)”

Regardless of who was there and whether any of these girls were willing participants — if they were teenagers, that argument pretty much goes out the window, and also, “not snobbing” hardly qualifies as consenting to have a fish shoved in your vagina — it’s obvious that the atmosphere around Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s was sexually charged and marinated in misogyny. Many of their songs could be described using the same adjectives. That vibe suits the world of Wind Gap, where young women like Camille’s half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) become mischievous after dark, where pornographic photos are on full display in tucked-away hunting cabins, and where teenage girls wind up missing under mysterious circumstances. The sexy and the dangerous co-exist in close quarters in this Missouri Bootheel town, and they co-exist in the Zeppelin songs that Camille blasts from her speakers as she cruises around its streets.

Zeppelin’s music is also famous for a flirtation with the occult that once made parents nervous, and convinced a generation that playing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards revealed Satanic messages that would put the listener on a one-way escalator straight to hell. It’s surprising that Camille only gets acquainted with Zeppelin as an adult, courtesy of a woman who’s younger than she is. But it also makes sense: There’s no way Adora (Patricia Clarkson) would have ever allowed Led Zeppelin into her precious home.

Only four Led Zeppelin tracks show up in Sharp Objects and, when considered in the context of their albums, they trace the arc of the band’s existence. In order of initial appearance, they are: the blues cover “I Can’t Quit You, Baby,” from the band’s eponymous first album; “Thank You,” a sentimental rock ballad written as a tribute to frontman Robert Plant’s then-wife, and “What Is And What Should Never Be,” both from Led Zeppelin II; and “In the Evening,” the first track on the band’s eighth and final studio album, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. That album was recorded during a challenging personal time for Plant, who was coping with the death of his five-year-old son Karac from a stomach virus. Grief over a lost child is embedded in some of Zeppelin’s music, too, just as it is in Sharp Objects. (I also have to point out that the covers of In Through the Out Door, originally released in six different forms, all feature an image of a man dressed in all white. It’s not a woman in white, but it’s close. He’s also sitting in a bar, which: appropriate.)

The mood of these particular Zeppelin songs is also calibrated to match Camille’s mindset. Each of them has a hazy, trippy quality that mirrors Camille’s constant level of intoxication, as well as her shifts between memory and reality. “What Is and What Should Never Be” a classic that demands to be heard through a set of nice headphones — really captures that feeling, thanks to that explosive Page guitar riff that jumps from right speaker to left, then back again. That’s how Camille’s brain is working: She’s going back in time, then popping to the present, then back again with rapid fluidity. The 2012 movie Silver Linings Playbook used “What Is and What Should Never Be” to convey similar cognitive dissonance during a scene in which Bradley Cooper’s Pat has a breakdown while trying to reignite memories of a marriage that ended for reasons he’s blocked out of his head. Camille is in a similar state of denial, a state that even the song’s title reflects.

If you read the lyrics through the prism of Sharp Objects, these songs can also be interpreted as commentaries on destructive relationships between adults and children. The opening verse of “What Is and What Should Never Be” as cooed by Plant — “And if I say to you tomorrow/Take my hand, child, come with me/It’s to a castle I will take you/Where what’s to be, they say will be” — becomes haunting and creepy, especially if you imagine the narrator is a grown man singing to a girl. I used to think of those lyrics as sexy, but honestly? When I hear this now, in the context of an HBO series about murdered girls, it sounds like something Pennywise the Clown would say.

That song also suggests false promises: “Catch the wind, see us spin/Sail away leave today/Way up high in the sky, hey, whoa/But the wind won’t blow/You really shouldn’t go.” In the first episode, when a drunk Camille falls asleep while listening to “What Is and What Should Never Be,” it’s significant that the song cuts out just before Plant notes that the wind won’t blow and you really shouldn’t go. The way the music is edited in Sharp Objects, along with so many other things in the series, is telling us to pay attention to the words we hear as well as the ones we don’t, because they all help explain what Camille refuses to confront.

