One of the most delightful things about Girls5eva, itself a delightful show, is the fact that there is an accompanying album of music to play on loop once you’re done watching it. The series focuses on a one-hit wonder girl group, Girls5eva, who find themselves once again in the spotlight after an up-and-coming artist samples one of their songs in his latest single.
Unsurprisingly, given that the cast includes Broadway stars like Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Andrew Rannells, among others, the songs often sound surprisingly credible as pop hits, even as their lyrics spoof decades’ worth of musical tropes. We spoke to the show’s creator, Meredith Scardino, and its composer, Jeff Richmond, to discuss the process of bringing the Girls5eva sound to life, and adapted their comments into the song-by-song guide below.
Meredith Scardino: The refrain that became the theme song was in the pilot from “go.”
Jeff Richmond: In the pilot, there’s a storyline about Lil Stinker sampling a song, and the song was going to be called “Famous 5eva.” Meredith had written the chorus. I kept going, “Meredith, we have to write the rest of that song. And there’s got to be more songs than this. We’ve got to write it because we have to let the people upstairs know that, first, we know what we’re doing, and we also have to write it because it’s their first big hit, we’re going to want to showcase it somehow.” I was writing verses that would basically reflect the time period because if you listen to it, it’s a lot of references to 1999 and flip phones, and Wayne Brady being the hot comedian.
I enjoyed all those songs in that era. Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, and certainly Spice Girls. I think the one thing you can look at, especially the Spice Girls and how Girls5eva is reflective of them, is that it’s team-driven pop music. Everybody gets to have their turn and sing their verse, and their verses come from their character, or at least the way we personified their characters. The sassy one, the hot one, the sporty one. And Girls5eva has the same template. They all get a verse, and they all get to come together for the big hooks. And we know that we have the one that can belt out and riff.
Scardino: The influence was always, yes, Spice Girls, but also a step down from Spice Girls, because I felt like they were a group that was thrown together because Spice Girls was so big and it was this opportunistic manager who thought, “Hey, I can do that,” in a Lou Pearlman way. I thought they were given scratch that was kicking around these pop factories. I didn’t think the song was going to be super sophisticated.
“Boyz Next Door (Puber-Dude)”
Scardino: It’s a little bit in the Christian rock, boy band pop world, because it’s a lot about “let’s do kissing but never nude.” The idea was born out of, “Oh, there’s all these songs about the hot girl next door getting hot and she’s underage and it’s gross.” So we flipped it and made it about a guy, but also added that he’s boasting about it, and it’s not the most exciting thing, the conversation’s bland.
In the script, we threw it in as one line, it was just like, “Look who went through Puber-Dude, it’s the Boyz Next Door.” And that was the only thing in the table read. Andrew [Rannells] sang it, and even over Zoom, he was still hilarious. Then Jeff was like, “Before we shoot this snippet, I think we should try to get more out of it.”
Richmond: I knew we had Andrew Rannells to play the part, and I am a huge fan of that gentleman. He is hilarious, and I knew that it would be great to have him singing a song that would be full of jokes, because he can sell jokes in a song and still make it sound legitimate, like what we were aiming for, in that ’N Sync sexy boy band way.
The other thing about it is I thought it might be important, if we did end up putting out any collection or soundtrack, to have other voices represented as a palate cleanser as you listen to it, so not all the songs were coming from Girls5eva.
Scardino: I had that idea of “Dream girlfriends, because our dads are dead,” beating around in my head, and I thought, Oh, that would be fun to write. Let me get my ballad-y thing that really shows off their voices and then has a lot of lyrics about them being these dream girls, but from the perspective of all the men that wrote the songs and propped them up.
Richmond: “Dream Girlfriends” was a very short song, and it only lived in what you see in the episode itself, which is a minute, but that was going so well, it would be great at the end of that episode if we could actually hear more of that song. Peacock agreed, “We’re going to put it in the credits.” Then Meredith and I had to go back in and start conceptualizing. “How can we get this song to be a full-length song?” Which is why the bridge of that song is in such an odd place. Let me geek out for a second. The bridge of that song is when Sara steps forward and says, “We’ve got the kind of birth control that goes in your arm.” And then Gloria says, “Tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius.” That’s the bridge. That’s supposed to be a little departure, but it actually falls within the first third of the song, which in typical pop music structure, it wouldn’t. It’d be closer toward the second half, to reenergize the song.
