It’s hard to think about teen soaps in the early 2000s without thinking about the music that they popularized. The early aughts were a particularly unique time for the TV soundtrack and its influence beyond the small screen. With shows like The O.C., Gossip Girl, Dawson's Creek, and One Tree Hill defining pop culture, it was the music that made for some of the most iconic scenes — and helped these series cultivate lifelong fanbases. For viewers, The O.C. was a tastemaker of indie rock, Gossip Girl curated a world of rising and mainstream pop icons, and One Tree Hill found its footing in the emo and singer-songwriter space, establishing music careers for both burgeoning musicians and the stars of the show. These series not only created memorable plotlines, but they also helped serve as a launching pad for a variety of up-and-coming artists.
Though late 1990s shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped prompt a shift in the way that TV used music to redefine the teen soap narrative, the beginning of a new generation of soundtracking really took off with Dawson’s Creek, which (technically) premiered in 1998. The show, which centered around a close group of intellectual teens, came with well-curated musical moments, both on screen and in companion soundtracks. Because the show took place in the fictional portside town of Capeside, the music veered toward alt-rock and folk, beginning with the show’s theme song, Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait.”
“It was a current song that was popular on the radio, and it brought a sense of familiarity to it,” says Paul Stupin, executive producer of Dawson’s Creek. “But it also brought, I think, a sense of epic quality to the emotions that we were trying to capture.” (According to Stupin, Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” was originally intended to be the show’s theme song.)
Opting for alternative music was not only a sign of the times, but also a way of romanticizing life in Capeside, as well as the love, lust, and heartbreak that the main foursome would endure. Some of the most incredible uses of music narrated the show’s most romantic scenes, like when Joey finally accepted her feelings for Pacey in Season 3, kissing him while Mary Beth Maziarz’s cover of The Monkees’ "Daydream Believer" played in the background; or when Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” played as Jen woke up in Dawson’s bed before Joey saw them together in the Season 1 finale.
“We probably used more female singers than we did male, and for whatever reason, it was just those were the songs that jumped out at me for the moments that we were trying to underscore, so it was such a pleasure to ultimately be able to use this sort of big, iconic powerful male voice in the episode,” says Stupin of McCain’s song, which eventually became a Top 10 Billboard hit. “We were able to introduce that song. I don't know if it had been released yet.”
In Season 2, a drama-filled episode surrounding a homecoming dance popularized a special version of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” as well. While the show didn’t have a venue for artists to play regularly, No Doubt — one of the most popular acts during the series run — did play a set in Season 6, setting the stage for future shows to take soundtracking television to the next level. “I don't think anyone had put music underneath entire scenes, underneath montages, in quite the way that we had,” says Stupin. “It felt particularly fresh and particularly different.”
After Dawson's Creek's six-season run, teen soap The O.C. followed Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), a teen from the wrong side of the tracks, as he infiltrated the elite Newport Beach, California community. What viewers got from the series was a variety of crushes on Ryan, Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), and Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), as well as a truly chaotic level of drama as class clashes, secret romances, crime, and substance abuse plagued the characters on the show. But what also hooked viewers was The O.C.’s incomparable soundtrack.
When it comes to the most memorable music TV scenes of all time, the Season 2 finale of The O.C., where Marissa shot Ryan’s brother, Trey, in slo-mo while Imogen Heap’s vocoder ballad “Hide and Seek” melodramatically played in the background, is likely in the running. The track has had a ripple effect over the years, helping put an already moderately successful Heap on the map even more as “Mmm Whatcha Say” memes filled the internet, SNL parodied the TV scene as “Hide and Seek” played in the background, and Jason Derulo sampled the track in his 2010 breakout hit “Whatcha Say.”
“We had used another Imogen [Heap] track and we're big fans and Marisa Baldi over at Zync, who worked closely with Imogen at the time, forwarded us the advance,” recalls Alexandra Patsavas, music supervisor of The O.C. and Gossip Girl. “We had the album and then when that scene [with Marissa and Trey] came along, it was so clearly the right choice.”
