On Walls, Love, and Stranger Things: How Analysis of Music and Art Can Benefit From Studying Multiple Contexts

(If you haven’t seen Netflix’s series Stranger Things, then…WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

Sirens blare. Lights flash. A group of cops speeds past the four kids pictured above as they search in desperation for their missing friend, Will. They hop on their bikes and race after the police, following them to the bottom of the local quarry. As the kids run up behind a fire truck, we see emergency workers pulling a small body out of the water. They look on in disbelief, unsure if this is their friend — unsure whether or not their search efforts have been in vain. The realization that their friend is dead begins to sink in, while a new piece of music — the arrangement of David Bowie’s 1977 song “‘Heroes,’” recorded by Peter Gabriel with orchestral arrangements by Josh Metcalfe in 2010 — subtly sinks in to the scene’s nondiegetic soundtrack.

Peter Gabriel’s 2010 recording of “‘Heroes,’” based on David Bowie’s 1977 original song.

If you haven’t listened to the recording of this song already, listen to it now (even if you have heard it, listen again — it’s really good). The final scene in Chapter Three “Holly Jolly” of Netflix’s new series Stranger Things stands out as one of the show’s more emotionally powerful moments, which is due at least in part to the choice of music. Up until this point, one of the show’s main plot lines has followed the efforts of several characters searching for Will Byers, a middle schooler from the town of Hawkins, Indiana who mysteriously disappears at the beginning of Chapter One “The Vanishing of Will Byers.” This song thus underscores the emotional realizations and exchanges between most of these same characters that the young boy they have been looking for may actually be dead.

I think that modeling your behavior on what Benedict Cumberbatch does in TV and movies is generally a good approach to living life to the fullest.

Though we’ve already begun to analyze this scene a bit, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what we’re doing here. This might just be me (spoiler alert: I’m an academic and all-around music nerd), but anytime I hear something that catches my attention, my reaction is to study it as much as I possibly can (often obsessively). I usually begin with something small, close to my immediate response to what I’ve heard. But, through deeper study of other factors surrounding that immediate context, I’ve found that my appreciation of what I’ve initially heard can intensify to an even greater degree. My goal in this post is to model this process, using the scene from Stranger Things I’ve described above as a case study, which I hope will demonstrate the benefits of studying music and art beyond the initial exposure.

Immediate Contexts: Gabriel’s Arrangement in the Scene

Let us begin by thinking about the music as it is presented in the scene — in other words, just Peter Gabriel’s arrangement of David Bowie’s 1977 song “‘Heroes,’” with orchestral arrangements by Josh Metcalfe in 2010 (a YouTube link to this song is posted above). Let’s begin with the instrumental accompaniment to the lyrics. This arrangement is written entirely for string orchestra, and the use of colorful harmony and gradually increasing rhythmic durations adds a sentimental energy to the piece. The lyrics heard in the arrangement presented in this scene add to the scene’s emotional quality:

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive us away
We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day
I, I can remember
Standing, standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
And the shame, the shame was on the other side
And we can be heroes, just for one day.

These lyrics combine both melancholic and hopeful sentiments, especially considering the beautiful and positive images contrasted with the idea that the characters described can only be heroes for one day (suggesting that they are otherwise trapped in a more negative situation). The poignant quality of these lyrics is conveyed rather effectively through Gabriel’s performance, in which the first stanza is sung in a rather subdued manner while the second is almost shouted, suggesting a heightened emotional quality. The meaning conveyed by these lines thus essentially mirrors the instrumental accompaniment described above, expressing a mixed emotional state, which in and of itself is quite powerful to hear.

The lyrics in this particular scene could be interpreted literally as representing the characters we see mourning Will’s apparent death. In this interpretation, the lyrics are tragic in that everyone’s heroic actions over the course of the show’s previous three chapters were not able to save the person they were trying to save. This is one possible interpretation of the use of music in this scene, if we examine these elements entirely on the surface. However, our possible interpretation(s) may change when examining some of the contexts surrounding the use of music in this scene.

Subsequent Contexts: Comparing the Arrangement With the Original

Let’s first consider the sections of the arrangement that were used vs. those that were left out. The first verse of Gabriel’s arrangement on the recording (not heard in the show) begins with the line “I, I wish I could swim.” Considering the fact that this music serves as the backdrop to a scene in which a child’s dead body is being pulled out of a lake, it’s probably best that the show’s writers opted not to utilize this line which would have conveyed at least a sense of cruel irony, and at worst grim morbidity. Other than this omission, most of Gabriel’s arrangement is used in its original form as it is heard on his 2010 album. (The bridge between the two stanzas is briefly extended, which helps build the tension of Mike biking away from the rest of the group. Also, one line at the end of the song is removed “and we can beat them forever and ever”).

Now let’s compare Gabriel’s 2010 arrangement with Bowie’s 1977 original:

David Bowie’s original recording of “‘Heroes’”

First of all, let me say that I love both versions of this song, but for different reasons. Bowie’s original has more of a distinct rock feel to it, especially given its instrumentation and Bowie’s recognizable voice (I should mention that Brian Eno co-wrote the music with Bowie). The 1977 version is more upbeat than Gabriel’s 2010 arrangement, and utilizes a steadier rhythmic drive throughout. Comparing the two arrangements, I would argue that Gabriel’s arrangement is more subtle and romantic than Bowie’s, given the overall softer dynamics, orchestration, and poignant use of harmony.

