If you’ve watched “Beef,” the darkly comic road rage thriller starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, you’ve probably found yourself transported at times to the heyday of “Total Request Live.”
The soundtrack for the Netflix show is chock full of angsty rock and slick teen pop from the ’90s and early aughts, featuring hits by Bush, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Smashing Pumpkins and many others.
“This is the music I grew up with,” said creator Lee Sung Jin, who was inspired to write the series by an infuriating encounter with an angry driver on the streets of L.A. “Beef” follows Danny (Yeun) and Amy (Wong), two strangers who nearly run into each other in a parking lot and become consumed with a mutual quest for revenge. The incident unlocks years of pent-up rage and frustration that have little to do with traffic laws.
“The characters are also trapped in the past in a lot of ways. They’re having to unpack their past to move forward,” Lee said of Danny and Amy, who, it becomes clear, have much in common: Both find themselves disappointed with the direction of their lives as they reach their late 30s and attempt to exorcise demons dating back to childhood.
“Adolescence and high school and college are the years that I think a lot of these themes were most pronounced for me, and so tapping into the sounds [of this era] made sense,” he said.
The Y2K soundtrack was always part of Lee’s vision for the show, which he began pitching about four years ago.
“I thought it was a such a novel idea,” he said. “Now, it is literally the zeitgeist that we’re in.” (A recent episode of the Showtime drama “Yellowjackets” even used one of the same songs, “Cornflake Girl” by Tori Amos.) “I had a lot of the songs in the outline stage. When you do that as a writer, you assume you’re never going to get those songs. But thanks to A24, Netflix and our music supervisor, Tiffany Anders, we got every single song I wanted,” Lee said. “It took some personal letters to some some front man bands, but it all worked out.”
Here are a few of “Beef’s” most evocative needle drops — and the stories behind them.
O-Town, “Liquid Dreams”
What may be the most incongruously funny musical cue in “Beef” arrives a few minutes into the pilot episode, “The Birds Don’t Sing, They Screech in Pain.” As Amy flees her encounter with Danny, which has spilled out from the parking lot at a big box store and across the streets of the Valley at high speed, this song plays on her car radio.
The single, a top 10 hit for the boy band formed on the MTV reality show “Making the Band,” was one of the few song choices that was not planned from the beginning. “It was not written into the script,” said Lee. “But after watching one of the earlier cuts, we knew we needed something more comedic to give a little levity to all the tension that’s been building.”
It also marked a full circle moment for Lee, who — yes, this is true — auditioned to be in O-Town while a student and member of an a cappella group at the University of Pennsylvania. “My friend Barnes got a flier to audition, so we took Amtrak to New York City the next day, stood outside [the studio] and waited in long lines and made it past the first round,” he recalled. “I still have a letter from [boy band impresario] Lou Pearlman, thanking me for auditioning. It was one of those stock letters, but now it seems crazy to have it, given everything.”
Hoobastank, “The Reason”
One of the most powerful things about nostalgia is how it can make you fond of songs you once hated, or at least pretended to hate. Consider this power ballad by the much-derided SoCal band, a favorite of emo teens circa 2004, which plays at the end of Episode 1. As Amy discovers that Danny — posing as a contractor — has peed all over her bathroom, she chases him angrily down the street. The lyrics to the song feel like an understatement: “I’m not a perfect person / there’s many things I wish I didn’t do.”
As Yeun told The Times, one of the themes of “Beef” is “excavating the cringe of our childhood.”
“You grow up past your teens, what we call our awkward phase, [but] when we’re probably the most pure and having the most fun. The perfect analogy is Hoobastank. Everybody really s— on Hoobastank for a while. And turns out, when you hear the needle drop at the end of an episode, you’re cheering up and down. Like ‘What’d ya’ turn on Hoobstank for?’ They’re just trying to put out music.”
Tori Amos, “Cornflake Girl”
This gem from Amos’ 1994 album “Under the Pink” pops up at the end of Episode 2, “The Rapture of Being Alive,” as Amy and her husband, George (Joseph Lee), have a conversation about going to marriage counseling. Outside their house, Danny pulls up in a truck that Amy has vandalized (it is covered in humiliating messages, e.g. “I’m poor”) in response to the bathroom incident.
“We see the wide shot with Danny’s headlights approaching in the distance. And right when that pops up, there’s this whistle that happens in the song. It [feels] like an old western showdown about to happen, and so the mood of it felt really right,” said Lee, whose first concert was an Amos show when he was in the ninth grade (he thinks).
Though he considers “Cornflake Girl,” with its catchy piano riff, timeless, Lee said he got some questions about whether the lyrics — inspired by a conversation about female genital mutilation and the kind of women who betray other women — really fit the scene.
“It you really look at the lyrics, there’s something interesting being said about Amy’s character not feeling a part of the standard way to be, and it’s the same with Danny. There are things in the lyrics that drew me to it. Once I saw it in a cut, I was like, ‘Oh, this is gonna work,’” said Lee. “It also really makes me laugh going into the credits.”
At the end of Episode 3, “I Am Inhabited by a Cry,” Danny performs this song at rehearsal for the praise band at his ex-girlfriend’s Orange County church.
Lee and Yeun, who is an executive producer on the series, both grew up in the Korean church and have shared many conversations about their similar experiences.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, did you hang out after church with a Taylor 7-series guitar and try to sing secular songs?’ And he’d be like, ‘Yes, I did that.’ ‘Did you sing Incubus at all?’ ‘Oh, my God.’ Next thing you know, we have to put Incubus’ ‘Drive’ in the show, because he and I used to sing that after church.”
Danny’s acoustic cover of the hit single by the Calabasas nu-metal band, from its 1999 album “Make Yourself,” hearkens back to his teenage youth group days in a way that is a tad embarrassing to watch. “It was cool do that in earnestness. It felt right,” said Yeun. “All of us get into our 20s and like to pretend as if our early teens didn’t happen. Like, ‘In college now, I get to reinvent myself.’ And it’s like, ‘That’s you too. You’re not cool all the time.’”
Keane, “Somewhere Only We Know”
The power ballad by the British rock group plays over an emotional montage that concludes Episode 7, “I Am a Cage,” as Danny and Amy — who both seem to have moved on from their feud — are suddenly struck by the horrifying repercussions of their actions: Paul (Young Mazino) tells George about his affair with Amy, who watches it all unfold on her door cam app, returns home to find the house empty, then eats her sorrows in the form of a chicken sandwich at Burger King. Meanwhile, Danny triumphantly reunites with his parents, only to discover the house he’s dedicated himself to building for them is on fire.
By his own admission, Lee was slightly apprehensive about using the track, which has had a surprising afterlife since its initial release in 2004, getting covered by Lily Allen and turning up in such shows as “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Last year, a speeded-up version of the song became ubiquitous on TikTok, where people used it in videos featuring childhood photos of themselves. “I am not on TikTok, but someone told me there was a ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ challenge or something. So it did give me pause,” said Lee. “We tried a bunch of other songs, but nothing worked like ‘Somewhere Only We Know.’ I have had it in my brain since pitching this montage.”
Besides, he added, “It’s very hard to find something that’s going to work over Burger King.”