It’s no accident that the third episode of Beef ends with the Incubus song “Drive.” Netflix’s dark comedy is about the aftermath of a road rage incident that changes the lives of Amy (Ali Wong), a well-off entrepreneur, and Danny (Steven Yeun), a struggling contractor. There’s genuine feeling in both their stories, but as they escalate their quests for vengeance, there’s more than a little buffoonery. No matter how angry they are, and no matter how much we understand their complicated inner lives, it’s hard to take them entirely seriously when Danny urinates on Amy’s floor or Amy paints naughty words on Danny’s truck.
Music supervisor Tiffany Anders wanted the show’s soundtrack to reflect all those layers. “The songs need to work on three levels,” she tells Primetimer. “They have to land lyrically, so that they’re connected to the story. They have to land emotionally. These are people who are taking it to extreme levels [of vindictiveness], and we have to hit that. But there’s got to be a little bit of humor in there. It became a very fine balance of finding songs that we could do that with, where we weren’t making fun of the song or blatantly turning it into a joke.”
That’s one reason she saved “Drive” for the third episode. If it were played in Episode 1, when driving is such a big part of the plot, then it could land as a parody. By the third installment, however, the story has shifted to the road rage’s ripple effects. Danny seeks solace in a church, where he plays “Drive” on an acoustic guitar for his fellow parishioners. As he sings “I still have to ask myself how much I let the fear take the wheel and steer,” the episode cuts to other characters taking drastic actions because of their own fear, hurt, or disenchantment. When the Incubus recording takes over during the end credits, it reflects how all these people are sabotaging themselves.
And then there are several levels of humor. Beyond the pun implied by the song’s title, there’s something ludicrous about Danny belting this sad-boy anthem for his church friends. It says something about his pity-party instincts that he reaches for “Drive” while he’s bathed in sunlight, cross-legged on the floor of a worship center.
For Anders, the alt rock music of the ’90s and early 2000s embodies that overheated emotion. That’s why the series heavily features artists like The Smashing Pumpkins, Morphine, Limp Bizkit, and Bush. “It’s self-deprecating to the point of being self-indulgent,” she says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot with those songs. I’m a musician too, and I was writing songs in the ’90s. When I listen back to my songs, I’m like, ‘Man, I was really self-involved here!’ And those qualities fit these characters.”
She cites Hoobastank’s “The Reason,” which closes Episode 1, as a perfect example. “Lyrically, it’s kind of amazing, with them saying ‘the reason is you’ while we’ve got these two people who are so angry [with each other]. And musically it works really well with those shots of Steve Yeun and Ali Wong being enraged. Even that little twinkly guitar at the beginning seemed to work, and then it gets so big and over the top. It just gives you every emotion we’re trying to hit.”
On the macro level, Anders likes that these songs were released in an optimistic era. “This music came out in a time when things were pretty good in America, but it’s still got this incredible angst and this rage,” she says. “That fits really well with what’s happening with these characters. They just keep making things worse for themselves when they don’t have to.” That echoes series creator and showrunner Lee Sung Jin, who is quoted in Netflix’s press materials saying, “Part of me feels that because these characters are stuck in their ways and are clinging to the past and can’t seem to move forward — it felt appropriate to use these older songs that we haven’t heard in a while.”
But the nostalgia factor isn’t only about Danny and Amy’s hang-ups. It’s also an important tool for reaching the audience. “We definitely wanted to choose songs that people would have that attachment to, so that they could go on the ride with these characters,” Anders says. “You want people to feel like they know where this [story] is coming from, even when it goes to wilder places. Music can help you do that.”
Beef is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Beef, Netflix, Ali Wong, Lee Sung Jin, Steven Yeun, Tiffany Anders