Gentle guitar riffs fall dreamily like the snow outside the window. It’s Christmas at Cousins Beach, and Belly and Conrad are racing to catch the miracle on the shore. Puffers still unbuttoned, they stumble out the back door, laughing like delighted schoolchildren.
“Hell was the journey, but it brought me heaven,” sings Taylor Swift on “Invisible String,” as the scene cuts to Belly (Lola Tung), standing in front of the beach house months later, long after she and Conrad (Christopher Briney) have unraveled.
Jenny Han, the YA author who is speaking in an interview over Zoom, tears up describing it.
“She’s right here as she’s in this memory,” Han says, which is a “really childlike, playful, joyful moment.”
“But underneath that,” she says as she’s reading Swift’s lyrics from her phone, “there’s something so poignant about the song.” As it plays over Belly’s flashbacks to Christmas, viewers are likely to feel both her lingering joy and piercing loss.
While writing “The Summer I Turned Pretty” book trilogy, Han has said in previous interviews, she listened to Swift’s 2008 album “Fearless” often. Swift’s songs were so important to Han’s writing process that the author says she almost dedicated the second book to her.
Prior to the release of Season 1, Han’s longtime fans begged for a moment from her books to be scored to a Swift song in the series. Han, who is also the creator and co-showrunner of the Prime Video series, says she dreamed of being able to give them that gift, even writing Swift a letter explaining how much her music meant to her. Season 1 ended up including five Swift songs, and Season 2 features nine — two of which are in the season finale, which dropped Friday.
Han even managed to get the unreleased “Delicate (Taylor’s Version),” which she has said is her favorite Swift song.
“It was a secret, even within Amazon,” says Han about getting rights to the song. “It was such a gift to be able to get it, and I am so appreciative and respectful of the show’s relationship with Taylor Swift.”
Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno), left, Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Belly (Lola Tung) in “The Summer I Turned Pretty.”
Before “Delicate (Taylor’s Version),” all of Swift’s songs in the series played exclusively in scenes with Belly and Conrad, leading some fans to believe Han was intentionally reserving them.
“Many fans feel betrayed,” Han said and laughed. “However, I never said that Taylor was only for Belly and Conrad. ‘Delicate’ is speaking to where Belly’s head and heart are at in that moment.”
In the show, lyrics frequently operate as echoes, reflecting characters’ unspoken feelings or mirroring their dialogue. “Delicate (Taylor’s Version)” conveys Belly’s hesitancy to jump back into a relationship with Jeremiah, when it could break again just as easily as it did the first time.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs” — which plays in Episode 3 during the funeral reception for Susannah, Conrad and Jeremiah’s mother — manifests Belly’s resentment toward Conrad, whom she can’t help but love despite all the times he’s disappointed her. The song has been described as Stevie Nicks’ “tender yet vengeful post-mortem” on her breakup with bandmate Lindsey Buckingham.
When Belly discovers Conrad being comforted by an ex-girlfriend, as the song plays, Nicks can be heard singing, “Can you tell me it was worth it, baby? I don’t want to know.” Later, as she laments how he would always keep her at arm’s length — “So you’ll accept her help but not mine?” — Nicks echoes, “I know I could have loved you, but you would not let me.” Finally, as Conrad watches Belly storm out the door: “You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loved you.”
“I was almost like scoring the scene to that song, because it starts off sounding really, like, soft, it’s mellow, and then it gets so emotional,” Han said. “It just hits on every single generation. It is timeless.”
Some production members warned against using an older track, Han said, but she’d heard that concern before. In Season 1, a kiss between Belly and Cam is set to Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” Han said, and it was so well-received that it spurred a TikTok trend that even Brendan B. Brown, the lead vocalist and guitarist of Wheatus, participated in.
Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” another song featured in the series, also got some buzz on TikTok, particularly from viewers who weren’t familiar with the version by the ‘90s rock band.
“People were like, ‘Why do they use this cover of the song and not Lana Del Rey,’ and I’m like, ‘This is the original. This is Sublime,’” Han said. “So that’s something fun, for me to be able to showcase songs that people may not be as familiar with.”
It’s also a way she connects with viewers outside of the show’s target audience of teens.
“It’s an opportunity for older audiences to be like, ‘Oh, that’s my song!’ and for them to have that moment as well,” she said.
Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Belly (Lola Tung) in a scene from Season 2. On selecting older songs for the series, Han says: “I’m always wanting to honor that audience because they are, like, those original book fans.”
