Shonda Rhimes, who’s been named to Billboard’s first-ever list of TV’s Top Music Power Players, has changed not only the face of television by creating female character-driven, fast-paced dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, she has single-handedly caused more shedding of tears than any other show runner with her pitch-perfect marriage of music and image.
“I always feel like when someone can’t tell you what their show is supposed to sound like musically, they’re in trouble because that’s the other piece of storytelling to me,” she tells Billboard, sitting in, appropriately enough, a director’s chair on an empty stage at Sunset Gower Studios following a recent photo shoot.
Through her production company, Shondaland, Rhimes also executive producesHow To Get Away With Murder and has a new show, The Catch, coming in 2016.
Where does your great grasp of music come from?
I don’t know. I grew up in a house filled with music. I was in the marching band, [but] I wasn’t one of those people who [knew] every band and every genre. I was a I-know-who-Duran Duran-is kind of teenager. It wasn’t until [Grey’s and Scandalmusic supervisor] Alex [Patsavas] that I started hearing interesting, different stuff. I just know what I like. It’s the same with writing, I just write what I want to see.
Was there a TV show from your youth whose music resonated with you?
I don’t remember any TV shows having music. I remember movies had really great theme songs. I’m so obsessed with getting “The Theme to Mahogany” into one of our episodes.
What other songs are you pushing to get into Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal?
I have Ray Charles singing “Imagine.” I haven’t figured out where to put it and I haven’t tried to clear it yet. I think when I pull [it] out, Alex and Dawn [Soler, ABC Television sr vp music] will hold each other and cry [laughs]. Last year, I had Nina Simone singing John Lennon and that was a very big, very hard clearance to do and Aretha Franklin’s [version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”] was also really difficult.
Which artist has been your favorite to work with?
You know [who’s] been really wonderful is Stevie Wonder, who I’m really obsessed with. That music is the music of my childhood. Songs in the Key of Lifeare the keys to my life. To be able to put that music in [Scandal] has been wonderful. He has really high standards with what he wants to be happening while we’re using his music, which I understand, but he’s been really generous with us and that’s been great.
Grey’s uses singer/songwriter-oriented pop and rock. Scandal uses classic R&B. Did you have any pushback?
For Grey’s, I remember having the battle in the editing room in the very beginning when I was just the little girl who had a show. I put all of that music that you heard in the pilot. The guys came in and said, “You can’t have this music in the show,” and they scored the show with this very testosterone-y music that made it sound like an action movie and the show looked ridiculous. I [thought], “They’re the executive producers and I’m screwed,” and having [television executive] Betsy [Beers] come in and go “This is ridiculous. Put that music back,” and getting my voice heard. But [I was] also watching how a show can become a completely different animal with different kinds of music.
How often do you make suggestions from your own record collection or song discovery?
I do it all the time. For Grey’s, I remember finding this really funky little band, The Greenskeepers. They have a whole bunch of songs that [are] about The Silence of the Lambs and I just loved them. I was like, “We’re going to use this music!” It was great though because Alex was very excited. It’s easier when it’s somebody like that, when you’re finding a band from the middle of nowhere, than when you’re finding Aretha singing “My Way.”
How do you know when a song is right?
If you can just drop a song over a scene without doing anything to it and it feels right, you’re there.
What was your toughest scene to find the right song?
When Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) left Grey’s Anatomy, she and Meredith danced it out for the last time. That music usage took us weeks. The battle of what song to put into the show was brutal because it had to feel joyous and nostalgic and sad at the same time. We ended up using Tegan & Sara’s [“Where Does The Good Go”], a repeat from episode 104. It ended up being perfect.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard.