The New 'Gossip Girl' Also Has a New Soundtrack

The New 'Gossip Girl' Also Has a New Soundtrack

by Larisha Paul

The HBO Max Gossip Girl revival arrived on the streaming service today. And, as with the original show, music proves pivotal to chronicling the debauched lives of Manhattan's young elite. When we're introduced to the new generation of wealthy teen troublemakers in the trailer, gathered in the courtyard for the first day of school, Frank Ocean's "Super Rich Kids" sets the stage for what's to come: "Too many white lies and white lines / Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends."

The new Gossip Girl soundtrack is the work of music supervisor Rob Lowry (The Bold Type, Ramy, Love Life), brought on by showrunner Joshua Safran and inheriting the legacy of Alexandra Patsavas, who crafted the sound of the original series. Lowry grew up watching Gossip Girl in the 2010s and credits Patsavas with inspiring him to work in the field. But his own expertise also came through as he adapted to the way music consumption has changed in the near-decade since Dan Humphrey and friends graced our screens. "It's the most fun type of show to work on," Lowry tells PAPER. "You're playing with people's emotions and you're getting to really indulge as extremely as you can."

HBO Max's Gossip Girl is littered with massive pop hits. Ariana Grande's "Positions" emerges from classical strings — the series is scored by Grammy-nominated producer Ariel Rechtshaid — as the title card appears on screen. Doja Cat scores three placements within the first four episodes. There's also an element of music discovery that centers artists like Kito, Exmiranda and Hope Tala. "With the characters, they're coming from all different walks of life and they all have their own unique experiences," Lowry explains. "The more rounded the perspective is musically, the better." He also wanted the music to match Gossip Girl's lush, big-budget visuals. "When you're looking at the show, it looks like a feature film," he says. "It should sound that way, too."

As we enter the new era of Gossip Girl, Lowry discusses his process of creating sonic themes for both the multi-generational set of characters and New York City itself, bringing the classic series up to speed for the TikTok generation and the underrated role of music supervision in film and television.

You came into the revival of a classic series as a successor to Alex Patsavas, who you mentioned was essentially the modern music supervisor blueprint. Was that intimidating?

Absolutely. It's still intimidating. I still wake up at 3AM with anxiety about it. I felt confident in my taste and my understanding of the material and having a relationship with Josh [Saffran], being on the same page as him. It's very exciting, but it's also very nerve wracking because no matter what, we're holding it up to the original standards and, looking back now, certain things hit you at a certain point in your life. It was so formative for so many people that, of course, it was iconic. I'm certainly very hyper aware of and curious about how it's going to be perceived. You want people to love it. I want people to get excited about the music. I want people to feel emotional about certain things.

What was your process of preparing for this job?

It was trying to go into it with as fresh a mind as possible. Preparing for it was certainly researching and being up to date on modern stuff. I'm such a huge pop and R&B fan, so that came pretty naturally. Starting by creating playlists based on the characters and the pilot and knowing where certain storylines were going, a lot of it is dialogue with Josh about his taste and about my taste as the show evolves in the season. Josh and I have pretty similar tastes, but then Josh also loves a lot of classical music, a lot of opera. That starts to weave its way in and it becomes balanced with R&B and pop and hip-hop. It speaks to the world very well in terms of these three generations of stories that are being told and these three different perspectives from characters, and also just the city of New York and all the different cultures.

What role did the character playlists play in shaping the sound of the show?

The character playlists are always interesting because it's not even necessarily like these are the songs that we're going to use for this character. It's more like, what does this person listen to? There were fourteen of them. They were pretty scattered in terms of, you know, you have everything from Julian to Kate to Davis. Davis is a record producer, so we had a playlist [considering] who are the artists he's produced and worked with? It's a lot of different generations, a lot of perspectives. And maybe that works for the musical identity of a show and maybe it doesn't.

The first introduction the audience had to the music of Gossip Girl was in the trailer. Why was "Super Rich Kids" the perfect song to set the tone for the series?

We don't always have a say in marketing stuff, that's generally a separate tier. But with this, there was a lot of overlap. Josh and I had the conversation of wanting to leave breadcrumbs and be self referential in some ways, but also it's very much the new Gossip Girl. You have to reference the past while still having it stand on its own two feet. I think Frank Ocean was a great nod to the original. It's such a timeless song. It's something you've heard before, maybe a million times, but also it's still super potent and it takes on a new context with this new group of kids. It's a good way to bridge the gap from the old one and the new one while teasing newer things and still adhering to the world that was created.

In the first episode, we're meeting this new generation of characters as they're getting ready for school and we're hearing Hope Tala's "All My Girls Like To Fight." How does this song fit into the tone of the scene while also having it lyrically fit the context?

I feel like it does such a nice job of setting the scene. There was always a question of what the opening song was going to be because "Young Folks" [by Peter Bjorn and John, the opening song from the original Gossip Girl] is so iconic. We weren't trying to recreate that, but I think it sets the card so well. It builds in a nice way and lyrically is obviously on point. It feels sophisticated and a little bit seductive. Tonally it's really on par with the sound that we're creating for the show.

