The original CW’s Gossip Girl featured plenty of notable musical guest stars, from Lady Gaga performing “Bad Romance” in season three to Florence + The Machine’s cover of “Cosmic Love” in season four. The new HBO Max extension continues the tradition in episode four, “Fire Walks With Z.” In it, Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak) hesitantly celebrates her 15th birthday while she and half-sister Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) mourn their mother on the anniversary of her death. It’s an intense episode and the drama culminates where it usually does in teen shows: a lavish party. The biggest draw of the celebration is a live performance by Destiny Nicole Frasqueri, better known by her stage name of Princess Nokia. The rapper and singer performs the song “It’s Not My Fault,” which released earlier this year.
Gossip Girl’s music supervisor Robert Lowry tells The A.V. Club that her appearance was planned quite in advance, and that he and series creator Joshua Safran began putting together a potential list of artists for the episode. “We kept coming back to Nokia because she is so New York herself, she is on the cusp of blowing up, she has great energy, and she was going to be releasing a new single,” Lowry says. “She’s a good representation of the new Gossip Girl.” Her performance comes after a harsh public confrontation between Julien and Zoya about bullying and their dead mother. Nokia’s attitude post-performance and her music lighten the mood. “She was super easy to work with in real life, too. Everyone loved her on the set, and she’s a fan of the GG universe, which made it fun and exciting. She killed the performance,” Lowry adds.
“Fire Walks With Z” features popular tracks like “Levitating” by Dua Lipa, “Body” by Megan Thee Stallion, and “Best Friend” by Saweetie ft. Doja Cat, but the episode also highlights up-and-coming artists like Majid Jordan, Emotional Oranges, and Jaja Bu. Lowry says it’s an opportunity to add ridiculously big songs to the show and complement them with lesser known musicians. “There is something cool about using Ariana Grande or Billie Eilish. It adds production value, it looks expensive. In episode four, during the party scenes, it helps to have recognizability with Megan Thee Stallion or Dua Lipa,” Lowry explains. For him, it’s fun to introduce new artists during subtle and understated character moments instead: “They ground emotional scenes versus hearing some familiar songs that might overtake and be more powerful.”
Lowry has worked as the music supervisor for TV shows such as The Bold Type, Love Life, Ramy, and Miracle Workers, as well as movies like Freaky, The Map Of Tiny Perfect Things, and Serenity. But for the HBO Max series, he says his biggest inspiration was Alexandra Patsavas, the music supervisor for the original Gossip Girl, who has also contributed to the legendary soundtracks of teen dramas ranging from The O.C. to Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. “Alex was always a huge hero of mine,” he says. “Her work, and Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s work in the original did play a big part in me getting into this industry. In their shows, music plays its own role and is its own character.”
To prep for creating each episode’s soundtrack, Lowry says he formed playlists for each of the main characters. “Those songs might not get used in any episode, but it’s for me to frame the narrative and see what that person—whether it’s Julien, Zoya, Obi, Monet whoever—is listening to and what’s their identity. I spoke to Josh [Safran] about the larger scope of the show, and his direction helped fill out the tone.” Their conversations were useful because Lowry wanted to get the tune right for the new GG. “It needs to fit the vibe, not be better or worse than the original,” he says, citing the opening song choices in both shows as an example.
The 2008 series pilot begins with Serena Van Der Woodsen (Blake Lively) gloomily staring outside the window of the train that’s bringing her back to New York City as the folksy whistling of “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John plays in the background. In the first episode of 2021's Gossip Girl, Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson), looks beyond her MTA train window as “All My Girls Like To Fight” by Hope Tala plays. “It’s the perfect choice. It’s not indie pop or anything but it’s darker and more seductive, so very much in tune with the show.”
Like Princess Nokia, Tala is also a rising star in the music world whose work gets an additional platform, thanks to Gossip Girl. TV and film have long been avenues to discover artists and their songs; Lowry compares it to listening to the radio to find music to love. “I think it’s why music supervisors are so dialed in with the show creators now, we get to help tell the stories through music, and it adds value and depth to the stories and characters.” Teen TV has always taken it a step further, whether it’s The O.C., One Tree Hill, or Gossip Girl, all of which are known for their memorable soundtracks. “It’s because teenage fandoms are the best, especially with stan culture now. These people love their artists from music, film, TV. It’s cool to see them respond, and with the new GG, the stories are intergenerational so our music aims to appeal to a wider demographic.”