Give or take some vampires, the teen soap opera formula has remained fairly consistent. Being young, the TV screen says, looks like dark rooms, troubled girls, lots of sex, awkward dances, and sketchy drug deals. The question of what youth sounds like, though, has gone through a few iterations. In the ’90s, My So-Called Life and Buffy marked the first wave of teen drama soundtracks, alt-rock collections featuring the likes of Sonic Youth and the Cranberries. The folksy crescendos of Dawson’s Creek, which premiered in 1998, led us into the 2000s second wave, when teen soaps used music not just to capture a feeling, but as a premature time capsule, and sometimes even a plot point. They benefited from a golden age of moody indie rock and the pre-blog-era excitement around music discovery. An entire generation of viewers can’t hear Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” without remembering One Tree Hill’s cinematic near-car-crash scene, or Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” without imagining The OC’s Season 2 finale, or Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” without reciting the words, “Gossip Girl here.”
Euphoria is kicking off the next generation of teen soap soundtracks, prioritizing intensity over topical relevance, embracing the theatrical and taking creative liberties wherever possible. The show’s music paints a fantasy of teen life rather than a faithful depiction of cool kids listening to cool tunes. Now rounding out its second season, the Euphoria mixtape favors one-off singles, deep cuts, and sounds of the past. It’s a work of drama and fiction, unconcerned with documenting the sound of an age. Biggie is on the house party playlist. The drug dealer’s den plays Steely Dan. A fight breaks out, cue “(I Just) Died in Your Arms.” The more contemporary songs are cherry-picked for maximum impact. A bike ride home is accompanied by Laura Les’s glitchy hyperpop. Orville Peck’s “Dead of Night” echoes through Nate’s head, the words, “See the boys as they walk on by / It’s enough to make a young man …” bringing his sexuality in and out of focus as he watches Cassie undress. Instead of re-creating what Gen Z might hear in the car or on their TikTok feeds, the music doubles down on the show’s unreality. Like Euphoria itself, its music saturates the stark hues of adolescence. Every song, every day, feels like you’re either peaking or crumbling.
“We have no parameters about the genres or the time period. … We wanted to stay in our world and use the music as an interesting storytelling device [and a] very prominent character in the show,” Euphoria’s music supervisor, Jen Malone, said on a recent call.
Much has been said about the twisted la-la land that is Euphoria. (Too much, this writer would argue.) Millennials on Twitter ask, When do they have time for homework? And, Do students really show that much pelvis on a school night? This season’s soundtrack has been a new talking point, with new refrains like, “This music budget could end the student debt crisis,” and, “What kind of suburban 19-year-old is listening to Gerry Rafferty in the year 2022?” The largely retro soundtrack makes sense when you consider the flaccid, impermanent nature of today’s pop. Triumphant anthems and devastating ballads are incompatible with a mainstream driven by short-form video. The mood of the moment is numb, and so is its music. At the time of writing, Billboard’s top 10 counts a one-note crawler from Glass Animals, Ed Sheeran’s monotonous radio pop, that one TikTok song from the Kid LAROI and Justin Bieber, and a track from a Disney movie in the no. 1 spot.
“Music is in an interesting place today,” Malone said. “It’s not the same as it was in the ’90s or early 2000s. The intensity and rawness … I think we’re missing that today in popular music. So rather than trying to emulate that, [we decided] to use those classic bangers and legendary songs. … There’s been a lot of chatter about how, ‘These kids wouldn’t be listening to Juvenile and Tupac.’ But, it’s like, Why not? They should be.”
The show doesn’t seem interested in realism. Season 2 is, in many ways, a musical. The show nods to this as a blazed Rue dances with her pillow, lip-syncing to Bobby Darin’s “Call Me Irresponsible.” It winks aggressively when Lexi directs a play about their friends’ interconnected story lines, complete with dance sequences and musical numbers, titled Our Life. In Episode 4, a bikini-clad Cassie chugs a bottle of white wine and drowns in a sea of balloons, moaning “Drink Before the War” as if it’s her own swan song. We aren’t really meant to believe this young woman threw on a Sinead O’Connor record from the ’80s, more that the spirit of the Irish singer-songwriter is coursing through her veins. In another part of town, Nate’s father, Cal, sings the chorus as he revisits a fraught landmark from boyhood, the bar where he fell in love with his best friend, Derek. “Music is in the show’s DNA” was a mantra Malone repeated throughout our interview. “Each episode kind of has its own musical tone,” she explained. “There’s film noir, and there’s gospel.”
