The Soundtrack of “Euphoria”: Building a World Through Music
The buzz about HBO’s wild new show “Euphoria” is not unwarranted. While there are many reasons for its praise, the project takes complete advantage of music as a tool to enhance the storytelling of teenage life in the modern age.
Written by Laiken Neumann
Photos courtesy of HBO
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
HBO’s “Euphoria,” a teenage fever dream of a television show produced by both A24 and Drake, has mesmerized its young adult audience for a multitude of reasons. There’s the show’s cinematic style and unique writing, a product of its writer, director, and creator, Sam Levinson. There’s the costume design by Heidi Bivens, which is albeit unrealistic in consideration of most high school’s dress codes, yet encompasses a form of youthful expression and serves to define its characters almost as much as their words do. There’s even the show’s editorial makeup artistry, headed by Doniella Davy, in all its glittery, colorful, gem-clad glory. Despite the show’s exaggerations of teenage life, it has certainly made its mark upon its audience.
One of the key reasons to rave about “Euphoria,” however, is the music, in terms of both the soundtrack curated by music supervisor Jen Malone and the score produced by Labrinth, which hold a great deal of influence on the show’s intensity. In the opening scene of the show’s first episode, Rue, played by Zendaya, spouts a mesmerizing monologue about her life’s regrets. As she finishes, the title screen appears, and the backing audio flawlessly transitions from Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” to Beyonce’s “Hold Up,” which samples Williams’ song. Williams croons “since you’re gone, it happens everyday,” as Rue experiences the “two minutes of nothingness” that she craves, fueling her addiction to cope with the pain in her life and the loss of her father. The shift to Beyonce’s “Hold Up” reflects a return to reality, with the heavy bass weighing in the consequences of Rue’s addiction: a summer spent in rehab. From this initial moment, you can tell there is something special about the soundscape of “Euphoria.”
Malone, who also works on Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” didn’t confine the show’s soundtrack to one genre, featuring alternative tracks and old classics among the heavy input of R&B and hip-hop that reflect teenage life.
The use of Kelsey Lu’s cover of 10cc’s ‘70s hit, “I’m Not In Love,” at the end of Episode Seven, titled “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed,” is a perfect example of a song that has an aged aura, but utilizes Lu’s breathy tone against an alternative-R&B update to fit the “Euphoria”-verse. The song plays on as Jules, played by Hunter Schafer, roams around high at a club in the city, hallucinating her mystery lover-gone-wrong, Nate, played by Jacob Elordi. In reality, she begins having sex with a girl she just met, Anna, played by Quintessa Swindell. The beats of the song mimic a heartbeat as the setting continuously switches from the club to a bed, with Jules’ partner varying between Rue and Anna. The sequence ends with Rue telling Jules, “You know this isn’t gonna end well.” The scene’s chaotic yet captivating energy is solidified by the song’s shimmering instrumentals and Lu’s steady vocals.
While “Euphoria” can be dramatic and unrealistic at times, it doesn’t give off the impression that many projects centering on the lives of teens do: adults attempting to write what they think is cool among the youth. Like the show’s writing, the music doesn’t patronize to teenagers and young adults. Whether it’s Megan Thee Stallion’s “Cocky AF” playing in the car on the way to a party or Air Supply’s yacht-rock hit “Even the Nights Are Better” to lighten the mood as Nate has his “American Psycho” moment and attacks Tyler, the songs that are scattered throughout each episode create a soundscape that perfectly compliments Levinson’s storytelling.
The structural aspects of the show support Malone’s music curation as well. At the beginning of every episode is a prologue revealing a specific character’s history to the audience, giving each character their own episode. The soundtrack is built to reflect each character and changes its tone depending on whose story is being told.
Episode Five, “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde,” centers on Maddy, played by Alexa Demie, and opens with her younger self dancing on a beauty pageant stage to Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” Rue’s narration reveals Maddy’s understanding of the power of confidence. Maddy’s exploitation of her confidence to get what she wants in life, as well as her complex relationship with Nate, is reflected in the songs spread throughout the episode. Both ROSALÍA’s “MALAMENTE” and Asian Doll’s “So Icy Princess Intro” exude a self-assured energy that fuels the audience’s perception of Maddy’s character, especially after disclosing her backstory at the beginning of the episode.
Another example of the show’s musical accommodation to reflect a character’s identity is Kat’s scenes, where, as her confidence in her body and sexuality grows, we hear music like Lizzo’s “TEMPO,” a body confidence anthem featuring Missy Elliot, and Maliibu Miitch’s “Give Her Some Money.”
Hand in hand with Malone’s soundtrack curation is Labrinth’s score, which ties the show together with consistent themes. Each episode is beautifully trickled with Labrinth’s vocals and instrumentation. Sometimes, it’s simply “oohs and ahhs and uhhs” that are pitched in just the right way and paired with a complementary backing track of distorted piano. Other times, his tracks are fleshed-out songs with coherent lyrics and heavy electronic beats that could be chart-topping songs in the “Euphoria”-verse. Occasionally, they are airy beats built with synthesizers that you hardly notice if you aren’t paying attention. Labrinth’s widely-praised score has yet to be released on any streaming platforms, so each of the tracks lack titles. However, the anticipation for its release only adds to the buzz about it.
The show’s first season ends with a musical number set to Labrinth’s “All For Us,” which culminates the emotional and musical tension that has been building up all season. It features Zendaya’s vocals, which had been unknowingly sprinkled throughout previous episodes. In the final scene, Rue stumbles through her house in a frenzy, mouthing along the lyrics and eventually finding herself lifted up by a crowd while wearing her signature hoodie. In the finale, it is revealed that the purple clothing item was previously owned by her late father.
The song’s addition of a gospel choir and live marching band that trail Labrinth’s warped vocals build the track up into an emotionally bitter end that is as beautiful to watch as it is disorienting. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Levinson himself describes the song as a “thematic thread of temptation and also the guilt and the shame of addiction and the emotional turmoil that exists within the character of Rue.” This scene encompasses a moment that’s been building up all season — the music itself becomes a character in the story, and Labrinth’s score takes full throttle of it.
The audiovisual aspects of the show, partnered with the exquisite writing, fill the world of “Euphoria” with intricacies that distinguish it from other shows. The perfect pairing of Labrinth’s production and Malone’s musical curation colors in Zendaya’s omniscient narration, giving an increased depth to the world of the show and the feelings of the characters.
“Euphoria” has been renewed for a second season. While it is not yet confirmed whether Malone and Labrinth will sign on to continue expanding the show’s soundscape, the show is more than likely to continue relying on its heavy musical backing within its next iteration, elevating the new stories of the characters we’ve all become attached to.