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How 'I Saw the TV Glow' made a 'teen angst classic' soundtrack for the ages

'I Saw the TV Glow' dives deep into the pop cultural obsession of two outcast suburban teenagers, with a curated soundtrack that matches their malaise.
Photo by A24/Illustration by Jackie Lay/NPR
'I Saw the TV Glow' dives deep into the pop cultural obsession of two outcast suburban teenagers, with a curated soundtrack that matches their malaise.

What would you do if you found out that your past hadn't actually played out the way you remembered it? If everything that you thought you knew about your childhood — your emotions, your memories — was a lie? What would that shift, that realization, sound like?

The A24-released psychological horror movie I Saw the TV Glow, and its star-studded respective soundtrack, try to answer that question. Widely released May 17, the film is being praised for its imaginative visual language as well as compelling performances from its lead actors. But it also possesses a rare trait for a movie of its size: a purely original, carefully curated soundtrack that stands to enhance the film's thematic messaging. A long list of artists including acts like Caroline Polachek, Sloppy Jane (featuring Phoebe Bridgers) and Bartees Strange contribute alongside artists like Maria BC and The Weather Station to create a rich, '90s-rock and early 2000s-influenced musical world indebted equally to youthful optimism and nihilism.

The sophomore feature from acclaimed indie director Jane Schoenbrun follows Owen (Justice Smith), a teenager who is forever changed when he meets Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) a fellow outcast who introduces him to the television program The Pink Opaque, a conduit for monster-of-the-week shows of the '90s. The show becomes a guilty obsession for Owen; Maddy records him episodes, and the two teenagers become tethered over their shared connection, much like the program's lead heroines who communicate telepathically.

But when The Pink Opaque gets canceled, it forces an adult Owen to reflect on the ways in which he hasn't lived life to its fullest potential. By its end, I Saw the TV Glow is more than a film about shared pop cultural nostalgia, but a complex horror film about being transgender. In the closeted characters' intense relationship to The Pink Opaque, Schoenbrun forces viewers to confront the versions of themselves they may bury deep, and all of the terrifying revelations and relief that come with that discovery.

It's that juxtaposition — of discord and catharsis, of memory and reckoning — that became the foundation for a 15-song soundtrack curated by Schoenbrun, filled with indie music's brightest stars as well as up-and-comers.

Making a 'teen angst classic'

Schoenbrun, alongside music supervisors Chris Swanson and Jessica Berndt — founder and music supervisor at the independent music company Secretly Group, respectively — and the music team at A24, worked diligently to create a soundtrack that accomplished two goals: to mirror the film's themes and also stand on its own merit.

"When I first approached A24 about the movie, I think during our first call, I said to them: I want to make the best soundtrack ever," Schoenbrun says. "I wanted to make a teen angst classic and all of my favorite teen angst movies have, if not a great soundtrack, lots of amazing music in it."

"We've certainly had films where a director of the film team has wanted to create an original song, but usually it's maybe one or two max," Berndt says. "And even that is always kind of like a big goal. Going in knowing that we're shooting to make 12 to 15 original songs ... it was just a totally different way of approaching this one than we've ever done in the past."

The name-filled, original movie soundtrack has become a key feature of some of the biggest blockbusters over the last few years. The Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum; producer Metro Boomin was enlisted for the soundtrack to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse featuring artists like Lil Wayne and A$AP Rocky; and Mark Ronson's executive production on the Barbie soundtrack launched several of its songs to the top ranks of the Billboard charts, as well as earning an Academy Award for Billie Eilish's "What Was I Made For?' But Schoenbrun had specific intentions in I Saw the TV Glow's soundtrack creation.

"I really wanted to make a soundtrack that wasn't like marketing," Schoenbrun says, whose debut feature, We're All Going to the World's Fair, featured a score by the artist Alex G. "[A soundtrack] that wasn't just like, 'What buzzy, top-played Spotify artists can we get to promote this movie that have brand synchronicity?' or whatever."

