In HBO’s Sharp Objects, the troubled journalist Camille Preaker returns to her small Missouri hometown to investigate a string of murders—as well as the mystery of her own family’s past. She does so, in large part, as the ominous rock of Led Zeppelin surges from her headphones and car speakers. At the mansion of her mother, Adora, and stepfather, Alan Crellin, more demure sounds play: contemporary classical, mid-century lounge singers, French jazz.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the series uses music in surprising and thematically rich ways, and its soundtrack is diegetic, which is to say part of the story itself. The director Jean-Marc Vallée executed this distinctive approach with the help of Susan Jacobs, who won the first-ever Emmy for music supervision last year and whose career in film music stretches back to She’s Gotta Have It in 1986.
On Tuesday, I spoke with Jacobs to hear about how she and Vallée created the show’s sonic world. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: Sharp Objects’ title sequence opens with a record player, and music is part of the show’s story itself. How does that change your job?
Susan Jacobs: Because Jean-Marc doesn’t use a composer, everything is planned ahead of time. A lot of things that are in there are things we were working on before we even shot. And the music always comes from a source [on-screen]. It’s funny, I’ve run into people who challenge me: “That opening sequence is off of a score.” I say, “No it wasn’t. It was something from Camille’s iPod.”
The studio people were really concerned about something with a thriller aspect to it—or mystery or murder—not having a score. People are very used to scoring the tension. And we’re using the iPods to provide that.
Kornhaber: Franz Waxman’s “Dance and Angela” gets reinterpreted as a different genre of music during the title sequence each week. How did that song get picked in the first place?
Jacobs: It came from the collection of Alan Crellin, really. Jean-Marc decided, “Let’s start with the music of Alan, and branch out from there.” Because that’s the voice of the house: Alan’s record player is going 24/7.
Kornhaber Can you tell me about “Cupcake Kitty Curls,” the hip-hop interpretation of “Dance and Angela”?
Jacobs: [laughs] Which is blowing up on Shazam—people are obsessed!
That was created by Mark Batson, a longtime collaborator of mine and a wonderful artist and producer in his own right. When we were thinking about a hip-hop version, I was like, “Oh, I know exactly where I’m going to go.” Mark asked this question on his Facebook: What do these words mean and where did they come from? Have you thought about that yourself?
Kornhaber: Are they things that are written on Camille’s body?
Jacobs: Yeah. We just gave him a bunch of words from her body and he chose those words and put them in a rhythm. He’s actually made an extended version of that using all the words, so we’ll get that out because people just went crazy for it.
Kornhaber: That song is just tonally so different than the rest of the show. How much were you thinking about trying to create a sense of surprise?
Jacobs: Well, everything in the main titles is really a mirror of something already going on tonally. We have hip-hop in the show: Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem. The Acid did one after we featured the band’s “Tumbling Lights.” Everything’s purposeful with Jean-Marc.
The music is really this internal voice of Camille and Alan. They’re both people struggling in relationships with Adora, and they both escape into their music. That’s the whole thing about this iPod that she keeps with her. Alan is in that room playing those records all day long trying to survive that marriage. He’s been marginalized by Adora, and she clearly is more interested in the town sheriff than her own husband.
So the music is all about surviving. And then we do have a theme in there of “Mama” songs [like Steve Miller Band’s “Motherless Children” and Tupac’s “Dear Mama”]. Because everything is about Adora: She’s the person that they’re all trying to work around.
I mean, this show is subtle. It’s something that people, when they go back and they watch it a second and third time, they’re going to see things.
Kornhaber: Tell me about Led Zeppelin. Why is that the voice of Camille?
Jacobs: Led Zeppelin was something that Jean-Marc said to me really early on, This would be my dream if you could make that happen. And “making it happen” is the big part of that equation because Led Zeppelin’s known for being extremely restrictive: one song per movie, and all of those things.
That was one of the bands that many people escaped into through their teen years. Jean-Marc thought, I wouldn’t have gotten to 21 without those guys. A lot of us that grew up in the ’70s, that was really the band that narrated our lives. You could put on any one of their songs and your mood would be instantly transported to somewhere else.
We knew that Camille was going to listen to something that had a lot of weight, in order to have power in that scene in Episode 3 where [her roommate] said, “Oh, come on, girl. No wonder you’re in here. You don’t know how to use music.” It had to be something with history, that a lot of people could feel, or that was so powerful that people don’t need to know who Led Zeppelin is. When she put “Thank You” on, it blew me away. How many bands can you go to that are that substantial?
Kornhaber: Do you want viewers to also be thinking about the backstory of this music? I’ve seen some writing about how Led Zeppelin is thought of as macho or even misogynistic, and there’s maybe an interplay between that and Camille’s character. Is that on your mind?
Jacobs: No. This was pure escapism. I haven’t seen any of that narrative, and people read things into everything these days. But no.
Kornhaber: Camille really didn’t listen to music before that iPod incident at the hospital. Do you know anyone like that in your life? What do you think of people who don’t listen to music?
Jacobs: I do know people like that. They’ll hear it in a restaurant in background, but they don’t really understand the power of it. I mean, I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have music. It’s such great perspective. The way that Jean-Marc uses it is, “Well, I can put this song on and feel that way and put that song on and feel this way.” It’s like if the person stands still and everything in the background changes.
These days, the kids’ relationship to music is so much different than my generation’s. Because we had a certain set of songs that you heard over and over again, and we were all having the dialogue about the same artist: Whether you liked The Who or you didn’t like The Who, Rolling Stones over the Beatles, that kind of dialogue. There wasn’t the volume that there is now, and we were all experiencing music together.
That’s changed because people are experiencing music individually and through algorithms, which scares the hell out of me. I still listen to most of my music on vinyl, and what I love is the things that pop out if you’re too lazy to get up. You’re not going to just sit there with a 45 and play one song and take it off and put in another 45. So you would get exposed to a whole thought of an album and realize that what you first responded to is definitely not ending up your favorite song. I mean, “Little Red Corvette” might’ve been great, but then you go deeper.
Kornhaber: You mention the famous difficulty of securing rights to Led Zeppelin. How did you get them to come around?
Jacobs: That process was really about explaining that what Sharp Objects does is, hopefully, for some kids, change their relationship to music. You can have anxiety and mental-illness problems and bullying, and you can go inwards and change that narrative through putting on headphones or sitting in your room and playing records. I wanted kids to understand that music is more than just that thing that’s in the background of a restaurant.
I think [Led Zeppelin’s team] went, Yeah, that’s right. That’s why we made this.
Kornhaber: So in this process of negotiating rights you’re actually having deep conversations about the role of music.
Jacobs: Yeah. I wasn’t trying to sell anything. I was just thinking that any band should feel really lucky to be portrayed that way. Some girl out there is [using their music] saying, You don’t even need to be in this hospital. You can get out of here.