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Why the ‘Euphoria’ Teens Listen to Sinead O’Connor, Tupac and Selena

A modern high schooler’s birthday party, chaperoned by an inebriated mother with no household rules except discretion, gets going to the sound of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” that indelible 1990s relic. “I love this song!” the mom squeals, with an added profanity.

At the same time, three teenagers in a beat-up ride are on their way to shoplift some alcohol. “Trademark USA” by Baby Keem, a rising rapper of the moment, blasts from the car speakers.

Not long after, a troubled father skims a gay bar jukebox, looking for INXS’s “Kick” but finding Nicki Minaj’s “The Pinkprint” instead. He settles for a nostalgic slow dance to “Drink Before the War” by Sinead O’Connor, a devastating power ballad from 1987. Back at the birthday party, a wasted girl in a bathing suit melts down, belting along simultaneously to the same track, one released long before she was born.

For some television shows, this would be an episode’s worth of big music moments. But on “Euphoria,” the maximalist hallucination of high school currently in its second season on HBO, it was but one stretch of carefully curated songs and references that, like the series itself, aimed for emotional resonance over superficial accuracy.

Often cramming a couple of dozen tracks into a single hour — from the underground to the instantly recognizable, the 1950s to the 2020s — the show doesn’t do emphatic needle-drops so much as a TikTokian shuffle of aural and visual stimuli, bouncing between genres, eras and moods.

In addition to O’Connor and Keem, Sunday’s episode featured a meta-montage of pop culture allusions set to Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” plus the premiere of a new song by Lana Del Rey and an onscreen, neo-gospel performance by the singer and producer Labrinth, who also handles the show’s score.

Tasteful spareness has never been the objective. “We were not interested in playing by those rules,” said Julio Perez IV, the show’s lead editor, who recalled conceiving of their “own sonic galaxy” with the “Euphoria” creator, writer and director Sam Levinson. “We were interested in plenty of music — too much music for some. The show, in a sense, would be a musical.”

A collage of flashbacks, daydreams, nightmares and rhythmic music video-esque sequences, “Euphoria” uses the interplay between its eclectic soundtrack and Labrinth’s recurring score to create a “wild fantasia that blends a raw naturalism with hyper-reality,” Perez said.

Jen Malone, the show’s music supervisor, has also overseen the songs of “Atlanta” and “Yellowjackets,” where a strict sense of place and period guide the choices. “Euphoria” has no such boundaries.

“If it works, it works,” she said in an interview, describing the show’s creative ethos and noting that Levinson writes to music, frequently including his song choices in the script. “The library of music that he has in his brain is endless,” Malone added.

She and her team are then tasked with making Levinson’s vision a reality, making their own suggestions, seeking clearance from the music’s many rights holders and filling in gaps where necessary.

In the show’s second season, episode prologues that tell characters’ back stories function as short films of their own, with distinct tones and time frames. One jumps from an Elvis Presley cover to Bo Diddley, Harry Nilsson, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, while another burns through tracks by INXS, Depeche Mode, Roxette, Erasure, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cult, Lenny Kravitz and Dan Hartman, all in the span of 15 minutes.

“It’s just insane the amount of music in this show,” Malone said.

Complicating her job further is the fact that “Euphoria” revolves around lurid transgression — lust, substance abuse and violence, in particular — and scenes must be described in detail during the music approval process. “We do have to get clever with how we word certain things, but sometimes there’s just no way around it,” Malone said.

The sequence ultimately set to an Elvis cover that opened this season featured nudity, drugs, guns and gore — “all the red flags you could possibly think of” — leading to a few denials before the show settled on Billy Swan’s rendition of “Don’t Be Cruel,” following appeals to the music’s publisher and the Presley estate.

In securing use of O’Connor’s “Drink Before the War,” the “Euphoria” staff had to confirm that it would not be played over any sexual violence, “because I think she knew the show,” Malone added.

But labels and artists have been pleased to see the surge in interest that a placement on “Euphoria” can trigger, whether for an emerging act like Laura Les, whose track “Haunted” plays in a recent episode, or an established one like Tupac Shakur, whose caustic “Hit ’Em Up,” from 1996, is rapped along to by a teenage drug addict. Featured tracks by Gerry Rafferty and Steely Dan have even started popping up on TikTok.

Whether or not the show’s Gen Z characters would actually be listening to this music has sparked some debate and eye-rolling. (“The Euphoria Teens’ Taste in Rap Is Ridiculous,” Pitchfork ruled.) But as with their designer wardrobes, verisimilitude is beside the point.

“Realism is secondary,” said Perez, the editor. “There’s a certain amount of romanticism to the approach,” with “the psychological intricacies of inner worlds” taking precedence.

A song choice can signal something, as when Selena’s “Como La Flor” plays faintly in a scene featuring a character whose Mexican American heritage is alluded to, but not explored. Or it can just simply sound good.

In the playlist era, “Cool kids are into loads of stuff,” said Labrinth, who mirrors the show’s range in his “limitless” original music for the show, which fuses hip-hop, rock, funk and electronic sounds. He compared Levinson to a crate-digging D.J. as likely to reference an ’80s punk band as an obscure Italian composer.

For those not already in the know, “Euphoria” can also function as a recommendation engine for a new generation, like the films of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino that it’s constantly nodding to.

“Knowing that our audience is very much Gen Z, it’s almost like, ‘Hey guys, listen to some of this,’” Malone said, noting that a party scene where Juvenile and DMX songs are played also included more recent, little-known tracks by artists like Blaq Tuxedo and G.L.A.M.

“‘Oh, you like all of this that’s out now? Listen to this!’” she added. “We’re giving them the mixtape that I got when I was in high school.”

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