behind the music

The Making of Girls5eva’s Catchy, Laugh-Out-Loud Fake Pop Songs

Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

If Peacock’s new musical-comedy series Girls5eva were a painting, it’d still be wet, says its creator Meredith Scardino (a former writer and producer on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) over the phone a day after its debut. “Like, we just finished it.”

The freshman series — which follows the members of a forgotten late-’90s girl group as they stage an implausible comeback after their sole hit is sampled by a Gen-Z rapper named Lil Stinker — was filmed entirely in the heart of the pandemic. According to Scardino, a first-time showrunner, the postproduction timeline for the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock co-executive-produced sitcom was “very ambitious,” shooting eight episodes in four months under strict COVID-19 protocols, with principal photography wrapping up in early February.

Beyond merely finishing the episodes in time to air them, creators wanted to release the Girls5eva soundtrack in tandem with the show’s early-May premiere, meaning its stars — Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell — had to get into the studio quickly. The immediate problem: There were very few studios in New York (where the show filmed) that were COVID-19 compliant. Once they did find a safe studio, the Soundtrack Group in Manhattan, the women weren’t allowed to sing in the same room together.

“We would come into the studio but we’d all be on Zooms,” says Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband who composed the music for 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as well as wrote, composed, and produced most of Girls5eva’s music with Scardino. Each actress recorded her part piecemeal. “We’d be like, ‘Oh, we have this part of this song done, so you’re going to sing this today,’” he says. “They’d have 30 or 40 minutes to do it and then we’d have to move on to the next thing.”

Somehow, though, all of Girls5eva’s constraints feel rather fitting for a show about five women who, on the cusp of Y2K, were Frankensteined together by a guy who is just a step above the Ponzi-scheming boy-band manager Lou Pearlman.

Like the Spice Girls and Britney Spears before them, the fictional band’s songs were imagined by Scardino as being written by men 15 to 20 years their senior. The novice songwriter looked to bring that same middle-age-man energy to Girls5eva’s early tunes. “I wanted to write in a way that felt as if they were churned out by a pop machine,” she says. “They were just handed stuff in the studio and it was like, ‘Can you say this quickly? We have 20 minutes.’”

In reality, the slapped-together-sounding songs took a bit longer to write, but neither Scardino nor Richmond wanted to be too precious about them. Having gotten his start writing music for Second City and later Saturday Night Live, Richmond says, “Part of my career has just been trying to make weird comedy-writer lyrics into some kind of form that sound like a song.” It’s why his biggest advice for Scardino was simply to “be funny first and clever last.”

That being said, neither of the two wanted the group’s music to sound like a joke. To keep that from happening, Scardino found that she had to “live in the world of the song, more than feeling like you’re killing it with little zingers.” She knew that hard punch lines would only work to tear down the structure of her pop songs. Worse, she could end up turning the women into jokes, too — though she doesn’t completely shy away from an all-out joke attack when it feels appropriate. Episode seven’s cold-open track “The Splingee,” a listicle of hilarious bespoke dance moves like the “two-handed salute” and “doggy wrists,” is a legit LOL banger.

Despite the Herculean task in front of the show’s creative team, all nine songs on the Girls5eva soundtrack are really catchy. “Not in a Kars4Kids way?” Scardino asks with concern, referencing the torturous Kidz-Bop-on-steroids commercial jingle. No, more like in a Lay’s potato chips way. I betcha can’t listen just once to these bops that make good on the earworms of the late ’90s/early aughts.

What this season proved to Scardino was that Girls5eva could incorporate even more music into its fabric going forward. “It’s never going to be a musical,” she says. “But if we get a season two, I’m not going to be shy about living inside some of the musical performances a little bit longer.”

Here, in the words of Scardino and Richmond, are the stories behind the unabashedly whimsical music of Girls5eva.

“Famous 5eva”

The most popular groups of the late ’90s (hello, *NSYNC, B*Witched, and 5ive) all “used dollar signs and numbers, and had weird ways of spelling things,” Scardino says. “I wanted to play with that.” But the titular band’s name wasn’t actually a nod to a certain fictional band that had their own MTV series around the turn of the millennium. “People say Girls5eva reminds them a little of 2gether,” she says. “I’ve never even heard of that band. I don’t know how it snuck by me, but I will be looking it up.”

While Scardino had written the entire “Famous 5eva” chorus into the pilot’s script, she hadn’t yet worked up any verses. “I went to Meredith and said, ‘We have to finish this song because we have to show the people above us that we know what we’re doing,’” Richmond says. He ended up writing dummy lyrics that referenced things that were big in 1999, like flip phones and Wayne Brady. “Nobody had time to replace them,” he says. “So they stuck.”

Scardino wanted the girl group’s only hit to play up how idealistic the young women were back then. “I liked the idea that the song was so much like, ‘Oh, now we know what our lives are like forever — or 5eva,’” she says. “And it was over as fast as it started — just a rumple in time.”

But it was important for the show to establish that “Famous 5eva” was a bona fide hit upon its (fictional) release, a tenet that Richmond took very seriously. “This is a radio bop,” he says. “You have to legitimize that and write it like you’re actually writing a song that the world will listen to.” It’s also why he’s so flattered to hear that some are declaring “Famous 5eva” the song of the post-pandemic summer. “I take that as a super-high compliment,” he says. “There is nothing I’d like more than to think that people are really listening to the song. That would be fantastic.”

“Dream Girlfriend”

One of Girls5eva’s earliest tracks, a ballad inspired by En Vogue and Destiny’s Child, feels completely dated — which was wholly the point. The band “sort of embodied, for lack of a better term, ‘girl power’ — but they had no power,” Scardino says. So with the girl group’s old music, she notes, she was always trying to “sneak in outdated messages. The kind that would make the women say, ‘Oh, I don’t think we should sing that kind of stuff again.’” Like the idea that men would find them more attractive if their dads were dead. “That was part of the genesis of the song,” she says proudly.