Richmond: We only needed a snippet in the body of the episode, but we decided, “Oh, we’ll write a full song of that.” And that was tricky because then we had this one idea about “Space Boys,” it was just, “Whatever, we’re going to go into space, it’s a space odyssey, and we’re going to find boys in outer space.” It sounds funny, but then you have to sustain it for 2½ minutes. That one was a challenge that ended up being an undefinable music style that was somewhere between girl pop, dance club, Sade, oversexualized ballad.
Scardino: I’ve always loved “Oops!… I Did It Again.” I always thought it’s funny that Britney Spears is on Mars and no one’s wearing a helmet. I think you need a helmet in space. … Wouldn’t everyone’s heads explode? Anyway, I thought that was a way for Gloria—who’s trying to play the very heteronormative part that was asked of her back in the day and trying to make excuses—I thought I could see her trying to convince the director, “No, guys, if we’re going for verisimilitude, I would be wearing a helmet.” So it’s really just to get her out of having to kiss an alien guy, so he kisses the glass.
“New York Lonely Boy”
Scardino: I love Simon & Garfunkel. And I love Paul Simon. That was definitely an inspiration, that folksy sound.
Richmond: With that particular one, what we realized is we were getting close to doing the final mixes on the episodes, but we didn’t know who was going to record it yet. It was Sara who said, “Pick my friends, the Milk Carton Kids.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I love them.” They’re funny, they sound as authentic to a Simon & Garfunkel song as you can get in 2021, and they’re a delight.
Scardino: The song is about my son, basically, because I have a 3½-year-old and that’s what I call him. When I had a baby, everyone would always ask me, “Are you going to have a second one?” And I would go, “No, this is the New York lonely boy.” And I see them all over the city. I don’t know why I see more boys, but I do for some reason. There may be plenty of New York Lonely Girls that I am not seeing. But you see this nice, polite, solo son at a bistro having small talk with adults. And I feel like that’s so amazing. I have this wonderful little guy. I have this video of him going, “Hey, Alexa. Play ‘Coyote’ by Joni Mitchell.” And he loves it.
We were trying to write a story about the rekindling of the band and how it was interrupting whatever life family plan that Dawn had. It was a very organic thing to be like, “Maybe she starts to worry it’s a bad thing to have a New York Lonely Boy because she doesn’t think he has a childhood.” And then we thought of the idea of, How fun would it be to write that song when she sees evidence of New York Lonely Boys all around her? And then I was so happy that John Slattery and his family offered to help me. Talia [Balsam, Slattery’s wife] and Harry [their son] agreed to be in the show playing themselves.
Scardino: I feel like some of those songs from the ’70s are about Brandywine and lover’s hearts and stuff, and it felt like a fun thing for Paula to sing to get us in her head about how much she wants the relationship with her ex-wife back, and they were in the Catskills around owls and all that stuff.
Richmond: We’d written it to be a soft, overly blown Joni Mitchell love song for Paula to sing. We shot her in front of green screen when she actually sang it. She didn’t go to a recording studio.
Scardino: It was Paula’s idea to sing it in front of her own green screen, to sing it inside the montage of love. This is why it’s great to have Paula Pell as part of your cast. She’s one of the best writers ever.
Richmond: “Splingee” is just a list of jokes, and it doesn’t have to rhyme. It’s Meredith saying, “I want to write the most ridiculous dance craze song that I possibly could,” which she did. I think that as she wrote it, she would move through them to be sure that she could actually get from move to move, to be sure that she could get from trucker hat to whatever the next lyric is.
Scardino: We thought it was a fun thing for them to try to get a dance craze going, knowing that that’s what people like to do now. The execution of that song was inspired by Drake’s “Toosie Slide.”
Richmond: What I kept feeling was I didn’t want this to feel like a novelty song, like a jokey song. I wanted it to feel like it had a real sense of groove, that it felt like it really could have lived in 2021, and it could have been part of the contemporary sound. I think that’s why I leaned toward this soulful sound to it. To me it even had this throwback of a Lauryn Hill, really cool, hip groove to it, which I think gave it a really interesting underpinning for all the jokes that were happening above it.
Scardino: Sara ran with “4 Stars” on her own. We gave her the rough idea of how it fit into the story, but when we did the table read, it was like “Song TK.” She was generous enough to say, “Yes, I will work on that.” She made it her own through the character of Dawn and how that character might write this anthem to imperfection and joy and trying.
