27.06.2019

Vintage synth and ’80s pop anthems: exploring the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack

Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix
Words by Kate Streader

The undulating arpeggio of the Stranger Things theme sweeps the viewer into the series’ multi-dimensional realms before the neon glow of the title card has faded from view. Such is the force of the Stranger Things soundscape.

Set in the Indianan town of Hawkins in the ‘80s, Stranger Things is rife with the high-waisted jeans and hairspray-laden ‘dos significant to the period, though it’s the soundtrack which truly evokes the spirit of the bygone era.  As well as a synth-heavy score that jolts between spine-tingling suspense and pulsing nostalgia, the sonic landscape is painted with a smattering of tracks from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Dolly Parton and Ted Nugent.

The booming, ominous analogue bass synthesiser which opens each episode is a visceral composition by S U R V I V E members and Stranger Things music masterminds Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Wielding little but a Prophet-5, Roland SH-2 and ARP 2600, the pair create a number of rich, original tracks for the series’ score. Whether it’s the warm, wistful licks heard in ‘Kids’, the floating minimalism of ‘Friendship’ or the unsettling electronic twinge of ‘Bad Men’, Dixon and Stein masterfully manipulate the mood of each scene with their arsenal of vintage synthesisers.

Season one makes a point of incorporating music into the plot when Will (Noah Schnapp) uses The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ to communicate with his mum, Joyce (Winona Ryder), from the Upside Down. The track’s upbeat jaunt isn’t a typical choice for a scene drenched in such suspense, though it contrasts with the twangs of synth to mirror the simultaneous clash of hope and fear felt by both Joyce and the audience.

‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ appears numerous times across the first season, each time attached to a different emotional setting and arousing a different response. Manipulating a single song to suit a number of situations and moods across a series is no simple feat, yet Dixon and Stein make it appear effortless.

This isn’t the only time a track is played in unusual circumstances. When Nancy (Natalia Dyer) drags her friend Barb (Shannon Purser) along to a party at Steve’s (Joe Keery) house, Barb meets her brutal end at the hands of a stray Demogorgon while Nancy and Steve are upstairs making out, none the wiser to the horror taking place. As the camera flits between the scenes, Foreigner’s ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ plays softly, creating a prickling sense of discomfort.

Following the success of the first season, Stranger Things 2 fuelled fans’ anticipation, heightening the excitement of new characters and plot twists with the grandeur of Scorpions’ ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’, Queen’s ‘Hammer to Fall’ and even the Ghostbusters theme. The second season also saw Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) undergo a punk transformation after teaming up with a troupe of rebels. Hawkins newcomer Billy (Dacre Montgomery) serves as the town’s certified bad boy, bringing with him an injection of punk to the soundtrack. Enter Metallica, Runaways and Ratt.

While the soundtrack is darker, in part, there’s still a healthy sprinkling of pop. After an emotionally gruelling series of events, it appears all is well in Hawkins come the Snowflake Dance where the only concerns are about hairstyles, dance partners and first kisses. The lightened mood is met with a myriad of ’80s pop anthems. Pat Benatar’s ‘Love Is A Battlefield’, Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ all make an appearance – the latter being turned on its head to take on a foreboding vibe once it’s revealed that things aren’t as rosy as they seem.

It’s on this cliffhanger that we’re left and, as season three beckons, the possibilities of the soundtrack moving forward bear as much weight as the future of Hawkins and its kin. Stein and Dixon have given some clues as to what we can expect to hear on Stranger Things 3, revealing that the soundtrack will consist of 15 classic tracks, an original cast recording and an additional collection of scores. Although, if the past two seasons of Stranger Things have taught us anything, it’s best not to make assumptions.

Stranger Things 3 hits Netflix on July 4.

Check out our deep dive into The Handmaid’s Tale’s soundtrack.