The song behind the scene: How teen TV's most iconic music moments are made
When the ethereal harmonies from the bridge of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" exploded during the final moments of The O.C.'s season 2 finale, pop culture was forever changed. The season-ending moment when Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) shot Ryan Atwood's (Ben McKenzie) brother Trey (Logan Marshall-Green) was legendary enough on its own. But pairing that specific part of that song with the jaw-dropping cliffhanger made "Hide and Seek" forever synonymous with Marissa shooting Trey, and vice versa... and one of TV's most iconic music moments was born. It even got its own SNL parody a full two years later. That's how much power teen TV music moments hold.
Think of the most pivotal moments on teen shows like The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, or Euphoria — when a fan-favorite couple shares their first kiss, or breaks up, or a character dies, or relapses — and you instantly recall which song was playing behind the scene. But finding the right song out of millions of options for a "synch" (a.k.a. synchronize) to make teen TV's most iconic music moments is a harder job than you may think.
The architect of the memorable Imogen Heap moment mentioned above is Alexandra Patsavas, the music supervisor on not only The O.C. but also other teen TV series like Riverdale, Gossip Girl, Nancy Drew, Runaways, Looking for Alaska, Dash and Lily, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (not to mention other major TV series like Grey's Anatomy, Supernatural, Scandal, Mad Men, etc.) She's currently behind the genre-busting classical covers of pop songs you hear on Bridgerton. And while she's humble about her impressive, sprawling resume — "I've just been at it a while and had some amazing opportunities," she tells EW — she's also the music supervisor other music supervisors name drop when talking about scoring teen TV, so it's clear she has this down to a science. But she's also the first to admit there actually isn't a science to it at all; the process is much more nebulous.
"I start with the sound," Patsavas says. "The first step is a creative conversation with the showrunner about how does music fit in to the story. Then a lot of music would go back and forth — it's one thing to talk about music, it's another thing to listen to really understand. Sometimes songs were scripted from the beginning but if not, I would spend a lot of time with footage of the scene and just keep trying things. For me, the instrumentation and the feel of the song has to work first, and then I move into how the lyrics support the storytelling."
Music supervisor Christopher Mollere — who worked on The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars (at the same time!) as well as Greek and other teen shows — follows that same ideology. "You have to go outside of your own taste and be like, what would the fans want to hear? What would the story need? What's the necessity of the emotion?" he tells EW. "You have to be open to all music, from classical to death metal." But the most important thing he looks for in songs is "authenticity. Being able to relate to the emotion — do I believe the artists and what they're trying to convey in their song? If you can feel the music, then it's a song that should be considered." Though he's quick to point out that some artists are now writing songs specifically to be used on TV, but Mollere says that process actually loses a lot of what makes a good synch. Ironic!
And there's a big part of music supervision that goes unnoticed by fans but is responsible for all the incredible music moments you see on TV: the legal paperwork. "The unsexy part of music supervision is clearance, making sure you get all of the rights to use the song, because you can have the most perfect song in the world for the perfect moment but if you can't clear it, you can't use it," Euphoria music supervisor Jen Malone tells EW. "There are some artists that don't want their songs played over violence or anything with sex or drugs, so navigating that can be difficult. When you have a show like Euphoria where one episode can have 27-30 songs, that's a lot of paperwork."
Mollere's favorite needle drop from The Vampire Diaries is Sigur Ros' "Dauðalogn" in the season 3 finale, when Elena (Nina Dobrev) drowns. But it almost didn't happen because of clearance issues. "One of our amazing editors Tyler Cook [suggested] Sigur Ros, and they had a new record coming out," he says. "We found the song we loved from their new record that wasn't out yet, we put in the request, and we had issues clearing the song. I wrote like three letters to try and get it approved and it took the fourth try, my final letter. Because [by that point the band] knew it all came from a place of love and respect for their art. And that actually changed the way they looked at [allowing their music to be used on TV]."
That experience taught Mollere to never give up on the song he believes is perfect for a scene. "I will go to the ends of the earth to try and make it happen," he says. It's happened more than once for him, like getting Birdie's cover of "Skinny Love" for Jenna's (Sara Canning) funeral at the end of season 2. "I had to appeal to [Bon Iver's] Justin Vernon multiple times through him and his management to sign off on that because they weren't looking to license Bon Iver's version or the cover. And that's a placement that I don't think that sequence would have been the same without it."
But sometimes a song just doesn't clear no matter how hard a music supervisor tries — although that can actually lead to an even happier, unexpected outcome. "When Scott [Tyler Posey] and Allison [Crystal Reed] are at the vet clinic and it's really the first time they almost kiss, we had a song we loved but the artist didn't clear it," Teen Wolf music supervisor Laura Webb tells EW. "We tried a lot of songs. A lot. What ended up being there is a really beautiful James Vincent McMorrow song. Since that's the song that started their romance, we used another James Vincent McMorrow song when Allison — spoiler! — dies, so it bookended their relationship and became part of the characters' history."
That's why Mollere loves working with unknown artists to ease the clearing process, which in turn can propel those unknown artists into mainstream pop culture with a single iconic synch. "On Kyle XY, we had limited budget so we had to find great unknown artists, and we carried that over to Vampire Diaries," he says. "There's these amazing songs by these artists that nobody knows about that can help us tell our story and just take it to another level. I always want to find stuff that's special, and you've got to dig for it."