Fact.

Further Contexts: Why I Think Gabriel’s Arrangement Is More Effective for This Scene

Well, it depends on your personal situation, but if you’re Will in Stranger Things and you’re singing this song because the Demogorgon is after you in The Upside Down, then you should definitely GO!

One tricky point to consider regarding these two versions is that Bowie’s 1977 original would have been released during the time the show’s narrative action begins in 1983. Stranger Things does a great job of evoking a 1980s atmosphere, accomplished in large part due to the soundtrack, much of which uses songs written around the time the show’s action takes place. In particular, bands like Jefferson Airplane, Toto, Modern English, Tangerine Dream, and especially the use of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” would have been available around the time the show takes place. Also, the show’s original soundtrack heavily utilizes synthesizers and electronic sounds evocative of the early 1980s, so the vast majority of the music and sound we hear establish an atmosphere that supports the action taking place on screen. Thus, when Gabriel’s 2010 arrangement of Bowie’s song is heard at the end of Chapter Three, it stands apart from the rest of the show’s soundtrack to a certain degree. In particular, the use of all string accompaniment rather than synthesizers, and the modern, colorful use of harmony sound rather different from most of the 80s pop tunes heard in the show up to that point.

However, even though Bowie’s original recording may have fit in with the rest of the soundtrack from the standpoint of historical accuracy, I think there are several good reasons for using Gabriel’s arrangement that help create an atmosphere that better fits this particular scene. First, the tempo of Gabriel’s version is a bit slower than Bowie’s (90 BPM vs. 112 BPM), which, especially when combined with the slower rhythmic values at the beginning, allows for a more pensive mood. The softer use of orchestral string accompaniment also helps create this mood given the gentler timbre of these instruments compared to the use of percussion, guitars, and electronic sound elements in Bowie’s version. Gabriel’s version begins at a much slower pace and builds in drive and intensity towards the song’s climax, heard in particular through the use of sixteenth notes in the upper strings and increase in volume between the first and second verses. In the scene, the build toward the song’s climax corresponds to the emotional response of the characters in the scene — Mike and the boys upset over the death of their friend, and Joyce’s relief as she runs into her older son Jonathan, after running from the Demogorgon that burst through her wall as she was trying to help her younger son Will.

Joyce communicates with her son Will using this pseudo-ouija board made of Christmas lights and a painted alphabet on her living room wall.

One Step Further: Relating the Historical Context of Bowie’s Song to This Scene

From a purely musical standpoint I think Gabriel’s version suits this scene much better than Bowie’s would have, but there is still information that can be drawn from Bowie’s original to suggest why this song may have been chosen for this scene in the first place. Bowie wrote the original version of “‘Heroes’” while living in Berlin, and as the story goes, he was allegedly inspired by the sight of two lovers embracing by the Berlin Wall (this great post by Chris O’Leary goes into a lot of detail on the song’s history). Thus, one interpretation of this song is that the two characters in this story are fighting to stay together in the face of an uncertain future. There is hope tinged with a sense of melancholy, which I think captures something rather poignant about the image of two lovers embracing by the Berlin Wall.

I think this story of lovers embracing by the Berlin Wall is relevant here given the fact that this scene in Stranger Things ends with the image of two embraces – Mike and his mother Karen, and Jonathan and his mother Joyce. Even though each embrace is between a mother and her son rather than two lovers, the image of each mother/son pair still expresses the general sentiment of love in the face of adversity. These embraces take place for two different reasons — Mike is upset after seeing his friend’s dead body, and Joyce is frightened by the monster that chased her out of her home. However, for both mother/son pairs, the embrace signifies comfort to offer respite from the hardships they are facing, which is captured perfectly by the lyrics of Bowie’s original song.

Mike embracing his mother Karen at the end of Chapter Three “Holly Jolly”
Jonathan embracing his mother Joyce at the end of Chapter Three “Holly Jolly”

The wall used in Bowie’s lyrics refers directly to the Berlin Wall, but I think in this show it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for other types of walls. Perhaps one of the clearer examples is probably the wall that exists between Hawkins, IN and “The Upside Down.” One of the main plot points in Stranger Things is that Will is somehow pulled into this alternate dimension, and his family and friends try to bring him back to our universe. Thus, a sort of wall exists between the two worlds, keeping the characters apart. In the context of this scene, the “wall” in the lyrics can be interpreted as the wall between Hawkins and The Upside Down. The embrace shared between characters represents similar loving emotions to those implied in the context of Bowie’s original song, despite the fact that the wall in Stranger Things cannot be seen.

Conclusions

The point of analyzing music and/or art from multiple angles is not that any one perspective is “correct,” but rather that each new viewpoint provides us with a slightly more nuanced interpretation of the whole. Examining the music in this scene from Stranger Things provides several ways for us to understand the potential narrative meanings created through the combination of music and dramatic action on the screen. Gabriel’s subtle arrangement, combined with some of the context from Bowie’s original, adds to the emotional scene taking place at this point in the show. By studying different perspectives, we can potentially deepen our appreciation of music and art — all you need is curiosity, and the persistence to satisfy it.

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