Over the past three years, the sci-fi smash hit “Stranger Things” has become quite the shiny jewel in Netflix’s crown. With its nostalgic tone, lovable characters and relatable themes, the show resonates deeply with much of the general public and has cultivated a dedicated fan base. One such fan is singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, whose latest musical effort, “Stranger Songs,” was inspired by the show’s plot.
Michaelson, who is perhaps best-known for her 2014 hit “Girls Chase Boys,” released her new album a week before the new season of “Stranger Things” premiered. With its 11 tracks (and, yes, the number was intentional), the synth-pop album masterfully captures the essence of what makes the show’s characters so endearing.
Each of the “Stranger Songs” adopts a different perspective and centers around the characters’ major themes. By diving deeper into the “Stranger Things” meta, Michaelson has revealed herself to be fangirl and crafted a great album for fellow fans; whether you haven’t seen Season 3 yet and need a recap before you do, or you simply can’t get enough of the show, the album is worth a listen. So, without further ado, here’s a breakdown of each of the “Stranger Songs.”
The album opens with heavy synth that mirrors the aesthetic of “Stranger Things.” As Michaelson describes in an interview with Billboard, the first track takes the perspective of Mike Wheeler, the leader of the boys’ party and proud dweeb. The song welcomes Eleven to the group’s “freak show” and reassures her she isn’t “the only weird one here.” The age-old adage of embracing your quirks and rejecting conformity rings just as true in the song as in the series.
Michaelson stated that the goal for the second track is to evoke the feeling of being young and in love, and she does a bang-up job at it. Carefree, light and exciting, the song calls to mind images of all the young couples in the show and amps the nostalgia up to 11. The subject’s relatability makes “Young and in Love” an earworm that nearly every listener can enjoy, regardless of their “Stranger Things” knowledge.
In this slow ballad, Michaelson enters the brain of police chief Jim Hopper and croons a familial love song to his adopted daughter, Eleven. While it’s difficult to picture Hopper telling El, “You are poetry to me,” Michaelson aptly captures his devotion and love to her. She doesn’t hold back on the heartbreak, either; the chorus echoes Hopper’s despair over his deceased daughter, Sarah, and his need to protect El. By pleading for her not to “let go again” and admitting he needs her more than she needs him, Michaelson’s Hopper provides a rare look into the stoic character’s inner world.
Up next is another slow and emotional gut punch, when Michaelson slips into the world of a heartbroken Steve Harrington, post-breakup from Nancy Wheeler. She speaks to a feeling that most people can recognize by admitting: “I don’t hate you; I just hate how much I don’t hate you.” As a fan-favorite, Steve is easy to empathize with, especially because so many people have been hurt in love, and Michaelson’s tribute highlights just why we love him.
After making listeners cry twice already, Michaelson lightens the mood with this energetic and sassy vignette of Eleven’s turbulent emotional state as a young teen. Taking notes from El’s first encounter with Max, whom she wrongfully assumes Mike is interested in, “Jealous” tackles the all-too-familiar pang of feeling unwanted by a crush. The cheeky chorus of “I do bad things when I’m jealous” speaks to Eleven’s adolescence, while reminding listeners of their own.
This track is Nancy’s time to shine. “Missing You” hearkens back to the initial love triangle that involved Nancy, Steve and Johnathan. Taking on the role of the elder Wheeler sibling, Michaelson laments over not being with the real object of her affection, and she manages to transform the depressing topic of no longer wanting a partner into the poppiest and catchiest track on “Stranger Songs.” She even sneaks in a nod to the night Johnathan first slept in Nancy’s bed, emphasizing how dedicated she is to faithfully recreating the show’s universe.
But Michaelson doesn’t shy away from taking artistic liberty with the “Stranger Things’” characters; in this track, she explores the popular fan theory that Barb, Nancy’s tragically deceased best friend, was in love with her. Throwing back to Season 1, Michaelson brings justice to die-hard Barb stans, with an unrequited love song that expresses her feelings for her friend. As one of the most creative and unique songs on the album, “Best Friend” encourages listeners to think outside the box and engage in fandom culture in a way they might have never done before.
Near the end of “Stranger Songs,” Michaelson begins to explicitly connect the show’s characters to her own life. In “Mother,” she draws both from Eleven’s and Will Byer’s separate journeys to reuniting with their mothers, as well as her own experience with losing hers. She sings with a haunting lightness that resembles a child’s desperate call for maternal comfort, and Michaelson’s signature piano accompanies piercing lyrics like “Let’s just stay asleep, ‘cause when I sleep, I still can see you” to produce a beautifully honest melody that will give you chills.
For the ninth track, Michaelson draws inspiration from the show’s now-iconic scene, when Joyce Byers discovers a way to communicate with her missing son through Christmas lights. The singer again admits to a real-world connection with her family, and connects the song to Christmastime with her parents. In what can be considered a response to “Mother,” the track portrays Joyce’s devotion to her sons and represents parents’ unconditional love for their children.
It’s time for some girl power. Michaelson enters Eleven’s mind again; this time, it’s after her Season 1 makeover, when Mike chickens out of calling her pretty and tacks on a “good” at the end. Instead of celebrating feeling pretty, Michaelson praises feminine strength with cries of “I’m not afraid of the world; I’m gonna fight like a girl” and “I’m not just pretty; no, I’m pretty damn good.” The catchy anthem screams with spunk and sass, which fits Eleven perfectly, especially after her Season 3 friendship with Max.
The final track on “Stranger Songs,” which Michaelson describes as her reasoning for making the album in the first place, gets pretty meta. Per her own admission, she often finds herself overwhelmed by nostalgia for the past, and “Stranger Things” helps her relive memories she otherwise finds “only in a dream.”
The chorus calls out to the show itself, with Michaelson pleading for it to “turn me inside out, turn me upside down, take me home somehow.” Fun wordplay aside, she cleverly articulates how the show’s relatability makes it a great time machine for people looking to reminisce on their youth.
“Stranger Songs” isn’t like other albums; rather than a thematic collection of relatable songs that stem from the artist’s personal life, it far more closely resembles secondhand content like fan fiction and fan art. She takes an existing medium and expresses herself through it rather than through fully original thoughts, but that’s what makes it so endearing and touching for fellow “Stranger Things” fans.
Fans have always bonded by sharing their feelings about media, forming friendships and communities. Fan content enriches stories and perpetuates our relationships with the characters long after the series ends.
Michaelson has really crafted something unique here; not only does she provide cathartic character studies and catchy choruses, but she also brings fan content into the mainstream in a personal and thoughtful manner. The show clearly resonates deeply with her, as it does with many other viewers, and she uses “Stranger Songs” to intimately share her experience with the show.
Just as every viewer has a unique perspective of the show, every listener of “Stranger Songs” can get something slightly different out of the album. Michaelson emulates the show, with her relatability and honesty on each track, and encourages listeners to bask in the reminiscent nostalgia of it all.
Clocking in at less than 40 minutes, this short and sweet album is a must for any “Stranger Things” or Michaelson fan; and even if you’re not into pop music, the simple fun of the album, in the way it identifies with the characters and plot points, makes it worth your while.