In a career that dates back to 2005, the musician and songwriter Ingrid Michaelson has released nine albums – including two which have reached the Billboard Top 10. When it came to her latest project, she wanted to approach songwriting in a different way. Which resulted in Stranger Songs, an album inspired by the characters, events and emotions depicted in Stranger Things.
Naturally, Eleven is the subject of many of the songs, but their scope extends from the show’s key players right through to those on the periphery of the story. Musically, it leans towards vibrant electro-pop and elegant ballads, but their contemporary style is influenced by some 1980s-flavoured sonics. Much like Stranger Things itself, Stranger Songs has a clear love and respect for the era, but it could only have been made in the present day.
We spoke to Ingrid to explore how each song was informed by the world of Stranger Things, and how they fit into a timeline of the show’s narrative.
This feature contains spoilers for the first two seasons of Stranger Things.
Track 1: “Freak Show”
Place in timeline: S1 / EP 1 / 13:10
Freak Show’s opening synth beckons the listener into the Stranger Songs fold by echoing the show’s opening title sequence before it takes a contemporary electro-pop direction.
We first see Mike and the gang playing Dungeons & Dragons in his parents’ basement – a regular setting for four 12-year-olds. But it’s immediately clear that they’re perceived differently when they’re first shown at Hawkins Middle School.
“Step right up and get your tickets for the freak show,” mocks the bully, Troy.
“I grabbed onto that language,” begins Ingrid. “It’s something we all feel or have felt in our lifetime – like we’re the outsiders and we don’t belong. I wanted to tell people that it’s ok to feel that way.”
Despite the initial reluctance of Lucas and Dustin, Mike embraces the mysterious Eleven and builds a hide-out in his basement to protect her. He’s effectively welcoming her to the group – a “freak show” to some, but friends with a close-knit bond.
“Eleven falls into that category of somebody who doesn’t know where she belongs,” Ingrid continues. Mike’s also out of place, albeit socially rather than physically. “In my mind, he’s saying, ‘Welcome to our world, welcome to being a weirdo, welcome to being different.’ And who wants to be normal anyway?”
Track 2: “Young And In Love”
Place in timeline: S2 / E9 / 57:53
By the time season two comes to a close, most of the young characters are young, free and in love. Nancy and Jonathan’s relationship seems steady, while romance blossoms at Hawkins Middle School’s Snow Ball dance for both Eleven and Mike, and Max and Lucas. They’re blissfully unaware that the Mind Flayer still looms in the Upside Down. The Police’s stalker-themed Every Breath You Take is surely a deliberately foreboding soundtrack.
“Young And In Love” is arguably the most immediately uplifting track on Stranger Songs, and Ingrid was inspired by all of the show’s young couples.
“It pertains to everybody who’s crossing that level of friendship to something more,” she summarises. “This is a more broad song that makes you feel – especially as someone that’s not fifteen – like you remember what it’s like to be young, somewhat free from the shackles of being an adult and all that comes with it. Obviously, they have their responsibilities of saving the world from the Demogorgon…”
Maybe the mundane adult life of work and bills is an easier challenge than battling a malevolent force, but that makes sense.
Ingrid continues, “I want to capture that feeling of long summer nights, being young and falling in love with someone.”
Track 3: “Hey Kid”
Place in timeline: S2 / E9 / 36:53
It’s almost impossible to think of police chief Hopper without hearing his gruff, near-catchphrase: “Hey, kid.” After the death of his daughter, Sara, Hopper sees Eleven as almost a surrogate child – reminding him of his loss yet also giving him a reason to carry on.
“Hopper blunders in that he suffocates Eleven because he’s so worried about losing a second child. And I think he sees her as a child in many ways,” explains Ingrid. “He’s holding on too tightly to this little person that he wants to protect, because he couldn’t stop his daughter from passing away.”
Yet, a bit like Lisa Simpson describing God as “a force bigger than Mom and Dad put together,” Hopper sees that Eleven possesses a power far greater than the Hawkins Police Department.
“He can protect Eleven in some ways, but she can protect herself, and I think he realises that at the end,” says Ingrid.
That’s exactly what we see when Eleven uses her powers to close the Gate, with Hopper tackling the donkey work of shooting at waves of predators. “You did good, kid,” he weeps afterwards, the biggest understatement of the entire show.
