Near the end of the first season of FX’s Cold War spy thriller, The Americans, a Soviet sleeper-cell operative played by Keri Russell has an affair with a man wanted for the murder of an FBI agent. Troves of D.C. police are frantically canvassing the area for him while the two hash out his options inside a safe house. Unwilling to run or hide, the man finally slips out the front door, concealing a weapon under his coat.
The dramatic firefight that follows could very well be an earsplitting sonic exclamation point on the season. But fans didn’t hear a single shot. Instead, viewers heard Roberta Flack singing a delicately juxtaposed torch song, “To Love Somebody.”
“One of the things I love to do as a music supervisor–and producers have to be really willing to embrace this concept–is use music completely against the action,” says PJ Bloom, an industry veteran and a music supervisor for The Americans. “It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it makes an incredible soundtrack moment. And I know there was a lot of talk about this particular song moment in the show.”
The Americans garnered talk for plenty of reasons, but chief among them were moments like this created by Bloom and his music supervising colleagues, Heather Guibert and Janice Ginsberg. Out of all the standout sequences, Bloom points to the Flack firefight as his favorite from season one, the love ballad turning a somewhat routine street death into a moment of real emotional significance.
By putting life as a Soviet special op to everything from Phil Collins (“In The Air Tonight” for victim cleanup) to The Cure (“Siamese Twins” for an ugly fight between spouses), The Americans gets away from the over-the-top orchestral bang traditionally associated with pop-culture spies (think Mission Impossible or even Get Smart). Instead, femme fatale seduction happens to Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” scores the bad-guy chase scene.
“I think the producers [Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg] wanted it to be real,” Bloom says. “They really make you feel like you were there in 1980s D.C. These are real people with real families fighting for a real cause–that kind of show doesn’t lend itself to big John Barry-type scoring moments.”
Emphasizing this sense of place means a strict aesthetic. The look and feel of The Americans–early ’80s, washed-out colors, with a lack of James Bond-style explosions or action sequences–is meant to reflect the at-times mundane reality of Cold War espionage. So the work of Bloom’s team (and composer Nathan Barr) is to create a suitable sonic landscape, drawn primarily from the narrow time frame the show’s set in.
Bloom has worked in music supervision since the early ‘90s, when it was still a relatively unknown trade; his most notable partnership has been with Ryan Murphy on critically acclaimed hits including Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story–all set in contemporary times. Working on period pieces like The Americans, provides a certain kind of creative freedom through constraints.
“In contemporary shows, you’re battling being hip and new music and people’s tastes–what’s cool and what’s not. When you get into period pieces, you have the history of music culture and its relevance already written,” Bloom says. “You can really look at 1,000 songs by huge artists, you can look at deeper tracks from those seminal artists, and you can look at things that existed in that time but for some reason didn’t hit. It’s a fun way to explore building a soundtrack.”
Beyond the opportunity to work on a period piece, Bloom was drawn to The Americans because, like Murphy, producers Fields and Weisberg share a passion for music. “I consider myself to have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge and it’s fun to toss ideas around with others who enjoy it,” Bloom says. “Having grown up on this music, it’s something that’s exciting for us to explore together.” Bloom says the two really embrace the process of soundtracking, sometimes offering their own suggestions but often allowing the team to experiment and try to elicit different emotional reactions for the same scene. “They understand that there’s not one song for one spot.”
Season one of The Americans was set in 1981, so while you could nitpick the technical details of its now signature soundtrack (the Cure album with “Siamese Twins” is from 1982, for instance), Bloom and the team remain focused on capturing the essence of an overlooked musical era. The ’80s may recall Duran Duran or Guns N’ Roses, but those bands were popular during the mid to latter part of the decade. Season two (debuting February 26) picks up in 1982, still squarely in an era that Bloom describes as “undefined” musically. “Jock rock” may be the only unifying theme of some of that year’s top singles–think “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, “Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band–so expect Bloom and company to keep catching audiences off guard.
“It’s not one of those time periods like ’77-’78 with disco, or ’85-’86 and hair metal,” says Bloom. “But I think that adds to the fun of The Americans. You really get to pepper this show with a soundtrack flavor that the audience wouldn’t normally go to.”