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How TV’s best music supervisors picked their Emmy submissions

Girls (Screenshot: Girls/HBO), Master Of None (Photo: Netflix), This Is Us (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC), and The Handmaid's Tale (Screenshot: Handmaid's Tale/Hulu)
Girls (Screenshot: Girls/HBO), Master Of None (Photo: Netflix), This Is Us (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC), and The Handmaid's Tale (Screenshot: Handmaid's Tale/Hulu)

Thomas Golubić, a music supervisor for series like Better Call Saul and Halt And Catch Fire who describes his job as “byzantine,” might be up for an Emmy this year. When nominations are announced on July 13, they will include the debut of a category dedicated to the people who help put songs in shows.

The new recognition comes just a couple of years after music supervisors were even included in the Television Academy, which Golubić says speaks to a growing understanding of just what exactly music supervisors do:

I’ve heard people talk about how they think that music supervisors just do clearances or think that music supervisors work for labels or publishers, that they’re just placing music for companies they work for, which is not true… Our job is really to be able to essentially identify with the creative leads on a project what the vision of the music will be, what the role of music will be.

Liza Richardson, who works on The Leftovers as well as Narcos, called it a “skill and a craft… It’s a combination of left and right brain.”

It’s no secret that television has provided some fantastic musical moments in recent years, and those are all steered, in one way or another, but music supervisors. “When I say [music supervisor] nowadays, I think there’s a 50 to 60 percent less time of me having to explain to the person what it is. They already know it,” Girls’ Manish Raval explains. But no one knows yet exactly what the Emmys will be looking for. “I think all of us are scrambling to try to figure out how to crack the Emmy code and the Emmy voter code,” says P.J. Bloom, a close collaborator with Ryan Murphy and a music supervisor on The Americans. Raval guesses that the “creative part” of the work will be what gets rewarded.

In advance of this new Emmys category, The A.V. Club talked to some standout music supervisors about the episodes they submitted for consideration and why.

Atlanta

Episode: Value

Music supervisors: Donald Glover and Jen Malone

Key musical moments: “It’s Forever” by The Ebonys and “Hit It And Quit It” by Funkadelic

Why they were chosen: Malone explains it was an atypical episode in multiple ways, focusing on Zazie Beetz’s Van rather than Donald Glover’s Earn, and using a soundtrack largely composed of older soul songs. “It was very, very different music that we used compared to the rest of the season.” Since Atlanta has no composer, Malone and Glover’s work is even more crucial.

The Ebonys’ “It’s Forever” plays in the background as Van and her friend Jayde (Aubin Wise) reunite, until their differences in lifestyle lead to conflict. “It is something that we felt would be playing in an upscale Thai restaurant in Atlanta,” Malone explains. “Of course they could have been playing something more current, but we just decided to kind of go in a different direction.”

The Funkadelic cut—which plays over a montage, a trope Malone notes that Atlanta doesn’t frequently use—was a choice Glover, who wrote and directed the episode, wanted specifically for the sequence of Van trying to fake a drug test. “Donald is also a huge fan of Funkadelic, and I think it was something that was in his head when he was writing it,” Malone says.

The Leftovers

Episode: The Book Of Kevin

Music supervisor: Liza Richardson

Key musical moment: “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” by Good News Circle

Why it was chosen: The premiere of the series’ lauded third season begins with a sequence that charts a group of 19th-century congregants awaiting the rapture, and perpetually finding that it wasn’t happening. “I think the opening of the season was pretty remarkable,” Richardson says. “The song practically narrates what’s happening, yet it wasn’t written for the scene. It’s a song I found.” The lyrics even speak about being “left behind.”

Richardson notes that creator Damon Lindelof had the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in mind when the staff began to search for music to accompany the images in post. “Sort of bluegrass, but maybe a traditional Christian song,” she says. “We were also specifically looking for songs that were call and response and had a repetitive nature.” Richardson was hunting for songs that “you would sing at camp and you would add a verse.” She describes “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” as something she just happened to find in her research. “Sometimes—occasionally—when you’re working with songs against picture, and you know what you’re looking for, but it’s hard to put your finger on it, and you find something that you’re pretty excited about, you literally get chills.” Lindelof and company used the song in full—even including the narration at the beginning.

