If you have Shazam downloaded onto your phone, you’ll know the drill. A tune starts to play in the background of a TV show you’re watching; you half-register the song, maybe think ‘oh that’s quite good’. If the scene lasts long enough, the song either grows on you, or a niggling voice starts to pipe up – ‘you’ve heard this somewhere before… but where?’ Finally, maybe thirty seconds down the line, you get it together enough to pick up your phone – just in time for the track to finish. This was me roughly ten times during the latest series of Sex Education.
There are very few elements of Sex Education which the creators haven’t got very, very right. But beyond the characterisation, the trailblazing and taboo-busting storylines, and the career accelerating quality of the acting, the main thing that’s left bouncing around my cavernous skull well after the credits roll are the music choices.
Those sonic selections are important – I spoke at the start of the year about the brilliant Deutschland ’89, and how the music used was integral – not only to the atmosphere, but in enhancing the narrative. Some favourite moments from TV shows past include – Pete gazing out of his new apartment to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Manhattan’ in Mad Men; Don sitting lonely and forlorn on the staircase to Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ on the same show; Sam leaping off the building to Bowie in Life On Mars; John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Evidently Chickentown’ ringing out as Tony Soprano becomes godfather to Chris’s daughter.
Another strong showing this year came in the shape of The Queen’s Gambit, the period choices playing beautifully alongside the luscious stylised mid-century setting. Big-hitters like Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ and The Monkees ‘Steppin’ Stone’ painted the show’s world as perfectly as the set designers.
But the way in which Sex Education is soundtracked is somehow different. The show is not a period piece, nor is it really of this world – more a primary coloured fantasyland that somehow mashes together mid-century Americana and modern sensibilities. It must be a fine balancing act, then, to choose the songs that will propel and enhance the narrative in such an idiosyncratic world. The first two seasons were Ezra Furman-heavy, and this fitted perfectly, but as the show has progressed, the more eclectic and pleasantly surprising the music choices have become – from Britpop, via ’80s plastic pop cover versions, and arriving right back at good ol’ Ezra Furman again.
What better way, then, to illustrate some of the sublime musical choices than to show you some of the symphonic selections from the latest season. But let that last sentence be a very blatant clue: here be SPOILERS.
Ep 1: The Rubinoos – ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’: The opening montage
Well here’s a thing I never knew – what I thought was the original, bubblegum-pop version of this song by ’80s one-hit wonder/mallrat Tiffany, was in fact a cover version after many other cover versions. Season three gets underway with a lengthy – and very racy – montage of a number of our beloved characters doing the no-pants dance, soundtracked by this fantastic version from 1977. A meeting of the innocent and knowing, and setting out the stall for season three perfectly.
Ep 3: Blur – ‘Tender’: Ruby tells Otis she loves him, and he says ‘that’s nice’
Season three is very good at making us feel sympathy for, and even like, characters who have formerly been wholly unlikable. Ruby, the chief mean girl at Moordale Secondary, opens herself up to Otis, introduces him to her dad, and then…
This is a damaged break-up song from a damaged break-up album and, from the moment Graham Coxon’s delicate acoustic riff kicks in, anyone with this knowledge will know that Otis and Ruby are doomed.
Ep 5: Technotronic – ‘Pump Up the Jam’: The kids and teachers rave on the coach
When and where the hell is Sex Education set? This has been a question bothering the minds of many TV writers since it first appeared on our screens. Characters wear varsity jackets, but have English accents; they use smartphones, yet their bedrooms look like they’re in the ’80s. This song does nothing to clarify anything, as all these supposed 18-year-olds seem to know by heart this Second Summer Of Love 1989 house classic.
Ep 7: Sixpence None the Richer – ‘Breathe Your Name’: Maeve and Otis kiss in the rain
This is typical really of Sex Education’s habit of building up expectations and subverting them. This is the big moment that fans have been waiting for – where our main will they/won’t they couple finally decide to get it together. Not only that, lay all their feelings bare before locking lips under the pouring rain (at least one of them doesn’t say ‘Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed.’). How does it subvert expectations then? By not going all Dawson’s Creek and playing the only Sixpence None the Richer song that everyone knows – ‘Kiss Me’.
Ep 7: Ezra Furman – ‘Going to Brighton’: Michael apologises to Maureen
Things appear to be getting back on an even keel towards the end of episode seven – Moordale gets his mojo back in the most fabulous way possible; Otis and Maeve seem to be getting it together, and Michael seems to have had a revelation which could see him reunited with Maureen. Maybe this is why Ezra Furman – the aforementioned stalwart of the Sex Education soundtrack – makes a comeback, as everything seems to be getting back to ‘normal’.