Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Americans’ music supervisor on building tension with music from the Cold War ‘80s

Illustration for article titled The Americans’ music supervisor on building tension with music from the Cold War ‘80s

In Cue & A, music supervisors guide us through the record collections of our favorite television shows.

The Americans has grown into one of television’s finest dramas as it follows the increasingly complicated lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a pair of KGB sleeper agents passing themselves off as mild-mannered American travel agents at the height of the Cold War. P.J. Bloom has handled the show’s pop-music licensing since joining the team in episode six, working closely with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to choose music that lends credibility and tension to the show’s depiction of ’80s espionage. This interview covers music from seasons one through three and discusses major plot points in detail.

The A.V. Club: What’s your working relationship with Joe and Joel like?

P.J. Bloom: The thing about The Americans and what Joe and Joel have managed to create is that it’s this incredible time capsule. All aspects of the show are so completely rooted in our early 1980s time period. It’s in the music and the sets. It’s in the wardrobe and the props. You could really be watching a television show in 1982 or 1983, or be walking down the street during that time, and be seeing and experiencing the same thing our audience is experiencing. So Joe and Joel are incredibly meticulous about making sure that our period piece, our time capsule, really maintains the illusion that we’re in that time and place.


With music, first and foremost, we try to use songs that have a certain emotional tone, work well with the storyline, or have a certain lyrical component. We make sure the songs are either major or minor hits from that time period, though we’ll also use deeper tracks from well-known artists or even lesser-known artists. But Joe and Joel are most interested in making it right for the period and making sure the material we’re using would be played in that context. If we have one of our characters listening to the radio or a record, there has to be a legitimate way that a character in that time period—now with season four, we’re going into 1983—could have been hearing that on the radio or listening to that record.

There’s definitely an artistic filter that exists in order to maintain that time capsule feel, and Joe and Joel are great with music. They’re very collaborative producers and we talk constantly about different ideas. The way I work is to try to present multiple ideas that produce different emotional tones or play to the storyline very differently. Joe and Joel are very giving in their responses to it, and they’re up to explore and experiment. Ultimately our soundtrack is about helping to create that time capsule.

AVC: Do Joe or Joel generate the musical ideas individually, or do they make those decisions jointly?

PB: It’s a team effort all around. It’s them, the writers, other producers on the show, and picture editors coming up with potential ideas. It’s a very collaborative creative culture. Music is something that we all have in common, and a lot of us are old enough to have lived during that period and have different experiences associated with that time. So we all bring something to the table. If the ideas don’t originate from Joe, Joel, and me, we’ll incorporate other people’s ideas. Obviously Joe and Joel are the captains of the ship, and they anchor the creative process, but everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas.


AVC: The Americans is set in an interesting musical period after disco, but before hair metal and synthpop, the genres people most associate with the 1980s. As the show moves forward in time, are there artists or genres you would consider tonally inappropriate for the show as a bright-line rule?

PB: I don’t think anything is off-limits. The way we approach songs is that if it’s not a foreground montage moment, where we’re trying to elicit a tone, a lot of the stuff is character driven. I don’t think there’s any genre we wouldn’t explore if there was a character to support it. Coming into the time period that we’re in now with season four, it’s starting to get a lot more fun because we’re getting into a more defined new wave and pop period where there are more recognizable hits that people remember. You’re right that the show is set in a very odd time period for music. We started in 1981, which is post-disco and pre-new wave, so you’re in this weird traditional place with music and sound. 1981 is not really a time period that is so defined by music. When you say 1981 or 1982 to people, they don’t immediately come up with a genre they associate with it. But as music supervisors, we like that challenge. It has been a challenge to define hit songs, deeper cuts that work, and some kind of identifiable tone and a musical through-line that works.


AVC: With regard to the music being character driven, is Elizabeth into music at all, or is that more Philip’s thing as part of his broader acceptance of American culture? Philip has made some musical references and has been seen listening to music, but what are Elizabeth’s musical tastes, if she has some?

PB: I think Philip is more the music person. Elizabeth is definitely toeing the red party line. Philip is more the sympathizer and the one who relates more to American culture. I think Elizabeth is a better chameleon, so she’s able to morph into the person she needs to be depending on her company, and that informs her taste in music in those moments. But we haven’t really spoken to what she may like musically. Philip is the music fan of the two, being someone who is more of an American and someone who really likes the freedom here.


“Safe House” (season one, episode nine)

The song: Pablo Cruise, “What You Gonna Do (When She Says Goodbye)”
The scene: Pablo Cruise makes its second appearance in season one, playing in the background during a barbecue hosted by the Jennings’ neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family.

PB: My impression of the Beeman family, other than what he does for work as an FBI agent—I kind of think of the Beemans, at least in season one, as this somewhat plain, cookie-cutter, middle-class family. They’re not exciting or artistic. So when I think of them, I kind of think of—and no disrespect to Pablo Cruise—but some of the more bland bands and artists, perhaps coming out of the early to mid-’70s AM gold stuff. A band like Pablo Cruise, which clearly has a history of incredible music, really speaks to the Beeman family. It’s a wonderful song, but it doesn’t have a lot of soul or a lot of swagger. It sits in a very white, middle-class, civil servant pocket, so that makes it perfect for the Beeman household.


