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What Does THIS Have To Do With Music?: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”

By Paulo Camacho

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs I like to call … “What does THIS have to do with music?” Where I take a seemingly random topic and ask the question:

“What does THIS have to do with music?”

(I thought that was pretty straight-forward.)

Today’s subject: it’s the popular Emmy award-winning program on HBO that airs every week to millions of fans. And, no, I’m not talking about “Game of Thrones.” Or “Ballers.” Or “Westworld.” Or “True Detective.” Okay, stop guessing!

John Oliver has been hosting his late-night news satire program, “Last Week Tonight,” for a national audience since he moved from his Correspondent post on The Daily Show in 2014. His unique brand of combining unflinching, often-ludicrous humor with the more sobering subjects in society has propelled the 41-year-old British comedian to new heights in the realm of popular media.

Oliver has always framed his show as entertainment — often in the same vein as programs like “The Daily Show,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” weaving together over-the-top humor with the politics and social issues of the times. And he has managed to do it with a variety of segments meant to both inform and entertain.

Part of that entertainment has been the show’s use of music in its various segments. From parodies to original themes, Oliver and his writing team have managed to weave music into its programming, with hilarious results. Here are a few examples:

(Warning: Some NSFW language)

“How Are We Supposed To Live Without You” — Michael Bolton’s Ballad Dedicated to the IRS

In a main segment about the Internal Revenue Service, Oliver stresses two things: 1) how much Americans resent the tax-collecting agency, and 2) how vital they are to the American economy and society, at large. Ultimately, he likened the IRS to a part of the human anatomy in charge of expelling human waste. To quote the host:

… it’s nobody’s favorite part; but you need that thing working properly, or everything goes to sh** REAL QUICK.

john oliver, last week tonight

The show then brings on popular 90s crooner (and the guy who sang “Jack Sparrow” for The Lonely Island) Michael Bolton, to really hit the point home. It’s a take on one of his classic ballads, “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You,” with the lyrics tailor-made as an ode to the oft-lambasted government agency. It’s equal parts ridiculous, informative, and hilarious.

“The States Song: Washington DC Edition”

In a main segment discussing Washington DC, Oliver points out the special circumstances surrounding the country’s official capital: based on an outdated idea (which, by the way, no other democratic country practices) that the capital city of a country cannot have full voting rights or representation in the House of Representatives, the District of Columbia essentially suffers “taxation without representation.” In fact, DC cannot do much of anything without Congress chiming in to what they happen to do in their city.

To sum up the segment (and all of the ludicrous ideas surrounding the denial of Washington DC Statehood), Oliver invited a group of schoolchildren to sing a version of “The Fifty States That Rhyme” — a musical way to memorize all 50 states in the Union. In this version, however, the children sing about the grievances that Washington DC has for not being given their statehood. The song does what it is meant to — be a catchy, informative primer to DC’s inherent issues in government.

“#GoodbyeGeckos” — A Memorial Dedicated to the Russian Space Geckos

As a palate-cleanser, Oliver will switch to stories that are more light-hearted and silly. In this particular episode, the host gives an update to a story they briefly discussed in earlier episodes: as a scientific experiment, Russia launched a group of geckos into space, to observe their mating habits in such conditions. When the Russian government lost contact with the spacecraft, Oliver launched the hashtag #GoGetThoseGeckos “to raise awareness” for the “issue.” While initial reports had Russia successfully regaining contact with the Space Geckos, it was subsequently discovered that a malfunction allowed the geckos to freeze to death.

Oliver was rightfully heartbroken by the news.

As an ode to the group of space geckos, Oliver recruited American pop duo A Great Big World to sing their hit ballad, “Say Something.” Like many of the examples seen here, it was rightfully preposterous — but that was the point. What started as a pointless farce to call for the safety and prosperity of Russian lizards launched into space to procreate, became a hilarious spectacle that “Last Week Tonight” thrived upon.

“Oregon Spirit” by Lisa Loeb

In the era of Obamacare, the state of Oregon spent $248 million to launch their website, Cover Oregon, to sign up for an affordable federal-run health care plan. The problem? The website, designed to sign up users in one sitting, was full of glitches. Oregon was forced to hand over the reins to the main website — — after weeks of not being able to fix the problems. Oliver pointed out the waste of almost a quarter-billion dollars for a website that didn’t work, as well as an ad campaign that featured songs like Laura Gibson’s “Live Long In Oregon.”

Because of Oregon’s massive bungling of so much of taxpayers’ money, Oliver decided to spoof Gibson’s song, with the help of pop-folk artist Lisa Loeb. The song is a perfect homage to the original, with some less-than-flattering lyrics inserted in.

“America’s Prisons Are Broken”

In their piece about the American prison system, John Oliver points out how dysfunctional the institution has become — from dehumanizing the inmates that enter the system, to the big-money companies that put the almighty dollar ahead of the safety and well-being of the prisons’ inhabitants. Never mind that prison had become so much of a stereotypical staple in our popular culture, even children’s shows like Sesame Street were forced to address the subject.

Leave it to John Oliver and the writers of “Last Week Tonight” to take advantage of this fact to stress the dysfunctions of the prison system, by creating its own “Sesame Street”-like children’s show set — complete with Muppet-like characters, including two precocious children, a blue monster, and a crocodile who repeatedly mistakes prisons for zoos. The song, itself, is reminiscent of the many children’s tunes you would hear on “Sesame Street”, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” or “Eureka’s Castle”, but with an adult, Oliver-esque twist. It’s a perfect callback to the point made earlier, and a catchy way to illustrate the problems with today’s prisons in America.

Puerto Rico — A Spoken Word by Lin Manuel Miranda

In this main segment, Oliver addresses the ongoing debt crisis gripping the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico — one that has crippled the island’s economy and its population of 3 million people — all of which are American citizens. The host points this out by highlighting some prominent Puerto Ricans, including Lin Manuel Miranda, who wrote and composed the mega-hit musical “Hamilton.”

After an explanation of how the forlorn territory got into their economic mess (Read: a series of American policies that crippled Puerto Rico’s economic infrastructure), Oliver invites the Puerto Rican “Hamilton” star to perform an original spoken word piece on the territory’s debt crisis. It is equal parts poignant, heartbreaking, and fundamentally awesome — something Miranda has delivered in spades since he burst onto the mainstream music scene. Take a few minutes to give it a listen — it is brilliant.