Most music supervisors end up making playlists — some organized by the emotion of the song, others just long collections of "good" songs to be used for future synchs — that they can pull from because doing this job means listening to music in a different way, even when they're off the clock. "I mean, I can now go through a song in seven seconds and tell you whether or not it's good and could fit in a TV show or not," Mollere says with a laugh. Webb explains, "Whenever I get goosebumps, that's a good indicator. When it makes you literally stop what you're doing, that's a sign of a good song. I rely on that."
But Patsavas says that finding a good song is only half the battle. "The real magic happens with the pairing," she adds. "An ironic lyric or a comment on the scene you can't anticipate in advance." So it ends up being a lot of trial and error, trying a lot of songs with scenes until the perfect one emerges.
And sometimes the perfect pairing comes from a really personal place. When Lindsay Wolfington, music supervisor on One Tree Hill, felt the pressure to deliver on one of the show's biggest romantic moments — Peyton (Hilarie Burton) and Lucas' (Chad Michael Murray) wedding — she actually mined from her own life to find the right song. "I came across that Ingrid Michaelson cover of 'Can't Help Falling In Love' — which was my own wedding song, but the Elvis version," she tells EW. "It was such a perfect blend of classic and new, and it ended up being chill-inducing."
The process of making a music moment can sometimes even happens backwards, i.e. when a song is chosen first and the scene is then created around that needle drop. That was the case with "Hide and Seek" on The O.C. "I remember Imogen sent us that album in advance of its release, and I remember how much [showrunners] Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage] loved the album," Patsavas says. "We didn't know where it was eventually going to be used in the show, but we were quite certain it was going to be used." And then Patsavas went on to use a different version of that same song in one of Gossip Girl's best music moments, when Jason DeRulo's "Whatcha Say" plays during the infamous Thanksgiving dinner scene. "That was terrific fun. It seemed like such a really fun way to acknowledge The O.C. and also highlight how different Gossip Girl's music was."
One of Teen Wolf's most jaw-dropping music moments was also built from the song up. In the season 3 finale, "Void Stiles" (Dylan O'Brien) walked through a hospital hallway leaving horrifying violence in his wake, set to a haunting cover of "Bad Moon Rising." Webb reveals she almost used Creedence Clearwater Revival's original version of that song in an earlier episode but it didn't quite work for that moment. "A year or two later I happened to be listening to a pile of music and I heard this version by Mourning Ritual and I was went to one of our editors, Gabriel Fleming, and I was like, we have to use this," she says. "We have to make a moment of it. We were scrubbing through a couple episodes and were like, we can build a moment and make it for Stiles walking down the hallway as the Nogitsune and make it this creepy moment."
Webb credits Fleming with elevating that moment even further with the way he built out the sequence in slow motion. "The way it was shot was actually quite shorter, but he really made it this core homage moment," she says. "They definitely shot it very cool, but Gabe really prolonged even longer to make it this creepy build."
One Tree Hill had its own haunting music moment, but for a much different reason. The infamous school shooting episode in season 3 required care and sensitivity in all aspects, and Wolfington knew immediately that she shouldn't use music to heighten the already-intense emotion of the moment when Keith (Craig Sheffer) talks Jimmy (Colin Fickes) out of shooting his peers, only for Jimmy to turn the gun on himself. "Before One Republic partnered with Timbaland to write, they had put out 'Apologize' without the Timbaland beats and I adored it and wanted to try it in that scene," she says. "But it was too big for the moment."
Back then, independent songwriter Michelle Featherstone often walked her own CDs into the production offices of One Tree Hill, so Wolfington decided to check those out. "I came across 'God Bless the Child' and there was so much power in a song that was stripped back," she says. "In this case it was kind of a combination of relief meets a prayer with that song. And it fit perfectly."
Malone likes doing the opposite on Euphoria: Instead of finding the perfect fit, she'll find "wildcard" songs to subvert expectations of a scene. "We were so excited to use music in new and interesting ways like playing counterpoint to a scene, like how we did with Air Supply in the second episode," she says. "After that crazy violent beatdown, we use a yacht rock song. We could have gone for something dark and ominous but we decided to play with that moment and use something completely unexpected."
Malone's desire to push boundaries continues to evolve the art form of using music on teen TV — and people are noticing. Euphoria won the Emmy for best original song in 2020 for "All For Us" from the season 1 finale, and Malone describes the process of creating that scene as "a huge undertaking."
"[Creator] Sam [Levinson] wanted a musical number in the show, he wanted a 300-piece marching band and 200-person choir and we ended up scaling that down only a little bit," she says with a laugh. "It was scripted as a different song, but with Labrinth doing the score, using 'All For Us' just made sense. Once we had Labrinth's fleshed-out version, Zendaya came into the studio and laid down her vocals, and she just killed it. Then we had the choreography."
The whole thing took "about six weeks to put together" — for just one music moment. "There was so many moving parts. It was intense," she says. "It was the last day of shooting for season 1, and it was very special. And, voila, we won the Emmy for best original song!"
Now teen TV music moments aren't just iconic — they're award-winning.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.