Like

How ‘Mr. Robot’ Pulls Off TV’s Best Soundtrack

The show’s soundtrack coordinator tells us how they pull off the most masterful music moments on TV.

Jump down two paragraphs if you didn’t see last night’s show, or just watch it now and this article will patiently wait for you to catch up.

Last night, Mr. Robot surprised us again, and once more the show’s jarring soundtrack propelled the whole operation. Suddenly, the gloomy tech-thriller was replaced by a laugh-tracked ’90s family sitcom, complete with jangling sax introduction and a cheery new Mr. Robot theme song. Soundtrack coordinator Ben Zales and show creator Sam Esmail finished the mix last Sunday, when Zales says, “I turned to him and I was like, 'This is one of the best things I’ve ever worked on,' and he looked me in the eyes and was like, 'This is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.' It’s because of this episode.”

For its second season, the show is going to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate Elliot Alderson's break with reality (praise Rami Malek, praise his sunken cheeks, praise his suspicious eyes). This maneuver shows Alderson's disturbing childhood set in the pastel banter of a ’90s TV family. The soundtrack was specially composed by Bennett Salvay (“the only man who could do it,” says Zales). Salvay developed the iconic sound of sitcom classics like Full House, Step by Step, Family Matters, and Perfect Strangers. His new Mr. Robot theme song—“imagine a world gone insane!”—represents everything the Mr. Robot soundtrack does best: It's unsettling, surreal, funny, and disturbing.

Mr. Robot’s soundtrack is one of brazen references.

Mr. Robot has become distinctive for framing its characters with short-sighting. The soundtrack team uses an analogous strategy with the music. Zales and Esmail devised a method part way through the last season, after tracking the disturbing scene where Tyrell Wellick kills Sharon Knowles to a heavy FKA Twigs “Two Weeks.” For this murder, the song was “bumping really loud” (technical term). Zales says that “99.99 percent of the time,” other television shows “pale” their songs between scenes—that’s when a music cue moves the viewer into the next scene and fades out. “It basically creates a bridge between the two scenes,” he says. Not for Mr. Robot. They cut, abruptly. Since they worked on that scene, Mr. Robot will never pale again. After all, it's not in keeping with the show's themes to give you a pleasant transition.

Mr. Robot’s soundtrack is one of brazen references. It's never deferential; it's like the songs look their predecessors right in the eye and say, I'm the new kid in town, and I'm going to take your throne. The strongest example involves the show’s Fight Club plot twist: Esmail cued up a piano rendition of the song that boldly ended the 1999 film, the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”. At the end of Fight Club, this song was an exclamation point. In Mr. Robot, it’s an echo.

The soundtrack is a true mix. Where else can ODB's “Baby, I Got Your Money,” Jim Carroll's “People Who Died," and Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" all come into play? Esmail is not just in the reference market. He also demonstrates impeccable taste in modern stuff; he's featured tracks from ScHoolboy Q and deserves credit for introducing audiences to Perfume Genius's "Queen."

"Take Me Home" starts as "source" sound, meaning it sounds like someone in the scene is playing it. Then, without us knowing when it shifts, the song is scoring the scene, as loud as possible.

Critics have pointed to a soundtrack-centric moment as the second season’s highlight, when an E Corp official sets fire to $5.9 million in cash to Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home.” Not only is this song a strong reference point (American Psycho), it's got even more layers than apparent at first listen. Though it seems like a gentle plea to be taken home, Collins has indicated that the song is about an inmate at a mental hospital. At this moment of the show, Elliot—ever unreliable in his narration—is fusing memories of his childhood home with those of a mental hospital. We don't know where he is; neither does he. The song, a sneaky interior monologue, lyrically backs this yearning confusion: "So take, take me home/ ’Cause I don't remember."

Zales says that he wasn’t surprised this song was so popular. Esmail and Zales’s team at MICDI Productions spent hours calculating how to mix it. “That scene was a scene [Esmail] cared a lot about," Zales says of the long, four-hour session. "Take Me Home" starts as "source" sound, meaning it sounds like someone in the scene is playing it. Then, without us knowing when it shifts, the song is scoring the scene, as loud as possible.

“Something like that is effective because it sounds like an afterthought, and then by the end of the scene it’s really driving,” Zales says. It's like the frog in boiling water—you don't know when it got too hot, you don't know when there's a point of no return, but you're in it and it's boiling, and Mr. Robot has masterminded the takeover without the audience ever suspecting a thing. If that's not Mr. Robot's goal, then what is?

Read more