“Can I play you a tape?” Tony asks Clay in the first episode of 13 Reasons Why, as he slips a mixtape in and Joy Division’s iconic song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays.
Whether you’ve heard the song before or not, it builds a feeling of foreboding. The stark, industrial track was written in 1979 and the band’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980. A month later, it was released as a single and became Joy Division’s sustaining hit single, insofar as a song that only sold 20,000 singles and didn’t notably chart can be a hit. It became a hit long after the fact, placing in various Best Song of All Time lists run by music magazines and becoming a classic, enduring song in the shared consciousness of most of the Western civilization. It still sounds modern, nearly 30 years later.
It’s also the work of a depressed man who had epilepsy and frequently collapsed on stage from his seizures.
Things got a little weird for me in episode 2, when Mr. Porter asked Clay what he was listening to on his Walkman. To cover up that it was Hannah’s tapes, he casually threw out Ultravox but stumbled over Duran Duran as if the former were a name any Millennial might know and the latter weren’t ground into public consciousness as the poster boys for early MTV. It also made me realize: the parents in this series are a gateway for the directors and music supervisor to create a musical path that runs parallel to the golden era of teen movies. That’s right: the music in 13 Reasons Why is all done in homage to John Hughes, who wrote and directed a series of beloved teen movies with The Breakfast Club (a spiritual forefather to 13 Reasons), Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, and to a lesser extent the goofy Weird Science.
It’s not just that the show uses song cues from the John Hughes era of new wave, new romantics, goth, and post-punk that jumped off the screen at me. It’s how the show uses modern tracks that create a similar sound. For example, the Lord Huron’s “Night We Met,” which Tony plays at the dance while Clay and Hannah agree that he has such good taste in music and shuffle around the matter of slow dancing together — that track could have just as easily been from the 1980s as the 2000s. Syncing it to a powerful, romantic scene like that school dance could make it an instant classic, the same way that using “Don’t You Forget About Me” in the final scene of The Breakfast Club created an iconic song out of a track that otherwise might have been lost in history.
The electronic sounds of ‘80s music, provided largely by use of Moogs and keyboards, and the electronic tinge to much rock music today makes them sonically incredibly similar. It’s easy to draw a line from Ultravox to M83 or from The Cure to The Kills, all of whom soundtrack this show. What the crew of 13 Reasons taps into is the spirit of finding underground music that was so important to John Hughes, and then making it universal. Lush, current songs from Washed Out and Beach House float beautifully through the series, seated next to classics from Jesus and Mary Chain and Echo and the Bunnymen. Selena Gomez even drops in to add a cover of “Only You,” a song originally released in 1982 by Yazoo.
The one moment that didn’t add up for me was the Chromatics cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that plays in episode 3 while Alex jumps into the pool. The reworking makes it the sort of goth-tinged song that the moment needs but the original is so heavy, bordering on metal, that the connection pulls me out of the moment. For viewers who only know this version, it’s a great fit with perfect lyrics. But reaching back to the ‘60s for inspiration was a trick ‘80s movie soundtracks pulled a lot too — Hughes’ movies have their share of Motown girl groups and Rolling Stones tracks sprinkled in.
What Hughes tried to do with his movies was show the outsiders and give validity to their high school experience. There are only a limited number of Homecoming Queens and Valedictorians, while most of us were more likely to consider ourselves just a face among the crowd. Hughes made it interesting to hear those stories as well. His use of alternative music reflected not only his interest in crate digging at record stores but also a major shift in rock music away from the icons of the '70s to comparatively effete songs by bands who got airplay on MTV. We're not having that sort of revolutionary cultural moment in music right now — indie rock is, effectively dead. Seeing bands who are otherwise unlikely to hit Spotify's Viral chart get placement in a show that so many have an emotional connection to is something John Hughes would have loved, because it's what he did. For the parents in 13 Reasons Why, Hughes created the soundtrack to their lives.