SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “The Dropout” on Hulu.
When crafting the soundtrack for Hulu’s “The Dropout,” music supervisor Maggie Phillips and show creator Elizabeth Meriwether sought out, as Phillips puts it, “songs that scream 2010.”
Set between 2003 and 2018, “The Dropout” chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), as she goes from founding a medical technology company worth $9 billion to being indicted for fraud. Based on the ABC News podcast of the same name, the limited series has been critically lauded for its writing, acting and music, which incorporates everything from Katy Perry’s “Firework” to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love.”
Phillips, who supervised the show with coordinators Kristen Higuera and Andrew Brady, was drawn to it because she had never worked on a project with music that came out during her adult years.
“[It’s] a time period that I knew very well, so that was enticing,” Phillips says. “Liz was very clear, and I agreed with her 100%, that we really wanted it to be about setting the time and picking the big ticket songs… It was about the bigger songs that everyone remembers from the radio, to really encapsulate that time period.”
Below, Phillips discusses the show’s best needle drops, almost clearing a Kanye West song and the story behind Tyler’s (Dylan Minnette) awkward serenade on Elizabeth’s birthday.
The show is such a time capsule of 2000s and 2010s hits, and of course, it’s based on a real life story. How did that inform some of the choices?
The song by Alabama in Episode 1 [“I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)”], we knew that was one of her favorite songs. It’s also documented that she listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap, so we leaned into that for a lot of the music.
We see early on that Elizabeth Holmes likes to dance awkwardly. In Episode 2, she dances to “We Run This” by Missy Elliott. How did that song choice come to be?
That was a Liz selection and one of the first things we went out to clear before the pandemic. It changed a few times. The way I saw it for her is she’s pumping herself up. It’s almost like pre-party music or workout music or the song you put on to build up your confidence. But then it kind of unravels in the episode. So we start with her dancing, and even though it’s awkward and weird, you’re feeling her and you’re excited for her. And then it becomes her pitching this idea to all these men and no one buying it, but she’s still playing the music.
In Episode 4, “Firework” by Katy Perry is used masterfully as Walgreens VP Jay Rosan (Alan Ruck) listens to it in his car before meeting with Theranos, and quotes its lyrics at the end of the episode. How did that come to be, and was it meant to be on the radio or was he listening to it on CD?
We felt like it could have been either. We wanted a song that my mom would know and a 20-year-old would know because it’s a song you still hear on the radio now — a song that stood the test of time from that period, something that screams 2010 but also feels somewhat relevant, and something that is believable that this guy would hear it on the radio and keep it playing, or he would have actually selected it himself. We were in the Obama era — music was more hopeful, music was something to build us up, to give us hope, to make us aspire and feel good. [Theranos] was a lot of the blind leading the blind, and all their musical choices were helpful, aspirational tunes. Most of the music choices, except for a few, are all more fun, hopeful and speak to that part of the story and not to the hidden underbelly, which the original score does.
Were there any hiccups when it came to licensing that song?
That’s a song that’s been licensed a ton before, so it wasn’t a huge challenge. That [type of] music has bigger-ticket prices, so there’s that, but it wasn’t a difficult clearance. I mean, most people were excited to be part of this show. We tried to clear a Kanye West song, and there actually was interest from his people too, but we just couldn’t get it cleared in time. There’s been other times when we’ve never heard from Kanye, so we were like, “Wow.”
I have to ask you about the “What I Like About You” parody the Walgreens guys sing – was that scripted in or did that actually happen in real life?
It was the brainchild of [director] Michael Showalter, who I loved working with. We knew it was going to be a difficult clear, we knew we were going to be doing these parody lyrics, so I actually asked my contacts for what kind of songs from this time period would be OK with poking fun. So we sent Liz and Michael a handful of songs and they picked “What I Like About You.” The actor, he started performing it and I think he added a verse of his own and stuff, and he did such a good job… That’s what I loved about Liz’s work on this show — it could have been so dry, so boring, depressing. It’s still hard to watch, but she interjects it with some fun and some humanity.
Then in Episode 5, we get another awkward dancing scene when Elizabeth tries to seduce Sunny to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love,” which has gone viral since. Why was that the perfect song for that scene?
We sent a handful of ideas over to Liz for that spot from that time period, and Liz talked to Amanda and they picked it out together. I don’t know how much it was Liz or Amanda or the director, but it was the perfect song. Gabe Hilfer, another music supervisor, told me years ago, “I call myself an option provider.” And I like that, because it’s what we do. We’re constantly providing options. A lot of factors come into play when you do that, like previous uses, price tag, what the lyrics are, would she choose this song, did it get enough radio play. “Dropout,” more than any show, it was actually quite easy to put together a playlist because we only had a couple-year date range.
Dylan Minnette’s character, Tyler, performs an original song for Elizabeth at her 30th birthday party. He’s obviously musically talented as he has his own band, Wallows — did Dylan write that song and how did that concept come to be?
Actually, the guy who wrote that song is my friend from the band Guster, Ryan Miller. Liz was like, “I want something kind of earnest and heartfelt and melodic,” and I was like, “Oh, Ryan would be perfect!” And Ryan wrote that in, like, a day. It’s such a sweet song. She was like, “It’s gotta be almost like he’s in love with Elizabeth, and it’s almost cringeworthy but also really sweet.” The moments when he’s singing it, right after he found out that his idol is lying to them all — he performed that so well.
Besides songs that were on Top 40 radio, there’s also a lot of indie music from the 2000s-2010s in the show, like LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Why was that important to include?
The early 2000s, for me, was when I was in my 20s and living in Williamsburg and I knew all the indie bands and never listened to the radio because I was too cool to listen to the radio. So to throw together playlists from indie music from 2002, I can do it in my sleep. And then for [Liz] to pick some of them — it was so much fun. We were very careful of whenever we put those songs in, it was definitely not something that one of the characters picked. It was like, we’re using it as score and just to give a little bit of range in the music. Those are time stamps I think a lot of people who are my age and older, that screams a certain time period, too. For me, that screams early 2000s way more than a Missy Elliott song would. But getting that Sparklehorse in — and even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, when I got introduced to them they were playing small shows in New York City — it was so fun.