Imagine someone asking you to make a playlist — sorry, mixtape — of your favorite songs from the ’90s. Now picture getting paid real money to find the best in pop, rock and indie songs from the era that formed your musical identity. That’s the challenge Ben York Jones and Michael Mohan, showrunners for Netflix’s new dramedy Everything Sucks, put before music supervisor Tiffany Anders. As you might have guessed by now, she was more than happy to oblige.
“I was a child of the ’90s too,” Anders tells Billboard of the decade the show looks back on through the eyes of a group of flailing teenagers in Boring, Oregon (real town name, BTW). The series, which debuted Friday (Feb. 16) on Netflix, is itself a kind of mixtape of classic teen dramas, mashing up Freaks and Geeks, The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Weird Science and yes, Stranger Things for a bittersweet look at how awkward it was to be a teen in the Bill Clinton-era 90s.
“I was actually living in Seattle and was 19 around the time when the show takes place  and I was playing music at the time,” says Anders, who released her debut, Running From No Place to Nowhere on Seattle independent label Up Records in 1998. “For me what was really cool about this time period is that post-grunge music was really interesting because it felt like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana kind of lighted a fire under everybody to make it possible to have their own indie band and make their own records.”
Knowing that the indie scene of that era was so much bigger than just Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — which is referenced in the show’s pilot when a love-struck Luke (Jahi Winston) makes a VHS mash note of his favorite music videos for Kate (Peyton Kennedy) — Anders wanted to tap into that feeling by mixing and mashing up pop, rock, hip-hop and lesser known indie rock on the show’s eclectic soundtrack.
From Spacehog‘s “In the Meantime,” which serves as the first episode’s title track, to hits by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (“The Impression That I Get”), Tag Team (“Whoomp There It Is”), Oasis (“Don’t Look Back in Anger,” “Wonderwall”) and Blues Traveler (“Run Around”), the show will stir smiles for anyone who lived through the era thanks to call backs to slap bracelets, Flarp! putty, baby doll dresses, rave T-shirts that appropriate brand names and the total lack of cell phones.
Lunchroom conversations that center on how unironic the lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” are de riguer, video cameras the size of suitcases are considered modern technology in the show, while Jolt cola is the currency of the Boring High School kingdom and people actually use the phrase “all that and a bag of chips” unironically. Add in a healthy dose of homophobia and sexual confusion, raging hormones and the usual cluelessness of teenage existence and you have the perfect backdrop for a series where the Anders says the music is a key component of the Sucks cast’s universe.
Billboard spoke to Anders about how she picked the songs for the series, which ones got away from her and how she managed to slip some of her favorite lesser-known bands into the mix.
There’s a ton of music that will make people who grew up during that era smile in the show. What did you want songs like [Oasis’] “Don’t Look Back in Anger” to tell viewers about the characters?
It’s really cool that this was about high school students because of course they wear their music as their identity. When you’re a teenager it’s so important to you because it’s part of who you are. When Luke introduces Kate to Oasis — I remember getting that record [(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?] and being blown away. It was different and the songwriting was so amazing. It inspired me a lot when I was 19 and she has this identity and she comes to reveal more of it through her passion for Tori Amos. These are things that the music really plays into, how the characters develop and it’s a very natural fit because that’s how teenagers often wear music like it’s a part of their identity.
Is this your ultimate teenage mixtape, sorry, playlist, in a way?
It’s a total mix tape of the time and discovering those songs again was so fun. Spacehog was a great one because I’d forgotten that song, which really speaks to the time and really works well in the show. There’s a lot of nostalgic big songs, but I got some stuff in there that I’m really happy about, some Northwest indie stuff. There’s some great K Records stuff, too, like one band that was happening around then that I was happy to get in there, Tiger Trap (“Supreme Nothing”) and the Softies (“Heart Condition”).
You managed to get so much great stuff in there. Did you get a blank check?
It’s always difficult and I think we handled it by doing things like balancing giant songs with things that were not so giant and being able to really search and balance it that way. I always love doing this because I feel like there are songs people missed, so there might be some discovery in there for them.
Can you give me some examples?
We used some Sebadoh, some Brian Jonestown Massacre, the K Records stuff and then things like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. That stuff isn’t [recognizable like] Blues Traveler or Oasis, but I kept feeding those guys tons of indie stuff for the future… maybe season two? I have so much for them to listen to from the indie stuff that we could get that wasn’t going to be a gazillion dollars.
Was Oasis the most expensive one to nail down? Those Gallaghers aren’t known for being easy to deal with.
It was up there. Anything you’ve heard that was a big song was pretty much the same fee. A few we had to pass on because of that. When you’re doing music supervising there’s always that balance between wanting the big music and balancing that with where you want to spend the money. There were a few thing where things were being used not to their optimal use so we didn’t do it. There was a Sheryl Crow song in the background of one scene and I said no because if we’re going to use it we should put it somewhere that will showcase. Because it’s expensive!?
How as putting the music together for this show different from the other shows you’ve worked on?
It’s so different from the other show I worked on because I love the 90s so much and when Ben and Mike came to me it was like a dream job. The other show I’ve worked on, You’re the Worst, had a very limited budget and the way we approached it was we wanted to use local L.A. band because it’s all set in East side L.A. So we used a lot of Burger Records stuff on there, very, very indie stuff. Just some artists people will be discovering, we can’t use anything that’s giant.
At what point did you come into the process with your music suggestions? Were you involved from the beginning or did you come in after the scenes were already shot?
I come in when the scripts are ready. Ben and Mike had a wish list of things that they wanted from before they started shooting. Then I take that and I have it in the back of my mind and I try to figure out costs. When they start editing that’s when stuff starts to evolve. With this show because there’s so much music it was kind of constant. Oasis was always in the script, so that was a must have. Spacehog was something I found. They needed something over the opening credits and I sent them a bunch of options and that was the one that landed. It’s a back and forth. Also Tori Amis was always in the script, very important to Kate’s character so kind of go back and forth on ideas what we can afford and what makes sense for the characters. I gave them the Ride song called “Leave Them All Behind” and in the script they had The Cure. I thought for this character, for Oliver, I thought it made more sense for him to be listening to Brit pop from the 90s.
Was there something you wanted that you couldn’t land?
For the opening we didn’t get the Dave Matthews Band. But when things like that happen you move on and find something just as good. And you almost always forget the songs you didn’t get. There’s loads of stuff that I wanted in there. I would love to put more in if we could like Built to Spill would have been great… PJ Harvey. There was stuff like that that didn’t make it in that I was always floating around on our playlist.
How long are your potential playlists?
Oh my god, hundreds and hundreds. Broken down into genres and years and vocalists and vibes. In fact, I had to start a whole other music platform on the downloading platform I use just for the show.
Are there songs you’re most proud of getting in there?
The K Records stuff, “In the Meantime.” I was really happy about [Deep Blue Something’s] “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” That was scripted differently and Ben and I talked about it. That was Ben’s idea and I just thought, “oh my god that is so perfect for this character to be singing!” It’s one of those songs that gets stuck in your head. You may have forgotten about that song, but when you hear it you can sing it and it totally works for his character, Ken, Kate’s father who sings it. He loves that song. That was one thing where I was like, “this is genius, I love it.”