How Stranger Things’ Most Important Licensed Songs Compliment Its Story
In June 2022, Stranger Things and Kate Bush broke the music charts. After Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” was featured in the Stranger Things episode “Dear Billy,” the song commenced a meteoric rise on a variety of music charts and streaming services. The song became the number one song on the Billboard Global 200, a chart that ranks songs based on “streaming and sales activity culled from more than 200 territories around the world” (Trust). This dramatic music milestone illustrates the global audience that Stranger Things has accumulated since its initial release in July 2016. In addition to illustrating the popularity of the show, the meteoric rise of “Running Up That Hill” also highlights the vital role that music plays in the show.
Few shows have relied on music to supplement its story as much as Stranger Things. In addition to the incredible original score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, Stranger Things has utilized the needle drop (a moment when a film or television show uses licensed music) in a variety of key moments within the show. Throughout its four seasons, music supervisor Nora Felder and the rest of the Stranger Things team have used licensed music to punctuated critical story moments. The thoughtful implementation of licensed music has helped build emotional connections between the show and its audience, connections that resonate long after the credits roll.
“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” – The Clash
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” is one of the key songs used in the first season of Stranger Things. The Clash’s 1982 song is crucial in developing the relationships within the Byers family, especially between brothers Jonathan and Will. Jonathan introduces the song to Will in the second episode of the show titled “The Weirdo on Maple Street.” During the sequence, Jonathan uses the song to bond with his younger brother, as well as to drown out the noise of his parents fighting. The scene helps develop Jonathan’s role as a caring older brother, and to illustrate some of the struggles that Will is going through.
The song is also used again when Will is in the Upside Down, and he is desperately trying to communicate with his mother Joyce. Joyce hears “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” playing on the stereo in Will’s room. This emotionally charged scene is only made more intense when the Demogorgon starts to emerge from the wall. Fleeing the house, Joyce rushes to the car outside, and she hears the same song when she turns the car on. In an interview with IndieWire, Stranger Things music supervisor Nora Felder explains that the song is “a way of calming Will when he sings it in the Upside Down, and a way of reminding Joyce and Jonathan that he’s still alive, lifting their spirits as well.” The song serves as a lifeline between Will and his caring brother and mother, who are desperately searching for him.
The song reappears in Season 2 when Joyce and Jonathan are trying to reach Will after he has been possessed by The Mind Flayer. As in Season One, the song serves as an anchor or connection between Will and his caring family members.
“Heroes” – Peter Gabriel
While “Heroes” was released by David Bowie in 1977 (subsequently becoming one of the rock star’s most iconic songs), Stranger Things uses a 2017 version of the song recorded by Peter Gabriel. The use of “Heroes” marks one of the rare times that the Stranger Things team breaks its music timeline by choosing a piece of music recorded well after the show’s 1980s setting. Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” is a stripped down and strings-laden piece that is quite different from Bowie’s soaring rock song. Writing for Salon, Ashlie D. Stevens discusses the differences between the two versions of the song, asserting that while “Bowie’s version is anthemic, Gabriel’s is devastating.” Gabriel’s powerful voice takes center stages in the song, giving added weight to the song’s iconic lyrics. The song is also one of the few licensed songs to be used repeatedly across different seasons of Stranger Things, appearing in Season One and Season Three.
“Heroes” appears in the Season One episode “Holly Jolly.” The song plays over a devastating set of scenes including the moment where Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven witness state troopers/police pulling Will’s (presumed) body from the water. The song crescendos with shots of a devastated Mike returning home and being comforted by his mother, along with Jonathan and Joyce Byers embracing as the police approach in the background. “Heroes” reappears at the conclusion of Season Three, where the song plays over the conclusion of Hopper’s letter to El and the Byers family’s departure from Hawkins.