Malone repeatedly came back to the soundtrack as an extension of “Sam [Levinson]’s vision.” The show creator is a musical encyclopedia, she said. Meanwhile, Malone is a sonic master in her own right, known for heightening anxious environments on shows like Yellowjackets and Atlanta. “When I did the music for Yellowjackets, I felt like I knew exactly which songs it needed. The show takes place in the ’90s, and I was in school in the ’90s, so the music was just all the songs I liked,” she said. “There’s just a different way of making Euphoria. Like any show, there are so many moving parts, but with Euphoria, it’s a little bit more intense. Probably because of the sheer volume of music.”
“Sam’s vision” was hard-won, and the quest for music powerful enough to fit overdoses and an 18-year-old holding his ex at gunpoint was a double-edged sword. For context, Malone estimated there can be up to 37 tracks in a single episode. “We definitely got a lot of denials,” she admitted. “We’re using songs over some very difficult content, so we have to disclose that. It’s always a challenge in this show, whether it was working with the Elvis Presley estate or the Tupac estate. … We want to make sure they know we’re using their music because we love it, and it works. It helps tell us the story that a lot of people are going to see. We’re contributing to the legacy of these artists.” That she and Levinson were so committed to these hard-to-clear songs for Euphoria’s hard-to-watch scenes is a testament to their enduring emotional resonance. According to Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company), streams of “Drink Before the War” surged by 26,900 percent after it was featured in Episode 5. Meanwhile, there are more than 600,000 Euphoria-related playlists on the service. (“Reviving some older songs that a lot of our audience might not be exposed to … it’s the best part of my job,” she says. “But that element of discovery is just a bonus for us.”)
Putting these songs before Euphoria’s audience sometimes requires a lot of legwork. Using one song, Sharon Cash’s cover of Little Willie John’s 1956 track “Fever,” sourced from a compilation album, required genuine detective work. To clear the cover, Malone set out to contact the record label that originally released it. When she learned the founder had died, she contacted his daughter on Instagram, and then went on to find Cash’s ex-husband’s grandson. “I was a full-on private investigator. I printed out all the pages of all of the possible phone numbers, just went through and started calling,” she told me. “There’s a reason this song is in there. … And I won’t stop until I get it.”
Euphoria is a show about kids, for adults. And just as Lexi hopes her friends, family, and all of Euphoria High appreciate her elaborate and extremely personal play, Levinson asks us to suspend disbelief for his ornate adolescent dramatization. In the former example, the teens are faced with vaudeville caricatures of themselves. Bizzaro-world Nate lifts weights and air-humps his teammates to Bonnie Tyler. Real-world Cassie flashes back to betraying her best friend Maddy, as their doppelgängers take the stage for a will-they-won’t-they dance-off to Tweet’s provocative 2002 hip-hop one-hit “Oops (Oh My).” A similar dynamic is at play for the audience of Levinson’s uncanny valley Gen Z fantasia. Euphoria eschews the relatable quality present in so much of modern entertainment. Its jukebox spans genres and decades, confusing time, place, and point of view. This is all in line with Levinson’s grand musical theory, a case against strict verisimilitude, testing just how far he can stretch his characters’ imagined lives.
The climax of the season veers into a dreamscape. Rue is high on the floor of her bedroom and beginning to nod off when she hears a man singing. Viewers are familiar with this voice; it’s Labrinth, whose soulful croon has scored Euphoria since the beginning, his falsettos woven through each episode. She follows the sound through a bright doorway and finds him performing on a church stage. Rue walks down the aisle, vibrating above her friends and family sitting in the pews. Organs erupt as she embraces Labrinth. The camera angle shifts and she’s hugging her deceased father. He is as real as anything else in her world.
Julia Gray is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Washington Post, Playboy, Pitchfork, and Stereogum. She makes chaotic tweets at @juliagrayok.