‘My kids’ friends wear Smelly Cat T-shirts’: TV insiders on creating unforgettable onscreen songs

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2019 novel Daisy Jones & the Six was practically made for television: charting the rise and fall of a 70s rock band that bears more than a little similarity to Fleetwood Mac, it’s filled with secret affairs, cocaine-fuelled fights and a cast of cool, stylish characters. There is one problem in putting it on screen, though: the music. In Jenkins Reid’s book, the Six are painted as one of the defining rock bands of all time, an overnight success story that went on to redefine popular music. How, exactly, do you go about writing songs that good?

For a music supervisor – the crew member charged with finding the right musicians to bring the fictional Best Band of All Time to life – it’s an uphill battle. Frankie Pine, music supervisor for Amazon’s recent adaptation of Daisy Jones, says she wasn’t hung up on finding musicians who could achieve the impossible task of recreating, say, Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams. Instead, she sought to find someone who could make a record that sounded convincingly 1970s.

Brought on to the project in 2019 – before scripts had been written, with only Riley Keough cast as Jones – Pine immediately contacted Blake Mills, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Bob Dylan and John Legend, feeling that he would be able to channel the fictional band’s Laurel Canyon sound. From the beginning, though, it was a more collaborative project than Mills may have been used to.

“All the executive producers were involved in the creation of the songs, because they were the ones working on the scripts,” says Pine. “I can’t even tell you how many frickin’ charts we had, breaking down like, ‘This song needs to be this and it goes here, and that same song is going to be broken down here.’”

Writing real music for fictional musicians is something of a poisoned chalice, no matter how talented the behind-the-scenes producers may be. The soundtrack for Empire – Lee Daniels’ successful soap opera about the hip-hop industry – enlisted a swathe of big-name rap and R&B producers to oversee the show’s musical output, including Timbaland, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and Ester Dean, who between them have netted innumerable Grammy awards and Top 10 singles. Despite their pedigree, and the show’s success, its soundtrack was critically panned, with Complex’s Justin Charity describing it as “frequently awful”. (In a coup, the first Empire soundtrack album beat Madonna to debut at No 1 on the US album charts; subsequent soundtrack albums faced a precipitous decline in popularity.) The soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down, similarly, featured world-class talent – Janelle Monáe, Nile Rodgers, Christina Aguilera – and, similarly, was plagued by negative reviews.

This month, Atlantic Records released Aurora – the fictional Daisy Jones & the Six’s very real debut album, featuring music by Mills and vocals from Keough and co-star Sam Claflin. Consensus among critics suggests that it fails where so many other albums by fictional artists have failed. In a review for Pitchfork, Pete Tosiello said: “It’s hard to imagine any of these adult-contemporary show tunes cracking the FM rotation, let alone in 1977,” concluding that “a narrative hinging on transcendent music is undone when the songs are just pretty good”. In her review of the show for the Guardian, Lucy Mangan suggested that the show was “doomed by the impossibility of creating a fully credible, Fleetwood Mac-standard band for television”.

Pine also worked on Nashville, a soap opera about the country music world, which ran for six seasons, concluding in 2018. It was one of the rare shows whose fictional music passed muster in real life: nine of the show’s soundtrack albums made the Top 10 of the US country charts, and the cast embarked on successful tours throughout the show’s run. The secret to the success of Nashville’s music may arise from the fact that Pine put together each song in the same way that any A&R executive or record producer would: she enlisted established country songwriters, including Natalie Hemby, Kacey Musgraves and Trent Dabbs; held writing camps for the show’s fictional artists; and developed a strong connection to the real-life industry the show was modelled on.

“I would get demos from all the Nashville publishers, and once I became friends with songwriters they would call me and go: ‘Is there anything coming down the pipe that I can write for?’” Pine explains. “After doing it for six years, I knew which songwriters I wanted to go to for specific characters. Like, Lucie Silvas is amazing for Hayden Panettiere’s character – she’s got these big, ballsy songs, so I would talk to her first.”

It doesn’t always take a crack team of songwriting A-listers to yield an indelible song, of course. Smelly Cat, performed by Lisa Kudrow’s dippy, musically untalented singer-songwriter Phoebe on Friends, is arguably the most famous in-world TV song of all time. According to longtime Friends writer Adam Chase, who co-wrote the track, much of it was the result of late-night riffing in the writers’ room, “two or three people around the table adding lines on the spot”. First performed by Kudrow in Friends’s second season, the track became one of the show’s longest, most well-known running jokes. As with all of Phoebe’s songs on Friends, the writers would write freeform lyrics and Kudrow would compose the music. “She would always find some interesting little way to punch it up to another level,” Chase recalls.

It was his pedantry, though, that resulted in one of the track’s most memorable quirks: the weighting Kudrow places on the word “smelly”, instead of on “cat”, which any right-minded musician would probably prefer. “I kept saying: ‘I really think it’s funnier if she hits the first word,’” Chase says. “When we got to the taping, she said it in the normal way, and I pulled [showrunner] David Crane aside and said. ‘I really want her to emphasise the first word.’ He said. ‘Do you really want me to go out there in front of the audience and ask her to do that?’ And I took a deep breath and said yes. And it got a much bigger laugh.” In the 19 years since Friends ended, Smelly Cat has, remarkably and bizarrely, endured: Taylor Swift performed it with Kudrow on tour in 2014, and Lady Gaga made a cameo in the 2021 Friends reunion special to cover the song. “I thought the song would fade away,” says Chase, “but now I have little kids who are seven and nine, who weren’t even born when the show went off the air, and they have friends who wear Smelly Cat T-shirts.”

It’s hard to say whether Daisy Jones will make it to the kind of Swift-sized stages on which she and her band perform in the show; right now Aurora is hovering around the 40s on the UK albums chart. Pine says that Mills himself gave her a comically sideways answer when she asked for his thoughts on the show. “I saw him after the premiere, and I go: ‘Well, come on, Blake, what did you think?’” she recalls. “He goes: ‘I thought it was really good – for a TV show.’”