The television series Euphoria reinvents the classic teen soundtrack for the 2020s. By Shaad D’Souza.

The music of Euphoria

Zendaya as Rue Bennett in a scene from Euphoria.
Zendaya as Rue Bennett in a scene from Euphoria.
Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

Few TV shows sound as good as Euphoria. The notorious HBO teen drama is known for its eye-popping and luxurious visual aesthetic, a rapid-fire, almost TikTokian editing cadence and, most notably, its exaggerated portrayal of teen drug abuse and sexual deviance.

But in its sophomore year Euphoria’s soundtrack has become as notable as its 35-millimetre vibrancy or meme-worthy narrative arcs, generating as much critical discourse as the show’s content and sparking chart resurgences for songs released 50 years ago. Almost free-associative in its purview – the show will jump from ’70s singer-songwriter mush to ’90s gangsta rap to a 2020s experimental pop song and everything in between in the course of a single episode or even a single scene – the Euphoria soundtrack manages to stand in a lineage of classic, zeitgeist-defining teen film and television soundtracks even as it reinvents the form.

It’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of the teen soundtrack, from the genre’s heyday in the 1990s through to its resurgence in the form of shows such as The O.C. and Gossip Girl in the mid-aughts. Films such as Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You informed the tastes of their audiences as much as they reflected them: the former mixed subversive gems such as Jill Sobule’s “Supermodel”, Mott The Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” and The Muffs’ “Kids In America” in with tracks such as Coolio’s “Rollin’ with my Homies” and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Where’d You Go?”, while the latter introduced a generation to feminist musical heroes such as Letters to Cleo and Joan Armatrading. Anecdotally I know that the Juno soundtrack, which went gold in Australia, was a formative musical document for many people my age, introducing a swath of twee teenagers and preteens to Cat Power, The Velvet Underground and The Kinks.

This is to say nothing of the way television shows have shaped the teen music zeitgeist. The cultural legacy of a song such as Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” was cemented the moment it was used to soundtrack Serena van der Woodsen’s return to New York City in the opening scene of Gossip Girl; Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” is inextricable from the scene in The O.C. where Marissa Cooper shoots Trey Atwood. The best teen films and television shows are elaborate fantasies, and so the best-soundtracked teen shows have historically used the kinds of artists that would have been otherwise inaccessible to teenage audiences. The band Crystal Castles, for example, experienced a surge in popularity after they performed on the British show Skins, elevating them from fringe to festival act practically overnight.

These shows all use their soundtracks to evoke some kind of truth about the settings and subcultures they represent: Clueless and The O.C., a decade apart, each try to present a wash of southern California chill; 10 Things I Hate About You attempts to act as a survey of “angry girl music of the indie-rock persuasion”; Skins’ underground electronic soundtrack aligned with the drain raves and MDMA-fuelled parties its characters were attending. Although there were occasional anachronisms and some ridiculous song syncs, these soundtracks always felt like rough reflections of their characters’ personalities.

Euphoria does something different. Where Gossip Girl may attempt to evoke some kind of truth of teen life in New York City through its soundtrack, each episode of Euphoria presents a feral wash of styles and subgenres seemingly designed to mimic the wild emotional peaks and valleys of adolescence. At its best, the soundtrack signals the themes of the show while maintaining a compelling, fantastical vibe. Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 song “Right Down the Line”, for example, is used twice this season – first to soundtrack a violent encounter between main character Rue (Zendaya) and a drug dealer and then, an episode later, as Rue goes on a bender with a new friend. Rue’s relapse becomes synonymous with Rafferty’s romantic ode – “When I wanted you to share my life / I had no doubt in my mind / It’s been you, woman / Right down the line” – as well as the erratic, unpredictable impulses of her dealer. Like the scene itself, it’s kind of gonzo and heavy-handed, but in a way that exalts the fantasy elements of the show rather than its physical setting.

In its best moments, Euphoria has used its often quite expensive syncs to give emotional arcs more heft. In a flashback to the high-school years of Cal – the predatory father of one of the characters, played by Eric Dane – we see him and his best friend driving around listening to INXS’s 1987 record Kick; later, they wind up at a gay bar, where they put “Never Tear Us Apart” on the jukebox and start dancing, at first miming the guitar solos in an act of youthful machismo and, later, kissing for the first time as the song crests.

When I first saw this scene, I was dumbstruck: how totally genius to use such an iconic song in such a way, teasing out the latent queer desire in the song as well as the implicit tragedy of the loss of Michael Hutchence as a performer and icon. As with many of the syncs in Euphoria, this song choice works on multiple levels. The scene reinvents the song for those who already know it, and for everyone else it’s simply an introduction to one of the most epochal bangers to date.

An episode later Cal drunkenly returns to the same gay bar, decades after he first went. This time, he flicks through the jukebox and, where Kick once was, he instead finds Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint – a hilarious, ridiculous kind of in-joke.

Since he can’t play “Never Tear Us Apart”, he puts on Sinéad O’Connor’s “Drink Before the War”, and begins dancing and singing along, the song’s lyrics seemingly speaking to his own predicament: “You live in a shell / You create your own hell / You live in the past and talk about war / And you dig your own grave.”

At the same time, the show cuts to a teenage girl’s birthday party across town where one of the attendees, played by The White Lotus’s Sydney Sweeney, is standing in a bikini drunkenly slurring along to the same song, chaotically drinking alone to escape the stress of having betrayed her best friend. The scene is playing on so many different things at once: O’Connor’s status as a gay icon and an avatar of self-destruction, the song’s gender-flipped lyrics, the ludicrous spectacle of watching a teenager scream along to a song released years before she was born. It’s a glamorous, messy fantasy. But as with all things Euphoria, the emotion hits hard. 

Euphoria’s second season is streaming on Binge and concludes on Monday night.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Teen spirit".

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