How ‘The Buccaneers’ Used Taylor Swift To Bookend a Defiant, Entirely Female Soundtrack

Matt Biffa knows that for any romantic teen drama, music is one of the most important love languages. So when the music supervisor got his hands on the scripts for Apple TV+’s period piece “The Buccaneers,” he immediately holed himself up and started curating a plan.

He emerged from isolation with what he called an “alarmingly complicated manifesto” for what he envisioned for the series. “My manifesto was no cover versions, no licensing existing songs and only creating brand new songs written and performed by female American artists based on the history of American popular music, or at least going back as far as Sister Rosetta Thorpe,” he tells Variety, referencing the gospel rock pioneer from the 1930s.

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Based on Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel, “The Buccaneers” follows five American teenagers in the 1880s who find themselves defiant members of the marriage market in London debutante society. By nature, Biffa knew the series would endure one inevitable comparison. “The default position with any sort of youth-orientated period show is that it will fight comparisons to ‘Bridgerton,’ which is very strong on classical cover songs of popular tunes and they do that brilliantly, so that obviously was completely off our creative agenda.”

While that particular mandate held firm, making a series with as much commercial potential as a feminist take on the Victorian era inevitably altered Biffa’s strategy.

Most of his manifesto remained intact. Original music by American female artists is still the beating heart of the series, which boasts more than a dozen original works produced in partnership between Biffa and Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa. Artists like Warpaint, Gracie Abrams, Lucius, Danielle Ponder, Sharon Van Etten and others are featured on songs that stayed “true to the girls themselves,” Biffa says.

But one thing he did have to concede was his reluctance to license music. Simply put, if contemporary music was on the table, there were just too many options that Apple and the producers wanted to explore. Biffa understood that, and it was actually Taylor Swift that showed him that good thematic matches were already out there.

He had previously been talking with Swift’s team and her brother Austin, who licenses her music, about possibly getting the superstar to write an original song for the series or maybe mine her vaults for something she hadn’t yet released. But when he was out for a walk with his dog and shuffling through a Swift playlist, he landed on “Nothing New (feat. Phoebe Bridgers) (Taylor’s Version).” The song, which contemplates a young woman’s fears of not being desirable as she ages, immediately called to mind a scene in the series premiere when two of the girls are introduced into debutante society by being trotted out for men to choose as potential mates. The series’ main character, Nan St. George (Kristine Froseth), actively detests the practice, mirroring Swift’s lyrics of frustration.

“I sort of rushed home and very crudely tried to put it to picture and then I rang up Beth Willis, one of our producers, to tell her I might have a controversial suggestion, which always panics her,” Biffa says laughing.

He intricately laced the song in with the camera’s movement through the crowd of young women dressed in white and lined up like cattle, as Nan calls them. Then he sent it to Willis and other producers for their thoughts. “They burst into tears when they watched it and that’s kind of what you want,” he says. “It just sort of captured this whole thing that even back then, these girls lived on their looks as their currency. Obviously, Nan is horrified by that, and the way it married to the picture, it’s almost as if you were releasing that song as a single and you could conceivably come up with a concept for a music video with girls at a debutante ball.”

Biffa sent the mock-up to Swift’s team and then they waited. “You live slightly on your nerves as to whether or not if it’s going to come back approved,” he says. “The intimation was that the song was important to Taylor, and so I felt like if she and her team felt that we were doing right by the song that it would increase the chances for clearance.”

Simultaneous to this process, Biffa was working on constructing the soundtrack for Netflix’s “One Day,” which heavily features licensed songs to chart a 20-year love story. But he admits, “The Buccaneers” was, at times, more challenging because he had created a smaller genre and artist pool for himself, versus casting a wide net for songs over “One Day’s” decades.

Getting the greenlight from Swift, though, helped lock in his vision for other licensing opportunities for “The Buccaneers.” Brandi Carlile’s “Broken Horses” plays over a particularly romantic (albeit on the nose, Biffa admits) horse-riding scene, while “Christmas” by Darlene Love even finds a place in a holiday episode. Maggie Rogers and Boygenius also make appearances.

But it’s Swift who bookends the series. “Nothing New” scores the important market scene in the premiere, and her booming song “Long Live (Taylor’s Version)” closes out the finale as the women make a major move to save one of their own. After he heard “Long Live,” Biffa worried he wouldn’t be able to produce as good a match for the thrilling climax, so they went back to her team. Double dipping into Swift’s catalog was a source of weeks of conversations behind the scenes. Yet, despite being against his initial manifesto, Biffa felt it was the right move.

“There were arguments of whether it would be too much,” he says. “Will we be over Tayloring or over Swifting the whole thing? But I think basically everybody came to the conclusion that it would be quite satisfying, and it is.”

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