In both cases, the song is used to explore the challenges of confronting difficult circumstances and terrible pain. The scenes in Season One and Three both center around the presumed lost of a loved one, and the challenges of facing a crossroad in one’s life. Discussing the emotional resonance of the song in Stranger Things, Ashlie D. Stevens believes that the use of “Heroes” is meant to impart the idea that “circumstances are really, really hard, but the only option is to keep moving forward… it’s a nod to the beloved characters of Stranger Things, and all they hope to overcome.” By using “Heroes,” the show is reflecting on the trials that a person might face in life, and the courage they have to face to overcome them.
One intriguing side effect of the two uses of “Heroes” in Stranger Things is that the song has become the show’s “fake death” song. Both Will and Hopper are presumed to be dead when the song plays, but it is later revealed that both characters are still alive. Even before the revelation that Hopper was still alive, the use of “Heroes” was one clue that fans pointed to that Hopper might have survived the explosion at the end of Season Three.
“Elegia” – New Order
Elegia, featured in the fifth episode of Stranger Things (“The Flea and The Acrobat”), explores the pain of loss and the experience of grieving a loved one. This New Order song plays over an extended sequence of characters preparing for Will’s funeral (this episode occurs directly after the fake body is found in the quarry). This sequence focuses on Joyce, Jonathan, Nancy, and Mike, who are all preparing for the sad event. One clever detail in the sequence is shot of a distraught Jonathan struggling to put on his tie, and if the audience pays attention they can see that he is missing a tie during the funeral. Another key scene during this sequence is the Byer’s dog visiting an empty Castle Byers (Will’s hideaway in the woods), which further emphasizes Will’s absence.
Elegia is a haunting and effective choice for this scene because the song is deeply connected to death and grief. The song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the late 1970s band Joy Division. Curtis committed suicide in 1979, which devastated his bandmates. The remaining members of Joy Division eventually reformed as the rock band New Order. The name “Elegia” is Greek for elegy, which is a poem or song that reflects on death or another serious subject. In an article for Far Out Magazine, Joe Taysom discusses the way in which “Elegia” conveys the “shared emotions they [the band members] felt from losing Curtis, which sounds like the crashing down of an empire that seemed to have only just got started.” Similarly, the characters of Stranger Things are mourning the loss of a young boy who is gone too early, a beloved child who leaves behind an assortment of heartbroken friends and family.
“Every Breath You Take” – The Police
Skipping ahead to Season Two, Stranger Things continued its effective use of needle drops with “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. The second season concludes with the Snowball Dance, a school dance that serves as a celebration of the group’s perceived victory over The Mind Flayer. After a series of harrowing trials, the dance is a rare moment of joy and reflection for the young characters. The event features a scene of the several characters slow dancing to “Every Breath You Take”. At first, this moment is perceived to be unabashedly romantic and joyful, until the camera pans down to reveal The Mind Flayer lurking in The Upside Down. The nightmarish creature is hovering over its version of the Hawkins Gym as if it is watching our heroes.
The use of “Every Breath You Take” during a romantic moment turned sinister is an interesting fit for the song. While many perceive the song to be a romantic one, the lyrics of the song hint at themes like obsession and jealousy. As part of a profile of the song for the BBC 2, Sting reflects on the song’s misplaced legacy as a love song asserting that “the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.” The song hints that the victory that the gang believe they have won is not final, and that more danger is waiting out there for them. This moment is a great conclusion for Season Two, and a great tease for things to come in Season Three.
“Satyagraha, Act II – Rabindranath Tagore, Scene 1: Confrontation and Rescue” – Philip Glass
Stranger Things‘ third season is filled with interesting uses of popular music from the 1980s, but one of its most powerful moments utilizes music from a opera. At the conclusion of Episode 6 (“E Pluribus Unum”), The Mind Flayer (speaking through Billy) confronts Eleven in her mind. As this scene is playing out, the camera cuts to an army of the mind-controlled citizen of Hawkins returning to the steel mill to become part of The Mind Flayer’s monstrous physical form. This sequence, which features disgusting scenes of human beings dissolving into piles of mush, has some of the most grotesque imagery in the show. During this sequence the song “Satyagraha, Act II – Rabindranath Tagore, Scene 1: Confrontation and Rescue” by Philip Glass plays over the nightmarish sequence.
