From Insecure to Atlanta, there are shows that stand out for their soundtrack. This is a look behind the music supervision process, which can be a long, arduous process.
In the season two premiere of Atlanta, Earn visits his Uncle Willie to pacify a domestic dispute between him and his girlfriend, so his uncle can avoid trouble with the law. Earn (Donald Glover) and the cops question if Uncle Willie (Katt Williams) has an alligator, which Willie warns is in his house. By the end of the episode, appropriately titled “Alligator Man,” the police are standing outside his home, demanding he comes out. That’s the moment The Delfonics’ 1972 track “Hey! Love” drops. The alligator slowly emerges from the front door to the pace of the beat. Everyone stares in awe. The scene cuts to Uncle Willie sprinting down a backstreet to escape the police.
The music timed perfectly with the alligator’s entrance. The Delfonics sing “hey love,” implying as if the alligator or Uncle Willie is in charge of this dance with the cops. The episode garnered multiple nominations, including an Emmy for Outstanding Music Supervision. Kat Williams also won an Emmy for his role, which he prepared by interning at an alligator farm for three weeks.
There are certain movies and television that stand out for their soundtrack or original score. It’s obvious that it’s more than the music supervisor selecting songs they like. One must consider the director and writer’s vision, its relationship to the story, and legal rights. The success in this process shows in the results — the audience is moved.
The music of Insecure
HBO’s Insecure, which returns to HBO for its fifth and final season Sunday (October 24th), is full of noteworthy music moments. According to the show’s music supervisor Kier Lehman, creator and star Issa Rae intended music to be an essential element of the series. The beginning of the creative process was, “talking with Issa about what was her vision for the show. She had already kind of a musical style in mind and a concept of how we would use music, how it would be really important and play a big role. It would be an important character in the show,” Lehman said over a video call.
Lehman reads each episode script and comes up with music to send to the editing team. Each detail is carefully considered, such as where the characters are while the music plays, or if the lyrics are going to really play a part of the storyline.
Insecure often cleverly matches lyrics and tone to a scene. In the best moments, it’s the music with a humorous undertone or the music that speaks to love that really stand out. When it’s comedy or a party setting, you often hear catchy, under-the-radar commercial tracks playing. In Season 1, episode 5, Issa’s best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) waits on the guy that she’s interested in to answer her text about coming to her coworker’s engagement party. As she gets ready and watches the text bubbles, “D2B (Dick 2 Bomb)” by Problem, Bad Lucc, and The Homegirl plays. It’s funny. The lyrics say “my man ain’t shit” but she won’t leave him because of the sex. That’s basically how it was for Molly in that moment — up until of course, he truly shows her he isn’t interested in a relationship. It turns out maybe he wasn’t as good as she thought.
“We look at all of the scenes, watch each one, and stop and talk about it. We might decide a piece of music is working really well, and we want to keep it and clear it and get a quote for a price of it,” Lehman said. Other times, however, they decide to scrap a song if its airtime is too short, and it’s pricey. Raphael Saadiq, the show’s composer, will replace it with something else. The collaborative effort between him, Saadiq, Rae, and the rest of the producers and editors speak to the show’s dedication to make thoughtful music selections.
“You’re not going to get a show that uses music as integrally and as well as this without the creator of the show being heavily involved in that process and having the vision.” Lehman said.
The show’s major dramatic moments highlight Insecure’s ability to move into drama and romance. In last season’s Emmy-nominated episode “Lowkey Happy,” “Risk” by FKJ and Bas, plays while they walk through an art fair, which speaks to the rekindling love building up between Issa and Lawrence (Jay Ellis). That returning flame is like a risk because they don’t want to make the same mistakes they made in the past. Although the characters discuss the lessons learned in the episode, there’s a feeling something can go wrong because Lawrence is still texting his ex-girlfriend and Issa’s former event planning partner Condola (Christina Elmore). In these contrasting moments, the audience can laugh and have a good time, or they can feel heavier emotions just like Issa and Lawrence as they navigate uncertainty and anticipation.
Music and the brain
With the immersion of visual storytelling and music, the psychological functions of music meet the technical functions. In The Psychological Functions Of Music Listening, the authors cite that music takes us out of ourselves, and we can experience a flow state, peaks, and chills that are often evoked by music listening. This could similarly be interpreted as forms of transcendence or escapism.
Like movies and TV, music offers an escape into another world. The psychology article notes four different functions of why people listen to music: social functions, emotional functions, cognitive or self-related functions, and arousal-related functions. In film, music is included to arouse viewers and set a mood, while also telling relatable stories that can be emotional. In a way, the function of music could be combining social relatedness with emotional and arousal functions.
