[Insert witty/profound song lyric here]

This is no secret. We all know about it. In fact we’ve all been guilty of it at some point in our lives.  Some of us are more guilty than others.  But I think it’s safe to say that on some level, we are all aware of the extent to which music has infiltrated our lives.

My musings on this subject began with this paper for ImageTexT, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and the advent of the iPod, which (it almost goes without saying) allows us to not only tune out the world’s white noise, but also control our mood shifts from moment to moment.  Live in NYC?  Long subway commutes?  Just plug in your headphones and keep your stress level at a minimum by drowning out that annoying tourist chatter with “The Blue Danube.”  Looking to nurture your rage?  Turn up PJ Harvey and see how quickly you begin glaring around the subway car.  Pre-gaming for a party?  Blast “4 Minutes” as loud as you can and ignore the other passengers’ dirty looks—they’re just wishing they hadn’t forgotten their iPods at home.  And if you’re depressed, there’s always Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the most covered, overused song in the recent history of Hollywood film.  But we’ll get to that in a moment.

In Hollywood, the use of sound and song in cinema to set the mood is not a new concept.  In the age of the silent film, the audience’s mood relied primarily on the film score, which combined with the dialogue and actors’ expressions created a complete emotional experience.  The use of original film scores—that is, not pop/rock songs but pieces composed and arranged specifically for the film—create a sort of secondary ambient “narrative” for the viewer that, when taken on its own, propels you through emotions similar to the ones you experienced in the theater.  Like mood lighting for the ears, the soundtrack sets the tone for the movie, and we are cued to sound; we know how to interpret it: trumpet fanfares signify hard-won victory; that rising swell of bass trombones, imminent threat; rapid, repeating flute trills in the highest octave imaginable, a sense of panic, dead-ending, futility.

Soundtrack as signifier: we know instantly the meaning of silence or a given sound.

As an obvious example, Requiem for a Dream (2000) used a series of string arrangements, ranging in tone from light to heavy, smooth to raw-edged.  In the order they were used in the film, the pieces depict a downward spiral from relative normalcy and contentment (if not happiness) to total, alarming destruction.  The Dark Knight (2008) makes use of the same few notes, a deep brassy sound that fades-in, swells up, and fades-out, to give us feelings of defeat as well as hope and (possible) triumph.  Something similar occurs in the anime series Gurren Lagann, where the main theme song is played against different instrumental arrangements, thus changing the tone and meaning of the song and the mood of the scene.  The anime series Death Note makes use of silence and a few instrumental themes played at pivotal moments to cement audience associations with them.  This is also true of The Man With No Name trilogy, which hinges on crackling silence and a few, minimalist themes that come to stand as signifiers for action.  In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) you know exactly when the action is going down, when confrontations are approaching, indicated by the titular theme, and when the characters are close to finding gold.  “L’Estasi Dell’Oro” is one of the most open, uplifting tracks on a film score in my limited experience, and coupled with the dizzying camera pan, evokes for us the feeling of wild, total, drunken joy:

As for the inclusion of verbal songs, I find myself thinking of the integration of “Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano” in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), where the song was performed by the protagonists as part of the storyline, additionally allowing the audience to experience Ripley’s happiness at being included:

Movies often come with a “theme” song attached, or a few here and there, but generally these songs are spread throughout the movie, or they are seen as “lighter” fare.  Legally Blonde (2001) and Transformers (2007) are examples of this.  Garden State (2004) used several songs but spaced them out enough that their inclusion wasn’t noticeable, and all the songs were of the same tenor and matched the tone of the film.  The Matrix (1999) also uses a few, all in the metal/hard rock category (though it also contains some interesting progressions from Asian ambiance music to industrial rock).  Both film and film score together serve to give us a total impression of the mood within the world we’re experiencing, an atmosphere, not necessarily the mood we as the audience are meant to experience, or even meant to associate with the characters’ moods.

All of which brings me to the soundtrack of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.

The soundtrack lists 12 songs, and in the movie these songs are used like a drunk-driving pileup at rush hour on Route 4.  The film opens with the Comedian, and a significant scene cut to a photo of the first Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter.  Nat King Cole’s”Unforgettable” begins to play, and we’re immediately cued in that the Comedian is longing for Sally (which incidentally wasn’t his primary problem, either in the movie or the book—he was more concerned with Adrian Veidt’s “practical joke,” but I digress).  The song plays while the Mystery Assailant kicks the crap out of the Comedian, the intention being seemingly to highlight the contrast between song and narrative action and make us aware of incongruity in life, of the fact that here is a world where things don’t make sense.  This may have been an edgy move back in the day, or even if only used once, but Watchmen falls back on it often enough that it feels cheap.  Yes, this world does not make sense, but why do we need a song to out-and-out tell us that, as though the characters’ predicaments and actions can’t speak for themselves, as they do in the graphic novel?  We see this incongruity again with KC & the Sunshine Band’s “I Am Your Boogieman,” played while the Comedian torches Vietnam soldiers with his usual macabre, practical glee, and Dr. Manhattan blows up a soldier with one touch.

See how much is wrong with the world, when scenes of war and unnecessary brutality can be set to “Boogieman”?