Created by Philip Glass for the 1979 opera Satyagraha, which is loosely based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, the piece adds an immense sense of gravitas and tension to the sequence. The ending of “E Pluribus Unum,” which is the start of the season’s final act, highlights the power of The Mind Flayer and the dangers waiting for Eleven and the rest of her friends. By using an opera song during this sequence, the team behind Stranger Things differentiates the moment from others important scenes that feature pop music, rock music, or Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon’s electronic score. The dramatic choruses and lush orchestra are extremely effective at building tension that sends the audience hurtling towards Season Three’s endgame.
“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” – Kate Bush
At this point, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” has firmly re-entered the pop culture zeitgeist, and this event has given the under-appreciate Kate Bush more attention. In the show, “Running Up That Hill” is deeply connected to Max; it is her favorite song during Season Four. The song becomes an essential part of the story when the monstrous villain Vecna invades Max’s mind and prepares to kill her. When Nancy and Robin learn that music can be a tool against Vecna, Lucas and the other frantically search Max’s cassettes for her favorite song. As “Running Up That Hill” plays (which is bolstered by orchestral stems by the London Contemporary Orchestra), a type of portal opens, with Lucas, Dustin, and Steve visible on the other side. Max breaks free from Vecna and runs towards the image of her friends, tumbling through the portal back to safety.
Like many of the other needle drops in Stranger Things is it remarkable how some of the themes and interpretations of “Running Up That Hill” sync up with Max’s experiences in the show. The song is used to explore Max’s experiences dealing with grief, trauma, and her own inability to communicate her own feelings and experiences to the people around her. At the start of Season 4, Max has isolated herself from the rest of the group after the death of her brother Billy. She struggles to share her grief and pain with her ex-boyfriend Lucas, her friends, and the school guidance counselor. In an interview with Variety, Stranger Things music supervisor Nora Felder discussed her interpretation of how “Running Up That Hill” connects to Max: “In Max’s situation, the need for a ‘deal with god’ can perhaps be metaphorically understood as a desperate cry for love — to manifest the extraordinary understanding and support Max needed while feeling so painfully alone.” (Tangcay). At times, it can feel like it is impossible to truly understand another person’s experiences or pain without switching places with them.
Max’s encounter with Venca in “Dear Billy” is one of the most powerful scenes in the entire show, and “Running Up That Hill” becomes a symbol for Max’s personal trials and her struggle to overcome them. In the same interview for Variety, Felder explains that the sequence of Max running from Vecna is also about Max running toward “connection and the spiritual outpouring of love powerfully manifested by her dear friends who have heroically fought to understand what she needs and rescue her from a solitarily hell of utter separation and eternal isolation” (Tangcay). The teen’s escape from Venca is intercut with clips of some of her most positive and meaningful memories like her sleepover with Eleven, time spent with her friends at the movies, and her dance with Lucas.
The episode ends with Max’s friends huddled around her, and the gentle piano chords of “Running Up That Hill” lingering in the background. In the aftermath of her terrible ordeal, Max’s simple but moving statement of “I’m still here” serves as a touching capstone for one of Stranger Things‘ most intimate and powerful episodes.
“Pruit Igoe and Prophecies” – Philip Glass
In its most recent seasons, Stranger Things has made composer Philip Glass the voice of its villains. Season Three utilized “Satyagraha, Act II” to dramatic effect, and Season Four uses the Philip Glass song “Pruit Igoe and Prophecies” in an extended sequence that reveals the origins of One/Henry Creel/Vecna. This extended sequence, which incorporates flashbacks to Creel’s murderous childhood, serves as the villain’s terrifying manifesto. In a long discussion with Eleven, the villain lays out his dark ideas about human beings, and his desire to create a world free from their weakness.
