‘Sex Education’ season three soundtrack mixes the new and nostalgic

Three students talk to each other in their seats at an auditorium.
The “Sex Education” season 3 soundtrack subverts stereotypes to create a fresh sound. (Courtesy: Sam Taylor/Netflix)

This article contains spoilers for season three of “Sex Education.”

Not many TV shows can seamlessly fit songs from Doris Day, Peaches and Duran Duran into one episode. The third season of Netflix’s “Sex Education,” released on Sept. 19, both rises to the challenge and excels at it. Lauded for its complex characters and nuanced storylines, season three’s soundtrack — an idiosyncratic medley of Bowie, Nancy Sinatra and Todrick Hall — contributes to the wood-paneled living room, strawberry-flavored lube and overcast sky charm of the season.

Season three begins with a raunchy montage set to The Rubinoos’ 1977 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Slightly more sonorous than Tiffany’s best-known 1987 cover, it’s a tongue-in-cheek, bell-bottomed pause from last season’s dramatics. As new developments are unveiled, The Rubinoos’ crooning reaffirms the uplifting, unorthodox tone of the show without erasing the past season’s developments.

In the beginning of “Episode 3,” Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) dances to Todrick Hall’s “Nail, Hair, Hips, Heels” in his room while applying makeup and rummaging through poetry from his season two ex-boyfriend, Rahim. As Eric vogues to a song released in 2019, his windbreaker with the ’80s iconic geometric Memphis design can be spotted on his bed. Eric’s bedroom looks like it should be on the set of “Stranger Things,” and a ’70s television set is nestled next to an “Outkast” poster. “Sex Education” completely lacks any hint of modern brands like American Eagle or Starbucks — though set in current day, the sets and costumes are wholly retro. Use of contemporary music, such as “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels,” keeps the show from being too nostalgic, instead rooting it in a sweet spot while it grapples with modern issues.

Later in “Episode 3,” queen bee Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene) — who has recently revealed a deeply vulnerable facet of her character — quietly declares “I love you” to Otis (Asa Butterfield) as she lies on her pink bedspread, mauve telephone pressed up against her ear. The fleecy, shy opening guitar and drums of Blur’s “Tender” begin to play as Ruby’s subtle facial movements convey tentative, glowing hope that promptly segues into stinging embarrassment following Otis’ less than enthusiastic response. “Tender” perfectly complements Ruby’s acting to create a subtle, realistic scene of both pink-cheeked anticipation and biting, lump-in-your-throat embarrassment.

In “Episode 7,” when Otis and Maeve (Emma Mackey) finally overcome three seasons’ worth of miscommunication, they lay out their feelings as rain pours down “Pride and Prejudice”-style and fairy lights twinkle in the background. The scene teeters on the edge of cheesy, flirting with disaster as it almost falls prey to a trope better suited to “Dawson’s Creek.” The song choice — Sixpence None the Richer’s strummy, delicately desperate “Breathe Your Name” — is the scene’s saving grace, transforming a lazy cop-out into an indirect homage. “Sex Education” ignores the overplayed, overused Sixpence None the Richer song that everyone knows — “Kiss Me” — and instead subtly nods to the cliche while gracefully turning it on its head. 

With the schoolchoir version of Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away,” Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” Etta James’ “Stormy Weather” and Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo,” the soundtrack of “Sex Education” gleefully jumps between genres and eras, fusing retro echoes and modern beats together to create an show that feels timeless, nostalgic and current all at once.

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