Admit It, the Stranger Things Soundtrack Is Great Songs Used Poorly

Recently, Netflix announced that it would release the OST to their moody, runaway train of cultural nostalgia, Stranger Things. Immediately, the online reaction was one of glee and anticipation, with the announcement reaching the front page of Reddit and subsequently being Hoovered up by the daily scoops that promote (and take credit for) any popular Reddit (hashtag) content. For those people who helped run the PR blast to the top of the flagpole, I have a genuine, earnest, and several part question:

1) Regarding the pop songs: How does even the most casual fan not have this music already, and furthermore, which part of middle America did they find you in? An underground bunker strapped to a port-o-john since 1976?

And 2) For those who are interested in the score rather than the songs: Were you born boring and derivative or did you fall into a mud pit of malaise after a personal crisis?

This is not a hot take. It is in fact quite cold, considering how many of you no longer have the orange stains on your fingers from power-watching Stranger Things while hate-eating cheezies. With the confirmation of the soundtrack, those of us who have even an ounce of vintage fetishist in us cannot stay quiet any longer about the half-assed insulting use of what are (and this part is important for all of you who are already fuming at the thought of the show not being considered the second coming of Twin Peaks) great songs. I also understand, to avoid any of the oh-so-reader-ad hominem-arguments, that I am perfectly nestled in the age demographic and aesthetic interest group that was once considered “snobby” regarding music and the music industry (before music, the music industry, and the culture around it lost all but a fraction of its value). Yes, I have had a bar room conversation about the long standing influence of Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, and yes, I own a collection of tech house 12”s that would most certainly impress the casual raver. However, in the name of dissolving general Internet combat and vitriol, I have spent the last several weeks approaching this objectively (yes, the irony of objectivity on a subjective matter like music supervision is not beyond my neural reach), and am still left searching for resolutions. This is not a contrarian essay. This is a search for answers, both externally and, perhaps by the end, inward.

To start this discussion though, we have to begin with a statement that will hopefully satiate the booster crowd: this show is great. It's built on the growing popularity of 80s nostalgia already created by several series and films of the recent past that didn’t reach viral status, but did act as shoulders for this giant to stand on. Stranger Things’ mood and setting tapped simultaneously into the pangs of both nostalgia and childhood isolation we collectively but separately feel.

With details like Eleven's attachment to Eggos congruent with ET's love of Reese's; the near perfect acting of all the young actors; and the potential for this to be the starting pistol for Winona Ryder's own version of the Matthew McConaissance, Stranger Things deserves its accolades. It’s appeasing for the general mouth breather who lived through the 80s (many children of the 80s being excited for any nod towards anything but Boomer milestones), young people who are gaining a fascination for the 1980s (much like the 1980s were fascinated by the 1950s) and even seems to be loved by that isolated niche group who are nestled in the seismic fault between gens X and Y. It could have been a perfect show. However, after a few episodes, to several of us, it became insulting.

Let me go through numerous instances which the choice of music by music supervisor Nora Felder (presumably. I am told many supervisors just do the paperwork on what the creator tells them to sync) was curious, inappropriate, or outright cringeworthy:

- Charlie Heaton’s character (your vintage, Hughes-ian bad-yet-sensitive trope) mentions his love of the Smiths even though: 1) The show is set in 1983 and the Smiths didn't release a record until 1984 and 2) That particular scene was a flashback, presumably to some time before 1983. It's not the first musical anachronism in film or television, but it's far too common today with the music directors half ass-ing a past that is too recent to make those types of mistakes. Pretty sure rural teen Jonathan Byers didn’t know who the Smiths were before Johnny Marr did.

- What a poor use of the song "Atmosphere" by Joy Division. The smart-ass Youtube mash-up of it with the Teletubbies is more moving than this attempt to make a slow motion action scene carry value.  

- How do you not use Billy Idol's gloomy hit "Eyes Without a Face" in a series about a faceless monster terrorizing an entire town in the 1980s?

- “White Rabbit” and “Africa” by Jefferson Airplane and Toto, respectively, are offensive to an absurd degree, and Toto is actually a great band (sup, Jeff Porcaro?). The eye rolls created by viewers at the first two seconds of each of those usages could power half of 1983 Indiana.

