In its basic conceit, Stranger Things has always been about what’s transpiring beneath the surface—specifically in the haunting alternate dimension The Upside Down, lurking underneath the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. And while Hawkins would be nothing without its underground realm, the Duffer Brothers’ series wouldn’t be what it is without the on-point selection of atmospheric, period-authentic tracks underscoring each scene.
The series’ stellar soundtrack comes courtesy of Emmy-nominated music supervisor Nora Felder, who, in Season 2, tackled the ambience of All Hallow’s Eve, expanding the series’ sonic scope with the addition of major new characters—including Dacre Montgomery’s Billy and Sean Astin’s Bob, who exist on opposite ends of the musical spectrum.
Well-versed in the sounds of the ‘80s, with her earlier formative experiences in the music industry, Felder’s curated list for this season includes the likes of Oingo Boingo, The Romantics, Pat Benatar, Motly Crue, Duran Duran, The Clash and more.
While Felder was able to look to extensive libraries—physical, digital and memory-based—to put together the sounds of Stranger Things 2, she remained open to discoveries that can bring a project or a scene to the next level.
“Working within the confines of a certain time period like the 1980s offers an exciting opportunity to dig deeper and uncover gems, which sometimes feels a bit like retroactive A&R,” Felder says. “I think that’s what intrigues me most about music and this craft—the constant and never-ending possibility of discovery of great music, past or present.”
How does Stranger Things’ music reflect your own musical taste? The series’ music seems in line with your career beginnings, booking shows for The Cure, INXS and other artists.
Frankly, I can’t think of a better place I could have been than New York City in the ‘80s. At that time, the music scene was thriving—from local radio airwaves spanning any and all types of music from around the world, to every artist from all continents striving to make the Big Apple a key touring pit stop. I knew I was inside this central music hub, and I wanted to see, hear, and experience all of it. I remain constantly excited by current and upcoming artists, but it is especially rewarding to come full circle with bands that I personally saw, experienced, and worked with in their heyday, now complementing the journey of Stranger Things. Also, knowing that the use of music in Stranger Things can reignite music and introduce it to a whole new audience—well, you just can’t beat that.
Could you break down your process in curating music for a series like Stranger Things?
My across-the-board music supervision process is to read the scripts first and foremost to intimately immerse myself with each chapter. The stories, characters, and scenes are constantly alive in my mind’s eye, around the clock. Ideas pop into my head randomly, whether it’s right after reading a script, watching a scene or an entire show, or at an unexpected moment, including waking me up in the middle of the night. Last but not least, I must simultaneously assess the needs the producers want to accomplish within our given budgetary confines. It’s a bit of geometry, in that creatively, you want to challenge yourself to think outside the box, while financially you must remain safely inside the parameters of your “box.”
What were your first impressions when you read Season 2’s scripts? How did they influence your musical approach?
It was very exciting to initially read about some of the new characters and settings that the Duffer Brothers added into the story. Devo’s iconic song “Whip It” seemed appropriate to help lead viewers to the new fave reoccurring hangout The Palace, which was the local Hawkins video arcade. Electronic-based songs seemed like the right palette in order to establish this setting for our main character kids to hang out, spy, and plot together. Bad boy Billy, with his seemingly constant testosterone-driven rage, called for harder-edge tunes such as Ted Nugent’s “Wango Tango.” Various songs, not unlike his Chevy Camaro, were selected to further demonstrate his dangerously aggressive, high-throttle personality. The viewers also meet Bob, who seems to be just what the doctor ordered, as new boyfriend to our anxiety-fueled favorite super-mom Joyce. Through Bob, our Joyce is able to possibly love, laugh, and break out with a slow dance to one of Bob’s quirky, hopelessly romantic and refreshing song faves, Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” serving as a perfect reflection of his character, [who has] always the best of intentions.
How did the Halloween time frame for Stranger Things 2 influence the tone set with the music you selected?
