Featured Image photo of Amanda by Robin Roemer
If you’re like me, your ears perk up whenever there’s a song playing on The Americans. The show uses music as strategically as any of its other tools (except Henry – they do NOT know what to do with him). When Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Yaz or some other significant artist of the 80s begins to play, you know that something especially important is happening.
Amanda Krieg Thomas is half of the duo choosing the songs for these pivotal moments. She, along with P.J. Bloom, is mining the 80s for the perfect tracks to underscore Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ apparent unraveling. When she isn’t doing that, she’s performing the same critical service for one of a number of other television shows, including American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace and Ryan Murphy’s latest, Pose.
Because her job is super cool, and because I hoped there’d be some spoilers evident in anything she revealed, I asked Amanda to talk to me about the music in The Americans. She said yes, and you’ll have to read to the end to see if she gave us any scoops…
Leona Laurie: How long have you been working on The Americans?
Amanda Krieg Thomas: I came in in between seasons three and four. PJ Bloom, who’s my partner on the project, has been on it since the first season.
LL: In your personal experience in music supervision for television, does The Americans feel different than other shows? The music seems so calculated, which isn’t true of every program.
AKT: No two jobs are really ever the same because the producing team is different, the directors are different, the editors are different and everybody has their own styles, preferences, process and relationship with music.
That being said, The Americans is a unique show in that it’s very important to the Executive Producers, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, that the music accomplishes many things at once. Every time a song is used it’s very deliberate.
It’s a trait that carries through their entire approach to storytelling. The J’s, as we call them, Joe and Joel, never want to spoon-feed the audience in terms of what the characters are feeling or what exactly is happening. The writing and performances are artful and subtle yet communicate volumes. And that’s what makes the show brilliant. It’s our job to help carry the torch musically.
Sometimes that involves finding songs that cover three or four minute montages (or longer) connecting wildly different scenes. In season four there was a sequence where Elizabeth is drugging and framing her friend’s husband to make it look like he cheated on his wife that is intercut with Philip giving Paige a driving lesson. So we have this challenge of finding a song that can carry both. In that particular scenario “Major Tom (Coming Home),” by Peter Schilling, had this perfect combination of tension and levity.
LL: There are two songs in the premiere this season that were so spot-on. Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told” over Elizabeth getting her cyanide pill instructions, and Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” which I’d never heard before. (That is literally a song about a man who so wants Americans to get out of his country and out of his culture, that he’s taking violent actions towards that end.) Were these songs that you or PJ knew beforehand, or are they ones that surfaced in your search?
AKT: Whenever we start a new season we first look at where are we in time. Have we made a jump? Are we where we left off? Okay, what was coming out that year? That month?
Over the course of the past six seasons Peter Gabriel’s music has, in a way, become interwoven with the fabric of The Americans. He has the gravitas, emotion and a hint of darkness that fits perfectly with the tone of the series. So became available for us this season because we jumped from 1984 to 1987 and the album was released in 1986. It does speak very much to what’s going on in Elizabeth’s mind, but our Editor Amanda Pollack made it much more surreal through the editing. It plays as though it is in Elizabeth’s mind. The sound around her drops out, the actual instructions (to use the cyanide pill) are dropped out and we’re watching her process the information.
The whole concept of following (or questioning) orders has definitely been a theme in the past, especially for Phillip, and that will definitely continue.
The J’s are big fans of Talking Heads (who isn’t?), so we’ve been on a mission to find a great a home for a their music for several seasons. We’ve gotten close a couple times but it didn’t stick…This season we got to use Talking Heads songs in the first two episodes! We always aim for a mix of well-known and deeper cuts, so it was rewarding to feature two lesser-known songs from their catalog.
LL: Where do you find the music you use?
AKT: I do a ton of research; it’s one of my favorite parts of the job. It’s really rewarding to go down rabbit holes. What albums were released in 1987? What albums were charting in 1987? What was on the dance charts? Between Spotify, allmusic, Wikipedia, Billboard and fans and journalists across the Internet there is so much to dig into.
There’s also a ton of collaboration, as I mentioned earlier. Especially on shows set in different time periods, all the team members come in with their own musical voices– songs that they loved, hated or that bring up very specific memories.
Pose, for example, is set in the late 1980’s ball culture world, a diverse underground LGBTQ community where members of “houses” compete in various categories to win trophies (and bragging rights). Balls were the birthplace of vogue. In order to tell the story of that community it was important to Ryan Murphy that the storytellers be authentic. Janet Mock and Our Lady J are writers on the show. Silas Howard is directing. It has the largest transgender cast for a scripted series ever. I could go on and on.
Not only does Ryan Murphy have a really clear vision musically – the other team members who lived these experiences do as well. As a Music Supervisor it’s important to honor that. For my part, I’m researching what was playing then, what was New York house music or Chicago house music, what would have been playing in gay clubs at the time and what speaks to these characters.
LL: Since we are in 1987 on The Americans, can you give us a spoiler and tell me if there will be a fight scene set to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” where Elizabeth physically hoists somebody over her head at the time when Baby would have done the lift?
AKT: Not yet…But we’re not done so anything is possible!
LL: I mean if you’re talking about what’s charting in 1987, I think it was basically just the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
AKT: I’ll definitely keep it in mind. Anything can happen.
Look for Amanda Krieg Thomas’s fingerprints on the rest of the final season of The Americans, as well as on NBC’s new show Reverie, season two of Claws on TNT, Pose on FX, Life in Pieces on CBS and more.