Hulu’s limited series “Pam & Tommy” has been praised not just for its performances, but for its soundtrack. The music has been such a solid mix of jams from both the 1990s and earlier that Hulu has been releasing weekly Spotify playlists for listeners to keep the music flowing. The finale airs Wednesday, and contains two poignant needle drops that drive home the themes the series has been exploring all season long.
As music supervisor, Amanda Thomas has crafted the needle drops for not just “Pam & Tommy,” but several of Ryan Murphy’s series as well as the popular FX series “The Americans.” Though needle drop moments have felt more pronounced over the last year, particularly as the nostalgic bent of many series require going through the archives of popular music, Thomas said during a recent Zoom interview that much depends on the show. “I do feel shows are dipping into more older time periods,” she said. “‘Pam & Tommy,’ it’s music discovery in a different way. The ’90s feels like it’s having a big moment [right now].”
Thomas discussed crafting the music for “Pam & Tommy” as well as the art of convincing musicians to give permission to use their songs. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
INDIEWIRE: What’s your approach to picking songs for this project in particular?
Amanda Thomas: I’ve been a Craig Gillespie fan since “I, Tonya” and “Cruella.” When I got a call about meeting with [him] on the project, I will never forget the interview. It was with Craig, and Rob[ert Siegel, showrunner] and D.V. [DeVincentis, screenwriter]. I started asking them about how they were thinking about the music; there were some scripted [songs], but not a lot. Craig was immediately like, “I like being sent hundreds of songs, and there are no rules. I use music in a really specific way. It’s all about how a song feels in the moment and if it’s communicating what I want the audience to feel, and beyond that I don’t care about era, I don’t care about genre. It’s all about feeling for me.” Reading the script, it immediately stood out [to me] as being very stylized. Rob and D.V. [said,] “We obviously want to pay homage to the ’90s, but it’s by no means limited to that.
I started with one playlist just to get on the page. “Here are 20 songs.” Hearing “We want ’90s. We want eclectic. There are no rules,” here is a playlist of 20 songs that, to me, feel like the show. And Craig was like, “This is great. Send me more.” I sent something like 300 songs in the span of four or five days just for the first director’s cuts. And then it continued from there for the rest of the season.
When do you generally come into a project?
We always like to start as early as possible. Usually, we are coming in before production starts, and how much far before production depends on the type of show. If everyone knows that it’s going to have a lot of on-camera music then it’ll be maybe two months or more before production starts. If it’s something where there may be a couple on-camera performances then maybe it’s in the few weeks before production. It’s usually when everybody starts looking at a production schedule and goes, “Oh, we have a band. We got to get a music supervisor hired.” Then you get a call and it’s a very fast interview process. Which is sort of what happened on “Pam & Tommy” a little bit. They’re like, “Tommy’s driving here. There’s a garage band here. We need someone to help us organize.”
I have to give major shout outs to Isaac Carpenter, who was Sebastian [Stan’s] drum coach and helped write and produce the Mötley Crüe performance in the last episode. The Mötley Crüe song they perform is actually an original song that Isaac wrote. He was a jack-of-all-trades.
Do you remember what was on that initial playlist?
“Heaven Is a Place on Earth” [by Belinda Carlisle] was on there. It was really all over the place. “Head Over Feet” [by Alanis Morissette] and also “Kozmic Blues” by Janis Joplin which was in [episode] seven. It had Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, Meatloaf, Chumbawamba, which I was a little sad we didn’t use.
How do you navigate music clearances on a series like this?
When you start clearing songs the studio will [tell] you, “Here’s the logline we’d prefer to use for a show.” The logline for this one was very simple: It’s a story that talks about Pam and Tommy’s whirlwind romance. We saw some denials from big artists. You never know why but you can make some guesses. There were a few songs in there that were denied initially and then once we started seeing that trend we tweaked our overall approach to say, “Look, this is not just [about] Pam and Tommy. It’s about a greater thing. It’s about celebrity, it’s about gender. It’s telling a greater story and an important story.” Once we positioned it the right way it was much smoother sailing. For the couple artists who were still concerned we were able to give the bigger picture.
Can you say who was refused?
It was a tough moment for me but we really wanted to use “Common People” by Pulp in the first episode, and there was one member of the band who just didn’t want to be involved, and we tried everything.
Unlike the rest of the series the finale only has two major songs in it. Can you talk about that?
People have commented about how the first three [episodes] have a really specific tone, and then it changes as it goes. By the time we were in those later episodes the tone had shifted where it was not that “needle drop, needle drop, needle drop” vibe. It was still always important to find those stylized [pop] moments. The first thing I ask on a period show is how important is it that we are to the letter, by the month? On something like “The Americans,” it was critical. We knew the month, sometimes to the day, that a scene was supposed to take place in and if [the song] was not out we couldn’t use it.
For “Pam & Tommy” it was like, we want to make sure we’re using ’90s music because we are in the ’90s, and we’d like that to stay as close to the actual year as possible. But it’s going to be more important to find the song that fits the energy and has the feeling we want. “Steal My Sunshine” is one of those where the song technically came out a little bit after when the scene takes place, but it captures the perfect feeling. Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was scripted from the very beginning. The Bee Gees and Dolly Parton can both be really difficult artists to clear and certainly not the least expensive artists here. By the time we got to those episodes, those two needle drops were critically important for our show.
The Bee Gees can be very particular about their songs, specifically the use of their recordings; sometimes they’re more open to covers. But we hard sold them on the project and were like, “This is a really amazing montage.” We got a yes right away. Dolly was one that was actually denied, initially. She’s certainly very open to things. As music supervisors, when we watch content, especially when there are big songs used, we tend to be like, “Oh, that’s interesting that person approved that.” I always think about the use of “9 to 5” in “Deadpool” for this wildly violent scene.
She’s open for the right things. We went back and we recontextualized the whole thing. And we’re like, “Here’s the story we’re trying to tell. We are telling this narrative from Pamela’s perspective, as someone who got the short end of the stick and was not done well by the men in her life.” [Pamela’s] in a place where she can look back fondly on this time in her life, and Tommy being a part of that time, but from a point of view that she’s moved on from it and she’s grown from it. The song really speaks to that in a cool way. When it was initially denied and I told the team, I was like, “We’re going back for it.” And then when it cleared Rob was texting me like, “I heard Dolly cleared?” And I was like, “Yes, she approved.” And he was like, “Oh my God, thank you so much. That song is probably the most important song.”
What’s the process for a hard sell like that? Is it generally just emails back and forth?
It’s a lot of emails, and sometimes it’s on the phone. I’m often dealing with my contacts at the publisher or the label. So I am putting together a sales pitch on my side. We did send the clip for Dolly. It’s mostly the epilogue but they asked to see the scene. I was like, “Let’s include a little bit leading up to that epilogue.” So you can see that moment of Pam in the tattoo shop, and the baby next to her and changing the tattoo to “Mommy.” Even though the song isn’t playing during that part let’s include that as a lead-in so you can clearly communicate tone. When something’s denied we’re always like, “Is there a reason? Did they communicate a reason why?” Maybe it’s because they’re misinterpreting what the project is.
The “Pam & Tommy” finale streams today on Hulu.