Everyone looks back to a time when their lives were simpler. It’s comforting to think about what brought us joy when we didn’t have pressings issues like car payments, past-due insurance fees, and the impending doom of political warfare currently saturating every single fiber of the media.
It’s a profitable business as well. I generally pride myself listening to music not quite in the mainstream yet, but when I look at my favorite albums of this year there’s an underlying theme of cross-eyed nostalgia. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool sees the band progressing their sound by taking a few sonic steps backward. Yuck’s latest album (ironically titled Stranger Things) plays like a love letter to the bands I loved as a teenager. Even David Bowie’s swan song Blackstar theoretically wraps ups the characters he portrayed throughout the years.
Nostalgia is a vital part of marketing whether we admit to it or not. At the center of 2016’s obsession with the past, is the new sci-fi drama series Stranger Things streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Stranger Things revolves around a young boy’s mysterious disappearance in a rural Indiana town. While searching for his whereabouts, a small circle of his friends and family discover more questions than answers, finding themselves in a sinister conspiracy of otherworldly proportions. It’s execution places the series on a different level putting it as a cut above other science fiction programming found on television and streaming sites, but since the story’s set in 1983, it’s secret weapon is, of course, nostalgia.
The kids scurry around on bikes, chatter on walkie-talkies, play Dungeons & Dragons, and trade comics (kudos to the show’s writers for referencing X-men issue 134 in the first episode, a clever foreshadowing in terms of story telling. Geek trivia: over). Teens make out listening to Toto, while grown-ups complain about TV reception and act oblivious to their children sneaking in and out of the house. In sum: it’s just like every 80s movie we grew up watching.
However, it’s not a self-aware celebration of the 80s in a “hey look at my Rubix Cube, Atari 2600 and Off The Wall poster? Totally rad, right?” sense. Stranger Things feels authentic and sentimental in a far more organic.
An integral part of overwhelming sense of nostalgia is the soundtrack. There’s plenty of source music: The Clash, Joy Division, and an unexpected Peter Gabriel cover of “Heroes” during one of the shows most emotionally intense scenes. However the show’s real star is an original soundtrack by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.
Making up half of the Austin based experimental band Survive, Dixon and Stein were brought in after the show’s creators used one of their songs in a mock-up trailer used to pitch the idea to Netflix. Normally, a composer is brought in at the tail end of post-production to work on his or her score but working while the show was in production gave Dixon and Stein a remarkable advantage to craft a collection of music that runs parallel to the show’s twists and turns. The original score acts almost as it’s own character in the grand scheme of things.
The show’s plot, characters and elements borrow heavily from Spielberg films and Stephen King adaptations, as well adolescent staples like Explorers and The Goonies . It also makes subtle nods to horror greats like Phantasm and the various works of John Carpenter. It’s only right the soundtrack reflects that. The opening theme is a combination of Carpenter’s “Assault On Precinct 13 Theme” and The Vangelis’ “Blade Runner Blues.” Elsewhere, ominous beats play up synth influences such as John Harrison’s “Day of the Dead” or Giorgio Moroder’s work on “Midnight Express.”
The score’s standout pieces are “Kids” and “Nancy & Barb.”
Both compositions capture the very essence of what the show tries to convey with it’s use of correlation and nostalgia. Just hearing them takes me back to when my concerns were getting home before dark or finishing my homework in time to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Meanwhile, “Friendship” might be the most touching and emotional synth composition I’ve heard in any television show or film. Coming in at just under a minute long, it gives an overwhelming sense of innocence and heartbreaking sentimentalism. I can’t listen to it more than once without getting an uncontrollable urge to cry.
Even during the show’s darkest and emotionally heavy scenes, the music carries it along reminding the viewer it’s being told through the innocence of a child’s perspective. The adult characters are frantic, acting on pure emotion while the teenagers want to be treated as adults despite their inexperienced, reckless behavior and the kids are coming to terms with how the real world doesn’t function on the fairness of playground comradery. It could be argued the loss of innocence is one of the main factors tugging on the audience’s heartstrings.
Millennials didn’t invent nostalgia, but social media and the internet have aided in it becoming the larger than life counter-culture. It’s similar to the 90s’ infatuation with the 70s or the 70s’ infatuation with the 50s. but instead of relying on a fragmented, often romanticized memory, you have the best and the worst of history at your fingertips thanks to YouTube and Google. Typing a simple, one-off catchphrase can send you down a rabbit hole of retromania: commercials, music videos, movies, and just about every article of nostalgia one can remember. Having so much information ready available, certainly feeds into the over-abundance of sentimentalism.
The reason Stranger Things is fantastic isn’t because of storytelling or production, but because of how it connects with it’s target audience.
It’s characters and delivery are the perfect blend of comfort and nostalgia. For me, the most important character is the original score. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein hit all the right notes in all the right places and deliver a soundtrack that holds its own among the works of their influences.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.