Euphoria's been playing the long game. The show, a product of the singular vision of creator Sam Levinson and HBO's first foray into teen drama, was, undeniably, summer 2019's breakout hit. Euphoria has a bevy of appealing factors—electric performances, melodrama, endless plot twists—but what surely helped it win so many viewers over so quickly is, aesthetically, it came out of the gate fully-formed. You can practically feel Levinson hovering over every minute detail of the production and after a couple of episodes in, it was clear that he was thinking several steps ahead. The last few minutes of last night's finale confirmed that tenfold, when the season closed on an engrossing musical number set to series composer Labrinth's original song "All For Us" (with series lead Zendaya pulling double-duty on the vocals), i.e., the same song we've heard pieces of threaded throughout the entire season, a move that hammered the show's narrative cohesion home and brought it full circle.
Music is one of Euphoria's It factors, and a key component of its cohesive aesthetic. Labrinth's hypnotic original scores are one part of it, but the song selection is a big draw. With placements that range from Megan Thee Stallion, Beyoncé, J.I.D and Asian Doll to The Delfonics, The Flamingoes, Madonna and Randy Newman, Euphoria is the next show in the lineage of Entourage, Ballers, and Insecure before it, where the soundtrack has people talking just as much as the plot—and also crucially informs the story. It's a big job and Euphoria's music supervisor Jen Malone is more than up to the task—she does the music for Atlanta, as well another zeitgeist series with the soundtrack to match. Complex caught up with Jen ahead of the finale to talk about her process, her standout moments from Season 1 and that big closing number in the finale.
You also work on Atlanta as well. It's interesting. Every morning after both shows, we do a post cataloging every song played that our readers always get hype for. What's it like working on a series where the song selection carries as much attention and scrutiny as everything else going on?
Well, I mean, it was very, very intense because of the sheer number of songs that we have in an episode and how they function. Atlanta is a half-hour, this is an hour. So comparatively, it's just a lot, a lot, a lot of music. And having the music function in different ways has been challenging. But it's really been a lot of fun because we are using music, not only for source but using it to complement the story.
What's your process going into each episode?
First, we get the script and just kind of do a music breakdown, see if anything is scripted in. If it is, we have to clear that right away. And then it's working with the editors and working with Sam to get them different options and different ideas for the scenes. Sometimes it's nailing it in the first three ideas, and sometimes it's kind of going through 17-20 something options. And then, of course, the clearance aspect of it is very, very intense.
Yeah, I can imagine. In fact, I thought about that in this last week's episode when you have the 10cc song, but it was a cover instead. I was wondering if it's easier sometimes to use covers to get them cleared quickly?
Well, we wouldn't make a decision of a song choice necessarily because of clearance. It wasn't like, "Well, the original might be harder to get, so let's go with the cover." Sam is a big fan of Kelsey Lu. So this song was just great. We wanted Kelsey Lu's version.
Between Sam being a Kelsey fan and your earlier mention of songs being written into the script when you get them, how hands-on is Sam? He's written and directed almost every episode himself, so I've got to imagine that he also comes with his own picks in mind often.
Absolutely. I mean, it's Sam's show. It's his vision, and we're finding music to fulfill his vision. It's not my vision. It's really all about what Sam wants to convey and what songs he feels will enhance the scene and the emotional connection. My job is to function as the one who comes up with the ideas to present to him. But the thing that's amazing on this show is that everybody just has great taste. Our editors and Sam just really have great taste in music. So sometimes, I would sit with the editors and we would put songs in and present them to Sam, and he would sign off on all of them. But sometimes we'd have to go in for a spotting session where we would just kind of get into these rabbit holes of assigning different songs and sometimes not even necessarily for the scene that we're working on, but just, "Oh my God, have you heard this song?" "This song I used to listen to all the time." And we would just kind of hang out and listen to music, as opposed to finding the song that we need for this specific scene.
I mean, ideally we'd always come back to it, but a lot of our sessions would end up being just listening to music, which was really fun. But at the end of the day, it's Sam show. We're all there. Whether it's cinematography, costumes or makeup—which, makeup is one of my most favorite aspects of the show.
Was there a specific moment that stands out to you that was written in throughout season one?
I would have to go back to my grid, which I keep up still. Even though we're done, it's just always on here. That's a very good question. I don't know if I can answer that, because I don't remember which was scripted in. I think maybe the Randy Newman in [episode] 5 might've been scripted in.
What's the approach in regards to working on a popular show that you know is going to be consumed by a young, culturally attuned audience? Because I have to imagine there is a tension in not wanting to always go with what might be the "obvious" song. What's the science behind picking stuff that's maybe not all over the radio.
I mean, that's the thing about music supervision is there is no science. There's not a science. There's no formula. It's kind of listening to music and for me, it's really from wherever, whether it's a site like Complex, or whether it's a manager or some music fan that has good taste that I happen to follow on Instagram that will post stuff, or whether it's who's touring and who's opening up. I mean it's just kind of just being in the world and as a consumer of music, just trying to listen to as much stuff as possible. But there really is no science. There were no conversations like, "Okay. Well, this is too obvious of a choice, so let's go with something else." It was just basically gut, and feeling, and taste, and what we wanted to do, how did we want the music to function in the scene. I wish there was a science because that would probably make this job a lot easier.
What was your personal favorite moment of the season?
Man, I knew people were going to ask me that. Probably the finale. Yeah, there's so much. I mean, I think that the Air Supply in [episode] 2 is just... I was really excited about that one because you're watching this crazy, brutal, violent scene, but yet you're hearing Air Supply, like a yacht rock song. I think it just kind of jars the audience a little bit. I was so happy to have Megan Thee Stallion in the premiere. Bronski Beat into the end title of [episode] 6 was a fun placement. I think it's easier to ask me my favorite music moments per episode because there's so much music in this show in each episode, that I can't really pick.