The lyrics (“I can’t protect you when you’re shooting like a star”, “I need you more than you need me”) also echo an emotionally charged scene from earlier in the episode. Hopper opens up to Eleven about the mistakes he has made when trying to protect her and the loss of his daughter. Possibly the show’s tenderest moment ends with some typical Eleven sass. “Bitchin’,” they both say to each other, with smiles as wide as canyons.
Track 4: “Hate You”
Place in timeline: S2 / E2 / 43:22
In the bridge to “Hate You”, Ingrid sings, “I don’t hate that you called our love bullshit / When you were drunk that night / I don’t hate how much I love you / I don’t hate that I cry.”
This is a song which looks at Steve and Nancy’s relationship from his point of view. “If someone said that to you and they break up with you and start seeing somebody else, why would you still hang around? I feel like if I was in his position I’d hate it – why can’t I just separate myself from you? It’s wrong that he can’t, but he still loves her.”
As unsympathetic a character as Steve is early in the show, his character finds redemption when he puts his feelings to one side to battle the Demogorgon. “He’s a good guy. He still loves Nancy and just because she doesn’t love him, it doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the whole crew. And I think there’s something to be said of being able to do that.”
Track 5: “Jealous”
Place in timeline: S2 / E3 / 43:17
Having been hidden away – or protected – for almost a year by Hopper, Eleven emerged to discover that there’s a new girl hanging around with the gang. In fact, Eleven has been away for so long that the new girl, Max, doesn’t even know who she is.
Unaware that Max and Mike had been arguing moments before, Eleven is immediately envious of their connection and uses her powers of telekinesis to flip Max from her skateboard. It’s an oddly touching moment which proves that for all of her otherworldly qualities, Eleven experiences the same emotions as any other teenager. Eleven then looks crestfallen, immediately feeling guilty for that brief spark of jealousy.
Ingrid: “I love that scene! There are so many facets to her. Her vulnerability I thought would be a fun thing to write about. We all do sh*tty stuff when we’re feeling jealous, whether it’s in a relationship, whether it’s with a colleague or whatever it is. It was fun to just admit that in the song – I do it too and f*ck up.”
Track 6: “Missing You”
Place in timeline: S1 / E6 / 8:43
“This is a snapshot of a bunch of different moments that happen,” says Ingrid, which makes placing the track in a specific moment a tricky task. “It’s basically the story of Nancy being with Steve, but she really needs to and wants to be with Jonathan. They danced around all of this for, like, half of Season One and some of Season Two. We all wanted her to be with Jonathan. But once Steve turns out not to be a dick, everyone was like, well maybe he’s okay!”
As with many of the tracks on Stranger Songs, Ingrid’s songwriting on Missing You works on two levels: it reflects the emotions of a character, but it’s also a common experience that people can relate to. It’s all there in the dynamic hook, “I’m in his bed, feeling like a stranger / When he’s kissing me, I’m missing you.”
The second verse (“You lay beside me in my bedroom / Never made a move but I wanted to”) addresses Nancy’s complicated feelings for Jonathan that emerge in Season One shortly after they escape the Upside Down together. It’s one to tell the grandkids. “How did you guys get together?” “It’s a long story, but we had this incident involving a missing boy, an alternate dimension and MKUltra…”
Track 7: “Best Friend”
Place in timeline: S1 / E2 / 52:08
Barb is a fan-favourite cult character in Stranger Things, despite featuring so sparingly.
“People really just loved her and wanted more from her,” agrees Ingrid. “I don’t know if [the show’s creators] the Duffer Brothers expected that, because if you know an audience loves a character you want to keep them around.”
Although it’s not directly alluded to in the show, a popular fan theory argues that Barb’s death is directly related to her unspoken love for Nancy. As Ingrid continues, “That’s my theory, so I wrote a song and made up a whole thing with them having sleepovers, and Nancy wearing Barb’s shirt to bed and stuff. There’s a little bit of my own wishing for something to happen, but it’s my record and I can do what I want!”
There are also moments which reflect Ingrid’s own experiences. “Moments where you’re sleeping in bed next to one of your best friends, and you’re like, well, if I turn over, I could f*ck this whole thing up – so you don’t.” It’s also inspired by a friend who had a crush on Ingrid in college. She kept it to herself until those feelings had passed. “When I played her the song, she was like, ‘Oh my god! This is me in college!’ This song might have a little more of my own life in it mixed with some fan theories.”