The soundtrack thematically centers, much like the movie, on the concept of memory, the passing of time and the impending peril of nondescript longing. "How will you remember it?" Frances Quinlan, solo artist and lead vocalist of band Hop Along, sings sweetly on the track "Another Season." Jay Som's "If I Could'' speaks of dimensional disconnect over a guitar tone straight out of a Gin Blossoms track and the indie rock band Sadurn's contribution, "How Can I Get Out?" projects yearning over meandering pedal steel guitar. Several songs also reference the film; the Sloppy Jane song "Claw Machine" opens with the film's title. Despite the stylistic differences and respective literal interpretations, all songs speak to a central disconnect between a current self and the possibilities that could've been, within a palette that often plays with varying definitions of '90s and early 2000s remembrance. There's a lingering question of "what if?" that hangs over every track, as each song asks the implicit questions Schoenbrun asks throughout the movie.

"Me and Jane ended up meeting at [New York's] Tompkins Square Park and talking for a few hours about the movie and our childhoods and our personal experiences growing up," says King Woman, who has two songs on the soundtrack and a featured cameo in the film. "It didn't take long for me to realize that I was going to be a part of something really important and really magical."

Artists included were given a lot of room to interpret the movie's musical tone. "Jane was really, really generous as a director in that they gave me so much room to just write however I wanted, basically," says Sloppy Jane, who wrote and performs the meditative "Claw Machine" alongside childhood friend Phoebe Bridgers for the movie.

"That might be why the soundtrack is so cool," says Bartees Strange, whose song "Big Glow" is a discordant post-punk ode to the band TV on the Radio. "All the music is pretty unhinged and it's just artists making things they like — in a low pressure way."

While songs help subconsciously move the plot forward, deep-laden connections to musical references also seep subtly into the film's milieu. The Pink Opaque is ostensibly named after a 1986 compilation album by the dream-pop band Cocteau Twins, and musicians Fred Durst and Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail both have sizable roles in the movie. An evil entity who looks like the moon and exacts torture on the characters is named Mr. Melancholy, named for the 1995 Smashing Pumpkins record Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness; Snail Mail even covers the song "Tonight Tonight" for the film — a vinyl-only soundtrack exclusive.

"The whole aesthetic around that album — an album that I've owned and loved on CD back in the suburbs in my teen years — this gothic teen fairy-tale longing and romance, is captured so, so beautifully," says Schoenbrun.

Inspiration also came in the form of another distinct, dark teen movie soundtrack. "Early on, in the first kind of mood board or deck that we saw for the project, Donnie Darko was referenced. And if you listened to the Donnie Darko soundtrack, it's not like that's a lot of scary music, it's just vibey music for sure," Swanson says.

Much like how the music of I Saw the TV Glow works to embody the late '90s and early '00s time period shown in the movie, director Richard Kelly's film Donnie Darko represents the '80s. The soundtrack, which features a similar musical easter egg reference to the film's sinister, bunny suit-clad presence in its inclusion of Echo & the Bunnymen, is known for the Gary Julescover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World," which also served as the reference point for "Claw Machine" — Sloppy Jane says she wanted to write a song with "that same level of sadness."

"I was thinking early on about the fact that when Donnie Darko came out in 2001, the Echo & the Bunnymen and The Church and Joy Division songs that it was bringing back into the cultural space, there'd been as much time passed between when those songs came out and when Donnie Darko came out as there had been between my own youth listening to Broken Social Scene and right now," Schoenbrun says, in reference to the soundtrack's cover of the Canadian band's song "Anthems for A Seventeen Year-Old Girl," performed by Singaporean artist yeule.

"I have a bunch of comfort songs which I go back to a lot when I'm feeling very out of place or when I'm trying to deal with difficult situations," says yeule of the original song, which they discovered on Limewire as a young teenager and twist into digital abstraction in a cover for the film. "I feel like [on the I Saw the TV Glow soundtrack] there's a lot of collective understanding of slightly melancholic, almost tinted, sorrowful but upbeat tracks that sort of bring themselves together through this 'Anthems' cover."

