cult success

How Getting a Song on Rick and Morty Changes Your Life

Photo: Cartoon Network

Late one night in early 2000, the members of Blonde Redhead were in a barn outside of Seattle that had been converted into a recording studio. The New York–based indie rock trio were almost done making their fifth album, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. They had already finished a melancholy song called “For the Damaged” where co-lead vocalist Kazu Makino sang resignedly over delicate piano and a sparse acoustic guitar. They’d also recorded a more dramatic, extended piano vamp for the song, but weren’t sure what to do with it. Then either Makino or her bandmate Amedeo Pace — they can’t remember which — had the idea to add wordless vocals of the song’s melody: aaaaah-aah-aah-aah-aaah-aah-aah. Makino originally envisioned it being done by a choir with lots of children, but they couldn’t afford that. Instead they layered about 20 takes of Makino doing it herself, becoming, as she says, “an army of my voice.”

The project had been behind schedule, and earlier in the recording process, their label Touch & Go told them they needed to get the album art done. Makino figured they’d probably end up with ten songs, so she wrote out a convoluted run-on sentence and chopped it into ten parts for the track titles. This new song would become the album’s eleventh track, so it went unlisted on the back of the packaging. Just over two-and-a-half minutes long, it was named “For the Damaged Coda.” Thinking back to that late night in the studio, Makino says, “Because you’re in such a cocoon, you have this very strong sensation that no one is going to listen to this music. Once that’s done, you realize, ‘Wow, this is actually going to go out there.’ And beyond that, basically it’s out of your hands.”

Fourteen years later, “For the Damaged Coda” was used in the final moments of an episode of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty during the cartoon’s first season. Makino says she only vaguely remembers being approached to approve it. The song soundtracked the revelation that (okay, bear with me) an Evil Morty was the mastermind behind a plot to travel across alternate dimensions, killing Ricks and kidnapping other Mortys to get the attention of the show’s central Rick, and now that Evil Morty was roaming undetected in the Citadel of Ricks, an intergalactic society governed by the Council of Ricks. Then during last year’s third season, after Rick and Morty had amassed a now fanatical fan base, “For the Damaged Coda” played once again as it became clear that Evil Morty had engineered a conspiracy to get himself elected as the leader of the Citadel of Ricks and murder anyone who might challenge his power.

In the following weeks, “For the Damaged Coda” was streamed and downloaded so many times that it reached No. 15 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, 17 years after it was first released. Over the course of their career, the music of Blonde Redhead has been used in movies, commercials, and TV shows, even getting a coveted placement on Grey’s Anatomy back in 2007, but none of these syncs had a cultural impact anywhere near what happened with Rick and Morty.

Today, “For the Damaged Coda” has been streamed over 27 million times on Spotify, which is 23 million more times than the second-most streamed Blonde Redhead song. For some more perspective, the most streamed song on Spotify by Sonic Youth, the indie rock pioneers and the band that Blonde Redhead was most compared to in 2000, is at close to 18 million. The most streamed song by punk godheads Fugazi, whose member Guy Picciotto co-produced Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, is at just over 16 million.

“For the Damaged Coda” also became a meme, playing over clips of Fortnite fails and dopey characters getting clowned on SpongeBob SquarePants. Makino says a friend’s 12-year-old daughter in Italy told her that kids in her class sing the wordless melody at each other when someone makes a mistake, and they don’t even watch Rick and Morty. “It really makes you feel like you have no say in what happens in your career,” says Blonde Redhead’s drummer, Simone Pace. “The rest of your career you just struggle to make good records, go on tour, then one thing like this has more impact than anything.”

Across its three seasons. Rick and Morty’s co-creator Justin Roiland (Dan Harmon is the other) has also chosen unexpected tracks by bands like Belly, Mazzy Star, and Chaos Chaos for emotional, episode-ending sequences. In each case, this placement has resulted in an outsize spike in interest in the song. Last week, Sub Pop Records released a soundtrack for Rick and Morty that’s mostly a showcase for its versatile composer, Ryan Elder, but it will also feature each of these selections. Rick and Morty has developed into Adult Swim’s most popular show of all time, though there have only been 31 episodes over almost five years. Its followers have gotten the rep as some of the most devoted (some might say obnoxiously so) fans in pop culture, though there have been instances when a subsection of them have resorted to vile misogyny. But considering that there is now a market for officially licensed Rick and Morty plush slippers and toy dimension portal guns, the fact that they could easily push a song’s streaming numbers into the millions isn’t that surprising.