The Halloween time frame was central to the tone of the season’s 2nd episode, “Trick or Treat, Freak.” “Ghostbusters”—Ray Parker Jr.’s infamous supernatural anthem—is first heard during scenes of parents taking Halloween pictures of their costumed children and our favorite central characters showing off their movie character costumes. As “Ghostbusters” plays while the town happily prepares for Halloween, and then is reprised at the “What’s making those noises in the trashcan?” ending, it also perhaps subtly indicates that these kids could also be needed to fight dangerous beings from another realm. The forever classic “Monster Mash” has a dual purpose. It effectively sets the scene for the festive spirit of Halloween night in Hawkins, but also points to a very dark secret that our young character Will is carrying, as he is thrust into an alternate reality with a very real, terrifying monster. Unbeknownst to the town, which is filled with the spirit of Halloween, it is for Will, and Will alone, that the opening lyrics of “Monster Mash” ring true—“I beheld an eerie sight…”
What were your most exciting musical discoveries in the process of putting together the music for Season 2?
There was one song I came across that was selected for a scene where Lucas is having breakfast with his family, called “You Ought To Be With Me.” In doing further research on the track, I learned that this song was actually [by] the actor Carl Weathers, from the Sylvester Stallone Rockymovies, who played his boxing opponent Apollo Creed.
For one of the arcade scenes, we used this mesmerizing song by a German electronic artist, Robert Görl, called “Darling Don’t Leave Me,” which featured Annie Lennox. While doing some tune digging, the moment I heard the song I was instantly drawn to it, and rather surprised that I hadn’t come across it before.
Can you explain the varied roles music can play in a series like Stranger Things?
Music can serve a scene in varied ways. It can provide atmosphere to the story, depth to the characters, and/or levity to a specific situation. It can also simply originate from a source to enhance an atmosphere, without a need for lyrical relevance. Lyrics may serve to allude to the story in one way or another, while at the same time, trying to be conscientious not to insult a viewer’s intelligence by spoon-feeding it to them.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some instances when lyrics are used to state the obvious, whether that might be by impactfully shouting out a message, or perhaps, by subliminally whispering softly into the viewer’s ear through a song. At our first reveal of Billy, Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” is used specifically for its hard-hitting impact in both tone and lyric. Upon arrival, this sexy, dangerous bad boy captivates every student at the school, along with the viewers.
The deceptively sensitive Synth-pop song “Girls on Film”, sung by Duran Duran, plays at a teen party attended by our internally conflicted character, Nancy, who is out of her element on this night. Although the song appears to be about seemingly perfect models in the spotlight at a photo shoot, it unexpectedly reveals regrets lurking beneath the surface as a model laments and “wonders how she got there.” The song parallels Nancy’s difficult experience in the spotlight as a pretty and perfectly dressed girl at a the big high school party, while at the same time trying to conceal her dark truth, torment, guilt, and regret about the death of Barb lurking beneath the surface.
Is clearing music by A-list musical artists an easier endeavor, working on a series of Stranger Things’ stature?
For Season 1 of Stranger Things, generally speaking, a bit more of an effort was needed to convince rights owners for higher-profile artists that this brand new show that no one had seen as of yet, involving monsters from The Upside Down, was this fascinating and innovative story. Since then, with the tremendous success and huge worldwide adoration, it was a much easier sell, so to speak, and the process went a lot smoother. We were also very honored to have high-profile artists reach out to us expressing their desire to be a part of the show, which is always such a huge compliment.
Musically, do you have any specific ambitions with this series, looking ahead to future seasons?
Only time will tell how long the series will go on. As each season potentially brings a new year, characters, settings, and storyline shifts, I suspect that it’s a pretty safe assumption that as the well of music to draw from gets bigger each year, the music palette will inevitably also continue to expand, and remain that other main character essential to the continuing story of Stranger Things. This show is truly a phenomenon and I’m really just so honored to be a part of it. I constantly feel like I’m in this amazing alternate world because of Stranger Things.