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The Fray: Romancing America and Grey's Anatomy
Shortcuts to success in the music industry used to involve nudity and compromised morals. Aspiring stars had to sleep with record producers; pose naked on the cover of magazines like Penthouse, Playboy or Vanity Fair; or come up with some wildly inappropriate stunt—urinating on the audience during a concert, for example—that had not yet been done by someone like Marilyn Manson circa the 1990s or Madonna circa the 80s. Tabloid writers would wake up, music VJs would buzz, and sure enough, people would be sufficiently tricked into thinking they liked your music enough to actually go out and buy it.
Nowadays, shortcuts for the squeamish are available as well. One really simple trick used by rock and folk singers all over the U.S. is to okay their song for use in an episode of the mega-popular medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. The show’s producer, Shonda Rhimes, is a self-proclaimed music obsessive who loves taking unknown or just-released songs and sticking them in as a backdrop to Grey’s Anatomy characters’ increasingly complex lives. Anna Malick, for example, got her big break when her song Breathe became the soundtrack to Meredith Grey’s attempt to pull a bomb out of a human body without setting it off. Snow Patrol added millions to their fan base when their song Chasing Cars played during the devastating season finale when the interns finally pried a weeping Izzie from the body of her deceased fiancé, the much-loved Denny. And, if you listen really carefully, you can even hear Gnarles Barkley’s megahit Crazy playing during one of those hospital cafeteria courtyard scenes where the interns sit down, eat lunch and trade wisecracks.
The Grey’s Anatomy route was the shortcut of choice for The Fray. How to Save a Life played in a Season Two episode called Superstition, then later served as the music for the show’s Season Three promotion commercials. The response was overwhelming: in a mere week, How to Save a Life jumped from #51 to #29 on the Billboard chart. As the promotional commercials continued to play, How to Save a Life continued to climb the chart, eventually peaking at an impressive number three.
Not that anybody’s insinuating that The Fray are a bunch of no-talent losers who jumped the Grey’s Anatomy bandwagon and skyrocketed to undeserved success. Nobody’s saying this because, for one thing, Shonda Rhimes and company have very good taste in music. All the songs they’ve showcased on Grey’s Anatomy have been genuinely worth showcasing. The fact that some of them (cough, cough, Snow Patrol) later became ridiculously overplayed was beyond Shonda and company’s control. For another thing, The Fray genuinely ARE good. Fans and critics seem to think so: their CD went gold both in record stores and on iTunes.
But just who is The Fray? Let’s get some background on this breakthrough band. The Fray is actually four people: Isaac Slade on lead vocals and piano; Joe King on vocals and guitar; Dave Welsh on guitar; and Ben Wysocki on percussion. They formed in 2002 in lovely Denver, Colorado. The Fray has no official bassist at the moment, (their original bassist, Isaac Slade’s brother Caleb, foolishly left the band before it became successful), but they’ve recently been touring with bassist Jimmy Stofer of the Dualistics and also of The Commentary.
The band pulled the name “The Fray” out of a suggestion bowl at a graduation party for Caleb Slade. Since the band frequently fought back then, they figured The Fray, or ‘noisy fight,’ was an appropriate name. (They claim they now get along great, though.)
You might be thinking, 2002 was a long time ago—how come I never heard of The Fray before Grey’s Anatomy? The reason is simple: The Fray, like many bands, had a shaky start. Their first release, an EP called Movement, had a mere four songs. Few copies were released, and the EP, now unavailable, is considered a sought-after collector’s item among The Fray’s most hardcore fans. Their second EP, Reason, received a little more attention: critics raved about it, particularly those in Denver’s Westword alternative weekly newspaper, the readers of which would later name The Fray Best New Band of 2004. Not all Denver media outlets were quite so enthusiastic, however. Denver radio station KTCL rejected a whopping eight singles by The Fray before finally giving Cable Car a chance in 2004. The song, which focuses on the troubled relationship between Isaac Slade and his brother Caleb, started out on a radio show showcasing local bands, and soon made it to KTCL’s list of Top Thirty Most Played Songs of 2004. Just when it looked like 2004 would prove to be a good year for The Fray, a last-minute breakthrough turned 2004 into a great year for the Fray: Epic Records signed the band on December 17.
