Music by VICE

Paradise Rebooted: Unpacking the Role of Music in Charlie Brooker's 'San Junipero'

How trashy pop music and visceral nostalgia helped define the era, environment, and atmosphere of 2016's greatest love story.

by Emma Garland
Dec 12 2016, 7:24pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

Of all the songs that have impressed their emotional resonance upon the last twelve months, an unlikely spot has to be reserved for Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth." Sure, with keyboards, power chords, and a level of melodrama that would make Morrissey blush it has all the cornerstones of classic 80s songwriting that guarantees it eternal rotation on Magic FM. But, thanks to Charlie Brooker's otherwise horrifying Black Mirror series, the 1987 hit also ended up becoming one of the most culturally significant songs of 2016.

Bookending this season's "San Junipero" episode, "Heaven is a Place on Earth" was used to symbolize love and fantasy in the face of death and hardship. The episode, which details the relationship between two women (Yorkie and Kelly) who meet in a virtual reality afterlife, imagines a future in which the consciousnesses of the dead can be uploaded to a cloud—offering people the chance to exist forever in a simulation as their younger, more carefree selves. Kind of like digital ghosts except their only business is drinking, dancing, and snogging.

A combination of Stranger Things 80s nostalgia and Westworld futurism, "San Junipero" was a cocktail of 2016's biggest TV obsessions rolled into one beautiful queer love story. The episode opens with a shot of the ocean at night; dots of neon light from a fictional coastal town snaking across the surface like the contents of glow sticks emptied onto a wet road. After panning down a bustling street, we hear "Heaven is a Place on Earth" for the first time booming out of a car radio and see Yorkie, who is walking by nervously in a pastel jumper, shirt and shorts like a Happy Days reboot of Kristen Stewart. She meets the magnetic Kelly—all huge hair and shoulder padded jackets in a stylish triple threat of Madonna, Janet Jackson and Prince—in a bar called Tuckers. Thus begins the greatest 21st century romance since Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher.

Tucker's bar—and more importantly the music, dancing, and conversations that happen within it—becomes a sort of ritualistic fixture throughout the episode. It's where Kelly first drags Yorkie onto the dancefloor to Alexander O'Neal's "Fake," starts doing some angular shoulder-based routine that everyone else in the room seems to know because as far as I can tell clubbing in the 80s was like one big Michael Jackson video. It's where Yorkie returns to in the 70s and 90s trying to find Kelly, and again in the 00s where they eventually run into each other as Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" plays in the background.

If you couldn't quite place the clues presented in the outfits or arcade games, there would always be pop music playing to illustrate the time and place each scene unfolds in. It dictates the atmosphere, too—The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" encompasses the frivolity of the 80s where the couple meet and return to at the end. The relative simplicity of the 70s is reflected in the sonic minimalism of Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" and a guy playing the original Pac-Man game. 90s nihilism is encapsulated by nods to Alanis Morissette and Scream, while in Tucker's bar almost everyone is drinking (they aren't usually) and nobody speaks to each other.

Resting on the premise that everyone chooses to return to the year in which they feel they can completely be themselves, music in 'San Junipero' is used as a barometer for identity. During one dark scene Yorkie ends up at a place called The Quagmire—a warehouse of extremity—where people are fucking and punching each other to hardcore punk (obviously) like an even more surreal take on Club Berlin from Martin Scorsese's After Hours. The only setting that never changes, whose tone is set by the instrumental score instead of identifiable pop, is Kelly's house on the beach.

Intertwining with the plot, the music in "San Junipero" is essentially the third lead character, dictating the era, the environment, the atmosphere, and even the story itself. It became such an important fixture of people's take-away from the episode that Brooker ended up compiling a 42-track Spotify playlist of all the music featured in, cut from or which inspired it (just like the episode, it also begins and ends with "Heaven is a Place on Earth"). Last week, the score was also given a vinyl release by the same label who pressed the Stranger Things soundtrack.

"The music is so iconic and it really takes you to a certain place in time," Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Kelly, told The Daily Beast. "For me, I've always used music as a way in for the character and always make a playlist for a way into a certain scene, or to channel a certain energy for the character. For this, there was a built-in playlist that Charlie had already written into the script."

Initially envisioned to be about someone using technology to research whether or not there was an afterlife, Brooker became inspired by the practice of "nostalgia therapy," which seems to have informed everything from the plot to the music. In recent years, nostalgia has become recognised as a method of treating anxiety and depression. "Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present," Dr. Tim Wildschut, a senior researcher at Southampton University, told The Guardian. "What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past." One of Wildschut's experiments (conducted with another academic, Constantine Sedikides) found that people tend more towards nostalgia in colder months, and that music can make people feel not only nostalgic but also physically warmer.