Track 8: “Mother”
Place in timeline: S2 / E5 / 17:07
Like “Missing You”, “Mother“ ties into the show’s wider themes rather than a specific moment.
“This is a bit of a mash-up of Eleven looking for her mother, Will being in the Upside Down and needing his mother, and about my own loss of mother,” begins Ingrid. “Season One is so much about Joyce Byers trying to find her son, it’s so mother heavy. I wanted there to be something that spoke about that love and that bond between a mother and a child.”
While Will’s disappearance and Joyce’s grief ignited Season One’s narrative, Eleven’s quest to find her mother is the emotional heart of Season Two. She discovers that her mother is in a vegetative state following electroshock treatment.
“That part was so sad for me,” adds Ingrid. “She’s searching for a mother but she’s also searching for a home. When she comes to that dead end and her mum has been ruined, she realised she had to go back to where her real home was. It’s sad. Will gets his mum back, but Eleven doesn’t get her mum back.”
Track 9: “Christmas Lights”
Place in timeline: S1 / E3 / 40:20
Christmas Lights is full of subtle references to Joyce’s “unravelling” as she becomes overwhelmed by the loss of Will. Although it seems as if she’s losing her mind, she’s adamant that they’re somehow together: “I can still hear your call / Like a faraway, trapped inside of the wall.”
“I love Christmas,” says Ingrid. “That time of the year if very special to me and has always been very special to my family. I’ve lost my mother and father, so it’s a very sad but beautiful time. All of these songs are about the show but they’re also steeped in my own life.”
Lyrically, it’s a song that cleverly mixes specific references to Joyce’s situation. What other song could need to state, “Until then, I will talk to you through the Christmas lights”? But other lines – “You’re not here, but you’re here”, “Apart yet together” – capture the bittersweet emotions that many people experience at Christmas. The joy of the season tinged with the sorrow of loss.
Track 10: “Pretty”
Place in timeline: S1 / E4 / 18:30
Amidst Stranger Things’ numerous ’80s movie tropes, is there anything more of the era than a makeover scene? When the boys need to sneak Eleven (Lucas: “The weirdo…. I mean, look at her!”) into school, their best plan is make-over complete with a blonde wig and a pink dress – the polar opposite of what you’d expect Eleven to choose for herself.
The makeover catches Mike by surprise, who quickly extends “pretty” into “pretty good” to mask his embarrassment.
Ingrid’s lyrics focus on Eleven’s badass nature, with the declaration “I gotta fight like a girl!” being an apt catchphrase should our heroine ever need her own version of “I’ll be back!”
“Eleven is the most powerful character and in my opinion the most beautiful character in the whole show,” explains Ingrid. “It got me thinking, what’s meant to make someone pretty? Does long blonde hair and a pink dress make a woman pretty? That’s where it started and it moved into how she evolves in the show, as she’s so strong and powerful. That goes very deep into my own experiences of how people view me, and having self-confidence. When she moves the train in that abandoned junkyard, she has more power than she thinks she has. I love juxtaposing the idea of what being pretty means against the power that she has.”
Track 11: “Take Me Home”
Place in timeline: Outside of it!
The opening verse of Ingrid’s favourite song on the album moves from “Remember being young?” to “Boy, I had it good.” It feels like the Stranger Things kids have grown up and are looking back on what they experienced, knowing that among the challenges there were good times that they can never return to.
In fact, says Ingrid, “Take Me Home is very much me. There’s a line in the song that says, ‘It breaks my heart to know I can’t go back in time and feel those feelings forever.’ It feeds into this never-ending well of nostalgia that’s almost stifling at times. I wanted to end the record with a song that wasn’t anything specific to the show, but my reasons for making the record.”
It’s a song that really captures the appeal of the show. If you lived through and remember some of the ‘80s, Stranger Things is like a flashback comfort blanket to the simpler times of childhood – much like Back To The Future was in the ‘80s for those who grew up in the ‘50s.
But there’s an underlying sadness that you can’t go back in time or return to the people that have been lost along the way. Yet Stranger Things offers a fleeting journey back in time, escapism wrapped up in drama in the best possible way.
Ingrid Michaelson’s Stranger Songs is available now. Season 3 of Stranger Things is available on Netflix from July 4.