In September 2005, The Fray released their debut album, How to Save a Life, which contained the single of the same name. How to Save a Life was so successful that it became the unofficial anthem for hip TV shows worldwide. Grey’s Anatomy used the song to promote the show in both France and Australia. Scrubs, perhaps noting, like Grey’s Anatomy did, that the phrase How to Save a Life nicely encapsulated what characters on TV medical dramas tried to do, also featured it. It was later heard on One Tree Hill, The Hills, 8th & Ocean, and Cold Case, as well as in a couple of movie trailers.
To date, The Fray has enjoyed an incredible amount of success. They’ve toured with music legends such as Weezer and Ben Folds.
Not many bands get to have a whopping three videos made for their first single, but that’s exactly what happened to The Fray’s How to Save a Life. The first video featured light and a theme of stopped time, showcasing a car crash with the victims on pause. The second video juxtaposed scenes from the first video with scenes from—you guessed it!—Grey’s Anatomy. The third video was perhaps the most poignant. Directed by Mark Pellington of “Jeremy” fame, the video features depressed, suicidal teenagers screaming against a white background. This version of the video appeared to strike a chord with teenage videos, hitting the coveted number one position on the ultimate authority on the teen scene in the United States, MTV’s Total Request Live.
Wait, you’re thinking. Depressed, suicidal teenagers? What’s up with that? If you’ve listened to How to Save a Life’s pithy lyrics, you’ll know that the song deals with trying to help a depressed, suicidal friend. Isaac Slade, who wrote the song, claims that the inspiration for How to Save a Life came from a summer stint working as a mentor at a camp for troubled teens. One of the kids he mentored was, like Isaac Slade himself, a musician. Unlike Isaac Slade, who lead a relatively comfortable suburban life, this kid had major problems, including crack addiction—and, as Isaac Slade later remarked in interviews, “No one could write a manual on how to save him.” Isaac Slade remembers that family and friends would try to “help” the boy by threatening to stop speaking to him if he didn’t shape up.
How to Save a Life touched a deep chord with youths worldwide, both those who themselves have been misunderstood troubled teens, and those who have tried—and failed—to help a troubled friend, which is what happens in the chorus of the song: “And I would have stayed up with you all night Had I known how to save a life.” How to Save a Life received an overwhelming response from fans, to the point where The Fray launched a website welcoming fans to post their reactions and videos for the song. Many fans wrote in telling The Fray that How to Save a Life has helped them in dealing with a loved one’s suicide.
Among the emotional responses from the fans came a story about a teen who died in a car accident. How to Save a Life played at his funeral, and several of the teen’s friends tattooed Save a Life on their arms. The death of this teen lead to the Save a Life Campaign, a group of “ordinary people” whose “extraordinary loss” has inspired them to teach others to have the moral courage to save their own lives. The website includes stories of small acts of courage and kindness, such as buying coffee for a homeless woman. It is also a space where people can trade stories of having overcome mental illness or suicidal thoughts.
Interestingly, The Fray seems to appeal to a lot of Christian fans. Even though the members of the group grew up moderately Protestant, and their music evokes inevitable comparisons to Christian rock music, The Fray hesitates to call themselves a Christian band. Chrisitan bands, Isaac Slade points out, are supposed to be together and permanently happy, and this is not what The Fray’s all about (much to the relief of its enormous fan base).
Grey’s Anatomy may be killing supporting characters off left, right and center, but The Fray’s fans would argue that by launching the song that would launch The Fray’s career, this melodramatic fictional world has saved many, many real lives.