The Music of ‘Stranger Things’
Things That Go Funk In The Night
Now, you may be aware of a brilliant new TV drama that became phenomenally popular over the summer when it was released on the subscription-based Netflix service called Stranger Things. Let’s take a look at the 80s-tastic music of Stranger Things.
This 10-part series is set in 1983 and centres on a group of kids who are largely ostracised by their peers because they are, well…geeks. They love science and playing long campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons in the basement together. However, one of the gang goes missing on the way home one rainy evening and is presumed to be abducted. Upon searching for their lost pal, they find a mysterious girl in the woods who has answers as well as special powers from a local secretive government facility hidden in the woods.
If you haven’t seen it, then imagine a long-lost film with Stephen King scripting a children’s screenplay and Steven Spielberg directing. You’d be very close.
The Music of Stranger Things
So far, so intriguing. However, much of the appeal of Stranger Things comes in its soundtrack. There are a few well-known pop songs littered around episodes to give you a feel for the era, but it is the heavy, synth-based incidental music which has really given the supernatural series a sense of spellbinding nostalgic eeriness.
But what is this music that we’ve heard before but still sounds new? In certain circles known as Synthwave and others as Retrowave although even more, (sub-)categories exist; Outrun Electro, Retro Electro, Neo 80’s. The particular style in the music of Stranger Things is permeated by a strong synthesiser sound which evokes the sound of early 1980’s film soundtracks such as those composed by John Carpenter, Vangelis as well as the soundscapes of Tangerine Dream.
In recent years it has had a resurgence, and in 2011 it had a bit of a boom thanks to the crime-thriller movie, Drive starring Ryan Gosling (and the lovely Christina Hendricks). The original soundtrack featured the ethereal and electronic talents of Cliff Martinez – once the drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers – who’s score stays with you long after it has finished.
But why choose a retro soundtrack? Why not?
Everything in the Stranger Things universe is of its time. Shall we talk about the typography? The main title credit sequence to the series features the ITC Benguiat font which evokes a nostalgic feeling, perhaps of dread when you suddenly realise that you’ve probably seen the same lettering on the front covers of Stephen King novels sitting on your parents’ coffee table. It was also used on the cover of The Smiths’ final album Strangeways, Here We Come. Fellow Mancunian indie band Joy Division’s music is also featured in the series with their moody synths and drum-heavy track, Atmosphere.
There is no clue as to the production being 2016 because it is so steeped in period detail. It’s great to watch if you are a fan of all things 80’s and even better if you lived through it (possibly even more enjoyable if are an American forty-something) because there are many relics of nostalgic recollection.
There are arguments that the series, much like the retro-ness of the music of Stranger Things, is just not as original as you might initially realise and that it is just a falsehood, masquerading as being nothing more than too clever for its own good. Well, it is unique for sure, and the majority of critics are probably adults who remember the era well the first time around.
However, my take on why Stranger Things took off is because it was in the right place at the right time – and having just the right sentimentality of the past has helped massively.
Perhaps we have reached information overload and technology is making life too abrasive, too clinical.
Maybe we just needed to take a break and concentrate on simpler times. I’m speaking of course why the older generation of fans have embraced it. But what of the newbies? The kids from the Nineties and Noughties?
This is all new to them. Maybe they haven’t seen The Goonies, E.T. and Stand by Me – in the same context that I saw them in – and perhaps they love Stranger Things because of the same fondness I had (and still continue to have) for them when I first saw these classic 80’s movies.
That era saw its fair share of coming-of-age films and the 1980’s as far as kids’ film goes is defined by this genre. The producers and writers of this Netflix series (the Duffer Brothers) recreated this world as an homage to the innocence of childhood; the trope that a group of friends together on bikes and walkie-talkies can defeat the baddies and save the world. The more cynical writers of today’s generation for kids’ movies excel on this same notion yet expel any of the nuances of optimistic character traits.
Anyway, back to the music. Soft synths, arpeggiators & sequencers are the main order of the day with the incidental music that runs throughout each episode. The whole soundtrack is instrumental because the Duffer Brothers know how much the music can do.
They are aware of how a soft, subtle synth pad can convey more than words and instantly tell you everything about a character’s feeling at any given point in time or the mood of a scene. In fact, the Brothers asked a Texan band, Survive if they could use a piece of their music (‘Dirge’) when they were originally pitching the show around as they felt it completely caught the ethos of what they were trying to achieve. Two members of the band, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, were then asked to write the whole score.
So far there have been two volumes of the Stranger Things soundtrack (that’s around 75 tracks) with one accessible on vinyl so far and another upcoming. It is also available as the usual digital download as well as on CD.
What isn’t readily available though are the other (non-incidental) tracks utilised within the series. Singers and bands such as The Clash, Dolly Parton, The Bangles, Jefferson Airplane or indeed the Joy Division all have bit-parts, yet none are so far included in any legal collection – possibly the legalities and copyright issues are to blame.
Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you!
One song that almost encapsulates the whole 1980s for me is also sadly not included being that it is a wholly typical pop song of the era – Toto by Africa. This song has been used a number of times over the years in various TV shows in light-hearted fashion (Scrubs, Family Guy) but on this occasion it captures the innocence and foreboding scene during the very first episode of Stranger Things.
If you are a big fan of the dreamy electronic 80s-style synth sound then you may like to know that there is a podcast available (“The Mouth Breathers Mixtape”) consisting of Stranger Things-inspired music as well as a whole host of hip hop nuttiness. It can be found here.
One of the best things about this series, I believe, is that it allows you to remember the innocent fun of being scared when you were the same age as the protagonists. The music of Stranger Things certainly helps build that tension.
Season Two has been announced and is soon to be in pre-production which is of no surprise to the many, many fans around the globe.
So here’s to Mike, Eleven, Dustin, Lucas, Will as well as Elliott, Mikey, Mouth, Data, Chunk, Gordie, Teddy and Vern for making our childhoods seem that little bit more rosy.