One of the most beloved throwback songs of the season is Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You,” which was originally written for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet.” The tender pop ballad plays as Belly and Conrad have sex for the first time.
The track gives the scene emotional weight, along with Belly’s whisper to Conrad as he sleeps beside her: “Conrad, there’s only you. There’s only ever been you.”
“If you really listen to the song, where [Des’ree] gets to, ‘Where are you now,’ that’s where it’s sort of hitting the climax of Belly and Conrad seeing each other again, and here they are standing in front of the place where they were closer than ever,” Han said. “Then here they are again, for the first time, and they’re so far apart.”
It’s a needle drop dedicated to Han’s dearest fans: her early readers.
“I’m always wanting to honor that audience because they are, like, those original book fans,” Han says. When the first book in the trilogy was published in 2009, most of its readers were young teens. Now, she said, they’re in their twenties and thirties.
“I’ve said book girlies are first in my heart, and I do mean that,” she said. “I’m always thinking of them and wanting to really delight them with the show.”
Songs like “Silver Springs” and “I’m Kissing You” delight with their heart-wrenching intensity, but other tracks are pure fun.
Episode 6 is littered with these, from Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy” to Blink-182’s “All the Small Things.” But the standout is Steven (Sean Kaufman) and Taylor’s (Rain Spencer) dance routine to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.”
“People love that scene, and I think the song is such a big part of that, for the nostalgia and the pure joy and energy it gives,” Han said. To obtain usage rights, which she knew wouldn’t be easy, Han went by her Season 1 playbook, writing Cyrus a note explaining how the song would be used and how it was important to the series.
Sometimes, the songs are more for the cast than they are the fans, Han said. In Episode 7, Belly, Jeremiah and Steven pull an all-nighter to help Conrad study for his biology final. When the adrenaline starts to die down, Belly mandates a dance break to “Last Nite” by the Strokes. In the show, it’s one of Susannah’s favorite songs. In real life, it’s by one of Briney’s favorite bands.
“It’s so perfect on so many levels,” Han said, “So I was very delighted to surprise him with the song.”
Belly (Lola Tung), left, with Conrad (Christopher Briney) in Episode 7, where we hear The Strokes’ “Last Nite.”
(Erika Doss / Prime Video)
In other instances, the songs were cleared ahead of time so the actors could hear them during filming. In addition to “I’m Kissing You” and “Party in the U.S.A.,” this was the case for Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” which Han knew she wanted to use in the pre-script stage.
Han, a fan of Rodrigo‘s music, said she was thrilled to include “Drivers License” and “Deja Vu” in Season 2 after using two of the artist’s songs in first episode of Season 1.
In the Season 2 opener, “Drivers License” plays during Belly’s emotional drive home from Steven’s graduation party. The crew let Tung drive around listening to the song over and over while filming the scene in the early hours of the morning.
Although Han said she wishes they could have gotten to the climactic bridge of the song, she still sees it as one of the season’s most powerful musical moments.
“I love it because she’s not just thinking about Conrad,” Han said. “She’s thinking about the loss of Susannah, the loss of Jeremiah. Everything really is tied up into one for her — the loss of Cousins and the loss of innocence.”
The same emotional tie between music and scene returns at the close of Episode 6, which is set to Swift’s “Snow on the Beach.” Some fans felt the song should have been included in Episode 2, when Belly and Conrad spend Christmas at Cousins Beach, but Han said her choices are deliberate.
“When I use ‘Snow on the Beach’ later in the season, it’s haunting because it’s taking you back to that moment,” Han said. “It’s almost like a painful memory, in a way.”
Primed by Belly’s strained confrontation with Conrad, where she begs him for answers as to why he gave up on their relationship, the song at first sounds mournful. Seconds later, it plays as Taylor finally kisses Steven, who has been pining for her all season. It cuts back to Belly, who is taking swigs of vodka and wandering aimlessly through the shell of the beach house.
“It’s coming down, it’s coming down, it’s coming down, it’s coming down,” the lyrics are twisted from their original awe into panic: Everything is falling apart.
After playing for more than three minutes — which Han said is one of the longest uses of a song in the season — the song quiets as Belly leaves a drunk voicemail for her mother, begging her to “come and fix it.”
For Belly, and for viewers, the end of Episode 6 is a collage of conflicting emotions.
“It’s never just about one thing,” Han said. “And that’s one of the big themes of the season is, you know, you can hold both things. At one time, you can hold your grief and then you can also hold happiness.”
Luckily for fans, this show’s soundtrack does both beautifully.