The viewer can feel a deeper connection to a scene accompanied by its music. This is especially the case when it’s an emotional scene, highlighting loss, love, anger, or joy depending on how the viewer may be feeling.
Dr. Indre Viskontas, who is a stage director and scientist focused on music and neuroscience, believes that listeners’ response to music in their brain signature will show whether or not the intention of the music selection was actually a success. At the same time, music is subjective, so it can still vary person by person. When considering the jazz piece “In A Sentimental Mood” from Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, which is both played in romantic moments in Love Jones and Malcolm & Marie, one may wonder how this shows up in a listener’s brain.
“We can listen to it in a way that frames our attention to the emotions that the character must be feeling and take us on this emotional journey as the character experiences it. We would see the same thing in our brain,” Dr. Viskontas said. “We would see essentially the parts in our brain that are involved in identifying meaning and we would see the fluctuations and tempo and emotional intensity of the piece reflected in the fluctuations of how our brain responds to it.”
In the case of Love Jones, “In A Sentimental Mood” is played during a montage where Nina (Nia Long) and Darius (Larenz Tate) are seen spending time together and falling in love. In Malcolm & Marie, the title characters, played by Zendaya and John David Washington, are kissing and talking against the backdrop of the music. The quality of this jazz piece to move in unexpected directions and produce both feelings of melancholy and romance perfectly aligns with what the films suggest. Nina and Darius — like Malcolm and Marie — love each other, but they are bound to run into problems due to lack of trust and resentment.
Julio Perez IV. video editor of Malcolm & Marie, said that Coltrane covering Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” was appropriate for the scene because he creates “an atmosphere of romance, but you can hear all of these notes that would sort of be the ‘wrong’ notes in a very traditional context…There would be a lot of places where they don’t fly.” Perez said he’s attracted to interweaving discordant moments or the wrong notes into a “beautiful, reflective, and deeply felt tapestry.”
He also shared his thoughts on another important scene of the film that shows the complexity behind love — as well as the characters communicating through the direct use of music. After a mean exchange between the couple, Marie hops out of the bath and sits next to Malcolm outside their home. Then she plays “Get Rid Of Him” by Dionne Warwick.
According to Perez, the song was actually written into the script by the director-screenwriter Sam Levinson. That moment says a lot about Marie’s feelings towards Malcolm. “I think she chose to play that song with an element of seeking some sort of conciliation but acknowledging that all right-minded people that were friends with her would be saying, ‘this guy is a hot head. He says horrible things to you,’ and she might say, ‘yeah but he also can be very loving,’” Perez said. “It’s about relationships that aren’t healthy. It’s about relationships that are very complicated.”
Behind music supervision and editing, there’s a legal process for securing the selects. Madeline Nelson, CEO of independent label Heads Music, is on the other side — at times, her team pitches for artists to be featured. When supervisors want their music, it’s a breath of fresh air to reach her company.
“We own the masters, and we are a publishing company [so] we own the pub. We’re the last stop when somebody has to come in and clear something from one of our artists,” Nelson said. “That’s a great feeling from both sides. It’s a great feeling for the person who has to clear the music that they don’t have to go all over the place.”
Clearing music is often the most challenging part of the job, as Lehman also shared was his biggest obstacle. Especially when the music is new — which is often the case for Insecure — so work on the backend hasn’t been completed yet. Going through songwriters and more, his team may push to speed up the process so they can have clearance to use the music.
“Every one of the major labels is also partnered with a film company, so [indie artists] don’t have that in that their music could get selected because of those natural partnerships,” Nelson said. “For these indie artists, it could be a make or break getting their music onto TV or on film. That could be the thing that actually takes their song over the top [and] gets them promotion money for their music.”
For Lehman, this is one of his favorite parts of being a music supervisor — he gets to help emerging artists by putting them on a large platform (like an HBO series) and exposing them to a new, large audience. Additionally, artists also reach out to send music that they specifically made with the show in mind. Sometimes they make the cut.
“People need that [exposure] because there’s just so much music… Where are you going to find things that you like or that speak to you as a person in your experience?” Lehman said. “So you having a TV show playlist or a film playlist for a show that you really connect with already gives you a better connection with the show.”
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Sri Rain Stewart is a native New Yorker living in New York City. She writes mostly about fashion, but also has a love for music, culture, TV, and film. In her free time, she writes poetry.