How do you find a balance between the production of a song and the lyrical elements?

I'm a little bit more open-minded to lyrical interpretation and what it means to people. Josh can sometimes be a little bit more specific in terms of like, this song has nothing to do with what's going on. We balance each other out in that way. Lyrically, it's important, but first off it's like, what's the vibe like? Because if it's the wrong tempo, the wrong tone, the wrong feeling, it doesn't really matter what the lyrics are saying. Especially with this show, I think that there's a lot of opportunity to use lyrics in a way that is open to interpretation or a broader context of what we're trying to say.

It seems like the majority of the music for Gossip Girl coms from non-male artists. Was that intentional?

Good observation. We're approaching every episode as if it's its own thing, its own little self-contained story sonically. The structure of basically every episode builds to an event of some sort. Structurally, we have the sound of the show, the world of the show and that's obviously driven by pop culture in a lot of ways. Then, these specific events have their own identity. After the play [in episode three], it's the adults' party and the adults' stories, so that has a bunch of 80s stuff. Then, [in episode four], we have the birthday party and that's big, modern pop stuff. It's Megan Thee Stallion, Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, Saweetie. We want to make it feel cohesive.

How do you view the role of pop music in a show like Gossip Girl?

Pop music, with a lot of these artists, has such a strong perspective [in a way that] I think really supports the storytelling. It's not wallpaper, it's not just in the background. It's like, here's this statement, here's how you're going to feel and here's what's going on. Especially in a lot of the Dumbo Hall scenes throughout the season, Dumbo Hall has a sound and it's cool to be able to develop that sound. It's cool to know that you're in this very specific space and you know how it feels and you can almost feel yourself or see yourself there because of how it sounds and how it looks and all of these things.

How did you find a balance between music discovery, introducing emerging artists like Exmiranda, and featuring major pop hits?

With "Positions" over the title sequence, there's so much power in that recognizability and in that visibility. When you hear that opening, you're just like: yes, Ariana, let's go. The show is so rich in so many ways, pun intended, and there's something about the wealth and the production value of a song like "Positions." And then we have Japanese House and Justin Vernon, which I think most people probably won't know when they hear it, and [we use] a lesser known Chloe x Halle song. It's fun to introduce people to new music and there's a lot of that littered in. It's also using some of these bigger songs in a context that people haven't heard or seen before. It adds to the richness layer of everything because when you're looking at it, the show looks like a feature film. It's so beautiful and so well shot. It should sound that way, too.

What were the musical moments from the original series that really stood out to you as a fan?

I remember one of the Thanksgiving episodes premiering Vampire Weekend's "White Sky," or something, which I loved. It was cool for the first time you're hearing a song to be on this show. I didn't have Shazam growing up, obviously. I would literally sit in front of the TV with a little note pad and pen writing down lyrics as quickly as I possibly could, and then Googling them trying to figure out what the song was afterwards.

How do you see the main characters as a reflection of Gen-Z and its relationship with social media, and how does that tie into the music?

I think the show represents social media in a really true to life way that I think a lot of shows struggle with. We talk about the way that people discover, share and use music. It's so anti-aesthetic. You're taking some liberties in making it feel cohesive because the way people listen to music today isn't as cohesive. It's just scattered with singles and finding music through TikTok. Musically speaking, I think we're doing our best to represent stuff that [the characters] are attracted to, stuff that they're listening to. It's fun to be able to play within those boundaries or within that world where there kind of aren't boundaries. You are telling these different generational stories and you can draw from the different characters and it still feels like it's of the same elk.

What do you want the audience to take away from what they're hearing on Gossip Girl?

As we go on introducing smaller artists, I hope people use that as a rabbit hole for discovery. I hope that there's moments in the show where someone discovers something. If someone's like, I heard this song for the first time on Gossip Girl and now it's my favorite song – that's when it becomes inseparable from a scene or a sequence. Whenever you hear that song, you think about that scene or someone else uses it somewhere and you're like, ah, but they used it in Gossip Girl. Making your impact that way I think is the best.

What's your perspective on the role of music in TV and how it impacts audiences even once the episode is over?

When you're working on a film or show, music is the last thing that you pay for. So when people are trying to make up money in other areas, they're always pulling from our licensing budget. That's not the case with Gossip Girl. But have you ever watched a movie without music? It's 50% of the experience, and if you use one song versus another song, it changes the entire context of a scene. It just continues to grow in importance. There's an Emmy for it now, and they're trying to get an Oscar for it. But internally, it's not really celebrated the way it should be, to be honest. It's not that a soundtrack can make or break a film or TV show, but I mean, Euphoria is amazing and a huge part of that is Jen [Malone's] work. And a huge part of that is Labrinth's score. Everything is so intertwined. It's a huge part of storytelling and it always has been.

Photo courtesy of HBO Max