Finding a home in Hawkins: using music to augment Stranger Things’ reality

The Stranger Things pop culture phenomenon is blowing up—and it’s not just happening organically. The marketing for the show’s season 2 release pulled out all the stops in a cross-platform, multi-experiential strategy, one that transcends the content’s original medium and finds a home in the musically referential.

Stranger Things, a Netflix original miniseries created by the Duffer Brothers, was first released in June 2016 to critical acclaim. Set in the 1980s in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the show’s first season focuses on the disappearance of a young boy and how his childhood friends and family work to rescue him from a terrifying alternate reality, which is described by the children as “the upside down.”

The series, which is rife with ‘80s pop culture references, has proven novel enough to draw in a younger audience, while remaining familiar enough to delight viewers of all ages with blasts from the past. Its creators have certainly embraced the public’s characterization of the show as a sci-fi thriller steeped in ‘80s homage; the creative team doubled down on it as it prepared to release the show’s second installment in October 2017.

In effect, the team has branded their show as an amalgam of the best from the time period, not just as a narrative existing within it; the outfits, cars, videogames, and myriad pop culture references abound, as do the carefully-chosen supporting actors (Sean Astin and Paul Reiser, both new to the show, had classic ‘80s roles in The Goonies and Alien, respectively). But the Stranger Things universe extends far beyond the ‘80s fodder provided by the show’s content itself: the marketing for the second season emphasized advertising its relationships with the era. Seven different posters published by the brand before the season release were direct tributes to classic films like Jaws, Firestarter, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Some of the activations in the season 2 campaign were specific to the narrative, of course. “Strange Mode” Lyft rides in select cities left riders under attack from season 1’s main monster, “the demogorgon,” and ended with researchers from the sinister Hawkins National Laboratory handing them waffles through the car window. Although it certainly had the buzz expected from such an experiential touchpoint, it didn’t extend beyond general bafflement to strengthen the brand’s cross-platform reach. That’s where music came in.

If the Duffer Brothers had to arbitrarily pick a decade into which to immerse their narrative, they probably couldn’t have picked one more effective than the ‘80s. With science fiction like Ghostbusters, and horror like Stephen King’s repertoire becoming increasingly popular, stylization of those genres wasn’t far behind. At the same time that these themes were becoming mainstream, so was the instrumentation that we now associate with the decade: synths and drum machines quickly became the new normal in popular music.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the composers behind the score of Stranger Things, laid these musical references on thick; synthesized melodies, hefty analog instrumentation, and heavily-sampled rhythms (with a good dose of theremin here and there) are carefully woven into their creepily complicated themes. Certain elements are particularly on-the-nose: as Buzzfeed noted, the music played during a scene in an episode aptly named “The Pollywog” is strikingly similar to the theme of the 1984 classic Gremlins. The music supervisors pull on multiple genres to supplement the show’s narrative, but never stray from the most ‘80s-sounding artists out there (think Devo, Duran Duran, Joy Division, etc).

It is the strength and versatility of the Stranger Things’ sensory aesthetic that makes it so brand-able—and the show jumped to harness this opportunity through a two-pronged activation in partnership with Spotify. On its surface, the touchpoint seems gimmicky, like the Lyft campaign; Spotify users who played the “Stranger Things” official playlist suddenly see the application become an “upside-down” version of itself, complete with vines, a flashlight on the song’s progress bar, and spores floating across the screen. But Spotify goes one step further with this brand activation, by crafting musical personalities for each of the show’s most popular characters. By either importing your musical taste through your Spotify account, or by selecting song preferences manually (for those without accounts), participants could discover a kindred spirit in the show’s characters. For example, people who prefer ‘80s alternative classics may have found their match in Jonathan; those who most enjoy early punk rock may find themselves in the Madmax camp.

Left: The Spotify mobile app, turned “upside-down.” Top right: The Stranger Things original font and official logo. Bottom right: 2017 Filtr playlist mimicking Stranger Things’ style; the playlist features songs used in the show.

This campaign aptly leverages the idea of the reminiscence bump. The concept, penned in (you guessed it) the 1980s by Schulkind, Hennis, & Rubin, articulates how the music from our youth “is recognized more often, more facts are known about it, and that it evokes more strongly autobiographical memories and strong emotions than music from later on.” It’s just a fancy way of saying that we’re nostalgic, that we appreciate the music we listened to in our youth more than any other—but for Stranger Things, it means that its soundtrack is an open invitation for audiences born between 1960 and 1970. It’s a strong market, to be sure—58 percent of 45- to 64-year-old Internet users use Netflix every month, according to GlobalWebIndex—but the idea can be pushed even further.

In a 2013 Psychological Science article, authors Carol Krumhansl and Justin Zupnick discuss the concept of the “cascading reminiscence bump.” Basically, it means that an individual will experience an increased preference for the music of their youth and the music of their parents’ youth. Give a generation of gluttonous Netflix consumers a show that reveres the music they grew up listening to with their folks? There’s hardly a better combination for harnessing nostalgia to create a feverishly loyal fan base.

Those multi-faceted reminiscence bumps gather even more strength when viewed through context, through how the music of a given time period interacts with its contemporary popular culture—and Stranger Things has worked to capitalize upon this sensory tactic to engage its fan base. In and of itself, the Spotify campaign creates long-term reinforcement of the Stranger Things brand, by allowing its audience to interact with its narrative—and, almost more importantly, all of the supporting sensory elements that make it so easy to call the fictional world of Hawkins, Indiana home.

“Clearly, Stranger Things is aspiring to be something more than just a television show. It wants to be a phenomenon in and of itself,” said Johann Melzner, Ph.D. Candidate in Marketing at NYU Stern. “Of course, you want to connect to some sort of following, and to connect with them beyond the show. And music can be a very powerful way to reinforce brand community outside of its core platform. It keeps the content and conversation about the topic alive.”

At the end of the day, the world of Stranger Things consists of simulacra; essentially, it alludes to cultural themes that are so intertwined in each other that the original is nebulous at best. Even now, we see evidence of the series becoming its own ‘80s reference, as we see the show’s opening font and style used as a cliché description of the decade throughout popular discourse. But through its careful crafting of a sensory aesthetic to augment its conceptual one—largely through music—Stranger Things cuts through the noise to pinpoint its own cultural relevance and to give that relevance a perennial voice.

Leanna Bornkamp

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