2016 TV series “Stranger Things” by the streaming service Netflix proved to be a smash hit with audiences. Capitalizing on 80’s nostalgia, references, and homages to classic films of that era without sacrificing its own characters and plot, the show captured audiences immediately, so a second season was a given.
The story revolves around a small gang of kids (a mixture of “IT”’s Loser’s Club and the Goonies from, well, “The Goonies”) in the equally small town called Hawkins. A boy from the group goes missing, trapped in a horrifying alternate dimension called “Upside Down” by the kids. They save their friend and even find a new one, a mysterious girl named “Eleven” who has telekinetic abilities that would make E.T. and Yoda proud.
In the second season, Will Byers, the boy who went missing in season one, suffers from visions and severe PTSD, while a new threat from the Upside Down arises, forcing the kids to take action again.
The original score for both current seasons was penned by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein from the electronic band S U R V I V E, which already took huge inspirations from the synthetic horror-scores of yesteryear by the likes of John Carpenter and Goblin, so the decision by the creators of the series, the Duffer Brothers, to hire the duo is entirely logical.
Unfortunately, writing an album inspired by 80’s soundtracks is a completely different thing than actually writing an 80’s soundtrack. And somewhere in that process, something went wrong. In both seasons.
Nailing the nostalgic sound
To get the positives out of the way, Stein and Dixon absolutely nailed the sound of the series. There have been complaints by a few soundtrack fans, that this show should have gotten a more orchestral, symphonic, adventurous score, similar to John Williams’ “E.T.”, but this would have been the wrong approach.
Yes, “Stranger Things” takes heavy inspiration from the Spielberg classic, but viewed as a whole, the show is more Stephen King/John Carpenter than Steven Spielberg. It’s a thriller with some lighthearted elements. The whole show feels basically like a long-lost Carpenter adaptation of an unpublished King-novel. And a Carpenter/King project screams for creepy, rather minimalistic electronic music, to make it feel truly authentic.
And this part, the two composers get right.
Funnily, many people think that this is enough to shower them with praises like it’s nobody’s business, forgetting that a score should bring more to the table than just finding the right tone and faithfully re-creating the sound it strives for. To be honest, these are really the two most basic things a score should achieve. As I have written many times before, we don’t praise cinematographers like Roger Deakins for simply finding the ON-button on their camera and managing to point the lens at the actors’ faces. No, we expect that from them. We praise them for crafting images, that help tell the story in significant ways.
No improvement on Season 1
Steiner and Dixon did not do this in the first season and they didn’t start in the second either. Obviously, there are some nice and pretty effective cues, like “Levitation”, playing at a pretty significant, emotional moment in the last episode of season 2. Of course, the scene wouldn’t work as well without the music and it is a nice track. But it’s nothing more than some “epic emotional cue”, because there is no connection to the rest of the music, apart from the 80’s synth.
The truly classic 80’s soundtracks, be it orchestral or synthetic, are still in our minds because of one little thing: Themes. Even a minimalistic score like Carpenter’s very own “Halloween” (okay, that was the 70’s but the point stands) had that world-famous main piano theme, which reappeared during crucial moments. Granted, Carpenter didn’t give a damn about melodic variation, but at least there was some sense of narrative.
“Stranger Things” doesn’t have a musical narrative and Season 2 is even worse than 1. In the first one, we at least have that theme from “Kids”, which did actually have one or two cameos in other tracks, but in Season 2 there is almost nothing.
There is no need in this show to give every single character his/her own elaborate theme, far from it, especially since it’s a TV show and one can’t demand, that the two composers write to picture with a “Lord Of The Rings”-like melodic fabric of a thousand themes with countless counter points and stuff, as neat as that would be.
It’s totally understandable, and common, that TV features a lot more of needle-dropping regarding the score, as a feature film. TV-composers will write a bunch of tracks, covering all kinds of emotions, that the editors can place into the show when needed and will save the actual screen-composing for the really important sequences.
However, the whole show feels like needle-dropped snippets, with no dramatic storyline going on.
