How ‘Dawson’s Creek’ Became a Treasure Trove of Canadian Music

“It created a lot of new fans, particularly in the U.S.,” Sarah Slean says of the show

Published January 2021 on Exclaim! and in March 2021’s print issue

by Yasmine Shemesh

One of the greatest music moments in Dawson’s Creek took place halfway through the third season, in the episode “A Weekend in the Country.” The gang had rallied around Joey and her sister, Bessie, to make sure the opening of their Potter B&B went off without a hitch after Pacey (with the best of intentions) invited a travel critic to stay. Chaos ensued, but, by the end, the weekend was a success. The episode concluded with a montage in which Pacey watched Joey as she slept — notably after Grams shared a sweet story about how you know you really love someone when you can spend the evening watching them sleep. “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell played, coating the scene with a profound tenderness.

The show’s soundtrack was thoughtfully curated to reflect the growing pains of a group of tightly-knit friends coming of age in the fictional Massachusetts town of Capeside, and it was Canadian music that underscored many of the crew’s most formative moments. Jann Arden‘s “Good Mother,” for example, captured Pacey’s serene relief as he graduated high school. “Surrounded” by Chantal Kreviazuk played as Dawson saw Joey in a new light after she entered a beauty contest. Jen and Joey took their first steps towards friendship to Ron Sexsmith‘s “Thinking Out Loud.” “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan voiced the group’s collective grief in the series finale as they — spoiler alert — surrounded Jen on her deathbed.

Dawson’s Creek‘s Canadian streak began externally: Alberta-born Bob Hunka, then-Senior Vice President of Music at Sony Pictures Television, oversaw the production and clearing of music content for all the studio’s shows, including Dawson’s Creek, where he worked closely with Ontario-born music supervisor John McCullough. Speaking to Exclaim! from Los Angeles, Hunka says now with a laugh, “A joke [my wife] made about me a long time ago was, ‘You know how they say people wear their heart on their sleeves? Well, my husband wears his maple leaf on his sleeve.'” He and McCullough first worked together on Party of Five, another landmark of ’90s TV. “Back then, there were a couple of other really good TV music supervisors, but I always called John the first among equals because he’s so good. And the fact that we could share our Canadian connection just made it even better. The way it manifested itself, it’s just all been reassuring and satisfying.”

On the inside, it started with a theme song. While Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” has become synonymous with Dawson’s Creek as its opener, it was initially only secured for early show promos — Cole was signed to Warner Records, which shared an owner with the show’s broadcasting network, the WB. In an interview with Billboard, executive producer Paul Stupin said Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” was the first choice for the theme. Morissette, however, turned the studio down, and the response to the Cole promos led to a public assumption that “I Don’t Want to Wait” was actually the show’s theme song.

“We felt, at Sony, that the network was forcing us into a situation where we were going to have to pay for something that we didn’t choose,” Hunka explains. “Because when a show has a theme and the show doesn’t own the theme, the show has to pay for that theme on a per-episode basis. Our studio produced Married with Children, and the amount of money that we paid for the Frank Sinatra song [“Love and Marriage”] — it was a sobering number. So, the compromise — and it was a good compromise, because it fulfilled the WB’s need and desire to use the song — was we made a deal that the song would only be used on the WB broadcast of the show. When we, as the studio that owned the show, sold the show internationally, we wouldn’t have the Paula Cole song because it would be replaced with something. And the reason why we did that, of course, was that it was more affordable for the studio to only buy the song for the domestic broadcast, rather than for the worldwide broadcast on an endless basis in perpetuity.”

So, right from the outset, Dawson’s Creek needed a theme song for its international market. McCullough knew Jann Arden’s manager, Neil MacGonigill, and approached him to commission an opener from the iconic Alberta-based artist and frequent Creek contributor: “Run Like Mad,” an ebullient, starry-eyed cut that captures the youthful whimsy of the protagonists.

“I can’t say enough about how she delivered,” Hunka says. “We absolutely love it.” Making Dawson’s Creek even more of a Canuck mixtape, “Run Like Mad” is now the theme heard today on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime — again, because of licensing rights, which didn’t anticipate the digital era of streaming. (“It’s a lot easier now,” says Hunka.)

In 1998, when Dawson’s Creek premiered, television shows weren’t promised the afterlife they have now — music was licensed for television broadcasts and home video releases separately, since only the most successful shows would be released on VHS. As the show grew in popularity, these licensing deals became increasingly expensive, so Sony went back to the mixing studio to replace any music they couldn’t afford. And, Hunka says, based on the great experience they had with Arden, McCullough also recognized there might be a whole wealth of (potentially affordable) music available that hadn’t yet been tapped: music by Canadian artists.