- Although I try not to lean on the “X already used this song” argument too heavily, Marek Kanievska’s Less Than Zero already used the Bangles’ cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” with, and the general (and admittedly, anecdotal) argument of approval for its usage in Stranger Things is “That song is great,” which it certainly is, and has been to me since it came on a $1.50 Songs From 80s Movies CD I got for my 13th birthday, which, apparently Ms. Felder owns as well.

- Are The Clash (or, interchangeably at this posthumous point, the Ramones, who are, again GREAT recording artists) anything more than a #brand at this point? Can we perhaps find something with a little more texture than “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” to be the thread that ties the upside down world to the living one in this series? Didn’t Adam Wingard at least TRY when he made Dwight Twilley’s “Looking For The Magic” the repeated musical refrain in You’re Next? When this Clash song plays at Hollister Co. to appease the West Coast dads who are stuck there shopping for their kids, it’s useful. When it’s apparently tying together the best on-demand series of the year, it’s trite.

- Regarding the theme, there is only one gripe to have with it (with the caveat that, yes, it is unbecoming at this point to cry “plagiarism!” in an age where, as Chuck Klosterman says “We live in an age where virtually no content is lost and virtually all content is shared”, although that could be an argument for or against the following): the score is meant to be photocopy of moments from that era, (“John Carpenter lives!” cry the most saccharine critics) but that’s a distraction from the fact that it is upsettingly similar to Cliff Martinez' "Wanna Fight" from the Only God Forgives soundtrack, a film in a series from several directors over the past years that live in the 1980s mood, that perhaps we’ve collectively ignored or forgotten about twelve hours after viewing.

After the umpteenth “Meet the geniuses behind your favourite saccharine headline barf (kill me now)” think pieces regarding the usage of period music in Stranger Things, it's time to stop slurping the work done by people who in no way came close to hitting the watermark that has been recently set regarding 70s/80s OSTs by such brilliant pieces of work like Red Oaks, Fargo (season 2), and although it wasn't actually set in the past, The Guest. Furthermore, while Stranger Things is (probably) smiling smugly at the use of a boring David Bowie cover by Peter Gabriel, Ti West already has an accomplishment under his belt of stopping an 80s movie dead to make a music video with The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another" (something Donnie Darko attempted to do TWICE and failed) in House of the Devil, a film where he actually focused on the production of the 1980s like using camera zooms instead of dolly shots. 

There are brilliant, and (probably most importantly) HUNGRY musical minds out there to mine for soundtracks, like twentysomething whiz (and Broad City supervisor) Matt FX. Or, take a plunge, and hit up whoever runs The Celluloid Turntable on Instagram or the wild geeks at AOR Disco and just ask their opinions at least. We live in an age of information, where a 15 year-old can tell you his favourite band is the Fall; a time where everyone has a box in their pocket that can answer the deepest questions about music and film and art, with the interface specifically designed to whisk us down rabbit holes and discover adjacent influences from yesteryear that we may have never noticed in a time before being so tech obsessed.

So, in all earnesty I ask, pleading for an answer “What kind of even novice music fan gets excited about the release of this OST?” How do you not have The Clash, Toto, and Jefferson Airplane already in your collection somewhere? Are you that lazy? You certainly can’t be that broke. Music online is free, and these records all cost less than fifty cents in any reasonable record store. In fact, I believe I own these records because they were gifted to me. Do we collectively not want to hold our finest (and as we have covered, Stranger Things is indeed our finest) platforms for media and art responsible for putting in more effort than five minutes of hamfisted, two-fingered iTunes scrolling before we cushion brilliant, emotional television? Or are we just going to shrug and belch out “Oh neat, Joy Division” while we bury our looming middle age and existential dread in an entire weekend of ignoring the “Back to Browse” button and praying to the patron saints of autoplay? The more we allow this type of thing to go on, the more films like We Are Your Friends we are going to be getting, people. The songs are good, and the show is good, but so are gin and wine, and if you’re mixing those you’re probably as drunk and clueless as whoever decided to place songs in Stranger Things.

 

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