Beyond that one scene, no one will ever forget Season 2 when Summer and Seth had a parodied Spider-Man kiss narrated by a moving Matt Pond PA cover of Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” in the pouring rain; when Ryan rushed to kiss Marissa before the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve to the tune of Finley Quaye and William Orbit’s “Dice”; or when Seth rushed to the airport to tell Anna not to leave Newport because of him to a swoon-worthy Nada Surf cover of OMD’s “If You Leave.”
Music, specifically indie-rock, was the backbone of the series and was integral to shaping TV in soundtracks in the early 2000s. Seth was an indie-rock nerd himself; Death Cab for Cutie was his favorite band, and the group was regularly referenced throughout the series (Summer famously described Death Cab as “one guitar and a whole lotta complaining”), performed at the show’s faux music venue The Bait Shop, and was featured on the show’s soundtrack.
The Bait Shop also became an outlet for The O.C. to showcase and promote indie-rock acts of the time like The Killers, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, and The Thrills. “Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage] wrote [The Bait Shop] into Season 2, and it was really fun for me because I had gotten my start as a college promoter, so I got to combine two things that I love doing, which was booking a club and music supervising the television show,” Patsavas says. The show also allowed Patsavas and her team to experiment. “We did a ‘Beckisode,’” she recalls. “We debuted five songs from what was Beck's new album at the time, ‘Guero.’ Those were creative challenges that I really enjoyed.”
Because of the heightened success of the show’s soundtrack, the series eventually released a compilation of covers featuring tracks that had been popularized by the show. “[‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ by Jem] was the first cover we had created and that was really fun to see how it could be pulled off, how you could have a current artist reinterpret at a great standard and use it effectively to help tell the story,” says Patsavas. “Because, ultimately, the music supervisor's job is to enhance the storytelling, not just create a soundtrack that's a standalone.”
It’s hard to say whether artists like Death Cab for Cutie or The Killers would have the same mainstream success they’ve since found had they not premiered on primetime TV. “We did a lot of debuts, actually,” notes Patsavas. “Coldplay's ‘Fix You’ was debuted, for example, on The O.C., as well as the Beastie Boys ‘Ch-Check It Out,’ and some others. So, we were interested in helping to expose our fan base to great new music.” It’s safe to say that the appeal of the series helped and the music created a hyper-specific world for the characters to live in.
Just one month after The O.C. premiered, One Tree Hill hit the small screen. The show, which followed two half-brothers, Lucas and Nathan Scott (Chad Michael Murray and James Lafferty), competing on the same basketball team, stirred up a slew of romantic drama. Largely through the character Peyton Sawyer (Hilarie Burton), a reluctant cheerleader and secret visual artist, music became a narrative of the series. And she became its primary tastemaker, cultivating this moody aesthetic through her artwork and her choice in mixtapes.
“Peyton was kind of like the punk chick, and we were trying to use what the equivalent of punk was in 2003, which became emo rock,” says Lindsay Wolfington, music supervisor on One Tree Hill. “But we also just wanted to use the best music possible that told the story.”
Like The O.C.’s Bait Shop, One Tree Hill had Tric, a music club started by Peyton. “We realized that there was interest in promoting music through television, as well, and that that was exciting to us because we were music lovers, and that was something we were doing anyway,” recalls Wolfington. “So, that is why Mark [Schwahn] decided to create Tric, so that when we did want to bring in an artist, there was an actual music venue for them to perform at.”
At Tric, artists like Jack’s Mannequin and Fall Out Boy would play shows and eventually Peyton would run her own imprint, Red Bedroom Records, out of the space. Because her character’s biological mom had breast cancer, which became a main plot-point during Season 3 of One Tree Hill, Peyton helped raise funds for breast cancer research with a benefit concert in the series. In real life, One Tree Hill released a compilation, called Friends with Benefit, featuring Peyton’s artwork, music from the series, and artists that appeared on the show, with a portion of its proceeds going to the National Breast Cancer Association.
Sure, there were indie-rock songs featured within the show, but emo and pop-punk became a throughline of its nine seasons. Moments like when Peyton almost hit Lucas with her car while Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” played in the background during the series pilot helped create the look and feel of the show. “‘Hands Down’ replaced what was originally Foo Fighters’ ‘Everlong,’ and Foo Fighters were very challenging to license at that time,” says Wolfington. “But ‘Hands Down’ had the same drive that ‘Everlong’ did, and it was brand new, so it felt fresh. They ended up becoming one of those artists that we used a lot.”
