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How the ‘Stranger Things’ Soundtrack Subverts 80s Sci-Fi Tropes

Like the show itself, the nostalgic synth score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein cleverly upends familiar 80s cliches.

by Sean Egan
10 August 2016, 9:09am

Netflix

Editor's note: This piece contains spoilers for the Netflix show Stranger Things, but you honestly should have watched it by now anyway.

Watching Netflix's new series Stranger Things can feel like deja vu. In a climactic moment in the seventh episode, for example, a gaggle of children on bikes pedal furiously down a suburban road, trying desperately to escape a horde of threatening government agents. Suddenly, they're confronted by an agent's vehicle in their path. Deeply held memories of cinema's most beloved extraterrestrial come flooding back to the surface. 30 years of film history have wired our synapses to anticipate the dramatic swell of famed film composer John Williams' soaring, triumphant orchestra, as the bikes miraculously take flight. But instead, something, well, strange happens: an incessant, choppy sixteenth-note figure played on retro synthesizers by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein grows into feedback. And the kids confront the danger head-on—the misunderstood, telekinetic fugitive in their crew flips a whole goddamn van into the air, leaving massive destruction in their wake. There's nothing triumphant about it—just steely, matter of fact silence.

No, this is definitely not E.T. The Duffer Brothers-created Stranger Things, which debuted in July, is a rollicking, 1983-set sci-fi adventure that riffs liberally on the Stev(ph)ens Spielberg and King. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the show sounds like a recursive nostalgia loop, designed to cash in on our seemingly endless appetite for fetishizing the not-too-distant past. But both the show and its score transcend simple pastiche, subverting 80s film tropes in ways both critical and reflective.

First-time film composers Dixon and Stein (of Austin synthwave group S U R V I V E) wear their influences readily on their sleeves. The shadow of horror master John Carpenter looms large, as the composers use woozy digital strings, warbling lead synths lines, lonely reverberated piano, and ominous droning low tones to evoke an enticingly dark atmosphere throughout the season. It's also clear the two are students of Carpenter's layered, economical minimalism.

The pair have also cited 70/80s acts Tangerine Dream (who handled scores like Thief and Sorcerer) and Goblin (who scored Suspiria), and it's not hard to see where that comes in—the work is at turns prickly, intense, and unnerving, as well as pulsating and propulsive, making frequent use of resolute arpeggiators. The spacey vibes and dated presets may remind you of the Twin Peaks and The X-Files scores, too.

It's easy enough to trace the soundtrack's retro references, but Dixon and Stein's work for Stranger Things reflects the series' wider fixation: actively upending 80s cinematic clichés. Revising the past from its present-day perch, both the music and the show self-consciously acknowledge that what we're seeing and hearing has been done before. The show's creators Matt and Ross Duffer seem aware of this interplay of past and present from the opening credits. Its Steven King-style paperback typeface smacks of a period piece, as does the theme music's deliberate, arpeggiated riffs, legatto "wahhhh" chord voicing, and heartbeat bass drum. The Duffers, however, add in film grain and visual noise, making the title sequence seem conspicuously aged in a way dissimilar to the rest of the show—a winking acknowledgement of its period artificiality. It's basically a few more filters and tracking lines away from the manufactured nostalgia of a vaporwave video.

The opening sequence is a sign that it doesn't worship blindly at the altar of the past—as, say, Netflix's reboot of Fuller House did disastrously, burning up goodwill for the original by parading stock sitcom plots that were already hacky in the 90s. Instead, Stranger Things uses 80s cinema as a launching point, lulling you into a story you think you know, before it slyly sidesteps tired, regressive story beats—particularly in allowing the hysterical mother to grow into a powerful, selfless character, and not treating the female teen lead as a romantic prize to be won.

Throughout, the music serves to underscore these thematic subversions. In episode one, the lead children head into the woods at night to search for their missing friend. While biking there, one sees his sister's secret boyfriend climbing into her window—a hoary "romantic" 80s staple rendered awkward and creepy here. A spindly, trebly synth line lurks ominously in the background, as a stately, matter-of-fact chord rings out every few measures. The implications are clear: 80s childhoods were not nearly as innocent or comforting as they were made out to be on screen. While Stranger Things has moments of sweetness, it doesn't sugarcoat the suburban dread and fantastical danger waiting in the wings—and the score doesn't let you forget that either.

Archetypes are shaded against the grain as well. When a street brawl breaks out between the jock and outcast in episode six, it's scored almost incongruously to a melancholy, wistful lead line in lieu of the expected musical badassery—a melodic reminder, maybe, that this violent display of male aggression can sometimes stem from a lack of healthy emotional expression.

Photo via Netflix.

In this moment, Dixon and Stein explore more emotionally nuanced territory than their 70s and 80s predecessors. In another scene that nods to E.T., the central trio of kids give a makeover to the outsider in their midst, applying makeup and a wig as effectively as pre-teen boys can. The music cue is delicate and sweet, leads lilting gently against warm, fuzzy chords. It's a pure moment that calls to mind the more meditative and beautiful passages of Cliff Martinez's recent scores for Drive and Neon Demon, as well as the sense of yearning that runs through many of the proudly retrofuturist composers popular today like S U R V I V E's fellow Austin synth slinger Xander Harris and Los Angeles' horror aficionado Umberto.

This push and pull between retro-gazing and modernity extends into Dixon and Stein's song selection, too. Episode three's gut-punch ending uses Peter Gabriel's cover of Bowie's "Heroes" devastatingly; the track is a 2010 cover of an 80s act, lent more gravitas in 2016 due to the still-open wound of Bowie's passing. The recontextualization requires you to consider both past and present in a way that makes the viewing experience richer. It's no surprise that listening to Stranger Things blind, one might experience a profound sense of temporal displacement—an irreconcilable tension between all the early 80s artifacts and its summer 2016 release (an official edition of the soundtrack is forthcoming due to popular demand). Heartstrings are pulled backwards and forwards simultaneously, ultimately grounding you in the present with a sense of both knowing weariness and joyful rediscovery.

Somehow though, Stranger Things' acts of filmic and musical subversion never feel tongue-in-cheek, nor like a scathing takedown. The show's creators clearly want you to be drawn in by the comfort and warmth of nostalgia, which the music helps immeasurably in. And they want you to continue to feel that sense of nostalgia as they dismantle the tropes you've internalized from decades of gluing your eyes to schlocky genre flicks on a CRTV, or subvert those iconic moments from your banged-up VHS copy of E.T. Stranger Things is familiar, but not a slavish imitation, able and willing to criticize its 80s filmic predecessors' shortcomings through its own storytelling. Stranger Things and its score are a shining example of how popular entertainment of the present can hold a productive dialogue with that of the past: by using nostalgia to create something more meaningful—and lasting—than a fleeting sense of comfort.