While getting a song on a film or TV show has long been a dependable way for musicians to gain attention, in this era of diminished sales and a glut of other music both new and old to compete with, these placements still remain important. Phenomenon like “For the Damaged Coda” or  MIA’s “Paper Planes” in the Pineapple Express trailer have become more and more rare, but almost any mainstream exposure or free promotion helps.

Belly’s frontperson Tanya Donnelly says that back in the ’90s, the band’s career was bolstered by soundtrack appearances in films including Mallrats, Twister, and Tank Girl. Their cover of Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” was used in the Brendan Fraser vehicle With Honors, which is basically a triple-word score for the era. But getting a song on Rick and Morty in 2014 arguably was more important for them.

Belly was one of Justin Roiland’s favorite bands when he was a teenager, so he chose their love song “Seal My Fate” for when Rick and Morty came closest to approximating a big, rom-com moment inside its notoriously dark universe. After it was released in 1995, “Seal My Fate” became the last-ditch fourth single from King, Belly’s commercially unsuccessful follow-up to their breakthrough debut. Now it’s the band’s second-most streamed song on Spotify after the Buzz Bin staple, “Feed the Tree.”

Belly got back together in 2016 after a 20-year absence, and Donnelly says that they’ve met some kids during their post-reunion gigs who admit they learned about the group through Rick and Morty. Once during a show in Chicago, she interrogated a young fan about how he knew about her music and he said it was because a streaming site’s algorithm recommended her when he was playing Sarah McLachlan. “There’s less genre-identification and time-identification,” Donnelly says of the listening habits of younger music listeners. “I feel like those who use a streaming site as their main source of discovery aren’t quite as ageist as my generation might have been.”

While most of the songs used in Rick and Morty seemingly come from Roiland’s old CD collection, the modern indie synth band Chaos Chaos, comprised of sisters Asya and Chloe Saavedra, has become frequent collaborators with the show’s creators. Roiland was a fan of Smoosh, the group the sisters formed before they were teenagers, and he approached them after they released Chaos Chaos’s second EP, saying he wanted to use the atmospheric track “Do You Feel It?” for a scene in the second season in which Rick attempts suicide and fails. The group didn’t know about the show and didn’t see the email for a while before they responded. “It almost seems like it could easily have not happened,” says Asya.

Now the song has over 24 million streams on Spotify. The comments for the Committed to the Crime listing on Bandcamp are littered with Rick and Morty references like “Unity brought me here” and “WHAT UP MY GLIP GLOPS.”

“Memories,” another Chaos Chaos song, appeared in the show’s second season, and in the third, Roiland asked to use some instrumental music the sisters had made for the new track, “Terryfold,” which made it to No. 33 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart. They also added vocal harmonies to the Dan Harmon–sung “Fathers and Daughters (Doo-Doo in My Butt).” “I’m okay with not taking credit for that song,” says Asya.

At the merch table after shows, Chaos Chaos say they get a lot of people telling them they got into them through Rick and Morty, and they have to remember to include “Do You Feel It?” in their setlists since they know people probably came to see them play it. The group self-releases their music, so they see the all details of their streaming numbers and how much money has come in. Still they were surprised when they got the check after the “Do You Feel It?” episode aired. “We actually thought there was a problem. We thought it was a glitch,” says Chloe. “We saw the amount and we emailed the company, ‘Okay guys, we think something maybe went wrong. We got this big chunk of money and we want to check in to know what’s up with that.’”

The members of Blonde Redhead say the royalties from the rise in their streaming numbers haven’t amounted to a substantial change in the amount of money they’ve received. They’ve been consistently touring for more than 20 years and they say the age of their fans have always been mixed, so if it’s getting any younger because of Rick and Morty, they haven’t noticed. They also haven’t been able to book any bigger venues because of the song’s notoriety. In 2017, the group performed Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons in its entirety at FYF Fest in Los Angeles, but they think the promoter asked them to do so because of his own affection for the album rather than any possible Rick and Morty tie-in.

Even if they haven’t seen any tangible changes in their career from the spread of “For the Damaged Coda,” so far the effects have been more psychological than practical. “I never wanted to be labeled niche, or even indie rock or experimental or something like that,” Makino says. “It was such a remote dream of mine that we could write music that appealed to everyone, but it never, ever happened. But now, after that happened, I would get on the subway and I would think to myself, ‘There are actually people who know that song in this car.’”

How Getting a Song on Rick and Morty Changes Your Life