Richmond: We talked about the kind of song it should be, that it should be an anthem of sorts, but still be a bop. Because of the subject matter in Episode 5, which is where they’re in the cabin and they’re first trying to write the song, that idea of it being “4 Stars” was important. It worked on the levels that not everything’s perfect, not everything can be five stars, but because there were four performers, they were four stars. It wasn’t super overly clever, but we knew that’s what it could be from. And then Sara could take it from there, and she did. I think Meredith suggested a few joke ideas. I think Tina [Fey, Richmond’s wife and another of the show’s executive producers] suggested a few joke ideas that she could work with.
“I’m Afraid (Dawn’s Song of Fears)”
Scardino: I remembered an old interview with Dolly Parton on one of the late-night shows talking about writing and fasting. Famously, Dolly Parton wrote two of the most incredible songs in the world on the same day. She wrote “Jolene” and she wrote “I Will Always Love You,” the story goes, on the same day. So Dawn’s like, “This is my shortcut, I’ll do what the best person in the world does.” We thought it was a way for her to end up writing in a very sleep-deprived and hungry fugue state, lizard brain, an unhinged, song of fears. As an anxious lady, that was a really fun one to write.
Richmond: What I enjoy about the song is how many jokes you can get in, how enjoyably repetitive it is, and yet it’s never that repetitive. It keeps turning over and over, almost like the way anxieties eat at you anyway. Anxieties are on repeat, aren’t they?
The other thing I like about that is that we took it and produced it to be this big, almost symphonic “MacArthur Park” version of what that song is. I think when you add strings and horns that big, which I see as the funny element of it as well, it’s that it’s a big, lovely, sweeping, lush song that’s just a list of her anxieties.
Scardino: We knew Lil Stinker had this song he was releasing and he sampled “Famous 5eva,” but we weren’t sure of the sound. For the audition process, two of our writers, Ava Coleman and Michael Koman, wrote a bunch of lyrics. We didn’t offer up any arrangement or anything. We just said, “Here’s some lyrics,” and Jeremiah Craft did a really cool version of it with his audition. He got the part, obviously, because he was hilarious and amazing, and he also makes his own music. He worked with Jeff Richmond to create this contemporary song with the lyrics that Ava and Michael wrote.
Richmond: Jeremiah did a ton of work on it. He laid down a loop on a track of himself, and I think he actually made some vocal parts and sang them. I said, “Oh, that’s great. This guy, because he actually writes rap, we’ll do a collaborative writing effort. This is exactly what this should be. This sounds great.” We let him take the song and run with it. We said, “Here’s the part, here’s the sample part, take this. What would you do?” He came back with this really hot version of it. I’m so glad that it’s in the first episode because I think it made a declaration that the music was going to feel legitimate.
“Booty Pop Flamp Wow (Side Pieces for Life)”
Scardino: Stephen Colbert’s character is not exactly a real person. I just know there’s a lot of Swedish songwriters and I find that to be interesting. I think the word flamp, it got thrown in there. It sounds good in the song, so he’s just put it in.
The whole thing with the journey they’re on in Season 1 is they get back together, they have no manager, they have no label, and so they do what they know. I wanted them to be offered a song that didn’t align exactly with the music that they would create if they were going to create it on their own.
Richmond: It was this idea that I was going to embrace this Billie Eilish, dark, spooky, slow thing, with overdubbed voices and lots of reverb and some weird symphonic thing going on. The best part of the whole thing is Stephen Colbert doing it. He sounds great. I’m from the Second City in Chicago—people sing a lot of songs onstage. I remember Stephen doing lots of singing when he was there.
Scardino: I thought this was maybe this guy Alf’s genuine attempt at trying to understand what it’s like to be 40, and then being horrified and being like, “What is this? I don’t understand.” In my mind—and again, this is not based on anyone either—but in my mind Alf Musik maybe has never even met someone who’s 40. He’s trying, but he’s failing, because it’s him trying to take their note and then them standing up for themselves and saying no thank you, even though it could get them somewhere. I liked the idea that he tries to make an effort to understand them and then saw Wickie scooting up a ramp, like, “Why are you doing this on a Friday night?” As if he lives inside a pop song and it’s all about bottle popping and money flying and clubs and jets and fancy cars and all that. The women are living in the real world. He is like, “What is that? Your car is the least sexy car I have ever seen in my life.” Personally, being a woman in her 40s, you sometimes feel a little invisible. I mean, not in a horrible way. It’s just true. People don’t notice you sometimes.
