Soundtracks are a big deal to me. My films often contain 5-6 licensed songs, the rights for which are always built into my budgets. Naturally I can’t afford the Rolling Stones but I always am on the lookout for young, breakout artists that I can still afford. I never ask for music for free, whatever I can pay, I will. Nothing is for free.
I also choose all of my own music. Many films employ a music coordinator whose job it is to collect a bunch of music and present them to the director. Many of these songs are offered by labels as music that they wish to promote, which is why so many Hollywood blockbusters contain new singles of Top 40 artists. Blockbusters exist to make money, an ethos that trickles down to pretty much every creative decision in their conception.
I bring this up because this weekend I witnessed this commercial from Apple:
I disliked the commercial from the very moment I saw it, and there are a myriad reasons why. The first being that I’m not a big fan of emulators - an iPhone can never replace a guitar amplifier or actual instrument, it will forever be an approximation. If you want a tube amplifier sound, go source a tube amplifier. Borrow one. You’ll make a friend.
There are tons of other things I don’t like about the ad, but for me the biggest problem is the selection of music. It’s not some curmudgeon generational thing either - sure the Pixies’ “Gigantic” was an anthem for any kid growing up in the 90s, and yes there are nostalgic memories attached to the song, but it’s an ad. The whole idea is to tap into nostalgia for customers like me and a cool edge for hipster revivalists. It’s also no coincidence that the Pixes have a new record out. Commerce as usual.
But I take issue with the selection of the song in context with the ad. ‘Gigantic,’ which was written by bassist Kim Deal, is a song about a young white woman who is obsessed with a young black man. The core of the song is about the woman watching the man have sex with another woman. It’s a creepy song whose refrain of ‘gigantic’ is a double entendre about the gaze upon black men. It’s pretty much a masterpiece of indie rock.
It also has absolutely nothing to do with the selling of mobile devices, or anything that’s going on in the ad. Launching model rockets? Creating a projected planetarium? Emulated violin concerto? Kids playing Godzilla in the backyard? No connection whatsoever. The song is employed for the aforementioned nostalgia and because it’s just got a killer hook.
I find this reprehensible. When a song is used with little to no regard for the spirit in which it was written, I consider this an affront to the musician. One can argue that the artist agreed to its use, but the reality is that most musicians do not own the publishing rights to their music, and while they may receive a royalty from its use, unless it is specifically stated in a contract the music can be used by the highest bidder.
It’s happened before. Take Royal Caribbean using Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ to shuck holiday cruises:
It’s a song about heroin, about celebrating the bombed-out blitz of drugs. Whoever chose the song did it only for its title, either that it’s a brilliant act of subversion, which I highly doubt.
I remember reading about President Ronald Reagan using Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a political rallying call, not understanding that the song is about an American man who is in a spiritual crisis, about a veteran who feels betrayed and isolated, a man without a country. So unless Reagan was going for some deep metaphysical shit with his campaign, it’s more likely that he or his campaign lackey heard the title and ran with it. Springsteen famously lashed out, stating “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” It only cements Born in the USA as one of the truly greatest American songs.
Choosing music takes a lot of effort. It’s not enough that the song be popular, it has to work in all facets. A song needn’t be so literally used either, it can be an ironic use, a metaphorical use, a subversive use. But the main thing is that it must have an application beyond the commercial.
In Lilith I pondered over the final track to use in the credits. The credits song is an immensely important one for me, as it is the time when the viewer can reflect all that has happened, and I like the song to guide me through that spiritual minefield. In my debut film 19 Revolutions, I closed the film with Rjd2’s Smoke and Mirrors (before he hit it with the Mad Men titles), because besides being a kick ass song, the words made sense - 'who knows what tomorrow will bring, maybe sunshine maybe rain, but as for me I'll wait and see, maybe it'll bring my love to me.'
At the Cinequest film festival I was praised for using the song, as it fit the theme of my film perfectly. 19 Revolutions is the story of a young man faced with the brutal decision of an act of crime for honor. I ended the film ambiguously, as the man points a gun at the screen, eyes closed, moments before he decides if he will pull the trigger. At SXSW I was feted with having the best soundtrack (which included tracks by Rhythm and Sound, Porter Ricks, Mouse on Mars, Flying Saucer Attack, Rjd2 and Anticon), all of which were selected meticulously to fit the narrative and spine of the film.
With Lilith I had about twenty songs on my list, most of which I could afford because they were not major label artists. But it just wasn’t working, none of the songs I had completely encapsulated what I needed. I was getting desperate, as we needed to audio lock and mix. I was thinking of dipping into my savings so that I could pay for an obscenely expensive Nine Inch Nails song, but then, a stroke of luck.
I was in NYC doing the sound mix and a major rainstorm hit. I was on 3rd street and Broadway without an umbrella, and I knew that on 4th I could kill an hour at my favorite music store, Other Music. I’ve been buying music at OM since 1998, and they, along with Aquarius Records in San Francisco, have been a great source of new music for me and my films.
I got to Other Music, soaking wet. One of the staff kindly offered me a dry t-shirt - such are the perks of being a regular (and why brick and mortar stores are worth supporting). As I was drying off, a new record was being put on the shelf. It was by a band from Sacramento, CA called Sister Crayon, and the record, ‘Bellow’ was their debut. I picked it up and saw the title of one track - ‘Here We Never Die’ - and something about those words resonated. It fit my theme perfectly, that Lilith was a girl trapped in hell, and it is a place where she never dies, as she lives in the heart of her sister forever. It is both a prison and an infinite void. On a whim I picked it up.
I took the album home and listened to it, and it was magnificent. Ethereal female vocals from Tera Lopez, a chilling organ and wispy, crackling percussion. The lyrics fit everything, almost eerily. I immediately got on the case and within a week we had rights to the song. It’s a magnificent piece, and something I felt was meant to happen. The storm gods led me to that store and I was meant to find that record.
Searching for a soundtrack is an act of exploration and discovery. It takes time and lots of thought. Throw into the mix the financial restraints and it can be downright exhausting. But trust me, it’s well worth the effort. A thoughtful soundtrack can take a film to the next level, and I can’t imagine my films with other songs or without songs altogether. They are part of the diegetic world of the film, they are influence and nuance, they are atmosphere and mystery. As important as performance, cinematography and edit. You can easily make a film without a soundtrack, it’s not a requirement to have one. The films of the Dardenne Brothers contain no music, and as a result they are harrowing, sparse and bleak. It’s by design. I choose to have music because it is a way I express myself in my art. Music is elemental, it is basic, it’s another language with which to communicate. There will be projects where a soundtrack will sound forced or introduce artifice, and this is where restraint must be applied. The choice to use music is like any other creative choice, it must be done in the benefit of the story. Fail to be cognizant of that and you will end up with a shitty iPhone ad: forced, pandering and completely clueless.