Twice in the last month, the 1982 Laura Branigan hit “Gloria” has been used as a key plot device: to soundtrack the maniacal trance of a person about to commit a major act of violence. In “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” Darren Criss, who plays serial killer Andrew Cunanan, sings along to the tune at top-volume while driving to his next crime scene in Miami. And in “I Tonya,” Sebastian Stan, in the role of Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, listens to the song intently as he ponders how to handicap competing figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Coincidence that both the Ryan Murphy series on FX and the Craig Gillespie-directed film feature men in their cars finding meaning in the post-disco pop song?
“I had no idea ‘Gloria’ was going to be in ‘I Tonya,'” says “Versace” music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas. “I watched the movie as a complete bystander. It was very funny to see that.” (Jen Moss and Susan Jacobs handled music supervision for “I Tonya.”) But Thomas has since heard from others who took notice of the duplicate cue. Indeed it would be hard not to as both scenes illuminate the psychotic turn that the two men make. “It’s totally sugary 80s pop and that’s among the reasons why it works,” she adds. “But there are so many more levels to it, and why people have really responded to it.”
One of those reasons is that the song’s familiar synth-led Euro-dance melody both contrasts and accentuates the moment. “The recognition [factor] is part of why you want to use it — it’s not something that’s going to be buried in the background,” says Thomas, who notes that Murphy, “has an eye and an ear for what he wants … and we’re all in service to it. The recognizability of a song can be the creative brushstroke. And that’s something Ryan is great at.”
“Gloria” was, in fact, a quantifiable hit at the time of its release in 1982, eventually peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would end up spending 36 weeks on the chart. Curiously, the track was actually a cover of an Italian pop hit with new lyrics added in English. “That song was much bigger in the Italian language than it it was in English,” “Gloria” co-producer Greg Mathieson tells Variety. Originally asked to give the song a new arrangement, Mathieson decided to stay faithful to the original. “The engineer asked me, “Why are you doing this exactly the same?’ And I said, ‘It was a hit, I’m not going to mess with it!'”
Mathieson, whose credits include Donna Summer’s “Enough Is Enough” and Toni Basil’s “Mickey” (the latter a No. 1 song in Nov. 1982, the same week “Gloria” hit No. 2, a rare feat for a producer in an era long before Max Martin), has also gotten word of “Gloria” synchs. Asked why the song serves so well as an accompaniment to insanity, the now-retired producer posits: “I think they used it because of the juxtaposition of evil intent and the feeling that the song gives you, which is to get up and dance and have a good time. They’re trying to set up this dichotomy of pumping yourself up.”
Thomas concurs that Branigan’s “Gloria” provides “a great contrast when it’s surrounded by darkness” but there’s also the lyrical content about a person, like Cunanan, who is hiding in plain sight. “‘Gloria, You’re always on the run now.’ … Andrew is literally on the run,” she says. “Ryan wanted to think about music as what would Andrew’s taste be? What would he be listening to? What is his soundtrack? And this completely fits into that world [of] the young kid growing up in the 80s who was homosexual and going out to clubs.”
It’s worth noting that both “I Tonya” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” are based on true stories that took place in the ’90s, a good decade after “Gloria” stormed the charts with a priority push by then Atlantic Records head Doug Morris. “Gloria” the synch had also been somewhat dormant for a time, but in 2013, the Italian version popped up in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the Branigan recording has since been placed in such shows as “The Last Man on Earth,” “Scorpion” and “South Park,” all in 2017.
There’s a reason for that, says Atlas Music Publishing CEO Richard Stumpf. “The spike is entirely due to Atlas taking over the Sugar Music catalog in 2016,” he explains, referencing the song’s Italian publisher. “We have doubled the annual sync. Kristen Bushnell Perez, our head of sync, and her team do an incredible job of promoting our songs.” (Warner Music Group owns the master of the Branigan version of “Gloria” while publishing for the song’s writers — Giancarlo Bigazzi, Umberto Tozzi and Trevor Veitch — is with Atlas.) “We selectively populate our musical pallet so that we have the top songs, from top eras available to pitch,” Stumpf adds. “By doing this, each song has a better shot at increased value. It also allows us to be lightening fast with license clearance. These are big factors in raising sync levels for catalogs.”
Stumpf estimates that a song like “Gloria” can earn “millions” over the life span of its second act. “All evergreens, if managed properly, should be able to produce a high level of steady revenue,” he says. “But even the greatest garden, if not watered, will wither. Same with music. If songs are stuck at bloated publishers who can’t focus, they lose value. Our favorite thing to do is pick up catalogs from super-sized publishers and add value. A song like ‘Gloria’ can pull in six figures for film use and high six to seven figures for commercials. And that’s just the publishing side!”
Why does “Gloria” rise above the rest for major cues? The publishing executive also points to the song’s “sonic intensity” along with the imagery in the lyrics. “This is where music supervisors do a great job.”