I Didn’t See “Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber Coming
A Teacher’s co–music supervisor Jessica Berndt on the show’s needle drops.
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Though I found A Teacher radically bland, I was obsessed with its music. Episode one played Frank Ocean and Tyga; a school dance cued up Usher’s “Climax.” Part of it was the familiarity, the way those same songs were on the radio during my own coming of age; part of it was just me being nosy. The music was good and surprising and clearly selected with a lot of intention. When high school senior Eric (Nick Robinson) acts on his feelings for an overly friendly, Madewell-y teacher (Kate Mara), the camera lingers on her face for a moment, as she rubs her just-kissed lips in shock. The opening sirens of Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” lead into the end credits: “If I was your boyfriend I’d never let you go…” There was something thrilling about that song in that scene: how teenage it was, but also how it betrayed the teacher character’s secret inner monologue. She saw her student as a lover; we see him, rightly, as a victim of grooming and abuse. (I wrote about this specific needle drop, and how much I appreciated it, in the inaugural Friday Post.)
After I finished the series, I was curious about the minds who outfitted this indie show with “Rack City” and Shania Twain. The music fit the tastes of the white suburban high school kids I grew up knowing, but it also went off into the sly or the skeptical — the “Boyfriend” cue is so bold! (By the finale, I liked A Teacher a little bit more, but I agree with Emily VanDerWerff’s idea that it might be better binged, rather than dragged out across weeks and weeks.) Music supervisors Chris Swanson and Jessica Berndt, who’ve worked on Wild Wild Country and Easy, were responsible for many of the show’s needle drops; director Hannah Fidell had written many others into the script. Berndt was available for an interview about her work on the show. We talked about choosing music for the show, budgeting for hits, and what to do when a musician passes.
I don’t know much about music supervision, so I’d like to start pretty generally. How did you get into this work?
I started working at the label called Secretly Group about 10 years ago. It’s co-founded by Chris Swanson, who’s my co–music supervisor on all projects. Secretly consists of three record labels: Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans. We’ve also got a music publishing company called Secretly Publishing. We get to work with a lot of cool artists. We’ve got Mitski, Bon Iver, Moses Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers, just to name a few of the amazing artists on the three labels.
Chris and I had come from the indie music world. Chris has always had this extreme love for film and he had some director friends and producer friends. Because he’s obviously got such an amazing ear, they just sort of said, “Hey, do you want to music supervise my film?” That’s how the supervision work began. I had actually started with the company on the backend, in the accounting department. I learned a lot about that side of the music industry. About five years ago, Chris needed some extra help with the music supervision work, and we became the music supervision team.
How did A Teacher come about?
We were really lucky to work with the show’s creator, Hannah Fidell, on a couple of her past films. Chris music supervised her film 6 Years, and Chris and I both worked on her most recent film, The Long Dumb Road. A Teacher is based on her 2013 film of the same name. We were just very lucky to be brought on board. We love working with Hannah and we have a long history with her.
Where does a job like this start for you?
On some projects, there’s a bit of an interview process. With Hannah, because we knew her, we didn’t have to fight for it too much. In mid-2019 we got the first round of scripts for all ten episodes at once. So, reading through all the scripts, we picked out the music moments that were already written into the script. Sometimes a specific song might be referenced, or just like a general vibe: Eric’s going to be at a house party; we’re probably gonna need something there. That’s the first step.
As [the production] gets to working on things, do we need to pre-clear anything? Obviously, one big one for us was the homecoming dance in episode three, and we knew we were going to need a lot of music. We needed to have songs that the kids can dance to and whatnot, so we needed to prep some songs for them to play along while filming. The same for the stripper scene in episode seven. Other than that, just staying in constant communication with Hannah and the music editors, seeing what songs they need for each scene, and then just doing the clearance work. That’s a lot of intense work with the labels and publishers of all these songs to negotiate pricing and see what we can make happen.
I read an interview with Hannah where she said that it took a while for FX to realize that A Teacher was a “music show,” that she’d written a show where the music was very important. How many of the songs were in the script, and how much of the work was you and Chris bringing her songs?
Yeah, that’s exactly how it happened. We were brought in, and I will say the music budget was fairly low, in the indie realm. We were like, Okay, this is going to be very challenging to get a number of these songs. Hannah created this story in 2013 and pre-2013 and has been developing the series for the last five or six years. She has such a strong idea about what song specifically should play in each scene. Probably, as she’s writing some of these scripts, she’s like, ’This is the song that needs to play.’ The reality really comes down to budgeting: How expensive is it going to be to clear a Tyga song or a Frank Ocean song?
Realizing how important the music was to Hannah, FX was willing to bend a bit and up our budget so that we could get a lot of these amazing songs cleared. Major label music is just very challenging to clear in general. A single song can take three to four months to get full approvals on. With hip-hop songs that often have multiple songwriters and multiple producers involved, suddenly it’s 10 different parties you’re trying to hit up to clear one single song. I’m very glad that FX was willing to put the money into the music because I think it really helped set the tone for the show. It would have been a very different show if we’d only used lesser-known indie songs.
I think that’s what made it stand out so much in my mind, initially. I graduated from high school in 2012, and the music does feel almost grossly realistic to what was playing at parties that year and the year after. Is there ever a conversation between what’s time appropriate to 2013, versus what is suburban high school appropriate, if that makes any sense?
Yeah, I would see people comment on the homecoming dance songs, like, Oh, they actually got to listen to 2 Chainz at the dance? I think, obviously, this is a fictional drama TV show; we’re trying to stay as close as possible to what’s realistic. But there are, of course, creative liberties taken. In general, especially with the hip-hop cues, I think it’s pretty realistic to what teenage guys, you know, in 2013 would have been listening to, especially, you know, the popular guys that party and smoke weed and play sports. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think that they would be listening to these things.
