Schadenfreude may be universal, but the keen, delightful unease of watching HBO’s Succession — whose second season wraps this Sunday evening — is particularly amplified for anyone who works in media, the industry of total chaos over which the show’s magnificently out-of-touch plutocrats preside. In response to deep obsession and/or deep psychological tumult brought on by the year-and-a-half run of the show, journalists have turned the Roy family empire into a sea of content, quizzes, and memes of their own.
The latest addition to the Succession spin-off media world carries a higher profile: “Puppets,” an HBO-sanctioned remix of the show’s instrumental theme song from rapper and G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T and composer Nicholas Britell. “Puppets” is bold, brash, and melodically unsettled, just like the original Britell track underneath it. It manages to be catchy but not kitschy, escaping the usual trap into which so many other media-of-media works have fallen. In teasing the remix earlier this week on social media, Pusha called it the “soundtrack to my life.”
First, that signature piano theme. The source of the edge-of-seat discomfort of Britell’s original track is made obvious in the sheet music: A trilling ottava (a series of notes played an octave higher than what can fit on the staff) and number of seemingly random accidentals (sharps and flats that take the melody out of key signature) flay the otherwise steady theme into something dearly weird; rapid-fire minor-to-major key changes allow the tune to continue being interesting for much longer than audiences can normally stand in a TV title sequence. (A personal side note: The track’s Emmy win for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music last month turned out to be better validation for my dozen years of classical piano lessons than any concert or competition ever was.)
Pusha’s bass-heavy remix stays true to the original while adding a sense of higher stakes to the restrained keys and strings. Lyrics aren’t the central force here — “Family, fortune, envy, jealousy, privilege, passed-on legacy,” Pusha raps on the chorus, as if assembling a mood board of Succession‘s motifs — but they don’t need to be, serving the ancillary role that they do to the force of the beat and all its sonic oddities. Within the Succession canon itself, of course, “Puppets” also doesn’t face much competition: Kendall Roy’s on-stage “L to the O-G, dude be the O-G, A-N he playin'” homage to his father in a particularly flooring episode a few weeks ago will go down as one of the most difficult-to-watch scenes of modern TV history.
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“Puppets” is also a natural fit of minds: Pusha has a number of heavy-hitting collaborations under his belt, and Britell, who’s scored the Barry Jenkins films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk along with Adam McKay’s The Big Short, has often cited producers Quincy Jones and Dr. Dre as inspiration for his classical riffs. When creating the Succession theme, the composer was intrigued by the “tonal complexity to the show’s episodes,” he said in an interview with Vulture earlier this year, and he wanted that complexity to reflect in the show’s theme — resulting in the piano’s jagged, slightly unhinged feel. “I like the sound of instruments when they’re not perfectly in tune,” Britell told Vulture. “It’s more interesting, this feeling of humanness that comes through when things aren’t perfect, or when a sound has a subtle sourness to it. I’m always looking for that, but I definitely went to extreme levels with this theme.” Dropping two days before Succession‘s sure-to-be-implosive finale, “Puppets” has that sourness down pat.