The “Unforgettable” opening is immediately followed by the single highlight of the film: the montage summary of the past ~50 years of alternative U.S. history, in which we won in Vietnam and Nixon is president.  This montage is set against Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changin’,” which besides being the most obvious choice, and hence a little cheap, didn’t strike me as so terrible.  Readers of the comic are nostalgic right away, because we’ve spent time “earning” information about the original Minutemen through carefully arranged excerpts of Hollis Mason’s novel-within-a-novel Under the Hood, letters, and so on.  Clearly movies don’t have the run time, or the stylistic means, to give us all this information and make us sympathetic because we’ve worked for it.  Dylan’s song serves as a bit of a quick-fix in that regard, but an understandable one.

Later we have the Comedian’s funeral set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” a song that was brilliantly used in The Graduate (1967) and that is slaughtered here. The pathos, regret, and lostness the song conveys in The Graduate (never mind its cumulative meaning through reiteration and recontextualization), is not present in Watchmen at all.  Rather, it seems to be shouting at the audience, “The Comedian is dead! This is upsetting!” when all we need are the actors’ expressions and thoughts to experience the mood.  This is again true with the use of “99 Luftballons” in Gunga Diner when Laurie and Dan are having coffee; piled on top of Dan’s awkward longing for Laurie, seen through his gestures and expressions, the song commands us to feel lighthearted, cheerful even.  However the swift turnaround between songs doesn’t let the audience remain with an emotion; rather, like the random shuffle function on an iPod playlist, we’re jerked around from emotion to emotion, and not asked to extrapolate anything from the scenes we’re watching.

In addition to forcing the audience into a passive viewing experience, Watchmen counts on viewers’ knowledge of other movies to make associations with some of these songs.  Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a composition used too many times in too many films, is played during the Vietnam War sequence as a clear throwback to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), where the music was set against a helicopter attack. While this might give the usage in Watchmen a little more resonance for fans of Apocalypse Now, there’s no denying the fact that “Valkyries” has been used in serious productions, parodies, sitcoms, animated comedies, and so on, until the build-up of associations one may have with it cause an overload of sorts.  In other words, it (and other pieces like it—think “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which will forever be known as “that 2001: Space Odyssey theme”) has become so saturated with meanings that it has almost become, as an emotional signifier at least, defunct.  How many people remember “Valkyries” as a powerful, aggressive opening to the second opera in Wagner’s The Ring cycle?  Thus, when “Valkyries” pops up in Watchmen, the piece doesn’t tell us anything more than the scenes of fighting and flame, and what with the numerous parody associations (Looney Tunes, anyone?) it holds, it makes the moment almost laughable.

In place of sympathy for the characters, which aside from Rorschach and Dan is nearly impossible to achieve, we are given a soundtrack that tells us how to feel and when to feel it.  We should obviously find Dan and Laurie’s first sexual encounter uplifting, poignant, steeped in histories full of regrets, uncertainties, what-ifs.  But despite the careful application of “Hallelujah,” it’s difficult to care at all, because Laurie is given little-to-no character development and there is no tension between the characters (or for that matter, anywhere else, but that’s the subject of another post).  The sex scene is laughable.  In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, we feel all of Dan’s little happinesses and frustrations, his awkwardness in flirting with Laurie; we see Laurie struggling against her mother’s masked-hero shadow, with her failing relationship with Dr. Manhattan, with her dislike for costuming—her mother, after all, forced her to become Silk Spectre II.  Malin Akerman plays the part poorly, but even so none of this tension is really present in the film, and so when the sex occurs we are left on the outside, with Leonard Cohen informing us that “love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”  That may very well be true.  But it would be far more striking and profound if we had to come to this conclusion ourselves, unaided by clever and/or profound lyrics, simply by watching the scene unfold.  (And I’ll take a moment here to be honest: it’s quite probable that there were redeeming instrumental tracks hidden throughout the film, but they were mercilessly drowned out by the verbal songs, and clearly failed the “memorable test” if I couldn’t remember them five minutes out of the theater.)

So here, essentially, is the problem.  The soundtrack acts as a giant, condescending playlist, one that tells us, prescriptively, how to feel, rather than hinting at possible moods a given scene could evoke.  A film score certainly supplies the audience with an interpretation of the narrative’s mood, but this interpretation isn’t pinned down as much as it is with songs, especially when we have already encountered them in the world, have associations with them (and with previous movie scenes they may have been featured in), and how they make us feel when they pop up unexpectedly on our iPods on the way to work.  “Hallelujah” is depressing.  “Unforgettable” is wistful, maybe yearning and nostalgic.  K.C. & the Sunshine Band are meant to make us chill out, bop our heads a bit, smile about the late 70s.  As for “99 Luftballons” and the easter-egg inclusion of Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” if you can take 80s music seriously, power to you.  (And I happen to be an 80s fan myself.)  But the use of these songs doesn’t serve to underscore a mood already present in the movie.  Rather, it almost highlights the film’s embarrassing lack of mood and emotional resonance by independently overcompensating for each, and trying to supply us with both.

I find this trend in film scores disturbing to say the least.  We are (ideally) thinking adults who are capable of doing the work to interpret narratives and formulate feelings about them and their characters, without being force-fed these feelings by song lyrics.  Using song lyrics to express your current mood on Facebook and GChat is somewhat understandable, but if we’ve really come to the point when we need songs in order to induce our current mood then the artistic future of humanity is looking very bleak indeed.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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