The Rise of TV Soundtracks: The Best Three To Look Out For

Image Courtesy of The New Yorker, originally from Enda Bowe/Hulu

When we watch a film, the music soundtrack is an important part of the experience – Oscars are awarded for it, CDs are made of it – but when we watch a TV show, it’s quite likely that the soundtrack goes unnoticed. TV soundtracks have not been accorded the same prestige as a film score, but I believe this is wrong. When done well, the soundtrack in a TV show can disappear into the background of a scene and can be so subtle that we fail to acknowledge it at all. It’s only when we take away the soundtrack that a difference is noticed and suddenly our most beloved shows seem bereft without one.  

I think that a good soundtrack can add so much to a TV show. A single song can capture its essence, or a specific scene, far more than a repeated theme tune ever could. For example, I can’t hear The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ without the haunting images of Stranger Things (2016) appearing in my mind. Similarly, David Lynch’s use of The Chromatics is immediately recognisable as his means of foreshadowing the events that are about to unfold in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). 

Here are some recent shows that I think have memorable TV soundtracks to accompany the actors on screen and add depth and meaning to the storyline and viewing experience. 

Normal People

The 2020 romantic drama is an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best selling novel. It tells the story of Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) throughout their teenage years and early adulthood, as they move from Sligo to Dublin and beyond. The show details the ups and downs of their relationship, and this rollercoaster of emotions is accompanied by a soundtrack to match, with input from music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Philips, as well as collaborations from the director and editors. 

They make use of many modern artists, such as the soft folky sounds of Mazzy Star to Imogen Heap’s electronic ballads, as well as featuring up-and-coming Irish artists, like Orla Gartland. I found the use of Elliot Smith’s ‘Angeles’, a folk song about the competitive atmosphere of LA, to be a particularly inspired choice. It seems an odd contrast to the storyline as it plays in the show as Connell and Marianne are seen still living in their suburban town. However, the song almost serves as a premonition for the couple’s experiences when they move to Dublin for university, where they become wrapped up in the city’s ‘sink or swim’ environment. 

This show also uses music to highlight differences in experience, such as the use of Carley Rae Jepsen’s ‘Too Much’. This stellar pop song, which describes controlling relationships and partners criticising aspects of one another, is used in the show to highlight the strength of the relationship between Connell and Marianne – as unlike the characters in the song, they can see beyond each other’s faults. While ‘Too much’ is used to illustrate a contradiction between the characters in the song and those on the screen, by contrast Frank Ocean’s ‘Nikes’ does the opposite, since its lyrics about the shallowness of relationships exactly mirrors Connell’s feelings about the shallow nature of a party that he finds himself at. All these examples demonstrate how the choice of music can add depth to the storyline and trick the audience into thinking more deeply about the lives of the characters.  

Atlanta

Described by the New Yorker as ‘the black comedy about black life’, Donald Glover’s show Atlanta (2016) follows the lives of two cousins trying to achieve a music career to make a living. Glover, who wrote and stars in the show, grew up just outside the city and cites music as being crucial to his life experiences. The show itself juxtaposes moments of comedic absurdity with the harsh reality of working-class black families struggling to make a living. 

It’s soundtrack even provides a bridge between these two dynamics with artists ranging from the classic soulful tones of Bill Withers and Nina Simone to 21st century rappers 21 Savage and Rich the Kid. 

The importance of the music to the show is also demonstrated by Glover’s desire to include a wide range of music artists including the dream pop band Beach House and the youthful jazz of Yellow Days, as well as songs from Michael Kiwanuka and George Benson. The use of Tay K’s ‘The Race’ in season 2, which was written when the young rapper was ‘sixteen and on the run for murder’, as described by Glover in the New Yorker. Glover was so insistent on wanting this song, so much so that the management team had to visit Tay K in jail to sign off on its use. These extraordinary lengths demonstrate how important music has been throughout Glover’s life, which is reflected in his personal choices in the show. 

I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel, the genius behind the 2020 series called I May Destroy You, went into the show with a strong vision of how its music would reflect the messages within each episode. The series details different kinds of sexual assault, amongst both men and women, as well as within the context of race and queer relationships. Ciara Elwis, the show’s music supervisor, told the New York Times that she ‘wanted to choose songs that wouldn’t telegraph how the audience should feel, as well as tracks the characters themselves would enjoy’. 

The groundbreaking show has a soundtrack which showcases several up-and-coming black artists: Little-Simz, Arlo Parks and Greentea Peng to name a few, whilst also featuring classics like Nicki Minaj’s ‘Truffle Butter’. In this show, the music strengthens the characterisation of the actors themselves. For example, the use of Daft Punk’s ‘Something About Us’ perfectly reflects the main character’s portrayal of an unfaltering and bubbly exterior, completely flying in the face of the obvious trauma after her assault. 

The music also seems to offer a wider message that the writer is trying to give, as seen by the gospel track ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ (Reverend Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers). Coel herself chose this religious track which on the surface seems in stark contrast to the sharp and vivid trauma experienced by the characters in the show. However, I wonder if it perhaps highlights a message of hope, not only in the face of such dark events that plague the characters’ lives, but also in the face of our own storms. 

Nevertheless, I hope this brief analysis of the soundtracks to three very different TV shows has demonstrated that a well-crafted soundtrack can bring as much to the small screen as it does to the cinema experience. Next time you are watching your favourite show, as well as thinking about the characters and the action, also take some time to consider the meanings behind the music and how this adds to the calibre of the viewing experience. 

Written by Adele Fennessy