The hype is deafening. A quick glance through social media and you’ll be instantly inundated with fervent quips of praise for Netflix’s new series Stranger Things. I’m not much of a television viewer and I don’t give in easily to the pressure of public hype; however, it didn’t take me long to realize this is something I really wanted to see. One of the comments I stumbled upon that instantly hooked me was, “It’s as if Steven Spielberg directed The X-Files.” Color me crazy, but that sounds absolutely awesome! Coupled with an ‘80s hand-painted-style poster and other promotional images that tugged at my wistful heart, I was immediately persuaded to give this show my full attention.
Yes, I too am a child of the 1980s and will unapologetically succumb to the pangs of '80s nostalgia quicker than you can say, “E.T. phone home.” The walls of my studio where I sit and type these words are covered from floor to ceiling with memorabilia and merchandise from all the classic ‘80s staples. As a composer, the film music of this period forged and guided my passion for movies and changed the course of my life.
I wrapped up the entire first season of Stranger Things with my family this past weekend and I really enjoyed it. I probably even loved it. But there is something about the show that slightly irks me. It didn’t bother me too much at first but as the series wore on I became increasingly beguiled by its one misstep.
Everything about this series literally screams the 1980s: hair, makeup, character personalities and stereotypes, aesthetic idiosyncrasies, the architecture, interior design, technology, language and cultural colloquialisms, overt and subtle references to a multitude of period films…everything that is, except its music.
How can an episodic television series structured at its core to tap into the creative aesthetics epitomizing a specific period of pop culture neglect its greatest champion? Music is the connective emotional tissue which bonds us to visual mediums and creates a palpable sense of nostalgia for the past. When you think of your elementary, middle, or high school years, there’s an intimate relationship you have to the music heard during that time period that is instantaneously transportive. Movie music from this period is also an integral part of nurturing that nostalgia. Whether you are a professed connoisseur of film music or simply a casual indulger of cinema, you can’t deny the Herculean role music played in developing pop culture throughout the 1980s. How can this be the singular cultural ingredient blatantly ignored in Stranger Things?
I’ve stated countless times that not every film or visual medium needs a musical theme in order for the underscore to function at its fullest potential; however, the 1980s were riddled with movies that do harbor a distinct and infectious theme which can be instantly recalled by memory after only one viewing. How many 1980s film or television themes can the casual moviegoer hum right now? A dozen? Hundreds? How about since 2010? If you’ve seen the entirety of Stranger Things you’ve heard the opening credits at least eight times. Can you hear this music in your head right now?
While not every movie or television series needs a melodic theme, Stranger Things would’ve benefitted greatly from at least one. Themes can bind character associations, represent concepts or philosophies, add depth to narrative developments not fully rendered visually, or build tension toward an inevitable and emotional climax. These are all functions of thematic usage that would have served the series extremely well and are all descriptions of what the present music struggled to achieve.
The score would be superlative if this were a modern story, but the filmmakers went completely out of their way to inject the 1980s aesthetic into every nook and cranny they could find (to great success, I might add) but not when it came to the synthesizer-laden underscore. Yes, synthesizers were used almost ad nauseam throughout the 1980s but that alone isn’t enough to make an emotional cultural connection. Synthesizer usage during the ‘80s has very distinct characteristics to it, not just because of the technology which dates it, but also because of the artistic aesthetics behind their employment. Both of these qualities differ greatly from how they were used in the 1960s, '70s, '90s, and even the present day. Make no mistake, the synth-riddled underscore from Stranger Things is very 2010s.
There are so many cultural aural references which they could have drawn from. John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Basil Poledouris, and Bruce Broughton were integral in establishing and developing the '80s orchestral sound. Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, and John Carpenter helped cement the foundation for synthesizer usage during this fruitful decade of music technology and even Jerry Goldsmith was the maestro of infusing his synthesizer arsenal into orchestral music.
