Warning: Spoilers ahead for season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale.
It is difficult to think of a music-based moment in recent television that has been more divisive than when Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" plays at the beginning of season 2, episode 1 of The Handmaid's Tale. On my Twitter feed, which is largely music writers, lovers, and obsessives, it was dismissed as overwrought and unacceptable. In my Facebook feed, where TV lovers and political junkies seem to have the loudest voices, it was praised as a brilliant choice. There was also the odd bit of dissent from people who only accept the use of this particular song in the 1988 Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern film penned by known music obsessive John Hughes, She's Having A Baby — it was originally released on the movie's soundtrack.
The scene finds Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) and all of the handmaids in Gilead rounded up and taken to Fenway Park where they are to be hanged after the handmaids followed June's lead and declined to stone Ofwarren/Janine (Madeline Brewer). As the rain pours down on them, "This Woman's Work" begins to play while the camera zooms in, getting intimately close to the women to capture their faces, which are covered in brown masks. The music starts as they line up on rain-soaked platforms and nooses are slipped around their necks. It falls into a moment of silence when the boards beneath their feet fall, stopping centimetres away from their deaths. The briefest tinkle of the song plays on as June thinks to herself in a voiceover, "Our Father who art in heaven, what the actual fuck?"
It is not a subtle moment.
"This song is so iconic, this artist is so iconic. As the first sequence to the opening episode of the second season of a huge show, it's making a mark," the show's music supervisor, Maggie Phillips, told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. "Look, dude, we're back, and we're here to make a statement."
Some of the backlash is because that particular Kate Bush song is so specific in meaning, having been written for a specific scene in She's Having A Baby and synced to the film's visual. For those who know the origin of the song and that it's mainly written from the point of view of a manchild who is reflecting on the possible death of his partner, it is understandably difficult to see it flipped into such a drastically different use. And those who don't know what it is about hear what Handmaid's showrunner Bruce Miller envisions: a poignant, sad musical moment that echoes what's happening inside June's mind.
"Bruce [Miller] has this idea that the songs are what June would play," Phillips continued. "They reflect what's on her playlist, what would be going on in her head at that moment. We try to give it that tongue-in-cheek attitude that she has to deal with the hardships of Gilead."
It's a theme throughout the show that continues in season 2, where the music that plays not only helps to orient the viewer in space and time, but reflects the inner life of the main character. Talking to Moss about what June would listen to inspired the Santigold "Go!" use in episode 3 and Cat Power's "Hate" in episode 4. She might be stuck in Gilead now but, based on the needle drops (songs with lyrics that play in the show), June probably had some lit iTunes playlists when the city was still Boston. She probably didn't get a chance to export it all over to Spotify, because the music stops in 2012 when Gilead began.
"My idea is that pop culture has changed significantly, and that music wouldn't be made in the United States post-Gilead. Or, if it were being made, it would be very different," Phillips explained.
Episode 3 also brings a chilling reminder of the pre-Gilead world with its use of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," which plays while June and her mother, Holly, (Cherry Jones) drive around on a sunny day, singing along to that ubiquitous pop hit from 2005. I remember what I was doing when "Hollaback Girl" came out; where I lived, moments of my own life the song soundtracked, and the ridiculous conversations around censoring the song for multiple uses of the word shit. Hearing it drives home how quickly the world could shift into something I don't recognise.
"We tried so many songs in that moment," Phillips said. "We went through songs that maybe would have been important for Holly, like Joni Mitchell. I sent a huge playlist for this scene, and 'Hollaback Girl' was one at the very end that I thought was funny. I think Bruce liked the absurdity of it. And it wasn't released so long ago. It was a song most people could imagine hearing on the radio."
The show does get a post-2012 soundtrack in a rare party scene in episode 2 when Maura (Samira Wiley) visits a Canadian bar to check out the scene now that she's escaped from Gilead. While she's there, a very recently released track, "Tin" by Daphni, the side project of Caribou's Dan Snaith, plays. "In Canada, they're dealing with refugees from Gilead, but that country hasn't been as affected," Phillips said. "So we did think music would still be made." Snaith is a Canadian composer.
Handmaid's gets a little more obscure with its choices in closing credits music, which is sometimes a pop song. Phillips said these tracks may summarise what we've just watched or hint at what is to come, but that she has the luxury of using them since the show is on Hulu where closing credits properly run — unlike a Netflix binge session.
Their best, and most layered, choice comes when "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" by a lesser-known punk act, X-Ray Spex, plays at the end of episode 6. Spex were one of the few punk bands with a female singer, Poly Styrene, and the song is a complete fuck you to capitalism and the patriarchy. The way Styrene wails, she contains the rage we are all dying to see June express and that the series hints may be about to bubble over. What's great about the song is how damn happy Styrene sounds to be yelling about the things that have pissed her off. It's the kind of liberation June couldn't have imagined losing back when she was jamming to "Hollaback Girl."