Some songs couldn’t be replaced because they were too integral to the story, but much of the background music swapped out. Eventually, Dawson’s Creek began selecting music specifically because it wouldn’t have to be replaced. “That’s how it evolved into this Canadian exposé,” Hunka explains. “By the last season, we weren’t putting any music in that had to be replaced because we knew we were going to the home video devices anyway. We were using this treasure trove of music that John and I were aware of because of where we come from.”

That awareness also came into play as Sony found resourceful ways of obtaining music they felt strongly about. They really wanted “Feels Like Home,” a ballad written by Randy Newman and originally performed by Bonnie Raitt. The studio bought the publishing rights and asked an artist on the label to record a new version of the track; Chantal Kreviazuk recorded “Feels Like Home” exclusively for Dawson’s Creek, which played as Joey made peace with her newly paroled father and then shared an intimate kiss with Dawson. To date, Kreviazuk’s rendition is the most well-known one — her soulful rasp beautifully conveys the song’s feel of kindred and closeness, sentiments also reflected in the scene — and has endured as one of her best-loved hits.

The strong emphasis on Canadian music is one of the reasons Dawson’s Creek was so influential among its teen drama contemporaries, for the way the soundtrack valued artists that existed beyond the mainstream fold. For Canadians watching and listening north of the border, the homegrown inclusion provided an unexpected and wonderful familiarity in hearing local favourites score major placements on a hit show beloved around the world.

But, to be clear, Hunka emphasizes that music wasn’t being placed because it was Canadian — it was placed because it was good. “It’s what you hope that you can do in any situation like this — just expose worthy material,” he says. “Because if it is worthy and it’s going to work, it’ll get used. And I think that the brilliance of what happened on Dawson’s, this very specific Canadian consideration, is that we had access because of where we’re from and who we knew. We had an ability to expose music that wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance of exposure, because the producers were being inundated with material from everywhere.”

The promotional value of being on a show like Dawson’s Creek was and still is immense. For audiences, soundtracks are a vehicle for music discovery. For artists, the exposure has the potential to span generations. Sony received an astronomical amount of music from labels and artists from all over hoping to nab a spot on Dawson’s Creek.

One that stood out was Sarah Slean, whose management was sending her CD packages out to music supervisors in the U.S. Her song “My Invitation,” a gorgeous ballad from her debut full-length, Blue Parade, appeared in the third season as Joey and Pacey slow-danced and realized the depth of their feelings for one another, while Dawson watched on in heartbreak. It was a pivotal moment for the three individual character arcs and set into motion the love triangle that remained for the rest of the series.

“I love that a music supervisor understood the emotional essence of the song — that trance-like, fixated quality of new love mixed with a bittersweet melancholy — and paired it with that exact moment in the story,” Slean tells Exclaim! “I thought it was very tastefully done. It was a thrill to see it work so well in the scene.”

The Dawson’s Creek feature introduced Slean’s poetic compositions to a wider audience, the impact of which she would feel on her career for years to come. “The reaction to the song was overwhelming for us at the time,” she adds. “It created a lot of new fans, particularly in the U.S., and allowed me to tour well in the upper eastern states for many years.”

As Senior VP of Music at Sony (and the Los Angeles representative for SOCAN), Hunka has spoken extensively about music placements in television and film. He’d often have, he describes, a room full of Canadian singers and songwriters beaming at the fact that so much Canadian music was being featured on American shows like Dawson’s Creek. But the important message he’d always leave them with would be this: the bad news is the music isn’t being used because it’s Canadian; the good news is the music isn’t being used because it’s Canadian. The music, he’d stress, is being used because it resonates with the music design and unique identity of the show.

“On an open competition market, being Canadian has no advantage, has no upper hand — because we couldn’t use the music if it wasn’t good and didn’t work,” Hunka maintains.

“It would be wrong,” he continues, “to place music just because it was Canadian. And it would be wrong to take credit for the fact that the music was placed because it was Canadian. The music was good!”

That the Dawson’s Creek soundscape still deeply moves audiences more than 20 years later is a testament to McCullough’s deft curation. The soundtrack stands as an inspired document of Canadian music — a treasure trove of gems, selected and assembled with deliberation and care. One that not only defined Capeside’s musical landscape and a whole generation of musical trajectories, but that placed Canadian artists right at the heart of them with no apologies.

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