“Only You” (season one, episode 10)

The song: Roberta Flack, “To Love Somebody”
The scene: Gregory (Derek Luke), a civil rights activist who is both an asset and a lover to Elizabeth, provokes a shootout with police rather than relocate to Moscow after the FBI discovers his connection to the KGB.

PB: That was a situation where we wanted to explore something that went against the action. Here we have this big shootout, this slow-motion montage. It’s a big moment with an incredible amount of tension and violence and a defining story moment for one of the characters, and inserting a lilting ballad evokes a totally different emotional response than you’d typically see in that kind of scene. It made a lot of sense, so I think everyone wanted to go that direction from the beginning. The Js have a whole lot of confidence in the show and in their approach to storytelling, so not going in the obvious direction is something they feel good about. It’s not a device we use on the show often, but in this case it worked incredibly well, and it was a successful moment based on the audience response. It’s something we were all very proud of.


AVC: Did you throw any other songs against the picture to see if it would stick?

PB: We always play with other stuff. I don’t know if there’s anything worth mentioning though. I try not to talk about too many “what if” scenarios. Music in general is a fairly subjective art form, as is filmmaking and television production, so there’s never one right way to do something. We find something good pretty early, then we try to beat it. Sometimes we beat it, other times the first idea is the best one, but what you see on screen is always what we thought was the best option. Joe and Joel in particular loved that moment.


AVC: How often does it happen that you land on one song you feel is so right that no other song would work for the scene?

PB: I don’t think that Joe and Joel are those kind of filmmakers. They appreciate the subjectiveness of the art form, and they are the type producers who appreciate the idea of experimentation. The way they tell their stories, at least insofar as music is used, they have enough experience to appreciate that different songs can do different things. They have enough understanding of that subjectiveness that they are willing to experiment. They know what they like when they hear it, but whether it’s before they shoot it or in the editing room, they aren’t the type of producers who come in with their hearts set on something thinking nothing else could possibly work. There are artists and songs they really like, so we have a list of those and we’ll try those different places to see if they work. But they don’t try to fit square pegs into round holes.


“The Walk In” (season two, episode three)

The song: Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes The Flood”
The scene: In a closing montage, Elizabeth breaks her promise to a fellow sleeper agent who is murdered, choosing to destroy the evidence of her KGB ties rather than tell the agent’s son about his mother’s true identity.

PB: Peter Gabriel is one of those artists that Joe and Joel just love and is perfect for the show. He lines up well with our time period, the post-Genesis period. The overly progressive Genesis stuff doesn’t really work for the show, and it’s difficult to make it work for anything. But we’re coming into Peter Gabriel’s solo career at the beginning of the show, and everybody who works on the show are huge, huge fans. He’s one of the artists we’re constantly looking at. “Here Comes The Flood” was one we had played with in several spots before we found a home for it. It’s one of his greatest songs. It has an incredible sense of drama to it and it fit perfectly into the show. We had a lot of success with “Games Without Frontiers,” which closed season one. So much so that Peter wrote a letter to Joe and Joel to say he watches the show and really liked it. He doesn’t do a lot of licensing, and he takes those requests very seriously and personally approves them. It’s not the easiest thing to get him involved, but he said yes, and he ended up writing to Joe and Joel to express his appreciation for how we used it. He’s one of those artists we’re constantly looking at now because we know he’s a fan of the show and he’s got so much great music to choose from.


“A Little Night Music” (season two, episode four)

The song: Radio Orchestra Berlin, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”
The scene: Elizabeth feigns an interest in classical music to endear herself to Brad (Jefferson White), a Naval officer she needs to extract information from.

AVC: There’s such a wide range of classical pieces to choose from, and this one has to fit a character who was new to the show. How did you end up choosing it?


PB: We had gone through a lot of different ideas for this with Joe and Joel, and Steven Schill was the director on this episode and he’s one of the producers. The mark, Brad, who Elizabeth is working, he’s a very strict classicist. So we wanted to choose something that was off the beaten path. It couldn’t be something for the casual classical music listener, it had to be something a professional classical audiophile would be into. But when we tried some of that more obscure material, everyone kind of agreed that it didn’t have enough familiarity for our audience. In addition, when you start to get into some of that more obscure stuff, it starts to become a little bit more distracting. In this case, especially with the music being played as source in the record store, we didn’t want to take away from Elizabeth trying to gain the trust of the mark with anything too distracting. So we tried a lot of different things, it was a process that lasted several weeks. But we landed on this because it was a happy compromise. It’s a piece that Brad could be very descriptive about as he’s trying to impress this beautiful woman, and something he’d appreciate, but it doesn’t distract.

“Yousaf” (season two, episode 10)

The song: Pete Townshend & Nathan Barr, “It Must Be Done”
The scene: Philip’s asset Annelise (Gillian Alexy) beds a Pakistani intelligence officer to gain information as Elizabeth assassinates his commanding officer.