Key, too, were the out-of-fashion early-aughts references like “eyebrows thin, bronzer thicker” and “whale tails peekin’” out of their “low-rise jeans with a one-tooth zipper.” The show’s writers would write verses about film bros mansplaining Quentin Tarantino’s genius and female stand-ups being a real drag “and be like, ‘Let’s write more. How fun is this?’” she says.

One of Scardino’s favorite verses was actually written by her former Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt boss Fey. “I was trying to work on something about their assholes being just purely aesthetic, nonfunctioning,” she says. “But it was just too dirty.” Luckily, Fey came up with the far more family-friendly line: “Runnin’ in pumps/Never taking dumps.” And it rhymes, too.

“New York Lonely Boy”

The title of this non-Girls5eva track is not a reference to Gossip Girl, but Scardino’s son. The nickname — “I don’t know how nice it is,” she jokes — came from people constantly asking if she was going to have a second child. “And I would go, ‘No, it’s fine. He’s just a New York Lonely Boy, they’re all over the city. You see them everywhere,’” she says. Her personal favorite example? “This one kid I always see that’s at a bistro with his parents, being polite and having adult small talk.”

When she realized that reuniting the girl group might hinder Bareilles’s character Dawn’s birth plan, she decided it was the perfect excuse to introduce the New York Lonely Boy to the world. She wrote a few lyrics that would offer a frame of reference for these precocious kids “whose only sibling is the city.” But, after the season wrapped, she and Richmond decided to finish the Simon & Garfunkel-esque song that Bareilles’s friends the Milk Carton Kids would go on to record. The expanded version includes nods to trick-or-treating at restaurants, having a favorite font, and waking up with The Daily’s Michael Barbaro. “It’s nice that his name is so easy to rhyme,” she says.

It’s the most personal song Scardino wrote, thanks to its real-life references to her son. “We don’t live in a building with a doorman anymore, but he was always such buddies with ours,” she says. John Slattery’s cameo in episode three, the same one in which the song debuts, was also quite special to her. She often sees the Mad Men star and his only son walking around downtown New York City together: “They always seem like best friends. I always think, ‘This is so great. This is what I want my son to be like.’”

“I’m Afraid (Dawn’s Song of Fears)”

After Dawn hallucinates a night of songwriting with Dolly Parton (played by an all-Dolly’ed-up Fey), she debuts this unhinged ballad that Scardino says is “the ramblings of your anxiety brain.”

It’s a song of fears, mostly irrational ones: worrying someone will find out you memorized every word to Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” or bought seven seasons of The Mentalist. Bareilles was able to turn it into something that is both moving and hilarious. “Her voice is the most beautiful I think I ever heard,” Scardino says. “Hearing her sing about texting her vagina to her dad, it was just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even believe this is real.’”

Some might say the same of the lyrics, which include references to Scardino’s very real fears. “I’m not going to admit most of them,” she says, noting only that the line about being scared of losing control of your arms while holding a newborn is a legitimate worry of hers. “I just held a baby last night,” she says, “and I got a quick wave of, ‘What if I don’t know how to use my arms and I hurt this precious thing?’”

Richmond believes that “I’m Afraid” is “Meredith’s triumph,” and was one of his favorites to work on. “It just tickles me,” he says. “I love taking these trivial fears and making them huge and sweeping and symphonic.” He even upped the production value on one of his favorite lines, the one about 80-year-old Dawn worrying her scalp will be fully visible when the sun shines through her “salmon-colored hair,” by adding an extra string section. “It’s also the only part in the whole song where I had Sara double her voice so it sounded like it was drifting off into the sunlight,” he says.

“The Splingee”

The dance craze that is unlikely to sweep the nation was inspired by Drake’s “Toosie Slide.” Girl5eva’s song doesn’t have much in common with the TikTok-approved single, “but I do think, if you read the lyrics, they’re not the coolest,” Scardino says. “It’s really not that far off from being the ‘Hokey Pokey.’”

To her, it was the kind of song the women would record in hopes of getting noticed. “It was so fun to write the density of dance moves,” she said of the dance, which includes nearly 50 individual moves performed three times in a row in order to complete a full Splingee. From “wink with two eyes” to “kick ball change, but deranged,” it’s all ridiculous, but Richmond’s instrumental makes it hard to resist.

He admits when he saw the lyrics, which is just a list of jokes, he was worried. It couldn’t sound like a novelty song from the ’50s and ’60s. “It had to be something that is cool enough to support this comedy premise,” he says, which is why he turned to Ms. Lauryn Hill for inspiration. “The Splingee” has “this kind of cool soul vibe to it,” he says. “It’s such a silly thing, but it also feels kind of cool at the same time.”

He would love to see “the hip TikTok artists that my daughters love,” like Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, doing it. Unfortunately, the dance is almost impossible to master. “I tried to do it with Sara and Busy and our choreographer,” Scardino says. “It’s hard. I mean, I wrote it specifically to be hard, but it’s really hard.”

“Four Stars”

Girls5eva’s all-grown-up anthem, written by Bareilles, is about the women’s journey from forgotten one-hit wonders to perfectly imperfect Jingle Ball performers. Watching the women perform the big finale song brought Scardino to tears.

They shot the performance in a Brooklyn theater and it was the first time in months that any of them had been in a proper performance space because of the pandemic. “To see the four of them on stage just having the best time and letting loose, everyone was dancing and crying, it was such an awesome moment,” she says. “It was just fun to see people you root for succeed. There was just joy in it, that’s the bottom line.”

Behind Girls5eva’s Catchy, Laugh-Out-Loud Fake Pop Songs