A Deep Dive Into Selling Sunset’s Uncanny Girlboss Soundtrack

by Emily Kirkpatrick

selling sunset and selling tampa ladies collage
Images courtesy of Netflix. Collage by Ashley Peña for W.

On many television shows, especially those that fit within the “reality” genre, music is merely filler used to connect one scene to the next. But what sets the Selling Sunset soundtrack apart, according to producer Adam DiVello, is that it’s not just a tool for creating continuity, but actually “one of the characters on the show.” That might explain why, when the latest season dropped last month, fans were just as captivated by Selling Sunset’s bubblegum pop laced with uncanny, eerily omniscient lyrics as they were by the tensions mounting on screen between all of the ladies of The Oppenheim Group, the Southern California real estate company where most of the drama unfolds. To find out more about what went into the creation of this larger-than-life soundtrack, W spoke to Devillo and the show’s music supervisor, Carrie Hughes, about how they managed to so perfectly capture the sound of multi-million dollar real estate and the glamorous women who sell it.

What does the role of music supervisor on Selling Sunset entail?

Carrie Hughes: I spend hours and hours listening to a ton of songs for the show and then create big playlists that the editors and story producers can access at any time. Sometimes we’ll have specific scenes that I’ll work with the editors on to hand pick songs for those scenes. But other times, when we have just a general transition, we have about 2,000 of those songs that the editors can add at any point.

How many songs are typically in one episode?

CH: In one episode, on average, it’s about 15 lyric songs. There are instrumentals as well. If we count those, there’s 80.

That seems like a lot–is that standard for reality TV?

CH: No, it’s definitely a lot! The only other show I’ve ever done in my whole career that used more licensed music was The Real L Word on Showtime, but that’s mainly because that was an hour long show and this is a half-hour show. I can’t think of any other shows that are using this many vocals. I think even [on] scripted shows that use a lot of vocals, it’s like five or ten.

Why do you think the show’s music has gotten so much attention from fans? Is it just the sheer volume or is there something else?

CH: I never thought about the volume playing into it, but I think that’s actually a really good point and probably part of it because you really can’t miss it. If you’re watching and you’re scrolling on your phone, you may miss one song, but you’re going to hear another one in two minutes. Whereas if you’re [watching] a show that only has four or five songs, and you’re not fully paying attention, you could miss the songs very easily. You can’t really miss them on our show.

What do you think sets the soundtrack of Selling Sunset apart?

CH: We definitely lean in to female empowerment and female vocals. It’s like 98% female vocals. Maybe every once in a blue moon you’ll hear a male-led song, but we really try to keep the show very female-focused and we try to carry that through in the music as well.

Adam DiVello: Back when we did The Hills, we didn’t have interviews in that show so we had to rely on music to help tell the story. We needed Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson and all those pop songs to help us tell what Lauren and Kristen were feeling. Now that we have interviews in Selling Sunset, we don’t need that as much. The lyrics don’t necessarily need to tell the story, they more or less entertain and keep the narrative moving throughout the episode.

I feel like The Hills created a similar phenomenon with its soundtrack.

AD: Yeah, believe me! They sold soundtracks to The Hills, which was incredible. We got to the point where people were calling so much and asking so much [about the music], we just started putting the names of the songs on the bottom of the screen while you were listening to it. The response was so incredible that we couldn’t just not do it! We were like, “it’s going to take people out of the show,” and then we were like, “let’s just do it.” MTV was still a music television channel at the time, so it made sense.

Were there any other directives given about the sound of Selling Sunset, aside from female empowerment?

AD: We always just wanted it to be loud and glossy and reflective of the city and the beautiful, strong women that are on the show—very aspirational, driving, fun. When you’re doing a show about L.A. and these big, strong personality women, the bar is set pretty high.

CH: The other big theme that we use lyrically on the show is “glamorous” or “money.” Like you might notice, most often when we do our house tours and we have all those beauty shots, the backdrop is lyrics about living the glamorous life or having lots of money, or lyrics that might evoke envy. So as the viewer, you’re watching it and you’re thinking, “man, I want that house,” and that’s what the song is saying as well, “I want this and this is my dream,” “I need that,” those kind of vibes. [The sound] is pretty much bouncy pop. I would say Lizzo is the number one reference that I give for the source music. If we could afford Lizzo, we would probably use every single one of her songs.

What are the hallmarks of a female empowerment song?

CH: For this show, there are two worlds of female empowerment. One is our general female empowerment where it’s a little more positive, like “we can do this,” “we’re all in it together.” We’re definitely trying to avoid those songs where it’s female empowerment coming out of a relationship. We really try to find songs where it’s female empowerment just because these women are badass. It has absolutely nothing to do with a breakup, there’s no man even in the equation. And then the other sort of female empowerment is more sassy, more feisty, where it’s like “I’m better than you” type of empowerment. So instead of “we’re all great,” it’s like, “yeah, we’re great, but I’m the best.”

Do you cater the music at all to the different personalities of the women?

CH: I think we definitely use more sassy, lyrical stuff with Christine. We use a lot of our “I’m better than you” songs with her. She’s probably the main one that is a little bit of her own vibe.

Are there any particularly difficult aspects about your job?

CH: I think the hardest thing for me overall is just the volume of songs and especially the volume in sort of a narrow theme of female empowerment, glamorous life, only female vocalists. There's only so many of those songs out there and I’m really having to find every single one of them. That’s probably the hardest part.

Is there anything else you think is important for people to know about the show?

CH: Just that they’re all real songs!

People are very convinced the songs are A.I. generated.

CH: Yeah, it’s absolutely not. These are real songs, real artists. You can find probably 90% of them on Spotify and iTunes. They’re all independent artists which is why most people haven’t heard of them, but they’re definitely all real songs. We don’t have them created for the show. Now, whether or not these artists create these songs specifically for the show on their end, I imagine that’s happening because they know the volume of music that we use. But we don’t specifically commission these songs.

Regarding the Selling Tampa soundtrack, can we expect a continuation of what we’ve heard in Selling Sunset or will it go in a different direction?

AD: We did go in a little bit of a different direction. We wanted it to have a beach-y feel to it. It’s very lush, you know, because it’s Tampa Bay. It’s not shiny, glossy, harsh Los Angeles. It’s a little bit more tropical, I guess, for lack of a better word. There’s certainly no steel drums, but it’s a different POV, maybe a little more urban. But it’s also still very much badass, empowered women that are just crushing it in their field. It’s just such a fun show.

I would say it’s got a lot more comedy in it than Selling Sunset does, which I wasn’t expecting when we started this. You think it’s going to be wall-to-wall drama, but you never know what you’re going to get until you start rolling. The difference with this show is they were all such good friends. They’ve all known each other for so long. It was like pulling up a seat at a table full of girlfriends that have been friends for 15, 20 years, and you’re just caught up in their lives. For a season one cast that has never been on camera before, they were so comfortable and natural. I think the biggest part of the success of all of these shows is always the casting and are these people worth following around for six months? Are their lives exciting enough? I don’t think mine would be.