When we’re in Claire’s life, that’s when we use more indie rock and some vintage songs, things that would be more appropriate to what she would actually listen to. There’s that moment where Claire plays Frank Ocean on her car stereo. She’s using that to show Eric that she’s connected to his generation, that she’s not some old teacher lady. But in general, it’s about trying to stay as realistic as possible.
Originally, going into it, [the direction] was very specific: We don’t want anything that’s not 2010 to 2013, only what was playing on the radio at that time. But of course, budget and time constraints [changed that]. I should say, too, that abuse and grooming are such sensitive topics, there were certainly some artists that just didn’t want to be included in the show. You can’t blame anyone for that when it is such a difficult topic that we’re covering. There were certainly instances where there was maybe a big pop song that we wanted to use, but we just couldn’t get it approved because they didn’t want to be connected to a show like this. And again, it’s kind of hard to blame anyone for reading the brief synopsis of the series and being like, Ooh, this could get hairy.
We have to talk about my favorite needle drop: the Bieber song at the end of episode two. How did you all arrive at that?
That was such an interesting one. I think it is maybe the most talked about one; like, I think it really affected people. That one was actually a pick by Hannah, one of the very specific songs she wanted all along. I’m very glad we were able to make it happen. I think it’s almost a bit of foreshadowing of the relationship that’s going to come between these two characters. We as viewers see the relationship for what it is, as the abuse of a minor, but for Eric and Claire, they’re going to come to believe that they are in a real relationship.
I don’t know if Claire would necessarily call him her “boyfriend,” but, like, they truly believe they’re in a relationship. I think that idea comes up again later with our episode five use of the Mikky Ekko song “Stay.” They truly believe they’re in a beautiful romantic relationship when they’re at this ranch in Texas and are living this whole fantasy.
In some ways, the songs feel like they’re commenting on, or even sometimes betraying, these characters’ emotions and motivations. Is that how you think music supervision works best within this larger art?
Yeah. I think especially for this project, you know, we’re so into their worlds. From the outside, hearing this story, you think, Why would this ever happen? This is so unrealistic. But as we know from news stories and whatnot, like, this is a real situation. Like you said, we’re in her head as she’s starting to feel these feelings for this child, feeling like she’s getting a bit of her youthful spirit back in all the wrong ways. She’s delusional enough to think that.
The other specific episode I wanted to talk about was the finale. The Kendrick Lamar song (“Alright”) and the Moses Sumney song (“Indulge Me”) were both very interesting choices to me.
The Kendrick Lamar song felt the most lyrically appropriate for the older reunion, when they’re coming back after 10 years. The song came out in 2015, a bit past what would’ve been their high school days, but we wanted something that would’ve been a little bit of a throwback from their youth, essentially. And Eric has been dealing with this traumatic experience for 10 years. He’s just now beginning to deal with his emotions and really process how affected he’s been for the last 10 years. Lyrically, that song was really important to us.
And Moses Sumney, yeah, just a beautiful song, introspective song. The original version we saw of that final scene was different. I’m so glad it ended the way it did. We see Claire really coming to terms with what happened, because she’s still been delusional for these last 10 years. She hasn’t fully understood what she did to Eric. Now, she’s a mother and dealing with her children, her current marriage — she’s had this whole different life after the situation. But Eric’s been having these troubles since the moment they met. A really introspective song was important here.
Was there one song that you and the team kept going back and forth on, or maybe something that came in at the last minute?
Honestly, I will say the Moses Sumney song was probably our most debated song. The emotions are so complicated for both. And like I said, the first cut of the final scene that we watched ended on Eric rather than Claire. We were seeing this joyful moment from Eric, where he finally got to have a teeny tiny bit of relief. He’s been thinking about these complicated emotions for so long, and he finally gets to kind of call Claire out for what she’s done. It ended on Eric’s face, rather than Claire’s. It’s hard to find a song that can fully capture all of these emotions lyrically and what would also be appropriate sonically.
How it actually ends, he walks out on Claire. Finally, she’s kind of broken. I’m very glad we ended on this song because I think it really does encapsulate the intense emotions for both of them.
How expensive is it to clear some of these hugely popular songs?
I probably shouldn’t get into specific numbers, but it’s very pricey. Any credits and main title — like anytime it says A Teacher on the screen, that’s a main title use — that’s going to garner like basically sometimes double the cost of background use. For scenes where the kids are dancing along to something, that often gets a higher price as well. In general, it’s very expensive to clear a lot of these.
It’s almost more so the time commitment. You really have to be committed to these songs for many months of negotiations with the labels and publishers. There were situations where I had to reach out to artists directly, like talking to a member of Travis Porter, a group I truly loved. Sometimes pieces are missing on the label side, and they don’t know who controls [the material]. It’s a little bit of digging and research and, again, just patience with negotiating on some of these prices. Since we did get to work with so many major label artists — we were talking with Universal or Sony or Warner Music quite a bit — luckily, they, after a while, understood that we’re going to be using a lot of their songs. Please be generous, you know?
Something that comes up in my work a lot, if I’m working on a more involved story or an oral history, is “this person won’t say yes unless that person says yes,” like a “who all’s gonna be there” thing. Does something similar happen here?
Exactly, that is the exact situation. But of course, once you say you’ve gotten these other artists, they kind of assume you’ve got a ton of money you’re working with. It’s like, obviously if we’re going to pay a certain amount for Kid Cudi, then 2 Chainz’s team is going to expect something similar. That does get kind of difficult.
It is kind of like placing value on these artists’ art, and that’s challenging. You might go in and say, But why would a Ca$h Out song get the same as an Usher song? It’s just this weird balancing act. We can’t really put a number on people’s art, but we have to.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.