I’m not suggesting the show have adopted any one of these composers’ particular sounds; however, with so much to be inspired by, it would have filled every geeky ‘80s-lover heart with joy to have had at least a nod or two toward any single characteristic that makes ‘80s film music sound like what it is. There were a few moments during the series where I thought the music was headed in a direction that would legitimately tap into the ‘80s aesthetic but they were fleeting and simply teased the notion.
But film music born during the 1980s can’t be characterized exclusively by how it sounds. You also have to factor in the philosophical and artistic way in which it functions. Throughout the ‘80s movie music was often called upon to go above and beyond the call of duty whenever a particular film or scene within that film needed its service. It simply did more than film scores of our modern era. It was brazen, obnoxious, and often flagrant. Music carried the emotional weight of a respective narrative on its back and achieved near-miraculous feats of strength that is scarce in modern cinema. If a filmmaker wanted to make you cry at an opportune time within the story, the music was often first in line to rip out your heart, show it to you while it was still beating and stomp on it as you regressed into a blubbery mess of emotion. Today, music wouldn’t dare touch its finger to your shoulder without using Purell first.
Even if the filmmakers and composers behind Stranger Things relegated themselves to not employ any particular sound of an ‘80s-era film score, it sure would’ve been a grand slam if they harnessed the functionality of music during this period. There are some moments where emotion is heavily involved in the story but rather than feeling it wholly myself, I simply observed it. I wanted badly to experience these emotional highs and lows. I wanted to get goosebumps or perhaps even get choked-up. It’s not enough to simply observe it, I wanted deeply to experience it. That’s what music was able to accomplish so frequently during the 1980s. It wasn’t content with you merely observing a story, it grabbed you by the throat and forced you to experience it. You became the characters and went on their journeys. That’s what 1980s film music is all about.
Instead, the music as it stands in Stranger Things, appears very arbitrary and really doesn’t do a whole lot when present. It’s careful and cautious and, like a frightened turtle, seems afraid to do much of anything. It rarely strays from the dark moody path which the first notes set you upon and shackles you to a relationship based on observation, not experience. It’s placement in each episode is a bit awkward too. It feels like the music is simply cut into the show without any real sense of scoring a scene, its characters, or without any acknowledgment of the big picture. I struggled mightily to understand what the music was trying to achieve. There it was, and there it is again…dark and moody. That’s about it. Creating a mood is indeed one of the functions of film music but it’s very basic, ubiquitous, and often reserved as a foundation elevating music to achieve other higher functions. Deviations from this path were few and far between.
If the filmmakers harbored a fear of aping ‘80s synth music too much, they could’ve defused it with a modern aesthetic or diluted a modern aesthetic by infusing more retro synth sounds into the texture. There should be a balance between what is palpable to our modern ears with that of what twinges our nostalgic heart. At the end of the day, a modern-day sound coupled with a modern-day aesthetic renders a completely modern score with almost no connection to the period which they are so adamantly evoking elsewhere.
I was perusing the internet a bit and came across some articles revealing there was a conscious effort on part of the filmmakers to avoid the “cheesy” sound of 1980s film music. That’s like trying to make nachos without cheese. Sure, it may still be good to eat, but it’s no longer called nachos. And everything else about the ‘80s aesthetic that is considered “cheesy” by our modern standards was slathered all over Stranger Things. Why is music the embarrassing uncle banished from the family reunion?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the music. It’s actually pretty cool on its own. It’s just not very 1980s and ultimately doesn’t seem like it services the show like it could have had a more ‘80s aesthetic been acknowledged. Stranger Things is quite good but there is plenty of room for it to be even better and that falls on the shoulders of its music.
I also realize I’m in the micro-minority on this viewpoint as all accounts point to the notion that the general public is completely ga-ga over the music. That’s positively wonderful, and I’m always thrilled when music gets that kind of attention whether I personally like it or not; however, in this situation I’m calling it a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and can only deduce that this music is equally as brilliant as it is a completely missed opportunity.