Though The Hills is synonymous with Lauren and Heidi, it’s Joe Cuello and Jon Ernst who really make the show worth watching. Cuello, MTV’s Vice President of Music Integration, and Ernst, the series’ Music Supervisor, spend each week expertly pairing songs with footage in order to convey love, loss and cheerful vacancy. Here, they talk to Rolling Stone about the show’s patron saint Natasha Bedingfield, breaking new bands on the program and whether we can expect a Heidi Montag tune to pop up in an episode anytime soon.
Tell us about your strategy when making your music selections for the show.
Jon Ernst: Since we’re not dealing with scripts here, we’re dealing with what people are actually saying, sometimes the emotion doesn’t get put forth perfectly enough so the viewer understands, so whatever else needs to be said, we’ll say that with a song.
Joe Cuello: The Hills is really a marquee opportunity to showcase music. The format lends itself to great music moments. You have the opportunity for the songs to play a little longer, for the words to register and connect with the image in a unique way. Historically MTV was shorthand for super-cutty [camera shots], but if you were to say “that’s very MTV” now, I would venture to say that’s The Hills and Laguna Beach, which is a much more deliberate, spacious editing style. It’s perfect. It’s a music supervisor’s dream to have that kind of room to breathe.
It seems like all the music gets pretty good pickup from the promotion that you do, but the breakout hit has to be the theme song, Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” How did that choice come about?
JC: We all had a relationship with the characters because this was a spin-off from Laguna Beach. We all had a perception of who these characters were and what we hoped the show would become: this aspirational journey of a person moving and starting life on their own.
JE: Like a Mary Tyler Moore. When this song came out it barely hit the radio when we heard it and we were like, “Wow, this is the theme song.”
JC: The song really reflected the feel of the show and we wanted to help push the career of artists like Natasha to make sure that everyone was really aware when they were watching the show who it was sung by. We tried to dovetail it all together so we featured her music video over the end credits. For us, that’s a really incredible promotional tool. We see a huge response from that in terms of online and in sales. It’s really gratifying years later to see that it’s so inextricably tied to our show.
Besides that, what song or artist has the best conversion rate from appearing on the show to seeing an effect on sales?
JC: That’s a little hard to quantify. The newest story would be “Pocket Full of Sunshine” with Natasha. Sales of Marie Digby’s cover of “Umbrella” shot up 1,000 percent on iTunes the week the show aired. The Carolina Liar story is the most obvious because we were the starting point, as opposed to being in rotation on a radio station. It was unavailable and unheard of before the show and then sold 3,000 copies of the single [“I’m Not Over”] right after. It’s affirmation for us that people are watching the show and discovering music.
Would you ever consider using Heidi Montag’s own music on The Hills?
JC: I think we are most concerned with characters as they are on the show. We really want to experience Heidi as her character on the show and not necessarily any other aspects of her life. Although … good for her.
JE: I don’t think it’s out there as something I can license right now, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate if it was available for that. The quality of her music certainly stands up. She’s been involved with some top-notch producers.
Can you tell me where, amid all these breaking artists, the idea to use Frente’s cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” came from?
JC: That was Jon. I thought that was genius because the song just really worked and then many of us, who are not 14, had a pre-existing relationship with that song that brought a whole different weight to the scene.
JE: Especially for the ends of episodes, we’re always battling to find the perfect song that says everything. When that one fell into place it was really cool.
Do you look specifically for female artists to tell these stories?
JE: Sometimes. It really depends on what we’re trying to say. When you use a female voice, you automatically are transported into that character’s head, so a lot of times you want to tell a story without pointing out whose point of view it’s from. A male vocal over a girl’s thoughts can work wonders.
Are your choices based more on lyrics or music?
JC: I know my desire for the company at large and for our shows at large is that the lyrics not completely describe the actions people are seeing, but that it just be evocative of the tone of that moment.
JE: It’s a combination. You gotta have the right mood musically along with the perfect lyrics. Then you have television magic!
What are some of the standout music scenes for you?
JC: A lot of our music on the show really has got some emotional quality that is unifying. I think there are certain songs that we’ve used in the show that remind me of certain moments and have become very iconic in that way. A Fine Frenzy’s “Almost Lover” and Audrina are inextricably tied because of the scene where Justin Bobby is obviously kind of cheating on her and they have this falling out in the parking lot and that’s the song that tells that story.
Is there a directive that the music is meant to evoke a certain emotion when we see Lauren or when we see Heidi?
JC: No, I think it’s pretty organic. It’s about the scene. And sometimes what you think is going to work just doesn’t. It’s either too on the nose or cheesy or doesn’t ring true. And there’s some songs that you think couldn’t possibly work together and then once you put it to the picture, you create this third thing. You marry the image and sound together.
JE: The music in this series can be considered a character, as if it were a narrator. I think that’s a rare opportunity to use music in that way, not just playing in the background as wallpaper, but actually telling the story as if it were the narrator.
So if the music is a character, is it Team Lauren or Team Heidi?
JE: That is a funny question. But I can’t answer it.