“TBF (Tiny Butts Forever)”
Richmond: I knew that they were shooting that morning and Vanessa [Williams] was going to be there and we hadn’t done much prep. I had to send everybody a recording, I think the night before, that they could learn really quickly and that they could harmonize to really quickly. Nobody’s going in a booth. There was no time to teach them. All they had were these demo recordings, and then singing each one of their harmony parts, which I knew they could pull off if it was simple enough. And yet they made it sound like it was much more complicated than what they were really doing. And I hear more comments about it than anything else. I saw one the other day, “When did you fall in love with this show?” And somebody said that this was the moment, when they’re singing “Tiny Butts Forever.”
Scardino: For the most part, I feel like the butts that were chosen to be in girl groups and that would be the alleged ideal of the time were these really tiny, flat little … it was a very skinny time in America. So I thought it would be funny to highlight that, that that was the greatest thing ever, these super tiny butts and that’s how it’s going to be forever. I’m so happy that all shapes and sizes are being championed now. But that was before that.
“Planes in My Heart”
Scardino: I think there’s a long history of very ill-timed music and movies that come out that seem horribly tone-deaf or horribly off. I might be getting this wrong, but I remember there was this Isla Fisher movie about her being a shopaholic that came out right when the market crashed. It was a horribly timed movie.
For me, the song was also another way to illustrate that they’d gotten songs that didn’t make sense because they were churned out so quickly by potentially a music factory—I don’t know, wherever Larry Plumb got his music—so it was a way to highlight those two things in the most extreme way possible.
“Zoom Zoom Boom Boom (Carma)”
Scardino: There are a lot of women destroying cars when they’re wronged. Carrie Underwood is a big one. Obviously Lemonade, Beyoncé. But there are a lot of music videos of a woman that gets cheated on and then throws either clothes or suitcases out a second-floor window—or Angela Bassett lighting a car on fire.
Richmond: It doesn’t actually sound like what you’d expect Girls5eva sound like, but I’m sure proud that they put that song out in 2000. I think that they were really trying to stretch their legs. And Busy [Philipps] sounds great on it. She came into this foray as the one who hasn’t done nearly as much singing as the other ones—even Paula has done her fair amount of singing in her career—but she sounds great. She could be a pop star.
“If a Man Does Cheat We’ll Only Get Real Mad at the Other Girl (It Was Her Fault Only)”
Scardino: There are a lot of songs where women get mad at other women for a man’s bad behavior. The guy gets off scot-free and the guy cheated. It’s not that there was this vixen enticing him. The guy is a cheater. Let’s be mad at the guy, not the girl.
“Jailbait (Great at Sex but It’s Our First Time)”
Scardino: There are so many songs about men noticing the neighbor girl that got hot because she just went through puberty, but she’s still underage. It’s disgusting.
“My Eyes Are So Much Bluer When I Cry”
Scardino: It just feels like, “Oh, I’m hot when someone made me upset.”
“Incredible but Not Credible”
Scardino: It’s obviously not the best, so they shouldn’t be proud of that one, but they didn’t know any better when they were that age. Just singing what they got.
Richmond: I think the biggest thing with these songs [“If a Man Does Cheat,” “Jailbait,” “My Eyes Are So Much Bluer,” “Incredible”] was that they each had to have a different sound and a different tempo so they didn’t sound like they were the same song over and over again. That’s why the one about how our eyes are so blue when we cry—I said, “Oh, this one has got to be a ballad,” and everybody was on board with that.
The Mask-ical: The Musical
Scardino: Initially, I think we were playing around with Horton Hears a Who-sical. I like the idea of her being in a ridiculous costume and taking herself very seriously about theater. We were trying to figure out what the right thing was. With Mask-ical: The Musical, we thought it would be funny with her in a green face, taking herself so seriously, because it was of that era, right at the right time. There’s a history of a lot of Broadway shows that are just using movies.
Richmond: I wanted it to be like so much of musical theater, a little overblown, and it was easy to talk to Renée about it because she’s been in a lot of Broadway musicals. And I said, “Renée, I think this Mask song, where it’s Masky-Mask, it’s the 11 o’clock number. It’s all coming together. It’s the most emotional part in the middle of the second act.”