[This article contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why so, you know, do with that what you will]
When I was growing up in the 2000s, I had a wonky cut-out of the Donnie Darko film poster blu-tacked to the front of my bedroom door, so that when people came over, they would see that I was a fan of Donnie Darko (cool! Edgy!) Now I'm an adult, I can admit I wasn't really a legit fan. I found the plot semi-incomprehensible and for some reason Jake Gyllenhaal's sad, soft eyes made me feel uncomfortable—besides, what the fuck was up with that rabbit? But even though my teenage self didn't really understand the appeal of this sci-fi classic, the beautifully brooding, stylish soundtrack—made up of a combination of 1980s indie tracks and synth instrumentals—burrowed deep into my brain and stuck with me for years.
Which brings me to something different but kind of similar. A couple of months back, Netflix debuted an original series called 13 Reasons Why, based on a 2007 book of the same name. You've probably seen it, or at least heard about it, because it's all anyone has been talking about (it's the most tweeted about show of 2017 so far AKA this year's Stranger Things).
Here's what you already know: the show tells the story of a high schooler called Hannah who records 13 tapes before killing herself, with each tape (and episode) addressing a student she says contributed to her death. Mainly though, it's about slut-shaming and rape culture among teenagers who grew up with the internet. And, in the time since it's come out, it's been criticized for its triggering depictions of sexual violence and the problematic way it handles mental health and suicide—but it's also been soaked up by hoards of young people because it's kind of addictive.
Obviously I powered up Netflix and binge-watched it immediately because I have an uncontrollable fear of missing out. But what struck me the most wasn't its clumsy portrayal of suicide (really dude, you're going to release what is essentially a graphic step-by-step guide in a show targeted at teens?) or its actually quite traumatic, drawn-out rape scenes (which deserve a whole separate article) but the soundtrack. Because while the plot can feel like something conjured up in secondary school film class, with violence that occasionally borders on cartoonish, the soundtrack fucking rules. From its seamless blending of 1980s indie classics by The Cure, The Call and Joy Division alongside recent pop songs from Selena Gomez, School of Seven Bells, LUH, Chromatics and The Japanese House, the music woven through 13 Reasons Why far surpasses the show itself.
Most of us can remember what it was like to be a teenager: the stretched-out summer nights, the feverish crushes you swore were real love, the bitter taste of vomit after getting trashed for the first time, the horny make out sessions in the park and the constantly fluctuating state of angst and giddy romance. It wasn't always fun, but it was glimmering with possibility and emotion and endless expanses of time—an idea 13 Reasons Why utilises and amps up throughout, with music that is pushed to the forefront of each scene like the sudden flush of hormones.
The first song we hear during the opening credits is the warm, easy guitar pluckings of "More than Gravity" by folk duo Colin & Carolina. It's the kind of unremarkable song you'd barely notice floating out of some coffee shop speakers or the radio in your dad's car, but framed within the context of an American high school drama, it feels like a calm melody before the storm. Barely a few minutes later and we're hurtling down the sunny streets of California, the bleak, bittersweet riffs of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" blasting out the tape player of a red Mustang. It's a song that's somehow both cynical and hopeful, and has been used time and time again in film and TV (Donnie Darko, Wristcutters, 24 Hour Party People) as a forewarning for the inevitable crash and burn. The way the music in 13 Reasons Why does this—sporadically flitting between warmth and darkness, light and sudden shade—perfectly captures the emotional flux specific to teen existence; that feeling of having a really fucked up night, but then still having to go to school the next morning, as usual, and hand in your homework like nothing happened.
Of course, if there was one decade that was particularly enraptured with the power of teen emotion, it was the 1980s—and 13 Reasons Why zeroes in on this like a housefly to sweet jam. From the heartfelt new-wave jangles of The Call's "The Walls Came Down" (played during the aftermath of a fight scene) to the yearning pop melodies of The Cure's "Fascination Street" (played when Hannah is detailing how she was stalked) to the ultra-dramatic, thudding synth of Ultravox's "Vienna" (played during the series' finale), there's a reason you have a lump in your throat during so many of these scenes, and it has very little to do with the story itself. Instead, the 1980s signifiers lift the whole thing, injecting it with some much-needed passion and nuance. Watching Hannah lay out the plan for her own suicide in the 12th episode, for instance, feels so on-the-nose you want to wince, but the brooding Roman Remains cover of "The Killing Moon" that glimmers in the background evens out the creases and aligns it with cult indie cinema like Donnie Darko, rather than a Netflix show that would otherwise be sub-par.
Some have claimed that the show's soundtrack is a straight-up homage to John Hughes—the director behind all your fave iconic 1980s films like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Pretty in Pink—and there are certainly some instances where these references are felt (anchoring a particular song like Lord Huran's "The Night We Met" to a romantic scene at a school dance, for example), but I'm not sure it's as clear cut as that. The 80s classics are also mushed together with more recent bleak post-punk and acoustic indie tracks, making the whole thing more reflective of teenagehood in general, rather than a total nostalgia trip. Selena Gomez's contribution of a frankly incredible cover of Yazoo's "Only You"—AKA hands down the greatest love song of all time—bring these ideas together, showing how the soundtrack attempts to be both iconic and forward-facing and, in that way, timeless.
If you haven't seen 13 Reasons Why already, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to you. But despite the shows obvious pitfalls, the soundtrack can still be appreciated as a work unto itself, which this one is. The music in 13 Reasons Why is perfectly executed, each song weaving a narrative of pleasure and pain, desire and anguish, and all the emotions that come with being young and powerless with the realisation that fucked up things can and do happen. It adds a sheen of style and credence to something that clearly requires it—and while the series itself will probably fade away with all the other hyped up shows we've all forgotten about, the soundtrack will surely long outlive it.
You can find Daisy on Twitter.