Brow Beat

Us Composer Michael Abels on Working With Jordan Peele, Writing “Nonsense” Lyrics, and the Film’s Musical Easter Eggs

A still from the movie Us and a photo of Michael Abels.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images.

In Jordan Peele’s Us, music is essential to mood from the very beginning. From the haunting opening hymn “Anthem” to the ominous, stop-and-go strings that drive the final showdown, Michael Abels’ score serves as both an emotional guide and an atmospheric tool. Abels, who also composed the score for Peele’s Get Out, got experimental this time around, incorporating unusual instruments, nonsensical songwriting, and a rap song refrain we still can’t get out of our heads.

Slate spoke to Abels about the meaning behind the score’s most memorable tracks and the movie’s biggest musical Easter eggs.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Natalia Winkelman: “Anthem,” which plays over the opening credits, features children singing creepy nonsense words—at least, we think they’re nonsense. How did you come up with that concept?

Michael Abels: I wanted “Anthem” to sound like an evil march. Like you knew that someone with bad intentions was coming. One thing that Jordan loves to do and is becoming known for is [to] take something you always assumed was safe or innocent and turn it into something else. The children’s voices is one example—Jordan wanted to start with them because he thought it would be super scary.

The reason the lyrics are nonsense has everything to do with Us, which is we want to communicate the message that there’s a group of people who are organizing, but we don’t want the audience to understand their purpose. We want the audience to find that out later, along with the lead characters. The best lyrics of any song you love aren’t the obvious ones—they’re the poetic ones open to interpretation. You’re forced to listen with your emotions and your instincts rather than your intellect.

In Get Out, the Swahili song lyrics had a meaningful translation. Is it really true that the “Anthem” lyrics don’t mean anything?

We had always agreed that the lyrics would just be nonsense, and we wouldn’t try to choose a language. But when it came time to write the lyrics, I realized the obvious, which is that there’s no such thing as nonsense. Everything that comes out of a voice means something, even if it’s a moan or a sigh. Suddenly I had new respect for Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll. I ended up just choosing vowels that are very easy to sing. By the time I ruled out all the difficult sounds, I had a little nonsense language of my own. When I was worried that something was actually a word, I would Google the syllable just to make sure it didn’t have a secret meaning. They sound like Latin only because they’re sounds that we’re used to making.

It was also important to me to show that this is not a march of any one culture. There’s an important line in Us where Red says, “We’re Americans.” “Anthem” starts out sounding like the march of a Western cultural background, but then a beat drops in—it’s syncopated and funky. It’s not an Afro-Cuban beat exactly, but it really makes you want to move. “Anthem” is really the march of a multicultural group, like we Americans are.

This is your second time working with Jordan Peele after Get Out. How was your approach to this score different?

The Us score is a lot scarier than the Get Out score, with more moments of real intensity. I actually don’t think of Get Out as a horror movie, more as a social or psychological thriller. It’s got a slow burn to it. In Us, things go south quickly. Jordan had me read the Us script before he was even shooting. He likes to hear music as part of his preproduction experience so that he can start designing the sound as well as the visuals.

For Us, he asked me to experiment with duality. He suggested trying instruments that don’t go together, duets between surprising pairs—like a violin and cimbalom, which ended up working for the film. At one point you also hear a kalimba and berimbau and didgeridoo all at the same time. It’s something I never would have come up with if Jordan hadn’t said, “Try things that don’t belong together.”

It’s unusual for composers to be so involved during shooting, but you and Jordan worked closely from the start. How did being part of that process impact your work?

Normally composers are brought in only at the end, which actually makes sense because music is an art that takes place in time. You can’t know how your idea is going to play out until you see the amount of time certain scenes take, so the majority of a composer’s work is done at the end. But for Us, I was around during shooting. It was my first time on a major movie set, and I was a complete fanboy the whole time.

Being involved during that time, I felt very emotionally invested in the characters and the process. Jordan’s a writer-director, an auteur, which is a special type of creative animal who is in charge of his or her own story. But during production, he’s still exploring the best way to tell that story, the pacing and which parts to reveal when. I felt very connected to him during that process of reworking.

Are there any Easter eggs in the score?

A big one is the funk song at the end, “Les Fleurs” by Minnie Riperton. At the beginning of the movie, we see an ad for Hands Across America. The ad is actually fake, and Jordan had me do a little cheesy ’80s version of “Les Fleurs” to use as the underscore for the commercial. Then the real song returns at the end of the movie—but you really have to know that song and be listening to catch that. That’s a Jordan Peele joke.

Another melody that returns is the one from “I Got 5 on It,” which you use in “Pas de Deux” during the climactic battle-ballet scene. Is there any deeper meaning to that song?

When it’s first played, the song is just a great way to understand the family, who they are as a unit, and how they relate to each other. What’s interesting about it later—which I didn’t realize until we started messing with it—is how it fits in with the duality theme. In the sample of that song, which is Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” the bass line is like a melody in itself, so it’s really got two melodies, a low one and a high one. When it was time to score the dance fight, I had a call and a response already set up.

Were you worried at all about how using pre-existing music would impact the score’s awards eligibility?

Oh, no. I mean, you’re just trying to finish the film and have it turn out well. You never get to say the word award if you don’t have a good movie. Making a good film that people appreciate—that’s the thing that you talk about. Anything else is icing on the cake.