If you ugly cry during This Is Us, it could be that The Cinematic Orchestra’s heartbreaking song is tugging at you just as much as Rebecca and Jack. And if Phantom Planet or Snow Patrol have shown up in your Spotify playlists, chances are it’s because you’re feeling nostalgic for The O.C. or Grey’s Anatomy. TV shows of a newer era are known not only for evoking an urge to binge watch, but for uncovering new artists and influencing the music we listen to.
When shows began writing music into the key moments in their scripts as opposed to doing it after the fact—shows of the early 2000s like The Sopranos and The O.C. get much of the credit for jumpstarting the approach—audiences became even more addicted and artists had a new platform for their music to reach the masses.
“There’s a difference between finding music just to bridge scenes and be a part of the background, and using the music to help move the narrative along. Music has actually become a character in itself,” says Xavier Jernigan, Spotify’s head of North America for shows and editorial and host of Showstopper, Spotify’s podcast that takes listeners inside the playlists of favorite TV shows. (Bonus: Every episode of Showstopper has an accompanying playlist so you can really dive into the music.)
Jernigan names The Sopranos season finale—that unforgettable diner scene featuring Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”—as a turning point. “It marked such a seminal moment in a TV series and gave that song a whole new life—it jumped up the charts,” he notes. Maggie Phillips, music supervisor for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, agrees: “TV has grown and changed since then. There is so much great content now and thus the soundtracks are better and more elevated,” she says.
For example, season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, which premieres April 25, features a mix of indie and older but perhaps forgotten female artists. “Primarily, songs are used as a tool to illustrate what’s going on in June’s head. They act in the same way as the voiceovers do. June as a handmaid can’t speak up, or talk about her life, but we connect with her by hearing what’s going on in her head through voiceover or song,” Phillips says.
To further showcase the synergy between show narrative and soundtrack, Spotify and Hulu recently expanded their partnership through a new all-you-can-stream subscription plan, Spotify Premium, now with Hulu.
“Hulu is doing the storytelling, and Spotify can help extend that story with the music and delving into the playlists. It extends the life of these shows,” Jernigan says. Below, he shares what TV-music marriages are on his must-see, must-listen lists.
Insecure: “Sometimes a particular song by a particular artist can be a statement the show is making. It’s exactly what encouraged them to have Kendrick Lamar’s song right as the first song. It was like, ‘We are here.’ When you’re in the world of Insecure that’s a different LA then say, NCIS: Los Angeles. This is L.A., but it’s not Hollywood.”
Dawson’s Creek: “In the ‘90s, shows like Dawson’s Creek used contemporary music like the Paula Cole theme song to tap into the sound of the moment.”
The O.C.: “They took what Dawson’s Creek was doing because it’s the same kind of show, updated it, and took it to another level.”
Glee: “That one was dope because it introduced people to the world of a capella. It used the common thread of music to help aid in acceptance.”
How to Get Away with Murder: “Music added a cool factor. How to Get Away with Murder brought out a different layer of emotion that people really identify with.”
This is Us: “The soundtrack is hopeful. It’s grounded in the journeys that this family is going through, collectively and individually.”
Big Little Lies: “They use some current songs that just have that older sound; they use a lot of Leon Bridges, for example. It makes the show feel a little more timeless.”
Atlanta: “They’re using music to highlight that city in a way that hasn’t been done before. It’s an insider view, and it’s the kind of music people who actually live in Atlanta listen to.”