The series also lent a helping hand in promoting rising musicians like Kate Voegele (Mia Catalano), Tyler Hilton (Chris Keller), and Wakey Wakey (Michael Grubbs), while also offering actors Bethany Joy Lenz (Haley James) and Bryan Greenberg (Jake Jagielski) opportunities as fledgling artists. One Tree Hill’s foray into the music scene became an immersive experience beyond the series; artists featured on the show and the stars of the show hit the road for a One Tree Hill concert tour. Fans were able to see Lenz, Greenberg, and Hilton perform, as well as Gavin DeGraw, who sang the show’s anthemic theme song, “I Don’t Want to Be,” and The Wreckers (Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp).
“I definitely think that was our very first TV performance,” Branch says of One Tree Hill. “It was early Wreckers before people even knew what The Wreckers were. I know that when we were on One Tree Hill, we weren’t necessarily a country act or marketed like that, but then we went on to have a very successful 'country' career.” For her, The Wreckers’ appearance on the series and on the concert tour “helped bridge that gap from Michelle fans to Wreckers fans” as the group transitioned into the country genre.
But when Gossip Girl premiered in 2007, it brought with it the glitz of New York City and the glam rock 'n' roll the city represents. The show, which followed the privileged teenagers of the Upper East Side, centering on best frenemies Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and the gossip that followed them, transformed pop culture. With a mix of rock and mainstream pop, the series created some incredibly salacious and steamy on-screen moments.
“I remember having a lot of conversations with Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage] about how we were going to make Gossip Girl different than The O.C. It's obviously different high schoolers, New York-based, really sophisticated characters. We did a lot of New York-focused indie-rock, but also a lot of mainstream pop. It was really the first time we really went into major pop artists.”
Fans of the series will never forget when Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) had a threesome with Vanessa Abrams (Jessica Szohr) and Olivia Burke (Hilary Duff) in Season 3, all while narrated by a sexy cover of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” by Anya Marina, or when Blair and Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) had hate sex on a piano in Season 4 (Robyn also guest-starred and sang an acoustic version of “Hang With Me” during the episode). One of Patsavas’ favorite uses of music on the show — Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” — narrated one of Chuck’s grand apology speeches to Blair in Season 5 and will go down as one of the most gorgeous and devastating moments on TV, while the use of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” playing in the background as Serena kissed Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) to help him make a woman he’s having an affair with jealous, is still a standout.
“Music was a character on Gossip Girl, and it was important to not only get those on-camera moments right, but to get the soundtrack appropriate for the show, which was so fun to watch,” says Patsavas. “The music had to be fun to listen to without losing its edge.”
It’s also worth mentioning that alongside the show’s soundtrack curation, the series even spawned Meester’s own pop career with hit songs like “Your Love’s a Drug,” “Somebody to Love” featuring Robin Thicke, and a guest feature on the hit Cobra Starship song “Good Girls Go Bad.” (She’s since transitioned more into folk-pop).
The ability of teen TV shows to craft a soundtrack that emotionally resonates with viewers is something that has continued to be recreated on-screen with shows like Pretty Little Liars, Euphoria, 13 Reasons Why, and Looking for Alaska. But it hasn’t quite hit the same as it did back in the early aughts: You’re unlikely to find any faux venues that feature up-and-coming artists coming through town.
“As a solo artist, I was on hardcore, fan-group shows Buffy and Charmed,” says Branch. “Both shows had a venue and had acts come in and out. I feel like those were great years to expose artists on TV shows, and I don’t even know where that exists now. I can’t think of a show that has a venue and has real music coming in and out.”
And, since Spotify, Soundcloud, and other streaming platforms exist, music discovery isn’t necessarily happening in the same way that it did back in the early 2000s. Patsavas, who was recently the music supervisor on Looking for Alaska, did, however, try to recreate some of the musical magic from The O.C. since the show took place in 2005.
“It was wonderful to be able to revisit our favorites and then also look at the music we didn't use on [The O.C.], of course,” says Patsavas. “For the soundtrack, we created covers of some of the songs that we loved, including ‘An Honest Mistake’ [originally by The Bravery]. But it was such a trip down memory lane and such an interesting way to look back at 2005.”