How the ‘Skins’ Soundtrack Captured British Youth Culture in the 2000s

Ten years since its debut, the show's pairing of hedonism and catharsis with both new music and classics still stands.

by Sammy Maine
25 January 2017, 12:27pm

I remember the first time I saw the trailer for Skins. I was 17 years old with a mouth full of braces, and awkward limbs that never knew where to place themselves. During my evening routine of watching another compelling episode of Hollyoaks, the TV suddenly launched into a slow-motion, strobe-lit fantasy – flashes of hot bodies in neon lingerie dry humped their way across the screen as spaced-out, pill-glazed eyes urged me to join them in what looked like the house party to end all house parties, all set to the delirious beat of Gossip's "Standing in the Way of Control".

I'd never seen anything quite like it. I'd watched The OC and Gilmore Girls just like everyone else, and while they were shows aimed at teens, they were rich, American teens who never had a hair out of place and were usually portrayed by actors in their twenties with piercing bone structure. Skins wasn't like that. The characters had acne, wore the same shit H&M clothes as you, and said stuff like "safe, yeah?" It was exaggerated and far-fetched for sure, but beneath all its surrealism lay genuine storylines that most British teenagers could relate to – losing your virginity, eating disorders, divorce, struggling with coursework – in a way that didn't feel overtly moralising. In other words, it was like our lives, only interesting enough to be on telly.

Featuring a selection of tracks that thrust classics from The Fall and Cat Stevens into new ears, while also giving a platform to relatively unknown artists, Skins offered a source of post-indie reprise that conducted a soundtrack for teens across the country. Most were introduced to the show through the use of "Standing In The Way Of Control" – a song that would become the messy beacon of student club nights and Scream pubs for most of the mid-to-late noughties. Beth Ditto has previously stated that she wrote the lyrics in response to George W Bush's opposition to gay marriage, and with its chant-worthy chorus of "Standing in the way of control / Yeah live your lives / By the only way that you know," it became a blanket-fuck you anthem that gave a sense of catharsis to those navigating the impending doom of adulthood.

It also led the group to gain two NME covers in 2007. Their first, published just before the series one finale in March, was accompanied with the headline 'Sex, Skins and Standing in the Way of Control'; proof that the music used on Skins was beginning to infiltrate the mainstream beyond its initial teenage fanbase. Let's also just take a hot sec to appreciate their killer performance of the song at T in the Park during the summer of 2007 (fun game: drink every time you see a keffiyeh scarf). 

Foals were another band that were propelled to enormous heights after their stint on the show. Though they weren't exactly small or unknown at the time, their appearance on the Skins Secret Party Special mini-episode gave them an extra nudge to become something much bigger. Their first NME cover in 2008 saw the group heading the 'New Noise' issue, with the magazine citing them as a band that would "define the year"; 'the Skins effect' was well and truly in motion.

Through their use of new artists, the show also signalled an era in which teenage music tastes were mirrored back to their audience, solidifying Skins' success in not only knowing exactly how to target their viewers but to make pivotal scenes more relatable and in turn, more memorable. Most notably, Skins was one of the first UK shows to include dubstep in its soundtrack. The use of Skream's "0800 Dub", "Angry" and "Colourful" reflected a music scene, especially in Bristol, that no other programme really had before. 

While most students in Bristol weren't exactly necking pingers for breakfast in a mansion while surrounded by boys in neon hoodies, so many moments in the show portrayed exactly what was going on in music. In the mid-00s, Bristol nurtured the likes of Peverelist, Joker and Pinch, allowing the city to produce some of the most well-respected and influential outposts of electronic music in the UK. Nights like Just Jack, Crazylegs and Subloaded were mimicked through the house parties and underground club scenes shown in Skins; the laser lighting and crowded room shown in episodes like season's 2 premiere, imitated Bristol venues like Blue Mountain, Motion or Basement 45.

But the soundtrack was used in more complex ways, too. Throughout the seasons, each character was given a personal playlist matching their emotional comprehension: Colleen's "Your Heart Is So Loud" highlighted Effy's innocence; Sigur Ros' "Untitled (Samskeyti)" provided a dream-like escape for Michelle; the lyrics to Crystal Castles' "Alice Practise" (Hi / Scars will heal soon / you shrug it off / Except that you don't") mirrored Sid's grief over losing his father; and, in one of the show's most memorable scenes, Adele's "Hometown Glory" provided the soundtrack to Cassie crying on a bed, eating an apple. An open-ended finale to season 2, the latter lent some much needed realism to a narrative about teenagers dealing with love, loss and identity for the first time without having the tools to do so.

This breakdown of innocence is also mirrored through the series one finale, as the cast sing along to Cat Stevens' "Wild World". Skins often surprised its audience with unexpected cuts like this, and while the fourth-wall breaking musical aspect may have felt erroneous for a programme that mostly loved to show teens snorting mephedrone (RIP) off a toilet seat, it somehow worked. The lyrics speak of "nice things turning bad," how it's "hard to get by on just a smile" and how he'll always remember the girl "like a child". It's a metaphorical transition from childhood to adulthood – a warning that the future will be tough, that the world will change us and that there's nothing we can do about it.

The world that Skins created was short-lived. As the show continued, its demise was inevitable, and it's sonic bedrocks of nu-rave and math rock went down with the ship. But that doesn't mean that the show and it's original soundtrack haven't manifested themselves in the cultural consciousness of today. Skins was crucial in securing a wider, more relevant future for British teen dramas like Misfits and My Mad Fat Diary. It rivalled the soundtracks of its glossy, American counterparts, making One Tree Hill seem like an after-school special (the format was so popular there was also an ill-fated American remake of Skins that launched in 2011, but we don't talk about that). It examined drug use, sex, abortion and self-harm with a magnifying glass of precise realism and in turn, became one of Britain's most successful shows.

Throwing everything from Ladyhawke to Late of The Pier, MGMT to Vampire Weekend and Spiritualized to The Dandy Warhols into one long, drug-fuelled house party, the Skins soundtrack created a musical time capsule of British youth culture that was unapologetically young, frustrated and fundamentally rebellious. Though its song choices reached beyond the first generation's two short years, together they captured a hyper-specific snapshot of a teenage existence that existed only briefly, while also weaving a coming of age narrative that continues to feel timeless.

Skins told us that reality will hit you like a bus (sometimes literally) and in our post-Brexit, cesspit of a world, the soundtrack still seems to ring true for most of us. So, in the spirit of Chris, let's all march down the streets of 2017 with a giant "fuck it".

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