How the playlists for your favorite TV shows finally won Emmy recognition

'Big Little Lies,' 'Insecure,' and the rise of the TV soundtrack.

CREDITS: HBO, Hulu, Netflix, FX

As Elisabeth Moss, dressed not in Offred-red but in millennial pink, climbed the steps to the stage at the Emmys on Sunday night to accept her trophy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, the music that swelled all around her was an orchestral cover of the defiant Lesley Gore number “You Don’t Own Me.”

The song wasn’t just a tongue-in-cheek choice by the Emmys in-house band but, as is standard, a number plucked from the series’ soundtrack. The Handmaid’s Tale deployed plenty of modern and just-so retro songs to score its vision of the dystopian near-future. Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” made famous by its fist-pumping moment in The Breakfast Club, played as the second episode came to its conclusion and Offred experienced what director Reed Morano called “a little moment of triumph“; the Crabtree remix of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” which adds fevered strings to Debbie Harry’s aching vocals, played over a flashback scene in which June and Moira attend a protest for women’s rights that spirals into violence. As Oflgen’s eyes go Bambi-wide with horror at the result of a violent operation she was forced to undergo, Jay Reatard’s “Waiting for Something” thrums with the rage she is forbidden from expressing aloud.

As the caliber and range of offerings on television has grown so much that even movie stars want in on that small screen storytelling, TV show playlists have risen to the occasion — so much so that, for the first time ever, the Emmys honored music supervision on television with an award all its own. The winner: Susan Jacobs, music supervisor of Big Little Lies. (The other nominees were supervisors for Master of NoneBetter Call SaulStranger Things, and Girls.)


Aside from Stranger Things, which doesn’t rely on poignant pop choices — wisely avoiding going overboard with what is already a nostalgia-laden show — all the contenders in this new category boast the kind of playlists one used to associate with movies: Carefully-selected songlists that both pull you into the world of the show and stand on their own as something you’d fire up on Spotify.

For the first time ever, the Emmys honored music supervision on television with an award all its own.

The music supervision category honors “exceptional creative contributions to a program through the use of music, including the narrative impact of lyric-based songs, both original and pre-existing, the use of instrumental source music, and on-camera musical performances.” As Variety reported, music supervisors “have been lobbying for this honor for more than five years” and were only allowed to join the TV Academy in 2015. “The job of music supervision has evolved, from what was once primarily an administrative task to becoming a creative and artistic one,” Michael A. Levine, one of two music governors of the Academy, told Variety. In the category’s inaugural year, 75 shows were submitted for consideration.

Jacobs’ trophy is well-deserved: Music curation was so integral to setting the mood and world of Big Little Lies that a character within the show was essentially assigned the task of in-house playlist creator. (That would be Chloe, a first grader with such suspiciously excellent taste in music even Pitchfork didn’t know what to do with her.) The result was a wide-ranging, eminently listenable tracklist — one that, as fit the story, really felt like the product of a young person who didn’t care about genres, eras, or albums — with room for everyone from Frank Ocean to Otis Redding, PJ Harvey to Fleetwood Mac, The B-52s to Alabama Shakes.

Chloe on "Big Little Lies." CREDIT: HBO
Chloe on "Big Little Lies." CREDIT: HBO

Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale are in good company. HBO’s Insecure enlisted Solange as a consultant for its first season; by season two, the show was premiering new music from, among others, Miguel, Jazmine Sullivan, and Bryson Tiller. Each 30-minute episode is totally stuffed with sound: Music supervisor Kier Lehman told Complex that Insecure averages ten songs an episode, and “there are episodes with as many 15 or 20 songs.” The playlist on FX’s Atlanta is fantastic, unsurprisingly, considering the show lives in Atlanta’s rap scene and its creator-showrunner-star, Donald Glover, makes music as Childish Gambino on the side. The world of Netflix’s Master of None, which bopped between Italy and New York City this season, had a delightful, culture-spanning soundtrack to go with it, from Ennio Morricone to Thelonious Monk. A playlist for Netflix’s Luke Cage — the rare superhero to not find his exploits coupled with the gloomy Hans Zimmer sound made de rigueur by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies — is filled with songs from A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and Nina Simone. Music is so integral to the show that, as Lifehacker reported, every episode title is a reference to a song by East Coast hip hop duo Gang Starr.