A part of the reason "San Junipero" grabbed viewers by their crying emojis is because the characters literally go back in time and take you with them. You experience the same happiness that Yorkie and Kelly are looking for themselves; the same comfort in familiarity; the same solace found in the idea of choosing to reside at your most peak, in your favourite era, instead of dealing with the depressing march of life and aging. One of the last tracks on the score by Clint Mansell is a warm, minimal piano piece titled "Endless Summer," which plays when Kelly quietly says her goodbyes to reality, choosing San Junipero instead. If you split life into seasons, most people would choose to live in the summer of it. Whether it's the characters literally going back in time, or you sat in your living room in two hoodies watching Black Mirror on a dark October evening and thinking about how just month ago you were sat in the same position in a vest with all the windows open, there is a shared joy in the abandonment of the present. Nostalgia is a holiday for your brain, but 'San Junipero' offers the tantalizing prospect that you don't have to come back.

Although it jumps around a bit, the episode spends most of its time in 1987. Eighties pop songs are often dismissed as vapid and synthetic, but they're frequently used to enhance emotional plots—whether it's something as serious as Donnie Darko or as entertaining as Dirty Dancing (whose main anthem is "I've Had The Time of My Life" despite being set in the 60s). Despite being packaged like the musical equivalent to IKEA furniture, loads of 80s bangers either concern themselves with existential plight ("Mad World" by Tears For Fears, and also everything else by Tears For Fears), loneliness ("I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston) or sexy escapism (INXS's "I Need You Tonight" which literally opens with the lyrics "All you got is this moment / The twenty-first century's yesterday"). On the surface they may be seen as emotionally empty vessels destined to end up on compilation CD's called The Ultimate Cheese Party, but they also present genuine hopes and fears. There's something quite uncomfortable about that whole duality in which things presented as fatuous are actually cries for help, which is partly how the "San Junipero" playlist functions too.

The way music is used isn't dissimilar to the way it's used in Donnie Darko. In that film, composer Michael Andrews crafted an original score loaded with melancholic synth-orchestral ambience, while director Richard Kelly cherry picked pop hits from Tears For Fears, The Church and Duran Duran to both anchor Donnie Darko's narrative in 1988 and emphasise its themes of desperate puberty and political paranoia. For "San Junipero," Charlie Brooker pulls from all chart corners from The Bangles to Janet Jackson, and it's all offset by Clint Mansell's own brand of melancholic synth-orchestral ambience. With titles that reflect the episode's themes —"Faith, Hope, Fear and Falling in Love," "In Sickness, In Health," "Waves Crashing on Distant Shores of Time"—Mansell's score is the futuristic well of metallic effects and sad melodies that give "San Junipero" its personality. It could've come from any decade, really—it belongs everywhere, but sticks to those same big feelings of fear, love, and unease.

But for all its nostalgic euphoria, there is an underlying darkness to the episode. The truth between the lines of this kaleidoscopic romance is that Kelly is dying of cancer and living in an assisted living facility for the elderly, and Yorkie lives in a nursing home, left completely paralyzed by a car wreck she got into at the age of 21 after she told her religious parents she was gay and then fled home. Living people can visit the virtual climes of San Junipero, but only up to five hours a week. So, the other side of the coin is that Brooker chose a cheesy pop song like "Heaven is a Place on Earth" to mark the episode's the most poignant moments as a way to point out the underlying fakeness of it all. San Junipero is, after all, a fantasy. Yorkie and Kelly aren't actually spending the rest of their lives together, they're two dead bodies strapped to machines. It wouldn't be the first time a fun-loving 80s banger has been used to highlight a disconnect between reality and morality. Just look at how Huey Lewis and the News was used in American Psycho. Everything from the music to the blue and pink lighting to Kelly's outfits are designed to remind you of the episode's underlying question: is it still true happiness if the experience isn't real?

Still, we come out of the episode feeling uplifted in a bittersweet sort of way. Kelly, who struggled to choose between dying naturally to follow her daughter and husband into the "regular" afterlife, or be with Yorkie in San Junipero, eventually chooses Yorkie. The pair are married at Yorkie's bedside, giving Kelly the ability to authorize Yorkie's euthanasia and then her own. Then they meet on the beach in San Junipero in wedding dresses and drive off into the sunset like a sci-fi Thelma and Louise to, you guessed it, "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." For the first time in Black Mirror, nothing turns out to be a sick joke. Both protagonists die, but everyone wins.

In context of the series, the episode stood out as the glimmering, softly-lit tale of warmth among a collection of frankly horrifying explorations of all the ways modern society and technological advancement are going to end the world. In context of life on actual Planet Earth, it played a similar role: a gay relationship between two well-rounded female characters, one mixed-race and one white, providing welcome representation and emotional relief at a time when both are often scarce. The plot and its soundtrack—a combination of fun-loving party songs and an emotionally-charged score—offered an alternative to dystopia. And so, as the gap between Black Mirror's fictional narratives and the world's present day realities narrow like two trains hurtling towards each other in opposite directions, "Heaven is a Place on Earth" re-emerged a beacon of optimism in a year from hell. Plus it's also a lesbian anthem now, and there can never be enough of those.

Follow Emma on Twitter.

Follow Noisey on Twitter.