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How ‘The O.C.’ (Almost) Saved Rock

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” says Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C. For the show’s first few episodes, the music choices were simply plucked from his own iPod. But once the now-legendary music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas came aboard, the show turned into a weekly showcase for some of the best music of the ’00s — and a key force behind the mainstream rise of a certain brand of indie-leaning rock in that decade, from Death Cab for Cutie to the Killers. It didn’t hurt that one of the show’s lead characters, Seth Cohen (played by Adam Brody), was the archetypal indie-rock nerd of that era. Eventually, labels started deluging the show’s creators with potential soundtrack options, which is how Patsavas and Schwartz heard “Mr. Brightside” when it was still a demo, and managed to get it onto the show the same week it hit radio.

In the new episode of Rolling Stone Music Now, Schwartz (who also co-created Gossip Girl and Chuck) and Patsavas join host Brian Hiatt to look back at the show’s musical legacy — just in time for Chrismukkah. Some highlights follow; for the full interview, go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play above.

Phantom Planet’s “California” was originally intended to be just another track in the pilot, not the show’s theme song. “When we were shooting the pilot, Fox wanted to get the show on the air in the summer,” says Schwartz. “So we had this crazy challenge of shooting the pilot and having a writer’s room going simultaneously. And we had the sequence of Ryan [Ben McKenzie] being driven from Chino to the lush, beautiful world of Orange County. And originally there was the Interpol song ‘Untitled,’ which did not deliver the kind of euphoric highs or sell the fantasy of the show. And so we put ‘California’ in there, because in our minds, it had been on KROQ a couple of years prior, so we figured people would know it. And when people heard that song, they were like, ‘What is this? I love this song. It’s amazing.’… And then it just became, ‘This has to be the main title song.’ And then it became anthemic in a way that kind of caught us by surprise.”

Schwartz was desperate to put Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” on the show the second he heard it. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Alex, the song is so perfect for the show,” Schwartz says. “I don’t know where it’s going to go, but it has to be on the show.’”

Patsavas and Schwartz were excited to have the Walkmen on the show, but they didn’t want them to play their greatest song, “The Rat.” “The Rat” was probably the greatest New York rock anthem since the Strokes’ debut, but it was never any kind of national hit. Patsavas and Schwartz somehow convinced themselves that the song was too well-known for the show, and asked the Walkmen to play a different track — thus depriving “The Rat” of the kind of exposure that could’ve made it a mainstream success. They still have some mild regret over that one. “We got a little precious, but that’s all right,” Patsavas says.

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Eventually, The O.C. became a key promotional outlet for the music business. “We moved to the center of marketing plans for labels and publishing companies,” says Patsavas. “And what an interesting shift that was, and it was something that Josh and I both experienced.”

Schwartz has been asked a lot lately about a reprise or reboot of The O.C., and now he’s come down firmly on the side of “no.” “We did that on Gossip Girl,” says Schwartz. “And the show was really smart and well-cast, but ultimately, I think people, when they come to a show that has the same title as the show that they watched, they want to see those characters. And in Gossip Girl, we felt like it had actually a concept that could reboot. The O.C. was so singularly tied to those characters, those actors, that moment in time. As much as I would love to do a Chrismukkah special that opens with Seth and Ryan getting vasectomies together… we will probably take the win at this point.”

Download and subscribe to Rolling Stone‘s weekly podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts). Check out six years’ worth of episodes in the archive, including in-depth, career-spanning interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, Halsey, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Brandi Carlile, Phoebe Bridgers, Rick Ross, Alicia Keys, the National, Ice Cube, Taylor Hawkins, Willow, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Dua Lipa, Questlove, Killer Mike, Julian Casablancas, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Marr, Scott Weiland, Liam Gallagher, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Donald Fagen, Charlie Puth, Phil Collins, Justin Townes Earle, Stephen Malkmus, Sebastian Bach, Tom Petty, Eddie Van Halen, Kelly Clarkson, Pete Townshend, Bob Seger, the Zombies, and Gary Clark Jr. And look for dozens of episodes featuring genre-spanning discussions, debates, and explainers with Rolling Stone’s critics and reporters.

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