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Yellowjackets Is A Masterclass In How To Use Music On TV (And Here's What Other Shows Get Wrong)

"Yellowjackets," which is finally returning for its sophomore season, made a ton of successful choices during Season 1. First and foremost, its casting is eerily good. The teenage versions of each character look and sound almost exactly like their adult counterparts, making the shift between timelines beautifully seamless (Sophie Nélisse, who plays Young Shauna, is so like Melanie Lynskey that it feels like the showrunners found both a time machine and a way to clone Lynskey). The world-building and mystery box of it all is intriguing, weird, and spooky, but also feels totally planned out, inspiring hope that the showrunners actually know what they're doing.

Another thing this series is particularly great at? Needle drops. Set between 1996 and 2021, "Yellowjackets" really leans on 90s music, and does so to dependably excellent effect. The show would be gripping and wild enough without a killer soundtrack, but thanks to a top-notch music coordinator who's worked on several other hits in recent years, "Yellowjackets" has become a masterclass on how to use music — and an example that a bunch of other shows should try and follow.

Yellowjackets' excellent needle drops come from their music coordinator

In an interview with Variety, Jen Malone — who's also worked on buzzy projects like the A24 movie "Zola," HBO's salacious teen drama "Euphoria," and the recent Netflix hit "Wednesday" — explained why she's so fond of working on "Yellowjackets." As Malone told the outlet, "'Yellowjackets' is a love letter to the '90s. I was in high school in the mid-'90s in New Jersey. I was literally going back to the mixtapes I had when I was growing up. It was so fun and rewarding to pitch some of my favorite songs, whether it was PJ Harvey or Jane's Addiction or Portishead. We haven't even scratched the surface of the music I want to put in 'Yellowjackets' from that time period."

Malone's work is, clearly, paying off. Fans of the show have continually hailed just how perfectly timed and selected her musical choices are, and it's a huge part of the series thus far, with viewers able to clock songs they loved from the 90s that play right into the narrative in unexpected and unique ways. So, then, what is the reason that Malone's song picks work so, so well?

The songs on Yellowjackets fit the scenes perfectly, but in clever (instead of obvious) ways

The music on "Yellowjackets" come really close to being on the nose, but Malone cleverly veers away from being too obvious whenever possible, prioritizing the vibe of the song over lyrics or theme. In doing so, she manages to strike the perfect balance. 

Take "Glory Box" by Portishead, which plays during the show's second episode, "F Sharp." Shauna, a seemingly unassuming and meek housewife in her adult life, accesses her animal instincts from her time stranded in the woods by hunting a rabbit in her backyard and quietly serving it to her family at dinner, and the whole thing is scored perfectly by the aforementioned 90s song. There are some moments of levity, too, like when the team comes together at their cabin in the woods to perform a synchronized dance to Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It."

The song in the Season 2 trailer made it clear from the outset that these terrific musical choices would continue, and across the board, "Yellowjackets" excels at a needle drop, whether the adult versions of the girls are engaged in a high-stakes car chase set to Prodigy's "Firestarter," or "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star soundtracks a grown-up Nat (Juliette Lewis) mourning her first and only love, or the teens get ready for a party ultimately ruined by hallucinogenic mushrooms to "Gepetto" by Belly (the last one also has an acapella sing-along to "Kiss From a Rose" by the girls, which feels exactly right). This is a show with an excellent sense of when and where to deploy the perfect song choice, but not every series shares that trait.

Some shows have truly terrible needle drops

There are a lot of shows that should probably start taking cues from "Yellowjackets" when it comes to needle drops, and a perfect example is the long-running medical drama "Grey's Anatomy." This show tends to be painfully on the nose with its song choices — think "How to Save a Life" by The Fray playing over a high-stakes surgery, or "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol used during the same season, crooning the words "if I lay here" over a girl laying on top of her dead fiance. That's all without even mentioning the fact that nearly every single episode title is the name of a song as well as the entirely dreadful musical episode titled — wait for it — "How to Save a Life."

"Bridgerton," another Shonda Rhimes joint, uses its needle drops in a way that seems really cool at first, but ends up being distracting. In any episode that features some sort of upper-class event in the Ton, the string quartets play covers of modern pop songs like Ariana Grande's "thank u, next." What feels like a fun little Easter egg at first ends up completely drawing your attention, turning each needle drop into a game of "what's that tune" and pulling focus from whatever's going on in the scene. HBO's late sci-fi epic "Westworld" pulled the same stunt with pianos and 90s tunes, to similar results.

The point is, there are good ways and bad ways to do needle drops, and "Yellowjackets" has a pretty firm grasp on the good way. Other shows should realize this, pick literally any episode, and start taking notes.