How did TV music get so good? Some of the shift can be chalked up to a kind of quality-increase-by-proxy: The shows got better, so the soundtracks did, too. And as the shows became more individualized — as with auteur-driven series like GirlsMaster of None, and Insecure, which are so thoroughly a reflection of the sensibilities of their respective creators — the music that accompanied those shows could, too, be driven by someone’s personal taste.

As Stephen T. Erlewine, the senior pop editor for TiVo, put it in an interview with ThinkProgress, “These soundtracks we’re seeing with TV, it’s akin to the [Spotify] Discover Weekly playlist, a little bit.” Whereas movies — and, by extension, their soundtracks — are often aiming to reach the masses, television shows are more niche than ever, which means the music, too, can be “targeted towards the specific demographics of the show.”

Regardless of the age of the music supervisors themselves, this style of music curation is “a very millennial thing, where discovery is context-free, in a good way,” Erlewine said. “There’s this kind of boundless discovery that you can have through streaming services and how we listen to music digitally now. You can stumble upon something and really like it.”

Think of the new television playlist as a kind of sonic Pinterest board: It doesn’t matter whether or not the songs are by similar artists, from the same genre, or were recorded in the same decade or even generation. In fact, it’s better if that’s not the case — if the coherence comes from something more ephemeral: the vibe, the tone, the feel of the show. “You’re picking the things that you like, and maybe it could signify a certain kind of lifestyle, too.”

Earn in "Atlanta." CREDIT: FX
Earn in "Atlanta." CREDIT: FX

If you take the new Emmy as a sign of music supervision arrival, this moment has been over a decade in the making. Around the mid-2000s, a few television series started taking their soundtracks as seriously as other elements of the show. Grey’s Anatomy, which premiered in 2005, “is a really groundbreaking show” in this department, Erlewine said. “There’s a certain kind of music that you can still identify as Grey’s Anatomy music, and that sort of opens the door for the kind of music you’re talking about now, where it’s very tailored for a specific audience and sound, and it all matches.” The O.C., which premiered in 2003, gave audiences a prototype of Big Little Lies‘ Chloe in music-obsessive Seth Cohen, and the music from The O.C. was almost as talked about as the show itself.


But the transformation didn’t hit in full until the soundtrack became the playlist. Streaming services changed the way TV fans could listen to — and, more importantly, collect and share — the songs they heard on the shows they loved. Fan-made playlists are as popular, if not more popular, than the official soundtracks, in part because official soundtracks are still held back by the space constraints of the CD.

Take Big Little Lies: An unofficial playlist, “Big Little Lies Soundtrack,” made by user Ignatious Pop, has 293,075 followers. More importantly, it’s 45 songs long. The official album clocks in with a far stingier 14 songs. Maybe it would have made an impressive CD, but no one cares about CDs anymore. (Not to mention the fact that, within the world of the show, Chloe is streaming all the songs from her phone. It’s an act of translation to move the songs onto a CD; it’s actually truer to the show — more authentic, really — to listen to the music of Big Little Lies on your phone.)

This shift is all the more noticeable when you think about the fact that movie soundtracks, with a few notable exceptions (think: Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the 50 Shades movies), aren’t doing this kind of cool-collection-of-popular-songs thing anymore. Even Guardians‘ music is all hits from the 1970s, a winking commentary on the source material; there’s none of the surprising juxtapositions that make the soundtracks of these TV shows so fun to listen to. This is partly because comic book adaptations just don’t lend themselves to this kind of musical accompaniment, especially in a post-Nolan world, and most big blockbusters are comic book adaptations.

“There’s not a lot of movies made about contemporary life, [done] at a big budget, that would have a place to debut music,” said Erlewine. To introduce a song — or even an artist — TV is a savvier play.

One more reason to be excited about the rise of excellent music supervision on TV? It’s a category where, at least for now, women are seeing decent representation. Three of the five Emmy nominees, including the winner, are female.