The Soul of 'Scandal': How Shonda Rhimes Soundtracks TV's Most Dramatic Show

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on Scandal
ABC/Eric McCandless

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on ABC's Scandal

"Finding that moment where you placed that perfect song -- there's nothing like it," Rhimes tells Billboard.

During season three of ABC's hit show "Scandal," a montage scene closes out the eighth episode, "Vermont Is For Lovers, Too," where we see a gruesome murder, then one of the show's main characters Huck (Guillermo Diaz) insinuate he's going to torture his colleague Quinn (Katie Lowes), and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) seeing her long-lost mother moments before the credits flash. It's an arresting visual that left viewers with one of creator Shonda Rhimes’ classic "Scandal'"cliff-hangers. But making it all the more compelling was Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" playing as the scenes unfolded.

If you caught the show on a whim, it might be an alarming pairing. But from the very beginning, Rhimes has mostly honed in on classic soul and funk from the late '60s and early '70s, which has quietly become one of the show's trademark characteristics along with the cheating, betrayal, murder, backstabbing, and rapid-fire plot twists.

"It was the soundtrack that was in my head when I was writing the show," Rhimes tells Billboard of her vision of the music. "Finding that moment where you placed that perfect song -- there's nothing like it. The show comes alive in a very fun way once the right song has been placed."

Songs on "Scandal" come to fruition in a few different ways, but mainly it’s veteran music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (who worked with Rhimes on her other show, "Grey's Anatomy") sending her "comps" to peruse. "[It's] all the songs she thinks are clearable, interesting and good," says Rhimes. "Once we see the scene and I realize it could use [music], it's really about finding the song with the right tone, the right taste; a song that feels good when you're watching it." Other times, Rhimes has specific songs in mind, and she goes after them.

Over the course of three seasons, the show has featured tracks from Booker T & the M.G.s, Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder. There’s rarely any contemporary music used, but tracks by Bettye Lavette and the Album Leaf have been featured.

In thinking about the way music fits, Rhimes never tries to link artists with certain characters, but instead, looks at what's unfolding on screen in a broader sense. "Sometimes it'll be very clear that a scene needs a man's voice or a woman's voice singing," Rhimes explains. "The show has a very cynical look at life and politics in Washington and the way power is used in places. It has a very critical take on that. You want to find the music that fits that cynicism in a very interesting way."

"It is a treat to sync all of these catchy and iconic tracks to a show that is clearly present-day," Patsavas says. "In some cases, we have the opportunity to introduce these artists to an new audience."

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You'd think that with such sinister plots that legacy artists like Marvin Gaye would be hesitant to have their music used -- and they certainly are at times. "Some artists really care," Rhimes says. "Stevie Wonder is an artist who really, really cares. It's kind of delightful. I will submit the scene and he comes back and says, 'Absolutely you can use this song,' or 'Absolutely you can't use this song.' And his reasons are always very smart, very clear, and he has parameters. And I respect that. It's been so helpful to us for this genre of music."

"The clearance process is certainly been more complicated when Shonda's selections include such marquee artists," Patsavas adds. "They can be tricky, but unless there are split disputes or unfindable heirs, we have had great luck in clearing all of her first choices."

Often, the end result are scenes filled with lust, sadness, anger, or motivation paired with music that many people have positive emotions associated with. "There's a strong sense of nostalgia to these songs," says Rhimes. "We all have our own memories tied to them. [But it’s] not a mistake [the music is from] the decade that Watergate happen and America lost its innocence of what politics is. That's definitely a piece of it in a very strong way."