Synth and nostalgia: Why the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack is so damn good
It’s fair to assume there are no two happier TV directors right now than Matt and Ross Duffer, a sibling duo you probably hadn’t heard of before the title sequence of Stranger Things.
After their eight episode (or make that ‘chapter’) series dropped quietly on Netflix earlier this month, the internet has fallen for it like hormonal teenagers getting down to Toto’s Africa. Through word of mouth and an avalanche of think pieces, Stranger Things has become a bona fide sensation. (Alison Wonderland, who calls it her favourite show since Twin Peaks, is just one of the DJs spreading the word.)
“Stranger Things succeeds because every element feels lovingly considered and controlled, from the locations to the casting to the creature effects”
A whole lot of that love is, of course, fuelled by collective nostalgia for the halcyon days of 80s adventure movies and/or our long-ago childhoods. The Duffer Brothers don’t so much tip a hat to their influences as offload a whole dump truck of Dustin’s snapbacks.
But a show can only coast so far on nostalgia alone. Stranger Things succeeds because every element feels lovingly considered and controlled, from the locations to the casting to the creature effects. It all works to create a parallel universe you’re never ready to leave.
Then there’s the music. We first hear those chilly synths three minutes into episode one, as our underage heroes are rudely interrupted from their ten-hour Dungeons & Dragons binge. The score swells as Will, Dustin and Lucas cycle down an inky street, their three bike lights glowing in formation. (This is about the time you settle back in the couch, happy to be in safe hands.) Once Will is off the bike and running for his life, the synths become sparse, so that each sinister note is its own jolt in the dark. All this happens in the first eight minutes, before we’ve even glimpsed the opening credits.
If the score sets the tone of those early scenes, the title sequence introduces it as a central character. Like Mad Men, The Wire or True Detective before it, the Stranger Things credits tell us everything about the world we’re entering. As those red letters slide together in vivid homage to Stephen King, the bubbling synths get us tingling in anticipation. The sequence is a simple marvel of music and design that’s arresting the first time you see it, then celebratory every other time. It always feels good to be back in Hawkins, Indiana.
That opening sequence is now the best-known work of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, two synthesiser diehards from Austin, Texas. Dixon and Stein are members of the electronic outfit S U R V I V E, whose social media accounts and Bandcamp page are now enjoying a significant uptick in interest.
The Duffer Brothers are fans of S U R V I V E, using one of the band’s songs to soundtrack the mock trailer they pitched to Netflix. Soon enough, Dixon and Stein were recruited by the directors to take on the whole show. While a couple of S U R V I V E songs appeared on the soundtrack for 2014 film The Guest, this is the duo’s first run at an original TV score. It’s fair to assume it won’t be their last.
As Dixon put it in an interview with Salon, the bar has been set “pretty low” for TV scores. “People don’t think twice when something is cheesy because they’re so used to it,” he added. Despite the show’s retro setting, the duo worked hard to steer clear of cheese. Their score plays a simmering role throughout the series, moving skilfully from warmth to all-out menace. When the boys first stumble across Eleven, to pick just one example, the score communicates all of the encounter’s otherworldly awe in a few wavering notes.
“Their score plays a simmering role throughout the series, moving skilfully from warmth to all-out menace”
While Dixon and Stein are keeping an air of mystery around their full studio set-up, they made deft use of the Sequential Prophet-6 analogue synthesiser, released last year by synth guru Dave Smith.
Like Stranger Things itself, the Prophet-6 borrows elements from the past—in this case, the Prophet-5 model that reigned from the late 70s into the early 80s—to make a slick modern product. Dixon and Stein’s score is indebted to a couple of Prophet-5 proponents: Edgar Froese, founder of the hugely prolific electronic collective Tangerine Dream, and horror auteur John Carpenter, who regularly wrote, directed and scored his own films.
Carpenter, whose synth theme for Halloween can still make your skin crawl, casts a long shadow over the Stranger Things score. Tangerine Dream, too, provided a template on their first Hollywood assignment for Sorcerer in 1977. It’s notable that the duo’s touchstones are cinematic and not televisual. While they’re not all direct influences on Stranger Things, there’s a long lineage of movie scores made on Prophet-5s, Moogs and Yamaha CS-80s, from Giorgio Moroder to Vangelis. Dixon and Stein clearly had their synth idols in mind when they set to work, but it’s to their credit that the end result isn’t merely derivative.
Then, of course, there’s all the other music in Stranger Things — a Spotify gold mine of starry-eyed 80s jams. No expense has been spared on licensing fees, either. In the world of this show, older brothers share life lessons from The Clash, teenagers choose that Toto song for the bedroom because Drake isn’t even born yet, and clandestine stalking is accompanied, naturally, by Sunglasses at Night. (The Corey Hart original—Tiga’s electroclash version was a long way off.)
Some songs are there purely for the throwback thrill, while others, like Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s Heroes, deliver an emotional gut-punch. It’s no surprise Netflix has been inundated with requests for a soundtrack, which is apparently “coming soon.” In the meantime, there are unofficial alternatives. Last week, DJ Yoda, the UK turntablist and authority on all things 80s, tapped into the excitement with his Stranger Things mixtape. When your soundtrack is inspiring unofficial DJ mixes, you’ve unlocked cult classic status.
While Winona Ryder’s face sells Stranger Things on the Netflix home screen, the show’s unknowns are its real revelation. The Duffer Brothers went into the show with all the eagerness of TV rookies, and their gamble on new faces (it’s impossible to pick an MVP out of the young cast) has paid off. The same is true of the music. On a soundtrack that includes Joy Division, New Order and The Bangles, it’s a couple of electronic adventurers from Texas who are turning heads. Let’s hope the synths make a comeback in season two.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.