When Gossip Girl got its HBO Max reboot, nearly a decade after the luxurious teen soap left the air in 2012, there was no doubt that it would have to be a different experience. The original show, which first aired in 2007 on The CW, became a massively popular symbol of excess, advances in technology, high fashion, youth culture, and New York City-set aspirational living. (Those things are still there.) But today’s iteration of Gossip Girl, as has been discussed across the internet, looks and sounds a little different: For starters, the show’s cast is more diverse, class tensions better reflect today’s real-world economic inequality, and, because it’s an HBO Max original, there’s lot more sex and cursing. Not to mention that the once-anonymous Gossip Girl herself is revealed from the pilot episode. And then there’s the soundtrack.
An average episode of Noughties-era Gossip Girl might’ve featured the caliber of trendy indie-pop that would no doubt also be playing in an American Apparel: The Kills, The Virgins, The Ting Tings. The original pilot even opens to one of the most ubiquitous songs of that time: Peter, Bjorn And John’s “Young Folks.” The reboot’s pilot, meanwhile, opens with music from a less globally known artist: London upstart Hope Tala, whose orchestral “All My Girls Like To Fight” soundtracks the introductory scene in pilot episode “Just Another Girl On MTA.” The remaining 50-odd minutes feature a selection of songs from Frank Ocean (“Super Rich Kids”), Ariana Grande (“Positions”), Tinashe (“Rascal”), Billie Eilish (“Therefore I Am”), Cyn (“Drinks”), Rosalía (“A Palé), Junglepussy (“Spiders”) and more. Frank, Ariana, Rosalía, and Billie are marquee names for sure, but it feels like an intentional choice to open the entire series with non-household name. When I spoke to series music supervisor Rob Lowry, he said that he hoped the Gossip Girl reboot would both reflect today’s popular music but also be a source of new music discovery for audiences. “The way that people are consuming music and finding it, [it’s] through film and TV,” Lowry tells me over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “Which they did [in 2008], but I feel like it was a little bit less obligatory. We look back on it and realize how much we learned.”
Stepping in for Alexandra Patsavas, who is basically music supervisor royalty, having done selections for the original Gossip Girl, The Twilight Saga, The OC, and Grey’s Anatomy, Lowry openly admits that he had “massive shoes to fill.” Lowry is definitely no slouch, though, having previously done the song selections for The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, The Bold Type and Ramy, among others. Upon connecting with series creators Joshua Safran (who also serves as the reboot’s showrunner), Stephanie Savage, and Josh Schwartz, who also oversaw The OC, “I just, like, geeked out,” Lowry says of the experience. “I wasn’t shy about their influence on my entire life and how much the soundtracks for The OC and Gossip Girl influenced what I wanted to do.”
In terms of its music, which is as fluid and diverse as the show’s main characters, the reboot’s overall approach is, “Does this work creatively?” Lowry says. “That’s question number one. Then, is [the song] overused? Is it too present, or does the recognizability actually add to the experience? Does it add to the scene?” Lowry cites an early episode where New York rapper Princess Nokia makes an in-person appearance at socialite Julien Calloway’s (Jordan Alexander) party, something he says helps “elevate that experience” and add to the moment’s glamor. “It’s so excessive and it’s just so big and also helps set the stage. Nokia’s a New York icon.”
It’s important, Lowry adds, that audiences understand that the Gossip Girl reboot, whose main characters are two half-sisters of color from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, is still very much its own show. “This show feels a little bit more sophisticated. It feels a little bit more seductive and sexier and a little bit elevated without sacrificing the drama of it all,” Lowry says.
It likewise felt important to Lowry that the music selections “highlight the excess” around these characters’ opulent lifestyles. As the students of Upper East Side institutions Constance Billard and St. Jude’s discover that Gossip Girl — the anonymous online scion who turns socialites’ personal drama into content — has been resurrected, they’re gathering for martinis at a swanky cocktail bar. The moment is soundtracked by Ariana Grande’s “Positions,” a title that appears to represent both the students’ upper-class status as well as their coming social-media subjugation.
Lowry also wanted to show how accessible music is today (“people have access to any music they want at any time”) by incorporating a range of genres and music from decades past across the episodes, noting how every episode is themed a little differently. “Episode three is an ‘80s episode,” he outlines. “Two’s ‘50s-’60s, kind of like soul and jazz. Episode four is a big pop songs episode.”
One thing the original and the reboot do have in common, though, is a big, splashy event that brings all of the characters together — a prime song selection vehicle. “Josh [Safran] and I kind of decided that each event would have their own sound,” Lowry says. “And I feel like that gives us the opportunity to use some modern pop stuff, some lesser-known stuff.”
In addition to Lowry, the team needed a series music composer to create a whole new Gossip Girl reboot vibe. So they looked up superproducer and songwriter Ariel Rechtshaid, who has worked with every popular artist from Usher to Vampire Weekend to Haim, U2, Solange, Charli XCX, Madonna and more. The catch? He hadn’t technically composed music for TV at this scale. “I’ve always liked the idea of [scoring for TV], I just never had the creative space to do it, and now I do,” Rechtshaid says over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “It was kind of a curious question, when they asked me if I would be interested, and I said, ‘Yes, I’m interested, but, why me?’ Because I don’t have any history of scoring, so what is it about me that makes you want me to do it? And they were sweet; I think they wanted me as part of the brain trust in a way.”
Rechtshaid also says that Safran urged him not to worry about anything that came before and to just go with his gut while scoring the reboot. So, while reading the show’s pilot script, Rechtshaid thought about both the city of New York and the “rich, dysfunctional families” that populate certain neighborhoods. “The immediate bullet points that came to mind were New York, which, being an LA native, has always been a little bit exotic to me,” he says. “It has this longer history than LA, it’s kind of connected to Europe to me. It feels literally more classical. String arrangements. I thought about rich, dysfunctional families that are high-powered and the children of that. Like a dark, powerful energy. That was the way I interpreted it.”
Strings and orchestral arrangements also feature heavily in Lowry’s songs, like Hope Tala’s needle-drop, and Kate Bush‘s art-pop standby “Cloudbusting,” which shows up in episode three. (The same episode features Aretha Franklin‘s jazzy “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.”) Regardless of decade and sub-genre, though, Lowry says the overall connective tissue in the Gossip Girl reboot is pop music. “I think one of the reasons we’ve found the music to be so fun and successful so far is because I genuinely love pop music,” he says. “I just feel like it’s what the show needs. Josh has such great taste and we have such overlapping taste. Josh likes a lot of classical and opera. As the show goes on, you start to see that integrated a little bit more, which I think is really fun. The way that it kind of weaves itself into the narrative while still having a Genevieve song or like, Normani. And then there’s like, a Bach piece. Something from an opera from the 1800s. We have a Taylor Swift song in [episode] 107. I love that there’s a Doja Cat-to-Paul Anka transition. I think it speaks to the show and the level of melodrama, but is still sophisticated. I think it highlights these different worlds and these different perspectives so well.”