Gossip Girl cast
Photo: HBO Max

‘Gossip Girl’ Reboot Music Supervisor Unpacks the Soundtrack For Season 1

Rob Lowry explains his process for creating playlists based on each character and living up to the original soundtrack.

A soundtrack for a movie or television show can be a memorable opportunity for the music supervisor to engage with its audience. When HBO Max announced that Gossip Girl would be reviving, fans wondered what would come of the beloved drama in a modern setting. Although the reboot varies from the original concerning its storyline, LGBTQ+ representation, and diverse cast, the soundtrack is as significant as its predecessor. With celebrity appearances from Billy Porter and Princess Nokia to hearing familiar songs from Tierra Whack and Doja Cat, the 2021 reboot kept the luxurious, expensive energy that is expected from the show.

In the original Gossip Girl, predominantly indie rock and indie pop were heard throughout the entirety of the series, which is the prominent difference between the reboot and its predecessor. As the reboot’s pilot begins, the audience is introduced to “All My Girls Like to Fight” by London-based singer Hope Tala. Scattered throughout the series are familiar names like Frank Ocean and Tinashe, but there’s opportunity to discover non-mainstream artists like Q and Jessie Ware. Music supervisor Rob Lowry says that the familiarity of songs like “Positions” by Ariana Grande in “Just Another Girl on MTA” is a “powerful moment.” Lowry’s work ranges from slasher comedy film Freaky to comedy drama series The Bold Type, so he was more than prepared to tackle the task of creating a unique sound for each of Manhattan’s wealthy characters.

After connecting with Lowry about my appreciation of the soundtrack, I met with him over Zoom to chat about the job of a music supervisor, our favorite soundtracks, and what’s to come for HBO’s latest teen drama.

Whenever I mentioned this interview opportunity to my editor, we mentioned your fans on Twitter. What was it like to view your raving reviews on your Twitter timeline?

Twitter is really funny. I mean, I’m 34. But I feel like a part of my job is trying to have to be in touch and wanting to be in touch with what Gen Z is doing. And I love pop culture, so it’s pretty easy for me to stay in touch with that stuff. I mean, the reactions are so visceral. Like the amount of tweets that are like, “The music supervisor [of Gossip Girl] needs to get his ass ate.” People now just send them to me when they see them. Honestly, when I post [the episode soundtrack] on Wednesday, it’s the highlight of my week. It just feels like the episodes every week feel like an event, and I don’t think that happens very often. 

 

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Have you visited the set of the show while filming yet?

I haven’t been on set, because they’re in New York and I’m in LA. I probably would have gone to set for the Princess Nokia shoot, but it was in the middle of the pandemic. In the last year and a half, we’ve done like 20-25 projects, and everything has been completely remote. So it’s kinda crazy, just sitting here at my desk and working on this thing that millions of people are watching and responding to them just in my little bubble here.

Speaking of Princess Nokia, what was the motive behind inviting her onto the show?

We wanted it to be a New Yorker, and obviously, the first one was so iconic with Gaga and Florence and the Machine. It’s obviously [the reboot] has these nods to the original, but I think it’s also been a question of, “How can it stand on its own two legs? How can we make our own thing?” When we were going through our list and talking to different artists, I think Nokia was a perfect fit. She was so excited about it and such a fan of the show. I just think it was a good representation of what the new version of the show is.

With a show that is a reboot and needs to be as modern as possible compared to its predecessor, what was your process for keeping the soundtrack to keep it modern and fresh?

Today, people discover music in such a different way than they did when the original was happening. When the original aired, there wasn’t Shazam. If I heard something I like, you would try and write down the lyrics as fast as you could and google it afterwards. With the new one, we obviously knew it was going to be different. The [original Gossip Girl] is amazing. It’s a lot of indie rock and pop. This one obviously is more like pop, R&B, and hip-hop. When you hear Ariana Grande’s “Positions,” I think it’s a powerful moment, because people know the song, and I think sometimes that can take away from a scene when you’re like, “I already know the song.” But I feel like you’re re-contextualizing it, so in that moment, you’re like, “Oh, fuck, I haven’t really like heard this in a TV show.” It just feels expensive. It feels like it brings this really rich, deep value to it. 

Would you say that the soundtrack of television and film has an impact on its success and memorability?

Absolutely. I grew up in an age of these soundtracks that we look back on so fondly, like Can’t Hardly Wait and 10 Things I Hate About You. The amount of shows that have great soundtracks like High Fidelity, Euphoria, Normal People, and Lovecraft Country, if there’s bad music and a good project, it’s gonna stick out like a sore thumb. I feel like music can take an OK project and make it better. I think bad music can take an OK project and make it worse. You’re telling people how to feel by creating a guide or a map of emotions throughout the episode, whether it’s through source music or original score.

What was the difference in curating the music for Gossip Girl in comparison to your previous work on The Bold Type and Freaky?

Every single project is different. First and foremost, you meet with the showrunner, the director, the creator — whoever you’re working hand in hand with and it’s like, “What is this vision? What does this sound like?” Because when you get onto a pilot episode, you’re basically creating something from nothing. For The Bold Type, we carved out a very specific sound for five seasons. We only used artists that identified as women or non-binary, so it was only female vocalists and pop music from from women. Freaky was fun in so many ways, because I love slasher films and comedy-horror movies. The director, Chris [Landon], loves pop music, so we had some pop, classic and doo-wop. For Gossip Girl, there’s 14 main characters, so one of the first things that we did was create playlists for each character. Based on those playlists, we started to have a conversation about what they listen to and the world that they’re living in. Every project, you kinda approach it the same way. But every project is so different in terms of how you’re figuring it out. But for me — creatively speaking — it’s usually driven by, “Who are the characters? What’s the setting with the world they’re living in?” 

Since we’re currently on episode five of Gossip Girl, what’s been your favorite episode for its soundtrack?

I really love the pilot. I also think season one episode six is really, really good, and it ends on a really amazing song and moment. 

The pilot’s soundtrack was great! Beginning with Hope Tala and Frank Ocean in episode one won me over. Do you think that first track of the episode sets a tone for the series?

I think the opening song to a show or a movie is like a thesis statement, because it sets the whole tone for what’s coming. You’re setting the entire sonic palette in a way. For the pilot, it’s the blueprint for how we’ve handled things, but I also think that we look at things episode-to-episode. While I think there is a world that we’re living within and a sound that we’ve created, I do think we look at characters and settings episode-by-episode. So something that might not have made sense in the pilot might make perfect sense in episode seven.

Did you feel nervous trying to fill the shoes of the previous music supervisor for the original Gossip Girl?

Absolutely. Alex Patsavas was my hero growing up. Like, The O.C., Gossip Girl, Chuck — she did all that. I was obviously such a huge fan. I actually never met her, and we met right before I started on Gossip Girl, and she was so nice and supportive and encouraging. So yeah, it’s huge shoes to fill, but I also think in the same instance, it’s a different show, a different era, and there’s a different way that people view the soundtrack. It’s been tough, but I’m pretty comfortable with it now. I was very nervous at first, but seeing the reception has reinforced that we’re doing the right thing by following our instinct.

Stream Lowry’s official Spotify playlist for the Gossip Girl reboot below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.