First of all, if you haven’t yet seen the Netflix original series, “Stranger Things,” get on it. Drop what you’re doing right now, grab some retro snacks (these should definitely include Eggo waffles), and go watch all eight episodes in one long, sugar-fueled binge. You won’t regret it. If you have seen the show, read on, but if not, there are spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
“Stranger Things” is genius for its ingenuity, combined with its recognizable nostalgic elements. Aspects of the show, which is set in small-town Hawkins, Indiana in 1983, feel familiar, yet their application is entirely unique. The world feels quintessentially ‘80s down to the small details, but seamlessly intertwines a complex and creepy sci-fi plot.
For the most part, we’re referring to the throwback tunes that play throughout the season, however, the show’s genius electronic score should not go without mention. The retro-sounding analog synths that make up the background music are created by Austin-based band Survive. Two members of the band in particular, Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, are the main forces behind the eerie, electronic soundtrack. Right off the bat, viewers can get a sense for the creepiness and nostalgia to come with the memorable opening theme—a spooky, waving synth number that combines perfectly with the simple retro imagery, making our skin prickle.
Survive are masters at keeping that alien, retro-electronic sound in their score, but are still able to tailor the songs to fit scenes with different moods. The score can sound subtle and upbeat during certain moments, like the scene where Eleven’s curiosity drives her to wander the Wheeler household while everyone is out, exploring innocently while trying to take in what a home and a family could be like. Sometimes the score sounds particularly techy and electronic, usually when we are getting an inside look at the mysterious goings-on of the Hawkins National Lab. Then, there are moments where the soundtrack can drive the creepiness factor through the roof, keeping us on the edge of our seats (or beds, since this is Netflix, after all) as we wait to see what our favorite characters are going to encounter next.
On top of a unique and fitting film score, the show expertly uses throwback tracks in each episode, usually from the late 1970s or early 1980s. The music is able to make the viewers pine for the 80s, whether or not they lived through the decade themselves. Beyond the nostalgia factor, the tracks are perfectly chosen for whatever emotions or ideas are being conveyed in the scene. Sappy 1980s love songs such as “Africa” by Toto, “I Melt With You” by Modern English, or Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” provide the background music for scenes that show Nancy and Steve as a happy couple. For darker or more emotional moments, the show uses sadder songs like Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die,” or “Atmosphere” by Joy Division (which is unusual being that it is one of the only 21st century songs used). Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s 1977 song “Heroes” plays at the heart-wrenching moment when Will’s “body” is pulled from the water.
One of the most clever uses of this can be found in the very first episode. A few tracks out of the psychedelic rock scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s introduce us to one of the show’s most powerful and quietly-charismatic characters– Eleven. Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” is used in the scene where we first meet El with her bare feet, hospital gown, and buzz-cut. The song plays quietly in the background as she sneaks into the diner and steals French fries before Benny, the owner, chases her comically through the kitchen. A few scenes later, Trader Horne’s 1970 song “Jenny May” rises out of the background noise when Eleven first displays her psychic powers by stopping the squeaky fan that is irritating her. Jefferson Airplane’s well-known psychedelic hit “White Rabbit” makes a dramatic appearance later on when it is revealed what Eleven is truly capable of. The trippy ‘60s psychedelic anthem takes off right after the gunshot that kills Benny, and plays over the noises of Eleven killing her pursuers with their own guns. It’s hard not to get chills as Grace Slick’s haunting voice belts out the lyrics “Feed Your Head!” while the creepy character “Papa” is introduced for the first time, stepping over the bodies of his men to realize Eleven has escaped out into the night.
“Stranger Things” even takes music inside the world of Hawkins, Indiana, making The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” an important part of the season plot. The song first appears in the show in episode two when Jonathan hears it come on the radio as he drives to his father’s house in search of his lost brother, Will. Who could forget the iconic flashback scene that follows, of the two brothers sitting together, their backs to the camera, bobbing their heads to the beat as they drown out the sound of their parents fighting? The two bond over the song, not knowing that soon it will become Will’s message and cry for help to the outside world when he becomes stuck in “the upside down.” At the end of the same episode, Will is able to make the song play spontaneously over the stereo, alerting his mother that he is out there somewhere trying to communicate. Two episodes later, Will’s singing is channeled by Eleven over the walky-talky, providing Michael with proof that his friend isn’t dead. In episode 7, Eleven sees him shivering in the upside-down Fort Byers, looking sick and pale, but still singing weakly to The Clash’s song, clinging to it like a last shred of hope. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is woven into the story so seamlessly that it’s hard not to permanently associate it with Will Byers and “Stranger Things.”
Other creators of period television shows should take note and look carefully at what the Duffer Brothers have done with music in “Stranger Things.” They definitely did their research and found the right composers to create an era-appropriate, memorable, and killer score. Plus, “Stranger Things” knows exactly how to weave oldies into the story to take certain moments to a whole new level of depth, while always retaining the feeling of experiencing a long-gone era.