The other Zeppelin songs play that role, too. This verse from “In the Evening” — again, one we don’t hear in Sharp Objects because the song stops before we get there — describes a possessive woman who may cause harm, and it suggests that if you are harmed by her, it’s your own fault: “So don’t you let her/Oh, get under your skin/It’s only bad luck and trouble/From the day that you begin/I hear you crying in the darkness/Don’t ask nobody’s help/Ain’t no pockets full of mercy, baby/’Cause you can only blame yourself.” It’s hard to read those lyrics without reflecting on the relationship between Camille and her mother Adora.

There’s an ominous quality, too, in “I Can’t Quit You, Baby,” a Willie Dixon-penned blues number about a romantic relationship that, again, sounds quite different if you consider that the baby being addressed is someone’s child: “I can’t quit you, baby/So I’m gonna put you down for awhile/I said I can’t quit you, baby/I guess I gotta put you down for awhile/Said you messed up my happy home/Made me mistreat my only child.” If you imagine these words springing from the mind of someone who hurt or even killed his or her own daughter, they read as both a confession and a displacement of blame onto the victim. Even if you don’t read the song quite so literally, it’s easy to see how it echoes Sharp Objects’ themes of codependency, denial, and harming young people.

There’s also a strong sense of codependency in the song “Thank You,” but the bond depicted in that track is a positive one. That’s why it’s so meaningful that when Camille lies down next to Alice, who’s distraught after a disappointing rehab visit from her mother, “Thank You” plays through the buds she places in Alice’s ears. This is both a maternal and sisterly act on Camille’s part, and an expression of gratitude shared by two women who understand and need each other. And it’s expressed through Led Zeppelin.

That may be the best, most slyly subversive thing about the show’s incorporation of the band’s music: that it’s used in such a female context. Led Zeppelin has long been thought of as a dude’s band. Their music is rough, edgy, and talks about traditionally male stuff like Norse mythology and the occult and asking a woman squeeze your lemon ‘til the juice runs down your leg. It’s the band that Mike Damone, the sleaziest guy in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, tells the nerdy Mark Ratner to play on his first date with Stacy Hamilton because it will definitely make her want to make out with him. (It doesn’t.) It’s guy rock at its guy rock-iest, something that Chuck Klosterman writes about in his book, Killing Yourself to Live: Zeppelin, Klosterman says, is “the only group in the history of rock ’n’ roll that every male rock fan seems to experience in exactly the same way.” He adds that Led Zeppelin sounds “like the kind of cool guy every man thinks he has the potential to be, if just a few things about the world were somehow different.” Then, he concludes, “This is why Led Zeppelin is the most beloved rock band of all time, even though most people (including myself) think the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are better. Those two bands are appreciated in myriad ways and for myriad reasons, and the criteria for doing so changes with every generation. But Led Zeppelin is only loved one way, and that will never evolve. They are the one thing all young men share, and we will share it forever.”

The relationship that Alice and Camille have with Led Zeppelin — a relationship similar to the one that I, too, had with Led Zeppelin as a teenager digging into their discography for the first time — proves otherwise. Led Zeppelin is loved in more than one way, and that love is not just defined in male terms. Women love the band, too, in spite of the sexism that races through their catalogue. Someone like Camille, who regularly inflicts pain on herself, may even subconsciously connect to the music because of that misogyny.

Sharp Objects shows us that not just young men share Led Zeppelin, but that women can love the band, too: as a transportive means of escape, an expression of female solidarity, a reminder of hurt, and an expression of rebellion. This miniseries, which suggests that what’s been buried may tell a very different story than what’s on the surface, encourages us to listen to Led Zeppelin through fresh ears and from another perspective so we can hear something we may have missed. Ultimately, it reminds us that our relationship to and understanding of any music can evolve once we run it through a different filter. Or, to put it in terms that borrow from the title of the 1976 Led Zeppelin concert film, no song remains the same. Especially when we hear how it sounds to someone who isn’t a man, and who is wrestling with demons unique to her experiences as a woman.

Led Zeppelin Is a Perfect Fit for Sharp Objects