How SKINS defined a generation with its iconic soundtrack
More than ten years since its debut season, SKINS’ unapologetic combination of sweaty, drug-fuelled hedonism and mundane teen life in Britain’s suburban wasteland still remains as one of the most effective backdrops for music in recent TV history. While its counterparts (namely The OC, Gossip Girl, etc) pulled timidly away from reality, SKINS leaned in closer to the youth culture it sought to represent, bringing an entirely new audience with it and building a sound that was entirely its own. Grime and new wave classics from Joy Division and Blondie sat alongside lesser known genres like Witch House, Nu-Rave and Doom metal. Indie acts on the brink of breaking (Foals, Late of The Pier, Does It Offend You, Yeah?) were also juxtaposed by just the right amount of cheese (see Chingy’s ‘Right Thurr’) and top 40 stayers, while classics from The Beatles and Dylan also found a new home.
But, diversity in sound is something we take for granted on TV now, but it wasn’t always that way. Thanks largely to a new wave of gifted and adventurous music supervisors like Alex Hancock (SKINS), Jen Malone (Netflix) and Susan Jacobs (HBO), in the last decade, TV soundtracks became more diverse, more compelling and ultimately more interesting than ever. From the game-changing SKINS soundtrack way back in 2007 to more recently with shows like Euphoria placing Megan Thee Stallion alongside Jamie XX and Rosalía, a soundtrack is what can make or break a show. Atlanta and Master of None squeezed in everything from Beach House and Funkadelic to Kamasi Washington and Mac DeMarco, while Insecure went one step further, hiring Solange Knowles as a music consultant to ensure its soundtrack was as authentic and genuine as possible to its audience.
It’s easy to forget that in the early 2000’s, American dramas held the monopoly on youth programming. Shows like The OC, One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek and later on Gossip Girl (and
eventually Riverdale) opted for squeakily clean sets, stars that could have doubled as Abercrombie & Fitch models and pushed opulence and decadence over anything close to adolescent reality. The OC, set in the idealistic coastal location of Newport Beach focused largely on gated communities and shallow teens, and by proxy, churned out a soundtrack swimming in music you’d expect rich, sheltered characters to listen to; lush cover versions of Oasis, inoffensive tracks from Youth Group and Band of Horses and early hits from The Killers and Rooney. Creator Josh Schwartz sustained this trend in his follow up series Gossip Girl, switching sundrenched California for upscale New York. Teen drama by the beach was replaced with teen drama on the streets; privileged upper-class adolescents complaining about midtown gossip, now scored by Imagine Dragons, The Bravery…and more Rooney.
In January 2007, as Gossip Girl was kicking off in the US, SKINS landed in the UK and pushed hard against the status quo. For a new wave of adolescent viewers, SKINS was likely the first taste of programming aimed squarely at them that wasn’t set in the US and dripping in thick doses of Americana. On SKINS, model-esque actors dressed in Diane von Furstenberg, Elie Saab and Altuzarra Egan playing ten years their junior were replaced with 16 year olds at the peak of puberty, set in mundane suburbia with not a whole lot to do. Make up and flip phones were switched out for acne scars, mismatched outfits from Top Shop and iPod shuffles filled with tracks from Pirate Bay. 5th Avenue suites and gigs at The Bait Shop were gone, making way for sloppy suburban house parties and run down pub crawls, and the show exposed audiences to stories about drug use, sex, abortion, race, gender and self-harm, depicted with hyper-precise realism.
While it might hard to believe that eleventh graders were necking bottles of vodka for breakfast, snorting mephedrone in school bathrooms and hosting drug-parties in housing estates on weekends, there’s no disputing the accurate portrayal of life in banal suburbia, and the unquestionably accurate depiction of music’s importance there. From blaring out in neon-lit club scenes to characters plugged with headphones, there’s rarely a scene without music in SKINS. It was one of the first shows in the UK to successfully use dubstep in its soundtrack, with tracks from Skream often scoring out-of-control house parties and doofs. But use of genres like dubstep, or later grime or techno, was far from just a respectful nod to scenes whose roots run deep in the British canon, it was also to provide a hyper-realistic snapshot of how youth culture and music intertwined.
The success of SKINS was unfortunately short-lived, eventually jumping the shark HARD in season four with a confusing and messy plot, losing its edge as a show that distilled everything it was to be a teenager in the middle of nowhere trying to figure it out as you go. However, the soundtrack remains an important part of the show’s legacy. For many young viewers, it was an access point to classics from Dylan, The Beatles and The Ramones, and to emerging bands from Britain and abroad. For artists, SKINS represented a platform to be broadcast directly to an audience hungry for music; Adele, Foals, MGMT, and Gossip owe a measure of their success to not only their inclusion on the show, but to a soundtrack that aimed to reflect what its audience wanted, rather than what it thought they wanted.
Over seven seasons, SKINS managed to pull together an eclectic mix of music that quickly became the sound of the mid 2000’s independent music scene. And as a whole new generation now learns of the show and by extension, its soundtrack, this legacy is sure to continue. Here, we look back at some of the most iconic moments in the show’s soundtrack, narrowing it down to just a few of our favourites throughout the years.
Words by Emma Jones & Mitch Fresta
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