How to fix Stranger Things
A set of four themes would have worked wonders already:
One for the kids, one for Eleven, one for the Upside Down and then a general main theme for moments that feature neither or just for variety’s sake. Et voilà, a perfect groundwork to form a great TV-score with.
Example: The whole “Levitation”-sequence, mentioned earlier, would have been even more effective, if Season 1 had presented us with a theme, specifically linked to Eleven’s character, which would have evolved over the first season (ingraining itself in the audiences’ minds) which would have then gotten its huge moment in that cue. Thus, it would have evolved from an effective piece to a great one (a connection to “The Return” would also have been made), but alas, that couldn’t be. And just imagine, what the two could have done with the theme in the divisive seventh episode, which focuses solely on Eleven’s journey and her growth as a character.
Not even the main theme, if one can call it that, connects to the rest of the score. It’s simply an arpeggio, eight notes going up and down the scale over and over again, though it admittedly does set the stage pretty well in each opening and works wonderfully with the title graphics. And, to be honest, its simplicity could have opened a lot of possibilities, since such a simple motif could have been inserted into various tracks easily, similar to how Ramin Djawadi interpolates his main ostinato from “Game of Thrones” into various tracks, but this almost never happens (“Looking for A Way Out” is a rare example). This makes one question the Emmy win “Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music”.
One can’t help but feel as if the spotting sessions between the composers and the Duffer Brothers went the way of that scene from Spongebob Squarepants, where Mister Krabs tries to find out the name of a song on the radio and calls the host of the show, which leads to a conversation where both of them just go “Beep bop boop” for countless minutes. Ironically, the official subtitles of the show itself on Netflix say it best, as there are various scenes, where the text “[rhythmic beeping]” or “[beeping continues]” will appear on your screen.
And to be frank rarely is the music more than that.
At Least Some Enjoyment can be had
Of course, there is enjoyment to be found. If you have a soft spot for 80’s synthesizer (which I actually do have), you will embrace tracks like “Walkin’ in Hawkins”, “The Return” or the industrial, aggressive “Soldiers”, but one has to take off the rose-tinted glasses and admit, that, as enjoyable as “Stranger Things” is, it’s not a good score. It’s hard to say, whether that’s because the composers have no idea how to craft a dramatic arc or because the Duffers don’t know their soundtracks and actually demanded this collection of unrelated snippets. The latter doesn’t seem so far off, considering, that, in its thematic structure, “Stranger Things 2” shares many traits with the anonymous, mass-produced, non-thematic thriller-soundtracks that get churned out by the hundreds each year of today. If you would re-orchestrate this album with modern soundscapes, it would lose almost all of its appeal and blend into the stew of nothingness so many modern scores fall into.
Stranger Things gets betrayed by its soundtrack
“Stranger Things” really does its wonderful story and engaging, lovable characters a cruel and inexcusable disservice. Even something like “The Terminator” had at least a tiny thematic structure in its metallic rhythm and lyrical synth-melody. “Stranger Things” doesn’t even have a main theme. It has a wildly recognized intro piece, but it never gets reprised in the rest of the show, so the term “main theme” is not appropriate. A great series like this deserved to have its plot represented by a narrative arc in the music as well. I don’t care how nice the sampled choir in “The Hub” sounds on the album or how “We Go Out Tonight” turns up the 80s-ness to Eleven (haha) when there is no thematic set-up and pay-off.
“Stranger Things 2”, just like its predecessor, maybe another nice throwback album for S U R V I V E fans, but ultimately is a terrible score that fails on multiple levels.
Listen to Matthew Margeson’s “Eddie The Eagle” or, even better, the score to the video game “Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon” by Australian synth-band Power Glove, if you want an actually GOOD throwback score, since both combine authentic technology and soundscape with a thematic groundwork and thus telling you a story with their music.
“Stranger Things” sounds nice, but doesn’t tell you anything which is an unforgivable pity, considering the show it underscores tells one of the best stories on the small screen today.