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Needle Drop: When Grey's Anatomy Taught Us "How To Save A Life"

Ellen Pompeo and co. accidentally birthed a blockbuster hit 16 years ago this month.
  • Katherine Heigl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the Grey's Anatomy episode "Superstition.(Photo: ABC)
    Katherine Heigl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the Grey's Anatomy episode "Superstition.(Photo: ABC)

    Welcome to Needle Drop, our ongoing series about crucial pop music moments on TV. It's brought to you by Mark Blankenship, Primetimer's Reviews Editor and the co-host of the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    It all seems so innoucous. In "Superstition," a second-season episode of Grey's Anatomy that aired in March 2006, we see a montage of characters working at Seattle Grace Hospital. In surgery, Dr. Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) tells his team, "It's a beautiful day to save lives, people," which somewhat explains why The Fray's "How to Save a Life" is playing on the soundtrack.

    At the time, there was no reason to think this scene would have any lasting impact. Nothing much happens, so it's not like there's a huge emotional resonance to the way the song is used. And it's not like it was surprising for a pop tune to play under a scene in Grey's Anatomy. That episode alone featured six other songs.

    People's ears are unpredictable, though, and "How to Save a Life" stuck. Maybe it's because the melody is pretty. Maybe it's because singer Isaac Slade has such an interesting voice. Whatever the reason, shortly after the episode aired, "How to Save a Life' debuted at #93 on Billboard's Hot 100.

    This wasn't supposed to happen. The Fray's debut single "Over My Head (Cable Car)" had just barely reached the top 40 at the time, so their record company wasn't trying to distract the public with a new track. But despite those corporate plans, enough people bought "How to Save a Life" on iTunes to get it on the chart. (Before streaming became a thing, downloads were best way to tell that a song had caught on out of nowhere.)

    From there, "How to Save a Life" slowly but surely became a huge deal. It kept selling downloads, which earned it radio play. And then ABC decided to use it in the promos for the third season of (wait for it) Grey's Anatomy. That was the last bump it needed, and in September of 2006, it finally reached the top 10.

    By then the show and the song were inextricably linked. A new version of the music video was made featuring scenes from Grey's, and when Grey's did a musical epsiode in Season 7, you'd better believe they found a way to include "How to Save a Life." Along the way, the song peaked at #3 and sold over three million copies.

    Naturally, everyone wanted to try this again, so in 2008 when The Fray released "You Found Me" — a song that sounds quite a bit like "How to Save a Life" — it premiered during a Grey's commercial break. (And for an extra bit of cross-branding, ABC put it in promos for Lost.) This worked pretty well, and "You Found Me" peaked at #7.

    During this time, Grey's also boosted songs like "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol and "Breathe" by Anna Nalick, so you could say that every successful mid-tempo ballad of the mid-aughts is indebted to Ellen Pompeo. But there's something special about what happened with The Fray. Even though corporate synergy was definitely involved, there was an element of randomness to this song becoming the big one. You just never know where the hits are going to come from, and that makes listening to music (and watching TV) feel a little bit more adventurous.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Grey's Anatomy, ABC, Needle Drop