We can stay with six, because I think that might be my personal favorite. I really enjoyed the way you chose rap songs with dark beats for the Halloween party. It kind of heightened both the mood and the tension with everything that was happening in the plot. With McKay when he's walking around the party, searching and everywhere. That, I felt like really kind of almost immerses the viewer.
I think [episode] 6 might be my favorite as well, because yeah, we do go back and forth, and there is such a mix from something like The Flamingos to J.I.D to The Dreamliners, who are these kind of doo-wop girl group from the '70s from Texas, to Bronski Beat. It's just that the music just functions in different ways, but yet I think it all works very seamlessly. I think also having Labrinth's score when Nate comes into the party dressed up as the jailbird, it was a cue from Labrinth that was kind of this organ. That one, when I heard that, I was in the bay with an editor, I was like, "That's fucking perfect. Please tell me that's Labrinth and not [someone else's score]." And she's like, "Nope, that's Lab." And I was like, "Great. Do not change that."
Actually, that might be one of my favorite moments, because it was just so ominous, but yet just fit into our show and it was Lab. So yeah. The music in 6 just functions in different ways and it kind of goes back and forth, but yet it all fits into one cohesive piece.
Right. And then the end credits of that episode actually has that beautiful song by Dodgr, which only came out that same weekend.
Yeah, we got that as a demo. It was the same thing with the Lolo Zouaï song that's in that episode, "Chain," which I don't even think was released [Ed Note: It isn't]. We got those as demos. The people that I work with, the other side, the publishers and the labels, and all the licensing side, they're amazing to work with. Whether it's creative and obviously, with licensing because that's such an important part of it. And so we were getting just such great music. So we got the Dodgr and the Lolo as demos and put them in those spots. Yeah, those were, "Okay, put them in. Maybe they'll stay, maybe they won't," and they stayed because they were great.
It's cool that even in Season 1 the show's already becoming that next series where it's almost symbiotic with breaking new music and artists wanting to be on there.
Yeah. We definitely wanted the show to be able to have that platform for new artists because that's also kind of a fun part of the job, is to help the artists. I'm lucky that we've been able to do that.
Now when it comes to older stuff like The Delfonics, is there ever any hesitation considering how young the audience might be and how young the characters are?
No. No, the decisions about what songs to put in what scenes is just... It's all about what song is the best song for the scene, whether it's old, whether it's new, whether somebody's heard of it, whether it's an icon. It's what song is best for the scene, how it makes the audience feel something. Sam is not really concerned about... All of the music chosen is just what song fulfills Sam's vision to create an emotional moment and create that emotional resonance. Not about the impact that it's going to have on the outside as far as it's a cool new band, or people might not know who The Delfonics are. It's not about that. It's just what fits. What song makes the scene work.
When it comes to clearing some of the bigger songs, like some stuff from Lemonade, were there instances where Drake kind of helped the process along?
No. Nope. We are very proud to have done that on our own here. Just myself and my coordinator, Candice. On a clearance level, that was all us. He approved "Nonstop" [from episode] 3. But no, Drake was just more as an overall kind of figure for the show. I didn't really work with him. I guess at the end of the day, we didn't need to. We didn't need to. I'm sure he would have stepped in had we needed it and had we been in a crunch. But the things that were in a crunch was a piece of score from a 1973 Italian film. I don't think Drake would have been able to help with that one. That would have been the power of Drake, but that didn't happen. That was all us, me and Candice.
Do you find yourself working closely with Labrinth at all on the score side of things?
I didn't. That was really more with Sam and Julio [Perez IV, the show's editor]. Of course, we would want to have both the song and the score kind of work hand in hand. It's just absolutely mind-blowingly incredible. But I didn't really work side by side with him on a daily basis. Just kind of working with his music.
Have you followed the show as it blossomed in popularity this summer?
Yes, yes. I love following it. Following Twitter in real-time. I'm on the West Coast, so at seven o'clock—my husband and I have HBO Go—so at seven o'clock we kind of watch it in real-time. Yeah, it's crazy. I had no idea. It was like one of those things where when it premiered, it's just kind of like watching tweets about music and just about the show kind of take over and the ticker just going up and up and up. I personally didn't expect it, because I think during the show, I was just so in deep with it and I couldn't really see outside. So when it premiered and now that it's out there and people are freaking out, it's like, "Wow. Look, I did this."
Yeah, and excitement over music, especially for a show like this, is definitely a factor that kind of helps propel that excitement and that live Tweet factor.
Yeah, no, it's been crazy to watch. People are loving it. And I try to answer questions where I can on Twitter or wherever. But it's just sometimes I just absolutely can't keep up with it. Yeah, but then we have places like you guys that help us out so much.
So we're at the finale now, a big deal for any show especially in Season 1. What moment from that episode were you most excited about?
The musical number was a huge undertaking. We originally had another song but Sam heard Lab’s "All For Us" and absolutely fell in love with it and it has been a theme throughout the whole season. In addition to Zendaya doing the lead vocals, Sam wanted a marching band and choir on the track so we had to set up the pre-record. We took Lab's track and “sweetened it” by working with a music contractor who did a marching band arrangement of the song. After the demo was approved, we went to the studio and started with recording percussion, then brass, then winds, then a choir came in to do their parts to complement Z[endaya]’s vocals. Every instrument you hear is live, no synths. It was an all-night shoot—which our amazing crew was used to, but I was dying around 4AM. Helping to execute Sam’s vision for this musical number is something I’m extremely proud of and so happy everyone finally gets to see and hear it!