Netflix’s ’Sex Education’ Balances Story and Soundtrack Beautifully
Stop providing outdated print-outs on ‘sexual intercourse’. Schools should screen the well-curated and educational Netflix show instead.
The cast of 'Sex Education', left to right: Eric, Maeve and Otis
I first heard about sex through a fat little kid called John. The perennial Eurodance anthem “Sex On The Beach” had recently come out and, probably to provoke the teachers, he wouldn’t stop singing it. Like “Blue (Da Ba Dee”) and “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” and all the other manic, euro-centric chorales of the late 90s, the track was everywhere. On daytime radio, in the provincial clubs and – most importantly in this case – in the classroom and playground.
I knew about beaches – and I also knew the song sounded like a party, not unlike the innocent stuff played at our primary school Panda Pop discos. But I didn’t know what sex was. “So what is it then,” I asked. “Haven’t your parents told you yet?” (Um, no, because I’m seven years old?!). “Well…” John explained, “it’s where you put your willy in a girl's fanny and [something something something].” Neither of us were sure exactly what happened, hence the redaction, but I think I got the point. And so that was it. T’Spoon’s “Sex On The Beach” introduced me to sex.
Years later, in PSHE (Personal, Social and Health education) lessons, I learned a bit more. Here’s a diagram of the female reproductive system. Here are sperm. Here’s a banana and a condom (which I kept and blew into a balloon instead). A television – wheeled in specifically for the occasion – detailed the various STIs and places hair might start to grow on your body. I guess it was useful, to some degree. But to be honest, the lesson was entirely lacking in the highly specific, varied nuances that come not just from having sex, but being sexually active and interested in other people (especially if they’re of the same gender) and the myriad of sex-related stuff (read: trauma, errors, confusion) that comes to harrowingly define your teenage years and early twenties.
This is where Sex Education – the TV show and not the class – comes in. Instead of learning about fallopian tubes and mere biological facts, you’re getting the real shit. Erectile dysfunction; feeling mortified about incorrectly giving someone a blowjob; navigating same-gender sex; revenge porn; being a virgin: the television show, which stars Gillian Anderson as a sex therapist, has everything. Like Skins, with its diverse cast and explicit references to drugs and sex, it feels like an accurate if not necessary depiction of what it feels like to be young and growing up in Britain (and tbh elsewhere too, thanks to its largely placeless location). Except the action in Sex Education is set in the present day and concerns itself with fewer drugs, and more sleeping with people (or lack thereof).
Much has been said about the location of the show which is: a) fucking beautiful (look at this house!); and b) “about as British as a high-school prom,” featuring varsity jackets and the like. Fair enough. But so what? The issues discussed in Sex Education aren’t specific to one single location, country or people. That’s what makes the show resonate. The formless location – one that is half American, half British, half whatever else – enables and emphasises that it’s essential for teens, across the globe, to understand these issues surrounding sex (ones previously undiscussed outside the realm of online forums or playground chats or worse, gossip). Then, to top it all off, there’s the music: a blend of 80s throwbacks and a whole lot of Ezra Furman.
The American songwriter wrote a load of new songs for the series which – if you don’t already know Ezra – feels particularly pertinent. Ezra prefers the pronouns “he”, “she” and “they”, meaning teens who listen to the soundtrack and delve deeper might educate themselves further on issues surrounding identity and sex – something else that’s never previously been taught in literal sex education. Elsewhere you’re getting songs from famed gay-icon Beth Ditto and riot grrl band Bikini Kill. The latter is a favourite of main character Maeve (she listens to “Rebel Girl” when getting dressed; there’s a band poster in her caravan). She also finds herself in the middle of a love triangle that (no spoiler alerts!) provides a more than ample insight into how men should approach women with regard to (not) gaming.
The inclusion of 80s music feels particularly important too, lending the series a sense of nostalgia but perhaps also an accessibility to an older generation. You’ll hear the interminable classic The The song “Uncertain Smile”. There are tracks from Psychedelic Furs, Talking Heads, a-Ha. Then, in one particular moving scene, the Smiths song “Asleep” – so perfectly placed it’ll remind you of the morose brilliance of the 80s band, even as their frontman continues to descend and descend into a candle-looking glob made of increasingly misguided self-importance. Hearing that song at that specific moment moved me to tears, heightening the emotion of the scene – achieving the perfect coalesce between song and scene every soundtrack aims for.
It’s not all old music and Ezra Furman either. M.O, Lotto Boyzz & Mr Eazi’s "Bad Vibe" soundtracks a particularly raucous house party, bringing the TV show into the present (although to be fair, this is the only example of new music in the show that hasn’t been written by Ezra Furman). However, with that said, Sex Education is entirely modern. Perhaps, with the inclusion of 80s music – and by virtue of being on Netflix (as of 17 January 2019 it’s reportedly been viewed 40 million times) and generally being a good TV show – it’ll be the sex education that older generation should have had, and can then pass down onto their kids. As for those growing up, it’s a crucial piece of television that comes complete with a perfect soundtrack: one that’s an ideal entry point to a world of music.
Although it isn’t likely that John and I would have seen Sex Education in primary school, it is certain that a show like this will impact the lives of teenagers who find themselves at the age when they’re receiving substandard education on the complicated architecture of sexual relationships. The soundtrack isn’t the impetus for watching the TV show; it also doesn’t add to the messages included within each episode. That’s not how music and TV work; you don’t learn the minutiae of the mafia from listening to the songs on The Sopranos (even this one, by the guy who plays Silvio). But the combination of a well-curated soundtrack and innovative television makes for a captivating learning experience. In this case, and despite its 18+ rating, perhaps the impact of Sex Education is enough to bring similar lessons into school classrooms, even if they’re taught without the music.
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