*Warning – This post contains spoilers.*
The 1980s is an integral component of Stranger Things. The series’ look, feel and tone is inherited from the popular culture of the decade, in particular from Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, which creators Matt and Ross Duffer grew up with. When asked in an interview about their 80s influences, the brothers explained their love for the accessibility and familiarity of 80s movies; “That was always our favorite [sic] type of story, and that’s the stuff we fell in love with. The peak of those type of ordinary-meets-extraordinary stories was in the ‘80s.” (Vulture, 2016).
As people who know me are all too aware, I love the 1980s. I will defend its music to the end and feel offended when someone dismisses the decade as “cheesy” or “too Wham-ish”. I love 80s fashion, 80s cars, 80s movies, but most importantly I adore 80s music.
Therefore, when I finally listened to several friends who insisted that I watch the series (because it is “so 80s”) I was very, very impressed. Not only is Stranger Things wonderfully written, filmed and acted, with interesting characters and the right amount of horror and lightness, it also has an incredible soundtrack.
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s score pulses throughout each episode, with its modern take on 80s synths embellishing the emotions and setting of each scene. In addition to this score, the series also features some proper gems from the 1980s, in addition to tracks from the 60s and 70s. These songs add an extra element of intensity and emotional gravitas to key scenes and so I have decided to share my favourite music moments from the first series.
5. White Rabbit – Bullet for Benny
In episode one we are offered our first insight into Eleven’s character through her scenes with Benny. After catching her stealing fries from his kitchen, Benny runs after Eleven but seeing how small and scared she is, decides to take her in rather than calling the cops. Although his scenes are brief, the audience immediately warms to Benny due to the efforts he goes to to protect this girl, including feeding her burgers and ice cream as well as calling social services. So when ‘social services’ turn up and Benny ends up with a bullet in his brain, it is an unexpected shock.
This sudden and violent twist of events is wonderfully sound tracked by Jefferson Airplane’s zany 1967 track ‘White Rabbit’, giving an extra element of tension and confusion to the middle of the first episode. Just as this song was able to come across as innocent (sneaking its references to drugs use past radio censors in the 60s), Benny’s murder demonstrates that nothing is quite as it seems in Hawkins, Indiana.
4. Elegia – Will’s Funeral
Let’s face it, when you watch Stranger Things you spend the majority of the time wondering what the f**k is going on. By the time we reach episode five, two kids have gone missing, creatures are coming out of the walls and a funeral is being held for a supposedly dead kid whose body is actually a stuffed dummy. (God I love this show).
Will’s funeral is a key scene in which the majority of attendees have no idea that the ‘deceased’ is in fact still alive. As we see the characters getting ready for the funeral – Nancy in her black dress, Jonathan struggling with his tie and Joyce sitting on Will’s bed, the dark synths of New Order’s ‘Elegia’ begin.
From New Order’s brilliant 1985 album Low-Life, ‘Elegia’ is an exquisite piece of music.* Intense and moving, it captures Joyce’s frustration and sadness at the funeral, as well as the dark undercurrents of the situation. Written in memory of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division (New Order’s previous incarnation), it is the perfect lamentation for this scene.
3. When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die – Hello Jim ‘Thumping Chest Wizard’ Hopper
When Joyce and Hopper go to the Upside Down in episode eight, we see the parallel realm in its full and terrifying glory. The whole series has been building up to this moment – will they find Will? Is he still alive? Will they be able to get out of the Upside Down?
Moby’s ‘When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die’ plays as the discovery of Will’s body in the Upside Down is inter-cut with Hopper’s flashbacks to his own daughter’s illness and death. As Hopper thumps Will’s chest, unable to handle losing another child, Moby’s chilling track pulls at our heartstrings even more. It adds a whole other level to the heartache and poignancy of the scene and as Will wakes up, reminds us that even though he is alive, the town of Hawkins remains damaged.
2. Should I Stay or Should I Go – Will’s Song
I am now unable to listen to The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ without thinking of the Byers. It is one of the most pivotal songs of the series due to its association with Will and multiple uses throughout the episodes.
The song is first played in episode two as Jonathan has a flashback when listening to the song in his car. We see him playing the song to Will in his bedroom and the two bonding over the track, turning it up to drown out the sound of their parents arguing. However, in future episodes the song terrorizes Joyce as it becomes a feature of visits from the Upside Down, along with other electrical disturbances such as flashing lights.
The use of the song in the series gives it a creepy and sinister sound as it haunts Joyce and is sung by Will as a source of comfort in the Upside Down. To be able to use such a well-known and loved song and give it completely different connotations is quite a feat and it is done to full effect in Stranger Things.
1. Heroes – Please Don’t be Will
While ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is arguably the most important song of the series, it cannot beat the use of Peter Gabriel’s orchestral cover of ‘Heroes’ in episode three for emotional poignancy and investment.
The song plays as Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Eleven arrive at the quarry, having followed the police sirens, in time to see Will’s body being pulled out of the water. In that moment we are reminded that they really are just kids, as Mike starts to crack not only at the horror of discovering his friend is dead but also as he realises Eleven has lied to him. In this moment, we know as much as the kids and are taken right into their pain and grief, aided by the haunting strings of Gabriel’s cover of Bowie’s 1977 hit. As the scene cuts to Joyce running out in front of Jonathan’s car and them hugging on the road, lit by the headlights, we are left moved and shocked at this early reveal.
I am unable to watch this scene without crying and honestly think it is one of the best uses of music in a TV show ever. The shake in Gabriel’s voice reflects the kids crumbling with grief and the pacing of the song from a glimmer of hope to a crescendo of anguish works so well it feels as though it was recorded especially for the episode (it was in fact released in 2010).
The individual components of Stranger Things work flawlessly with one another and this song is the prime example of that. Without the incredible performances from the kids and wonderful writing we certainly would not feel as emotionally invested as an audience, but the music certainly adds an extra special something.