Girls

Episode: Goodbye Tour

Music supervisors: Manish Raval, Jonathan Leahy, and Tom Wolfe

Key musical moments: “23” by Mike Will Made It, “How Do We Get Back To Love” by Julia Michaels, and “Crowded Places” by Banks

Why they were chosen: The penultimate episode of Girls wrapped up the storylines of most of the major characters. “It was the one I felt I wanted represented to the Emmy pickers,” says Manish Raval, “but also, musically, it kind of encompasses a lot of different aspects of what we’ve done over the many years.” The episode contains original music as well as songs used largely for humor, like when Hannah blasts Mike Will Made It’s “23.” “We like to use music as comedy and really help it be a character-defining moment, which is, “Here we are in this really beautiful, collegiate atmosphere, but who is Hannah really?” Raval explains. “And we snap to her on the bus, grooving to this song.”

The other two songs bleed into one another during the episode’s final moments, taking Hannah from some cathartic dancing at Shoshanna’s engagement party to her new home upstate. Both are co-written by Lena Dunham’s boyfriend, Jack Antonoff, of the bands Fun and Bleachers. “Luckily, sometimes Lena gets a little preview of what Jack’s working on, so I think she was able to snag it before it got too far and claim it for us,” Raval says of the Banks track. “It’s the great benefit of having such easy access to someone as prolific as Jack.” He notes that the Michaels song was composed similarly.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Episode: Late

Music supervisor: Michael Perlmutter

Key musical moments: “Fuck The Pain Away” by Peaches and “Heart Of Glass (Crabtree Remix)” by Blondie and Philip Glass

Why they were chosen: The flashback-heavy episode uses music to highlight the horrifying transition from a recognizable world to the dystopian Gilead. As June (Elisabeth Moss) and her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) jog in the past—and receive a notedly dirty look from a woman—Peaches’ “Fuck The Pain Away” plays, ostensibly in their headphones. Perlmutter says, “Using a Peaches song really expresses that freedom in every sense of every world. Not because there’s swearing. Not because it’s Peaches. But just the inherent quality of that song and that feeling.” The other major selection—a remix of “Heart Of Glass”—was suggested by Moss. “If you dig deep down into it,” says Perlmutter, “we all have hearts of glass being shattered. There’s also a line in the book: Margaret Atwood wrote something about Offred at one point feeling like shattered glass.”

Master Of None

Episode: Amarsi Un Po

Music supervisors: Zach Cowie and Kerri Drootin

Key musical moment: “Amarsi Un Po” by Lucio Battisti

Why it was chosen: This Battisti song scores the end of this double-sized episode about an extended sort-of date between Dev and Francesca, a charming but engaged Italian woman.

Cowie says “Amarsi” had “magical properties around the season… It was one of the first things that I sent Aziz [Ansari] when he told me that they were going to possibly be shooting in Italy.” Not only did Cowie like the song, but it also ended up matching the story. “It turns out the translation was ‘to love a bit,’ which, sort of, unbeknownst to any of us, lined up with the arc of Dev and Francesca,” he says. Cowie and show creators Ansari and Alan Yang have a Dropbox folder where they put music that entices them, even prior to the writing process. Getting the rights for “Amarisi” proved difficult, however, given that it was the first time, per Cowie, that anyone had licensed Battisti’s music outside of Italy. Cowie’s co-supervisor Drootin managed only to clear it three days before it had to be mixed.

Other points in the episode—for example, a scene in which Arnold (Eric Wareheim) DJs—use the “New York sound” that Cowie, Ansari, and Yang have placed throughout the series. “We pulled together our Master Of None New York sound from two DJs from the ’70s and early ’80s,” he explains. “David Mancuso, who DJ’d at a club called The Loft, and Larry Levan who DJ’d at a club called the Paradise Garage. That sound is something we’re really heavily influenced by, and it shows up in both seasons all over the place. But we did a very heavy tip of the hat in that club scene.”

The Americans

Episode: The Midges

Music supervisors: P.J. Bloom and Amanda Krieg Thomas

Key musical moment: “More Than This” by Roxy Music

Why it was chosen: Bloom says simply that he and his team went for an episode that made them all proud. Besides that, it uses a “tool in [their] toolbox,” in which a classic, recognizable song is paired with a disturbing image of spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings doing their dirty work.

“More Than This” appears twice in the episode. “I think what was fun about this is that at the start of the show, you have two families bowling,” Bloom says. “[The song] at the time sort of accentuates that innocent family outing where nothing really happens.” Cut to the end of the episode, when the song scores the Jennings murdering a lab technician in cold blood while investigating a bug that could be killing Russia’s crops. “So you have this crazy antithesis using the same song and it kind of exemplifies what a song can do—or the two different things a song can do under two vastly different pieces of imagery.”