AVC: How did Pete Townshend get involved with the show?

PB: That’s a great story. There was an ongoing conversation between me, Joe, Joel, and the other producers about wanting to have some big event moments musically. Every show is looking for those big moments, whether it’s something that uses a pre-existing recording like with our Roberta Flack montage, or something new created by an artist who was relevant in that time period. The event we were talking about in that episode was pairing our composer Nate with some prolific, iconic artist who would co-score the episode. The idea of a song was not the original plan, we were trying to create a co-scoring venture between Nate and someone else. I’m close to the Pete Townshend camp, so I took a long shot and called them to see if he would be interested in doing it.


Turns out he was really interested because he had been a fan of Nate from back when he was scoring True Blood, and he knew about our show. The timing was perfect because Pete was in the studio at the time working on new material, and he was up for trying to see if we could make something work. So Pete and Nate got on the phone and started talking about ideas, and Nate gave him some score sketch ideas that he had to see if Pete would be inspired by it. At some point in the process, Pete had gone away for several days with the score sketches and came back and said, “You know, I just got really inspired, so I decided to write a song and some lyrics for the show.” It was nothing short of miraculous. Not only did we have this original Pete Townshend song that was written specifically for the show, it was really good and worked perfectly for what we needed. It was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments.

“Echo” (season two, episode 13)

The song: Golden Earring, “Twilight Zone”
The scene: Philip and Elizabeth rush to retrieve a drop from a dying asset as their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) takes part in a protest, which puts Philip and Elizabeth at odds over whether they should tell Paige the truth and enlist her in their mission.

AVC: Are you generally looking for a synergy between the lyrical themes like with “Games Without Frontiers?” And is there such thing as “too on-the-nose”?


PB: I think there’s something to be said for “too on-the-nose” but it depends on what project you’re working on and what the tone is. There are plenty of shows I work on where the filmmakers want to be on-the-nose, so that’s what I go for. I don’t think that’s what Joe and Joel are about, and they want first and foremost stuff that makes sense for the story. But that doesn’t necessarily have to mean lyrics, or the tone of the music, or the timbre. They’re just really good at knowing exactly what they want when they see it. They love the element of surprise. They’re both true music fans and they want to be excited by the music we’re using, so they don’t get boxed in or worried about criticism about something being trite or on-the-nose. They want something that works for them, and if they get excited about it, chances are the audience will too.

“Twilight Zone” was one of those cases where we pitched a lot of different songs and that’s the one that worked. We had gone round and round with it. I want to be able to tell you there’s some specific art or science behind it, but we’re just making sure the producers are happy and excited about it. It’s one of the song moments where we probably looked at 20 or 30 songs before we landed on “Twilight Zone.” Golden Earring is one of those bands that was bigger outside of America, and they only had a couple of songs break through in this country, “Twilight Zone” being one of them. When you think about the lyrics and the general tone of that music, it made a lot of sense for an espionage thriller like The Americans. This particular sequence wasn’t an exact science though, we went through a lot of stuff, but when we hit it we knew.


“Dimebag” (season three, episode four)

The songs: Yaz, “Only You” and “Don’t Go”
The scenes: Philip buys Paige the new Yaz album for her birthday after being turned onto the band by the underage daughter of a CIA agent, a potentially valuable asset, but one Philip can’t bring himself to seduce.

AVC: These songs are actually referred to in the script, did they originate there or did Joe and Joel come to you for ideas about what music to work into the script?


PB: That came really early. I believe it was the writer of the script [Peter Ackerman] who originally came up with the idea of using Yaz. Defining Paige has always been kind of an interesting task for us because we want to make her cool but not too cool. She also has her faith component so we’ve explored the music of the non-denominational church she attends, which is very bland, faith-based acoustic music that doesn’t do anything too subversive. In our never-ending quest to define Paige and her music taste, the writer really wanted to make the Yaz stuff happen. So that was an idea that came before we shot a frame of the episode.

“Walter Taffet” (season three, episode seven)

The song: Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain”
The scene: Philip and Elizabeth hastily kidnap a South African intelligence officer in a tense, thrilling sequence set to the tune of Fleetwood Mac, whose “Tusk” memorably opens the pilot.

AVC: What made you decide to dip back into the Fleetwood Mac well?

PB: “Tusk” was a very successful element of the show. The way it integrated itself into the pilot, where we had Nathan off-setting the existing percussion with his own score material, which elongates and augments the song, is one of those huge moments for us and it defined the show going forward. We had explored some other Fleetwood Mac songs, and tried many in different spots, but never found the right home for them. They’re on that short list of bands that Joe and Joel are big fans of, so they’re constantly considered for various episodes. At the same time, being one of the most iconic bands of all-time and a band that’s very precious about how the music is being used, we want it to be a really special moment when we use one of their songs. This scene has an incredible amount of tension in it, and “The Chain” is one of those songs where the entire band is singing, so it’s similar to “Tusk.” It’s one of those songs that really adds to the tension and enhances the thriller elements of the show. But that was another one that wasn’t in the script, so we wound up playing with it a lot before we got there.


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