Movie Trailer Soundtracks Are Keeping Me Cool

By  · Published on November 2nd, 2016

How Hollywood is staving off my musical obsolescence through movie trailers.

According to the experts, I am in the waning days of my musical relevance. A study released in 2015 suggests that people stop listening to new music after the age of 33; as a 32-year-old man, this means that I have only a few months left to discover as much music as possible before I retreat to my fortress of solitude with the complete collection of Radiohead albums and a pair of nice headphones. If we’re being completely honest with one another, that number actually seems a little high. It’s been years since I felt like I was on the cutting edge of anything musical, and my fortress of solitude is probably going to feature a lot more Sugar Ray than Radiohead. Just let me live my life.

Then again, while I may not seek out new music, Hollywood is kind enough to introduce me to reams of new music in the form of movie trailers. This past week, for example, I finally sat down to watch the trailer for Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and was knocked upside the head by the accompanying song. I’m not sure which music supervisor made the intuitive leap from Chan-wook’s film to an ‘electronic post-rock’ band from England – those descriptors are courtesy of the band’s Wikipedia page, and also taught me that we’ve moved past rock as a genre – but somehow, the rhythmic percussion of ‘Red Sex’ and the kinetic editing of the trailer made for the perfect match onscreen. It’s just one example in a trend of incredible pop music finding its way into my ears courtesy of the movie trailer.

Of course, not all trailers feature popular music. In 2011, The Guardian published a fascinating piece on the music library company, a niche industry within Hollywood that churns out smartly produced pieces of original music that often sound eerily similar to the work of major composers. In a few cases, these music companies have even found crossover success with general audiences by releasing selections from their catalog as standalone albums (the artists behind Immediate Music even went a step further, forming a band out of its rotating collection of musicians for live performances). As The Guardian notes, however, this type of music tends to skirt the boundaries of copyrighted music, giving studios a musical sample that seems lifted from a Hans Zimmer soundtrack without actually requiring them to license Zimmer’s music for the trailer.

But when movie trailers do incorporate popular music, they are given the chance to truly stand out from the crowd. Not only are the selections themselves often excellent, the associated imagery can help amplify the effect. The internet is full of studies linking music to memory, and while many of these focus on the effect music can have on your contextual memory, the inverse can be just as effective. Watching a good trailer for the first time is a memorable experience; having that experience linked in your memory to a specific song gives that song some added weight. If Vessel’s ‘Red Sex’ popped into my Pandora shuffle, or came up while I was channel surfing in my car, it might be a little too far outside my musical comfort zone for me to give it a real listen. It’s only with the context of the trailer for The Handmaiden that the song takes on added weight.

Since many songs featured in movie trailers don’t actually find their way into the film itself, this can also lead you to form some pretty odd associations between movie trailers and music. My introduction to Blur came courtesy of ‘Song 2’ and an early trailer for Paul Verhoven’s Starship Troopers. I spent weeks looking forward to how the movie would incorporate the song in an action sequence, only to discover that the movie featured a completely different suite of music. When you hit upon a new artist that you really enjoy, their entire catalogue of music becomes filtered through the lens of the movie they helped promote, regardless of whether they are actually featured in the soundtrack or not. To me, Elbow is forever linked to the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, despite the fact that only one song by the band (‘Grounds for Divorce’) was featured in a movie trailer, and none in the film itself.

That’s why I am also so disappointed when producers hack up a piece of music to make it work in a trailer. Few pieces of music caught my ear this summer quite like Alex Clare’s ‘Relax My Beloved’ in the first trailer for The Shallows, so I was rather disappointed to find that the full version of the song features a whole bunch of generic singing that had been omitted from the trailer cut. What I loved about the sample used in The Shallows was the catchiness of the rhthym and the slight distortion overlaying the audio; while that is still present in the full version, it is a small fraction of the piece as a whole. This can create a weird form of musical compartmentalization; there are songs that I like mainly because I love a thirty second segment of them and nothing more.

The Brilliant Soundtracks of Summer

I’m not throwing in the towel just quite yet – I figure I have a few good years left to hone my own musical taste – but as I get older and I focus my free time more intently on the things I really enjoy, my desire to seek out particularly good music has certainly fallen by the wayside. As long as Hollywood does its job and continue to feed me new and interesting artists in catchy little trailers, I may cling to some of my musical relevance yet. And if not? At least I still have that song from The Handmaiden to hold up as proof that I am still cool.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)