Stranger Things

Episode: Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street

Music supervisor: Nora Felder

Key musical moments: “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by The Clash, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” by Brotherhood Of Man, and “Go Nowhere” by Reagan Youth

Why they were chosen: Felder says the episode is filled with musical moments that define character, like how significant “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” is to the relationship between Will Byers—missing in the Upside Down—and his brother, Jonathan. “I think this is a great episode because it allows the viewer to catch a glimpse of each of our main characters,” she says. “I think it does that effectively with the aid of music.”

“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” “showed the bond between [Jonathan] and his little brother so clearly,” Felder explains. “You have the shot from the back of them just totally bonding, and he’s passing the torch of how you can be yourself through this song.” But what about the track that defines the beloved Barb, while she and her friend Nancy are preparing to go to that fateful party? “There’s some wonderfully nerdy, sweet [version of] Tony Orlando’s ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ by Brotherhood Of Man, just this quirky cover that introduces us to our favorite nerd ever,” Felder says. Or take another outsider, Jonathan, and his preferred car listening of the Reagan Youth track “Go Nowhere.” She says, “He’s a loner. He’s somewhat rebellious. That wasn’t what was playing on the top 40 radio at the time.”

Halt And Catch Fire

Episode: Flipping The Switch

Music supervisors: Thomas Golubić and Yvette Metoyer

Key musical moments: “Absolute Beginners” by David Bowie and “The Boy In The Bubble” by Paul Simon

Why they were chosen: Golubić describes it as a “very exciting, very music-intensive” episode. “We were introducing a new character, [Ryan] Ray [Manish Dayal], into Joe’s life,” Golubić says. “And we’re really meeting Joe [Lee Pace], in a sense, in his San Francisco life differently.”

Golubić sees a comparison to where the artists were in their careers to where Joe is in his. “David Bowie is a chameleon in the same sense that Joe is a chameleon, so he sees a kinship in that, and he also has a song that allows some of the surreality of the sequence to feel full, but it’s also grounded,” he says, also noting that the song would have come out right around the time the party show it’s documenting takes place. “We didn’t want it to be alienating.” Similarly, he adds that Paul Simon was maturing with Graceland—on which “The Boy In The Bubble” appears—in the way that Joe is evolving in the series. “Paul Simon’s experimental African record was also representative of a guy who was pigeonholed in one area but suddenly resenting himself, and we felt that was also very reflective of the character and helping to navigate that story.”

This Is Us

Episode: Memphis

Music supervisor: Jennifer Pyken

Key musical moment: “We Can Always Come Back To This” by Brian Tyree Henry and Hannah Miller

Why it was chosen: This road trip episode of NBC’s hit jerks more tears than even a typical This Is Us episode, as it features a crucial plot element—the death of William, played by Ron Cephas Jones. Music was vital to the episode as flashbacks show the character as a young composer, before his life goes awry. That enough would be reason to submit, but Pyken is ecstatic about one thing in particular: “What was so exciting for me was that we actually had a song written for the episode. And that was the first time this season that we did that. It gives me goosebumps just telling you, because this song tells the story of how William was this rising music star, then everything changes with one moment—he goes to Philadelphia to help his mom, and then his whole music career basically ends.”

Composer Siddhartha Khosla and Chris Pierce wrote the song—that William writes in the show and Brian Tyree Henry performs on screen. Then Pyken found another person to record it for the ending while a montage of William’s life plays. “I didn’t want to go out to a hundred people. I went out to a handful of indie artists who I felt had the emotion and grit and could bring out what we needed in the song.” When she heard Hannah Miller’s version, “it [was] just one of those magical moments. It just worked.”

Legion

Episode: Chapter One

Music supervisor: Maggie Phillips

Key musical moments: “Happy Jack” by The Who and “Up The Beach” by Jane’s Addiction

Why they were chosen: The instantly recognizable Who track is featured in a major opening montage that takes the viewer through the hero’s childhood, the images initially matching the upbeat vibe of the song and then slowly growing darker. “We started off right out of the gate with something huge and recognizable like ‘Happy Jack,’” she says, noting that it established the “British Invasion sound running through the season.” It was also, she notes, an expensive choice, but was ultimately so successful that even Pete Townshend was a fan. His management sent a note about “how excited they were about the use and they thought it was really a unique and special moment for the song.”

The Jane’s Addiction song was a passion project for Phillips, who has had a “soft spot” for the band since high school, accomplishing her longtime goal of getting a Jane’s song into a show. But editor Regis Kimble was the one who actually popped it into that specific scene where David’s interrogation goes awry. “I saw that cue in a rough cut, and I got to have the pleasure of like, ‘Oh, my god! It’s going to work!’ and see it as an audience, which was really huge,” Phillips says. “But that was after two years of putting Jane’s Addiction on different playlists for Noah.”