Track of the Day: 'In the Air Tonight' by Genesis

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Adam Feiges has a stellar selection for the new reader series on the best use of songs in cinema:

If you are willing to expand the definition to television, I nominate the scene from the pilot episode of Miami Vice that used Genesis’ “In the Air Tonight” to set the mood for the lead-up to the climax of the episode. [CB note: The pilot episode is feature length, so it counts I think.] The song starts about 45 seconds into this scene and it’s really haunting:

The scene has lingered in my memory for over 30 years because it was the first time (in my experience at least) that a popular song was used effectively in the plot of a television show. The mood building, the timing (Tubbs checking the loads in the shotgun and then snapping the breech closed in time with the music), and the fact that Genesis was one of the most popular bands of the era made a visceral impression that this show was something new and different. It has become a cliché to use popular music to advance the plot of a TV show, but in 1984 it was astonishing.

I had never watched that pilot episode until Adam’s email inspired me to, so when he suggested “In the Air Tonight,” I first thought of this scandalous scene from Risky Business, which came out a year before Miami Vice:

Somehow that song works exceptionally well juxtaposed with two very different themes: betrayal and imminent danger in Miami Vice, and sultry subway sex in Risky Business.

So what’s the original meaning of “In the Air Tonight”? Here’s Phil Collins:

I don’t know what this song is about. When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it's obviously in anger. It’s the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation.

In that sense, the song is closer to Crockett’s mindset in Miami Vice, who’s going through a marital separation and who just discovered his close colleague is a corrupt cop. And the refrain I can feel it coming in the air tonight / oh Lord / I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life is something you could be thinking if you suspect you might be driving to your death. To watch that perilous scene, the one that immediately follows the one above, start at the 31:20 mark here.

Have a song/scene to recommend? Drop us an email.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here.)