How musical performance splits I Saw the TV Glow's world in half

Schoenbrun spent "hundreds of hours" sequencing the soundtrack — which they described as a "curated mixtape from another dimension" — themselves, a decision that feels pointed in an age when algorithms drive music discovery and shuffling is a common mode of experiencing music.

One moment in the movie where that purposeful curation is explicit is at the film's mid-point. The film is bisected by a pivotal scene (and a spoiler) in which Maddy re-enters Owen's life, years down the line, baring the news of a stunning revelation: that all of those scenes on the The Pink Opaque of its lead, telepathic teen girls wasn't part of a real TV show — it was made up of moments Owen and Maddy shared together in reality, taking on the identities of the characters.

This conversation takes place in a bar where Owen and Maddy's conversation is nearly drowned out by a live performance from Sloppy Jane alongside Phoebe Bridgers, as they diegetically perform "Claw Machine." The tone of the movie shifts: no longer is it a wistful tale of childhood connection, it's the egg-cracking moment that sets the movie's reality — and Owen's sense of his own gender identity — askew.

"I realized that the centerpiece [of the film] is right in the middle, with one performance that has a very specific tone, maybe more in line with the first half of the film," Schoenbrun explained. "And then leaving that long scene with another performance that gets us ready for like the primal wail to come felt like a really nice midpoint."

The second performance is by King Woman, who performs their "Psychic Wound," a gothic, sludgy track that inverts the operatic lightness of "Claw Machine" and devolves into the literal "primal wails" that the back half of the film's darker moments figuratively express.

"When my scene comes in, it kind of turns everything on its head," King Woman says. "The movie's kind of building up to something, and then it's the crash — this devastating moment, the harsh realization of where you finally realize what's going on, and it changes the whole mood of the film."

"I'm a big Xiu Xiu fan," Schoenbrun says of the experimental rock band. "A lot of their most well known music came out in the early 2000s when I was a teenager, and the second to last song [on 2003's A Promise] is a cover of Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car' that's completely spare and haunting and beautiful but almost like not even there. And then, the last song on the album is called 'Ian Curtis Wishlist,' and it's just like an absolute f****** horror show, and discordant and terrifying."

"I remember describing the movie before I had even made the movie as: the first half of my movie is going to feel like Xiu Xiu's cover of 'Fast Car' and the second half is going to feel like 'Ian Curtis Wishlist,' " they say.

A cult obsession for future generations

I Saw the TV Glow is a singular film. It speaks directly to psychological horrors of the self, creating a hypothetical alternate universe where everything is the same, but you are faced with a deep, tacit unhappiness. Not unlike The Pink Opaque and the pop culture that inspired its soundtrack, the project is well positioned to become something more than just a movie, more than a soundtrack: I Saw the TV Glow can be someone's own The Pink Opaque.

"Being a part of it, it makes you confront certain things about yourself," says King Woman. "When watching it and thinking about it, it was pretty emotional for me as well."

And if the film never existed, the album would still be a stellar compilation of teenage malaise and what Swanson calls a "Ph.D. interpretation of goth."

"If you had to find the common thread, I'd say that there's a sense of alienation with a romance to it," he adds. "And the one thing that's crazy to me is when you listen to them all in sequence, it almost sounds like they could have been recorded with the same producer. These recordings belong in the same universe. It's crazy that the only common denominator is one Zoom with Jane."

"I think of it more as a cousin of the film," Schoenbrun says. "It's not directly extended from the movie on a narrative level. It's more like its own thing that I really hope people love and care for that comes from a similar emotional space."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 15, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story has been updated to clarify that Phoebe Bridgers is featured on Sloppy Jane's song "Claw Machine."
Reanna Cruz
Reanna Cruz is a news assistant for NPR Music's Alt.Latino.