The use of “Pruit Igoe and Prophecies” to depict Vecna’s origins is fascinating because it is not the first time the song has been used in a science fiction film. In Zach Synder’s 2009 adaptation of the seminal comic Watchmen, “Pruit Igoe and Prophecies” plays over flashbacks of Jon Osterman’s life and the terrifying accident that transforms the scientist into the godlike Doctor Manhattan. By using this song, Stranger Things builds a clear tie between Vecna and Dr. Manhattan. Both characters can be considered beings that are separate from the rest of humanity. In Watchmen, when Osterman dies and returns as Doctor Manhattan, the character loses the ability to understand and connect with other human beings. In Stranger Things, Vecna views himself as an evolved being, vowing to reshape the world without the weakness or failings that he believes are inherent in other human beings. While Osterman’s transformation in Watchmen is a tragic accident, Vecna’s final transformation is the result of his confrontation with Eleven in the Hawkins Lab.
“When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” – Moby
Though Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” is used in Season One of Stranger Things, it is an apt choice to end this article because the song creates a “heartbreaking parallel between the first and most recent [fourth] seasons” (Dailey). Moby’s beautiful song is another rare occasion where Stranger Things breaks its own timeline rules. Released in 1995 for the album Everything Is Wrong, the song plays over two of Stranger Things‘ most harrowing and emotional sequences.
In Season One, “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” kicks in just after Hopper and Joyce resuscitate Will in The Upside Down. The shots of Joyce and Hopper giving Will CPR are intercut with flashbacks of Hopper’s daughter Sarah dying in the hospital. In an article for Billboard.com, Hannah Dailey asserted that the song’s “underwater orchestra and far-off vocals serve as a stunning sonic layer to the scene.” The moment carries a sense of joy that Will and his mother are finally reunited, but there is also a deep sadness when thinking about the nightmares he has endured. The sequence also serves as a key moment in Hopper’s journey as character. Hopper’s quest to save Will is partially motivated by his inability to save Sarah, as well as his desire to prevent Joyce from having to experience the same pain he felt.
“When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” plays over the deaths of Eddie and Max in the Season Four finale. Both Eddie and Max are determined to help their friends defeat Vecna, and both characters pay a terrible price for their bravery. After being brutally attacked by a horde of Demobats, a tragically injured Eddie is comforted by a tearful Dustin. Eddie, who like Steve serves as a type of father/brother figure for Dustin, passes away after a heartbreaking exchange with his younger friend. After this sequence, the scene shifts to Lucas who is holding a critically injured Max in the Creel House’s attic. After being attack by Vecna, Max is is left crippled and she cannot feel or see anything. As Lucas tries to comfort Max, the sequence is capped off with Sadie Sink’s devasting delivering of the line: “I don’t want die, I’m not ready.” Max’s death is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the series, especially given that it comes only a few episodes after she seems resolved to reach out to her friends and reaffirmed her desire to live at the end of “Dear Billy”.
One of the most powerful responses to the use of “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” came from Moby himself. After watching the Season Four finale, the musician released a tweet thanking the Duffer Brothers and the rest of Stranger Things team, saying that “the way you used my music was really beautiful and I have to say I got really choked up.” This glowing compliment is one of the highest pieces of praise that the show could have ever received.
Despite the layers of science fiction and fantasy present in the show, Stranger Things has always been a show about the trials and tribulations of growing up, a theme that transcends settings or subgenres. The show has always thoughtfully compared the horrors of the real world with the horrors of a fantastical one. While the audience may not be able to connect to the experience of running from the Demogorgon or coming face to face with Venca, the audience can connect with the joys of being part of a family, the pain of losing a loved one, or the feeling of being alone with your grief.
The best uses of licensed music in Stranger Things has been about building emotional connections between the characters and the audience. In an interview about the use of music in the show, music supervisor Nora Felder explains that one of the things that makes the show special that it has “a way of connecting each of the songs to its multigenerational audience around the world in very unique ways” (Lipshutz). As Stranger Things embarks on its fifth and final season, it will be exciting to see if any licensed songs are reused. Will audiences hear “Heroes” and “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” again? Will there be a new set of licensed songs for fans to marvel at? It will be exciting to see how the Stranger Things team approaches the end of a show that so many people have formed a deep emotional connection with.
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