The Use (and Misuse) of Popular Music in Film

Screening Program

Music Video for “Derezzed”

American Psycho (2000); “Hip To Be Square” Scene

Forrest Gump (1994)

Juno (2007)

The Graduate (1967)

Gatsby (2013)

Written Statement

Throughout all popular mediums and art-forms, there has always been a generous amount of interdisciplinary overlap. As a medium naturally evolves, it begins to incorporate other art-forms until they inevitably begin to resemble each other. This phenomenon can be witnessed through the transformation of the filmic soundtrack, as well as the evolution of music videos and film trailers. In fact, many modern music videos contain scenes from films that they are featured in. Line are blurred whether the content one is to focused on is visual or audible. For example, the music video for Daft Punk’s “Derezzed” is almost exclusively made of scenes inspired by the film it was written for, TRON: Legacy (2010). However, the song itself has become one of the duo’s most popular hits. Watching the music video begs the question; what is the focus of the content being consumed? One might argue that the film is being advertised and prioritized over the song in which the music video was made for. A film’s score is one of many artistic elements that make up a film, but it is also clearly one that treads heavily on the music industry. Robb Wright explains that the production process is similar to any collaboration in the sense that the music is, one way or another, provided by an outside supplier (Wright 87). Many film’s have included original songs that top the popular charts, such as Adele’s Skyfall, or Celene Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. These films include music that is tailored for specific scenes, or the general content within the film. However, it is undeniable that the opposite occurs just as frequently. Pre-recorded music is added to a film during its post-production period, and the scene may be tailored towards the popular song. Reservoir Dogs (1992) features an iconic torture scene featuring Stealers Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You, and Mary Harron used the same technique of audio-visual juxtaposition in American Psycho (2000) with the song Hip To Be Square. In both scenes, the film’s script appears to be written with these specific songs in mind. That is to say that dialogue between the characters, or featured on the diegetic radio, make reference to these popular songs as if they are popular within the film’s narrative. This curation explores the possibilities within a film’s soundtrack when a film embraces popular music, and more importantly, how the choice of soundtrack can be more than a stylistic addition.

Robb Wright, in his writing Score vs. Song: Art, Commerce, and the H Factor in Film and Television Music, reveals that sound editors and mixers for film and television exploit audible techniques to manipulate their audience (Wright 88). According to Wright, as long as a sound is quieter than the various tracks that are incorporated into a single scene, it has a more direct access to the viewers subconscious than any visual information that is the focal point of the film. They help trigger the emotional responses that are desired. For this reason, the effect of the audible elements within a film cannot be understated or trivialized. This encourages the discourse of a film’s soundtrack, and more specifically, how the cultural context of a popular song can help evoke a particular response.

An important film in the discussion of popular music within a film’s score is Forrest Gump (1994). Forrest Gump features the title character’s involvement throughout some of the most important events in recent American history, despite his simple intelligence. The film features songs from the several eras that Forrest lived through and the soundtrack is evocative in ways that only an authentic representation from the film’s setting could achieve. For those who have lived throughout these eras, the soundtrack is a powerful reminder of the those times. The individual songs each conjure memories from the past. Therefore, the soundtrack selected for Forrest Gump (1994), as well as the film itself, is greatly benefitted from being comprised of popular music.

Of course, the decision to license a soundtrack that is entirely made up of popular music does not only authentically recreate a specific era, but it can help portray a culture that audience members might have trouble relating to. This is a technique that is used in Juno (2007). Juno MacGuff is a quirky and alternative high-school student who is dealing with a teenage pregnancy. The film’s score enables a wider audience to relate to Juno as a struggling female teenager, a character that they normally might have trouble relating to. The soundtrack of the film primarily consists of independent music that has a low-fi sound. The quality of the music lends itself to the simplistic and wholesome image that Juno lets off. The film ends with Juno and her boyfriend Paulie performing a song together with acoustic guitars, which solidifies the notion that the soundtrack is made up of music that Juno would listen to. The audience gets to better know Juno as a character through the film’s soundtrack, since the spectator and Juno are listening to the same songs. This technique lends itself to a non-original soundtrack since it authenticates Juno as a living human outside of the narrative, even though she is not.

All of the aforementioned films selected and discussed have used popular music for artistic reasons; there is a sense of artistic integrity that transcends consumer culture. However, the reality of the situation is that the film industry, like any other industry, primarily exists to generate income. It is very common for a film to feature a popular band or song for the simple reason that it is popular. If the song is topical, the film in which it is featured in is topical as well. Having a song or artist attached to a project may help a film’s image or perform more lucratively at the box office. Peter Larsen highlights the problematic nature of this practice in Striking a New Note: Film Music After the Golden Age.

“Many later films have demonstrated that songs on the soundtrack can convey what goes on in the mind of a fictive character, even though they are sung by someone else. The reason why it is difficult to consider Simon’s songs as Ben’s inner monologue or ‘internal songs’ is not that they are sung by Simon & Garfunkel, but simply that they were not written with The Graduate in mind. The lyrics are not actually about Ben – which means that connections between the lyrics and his thoughts have to be established at a more general level. The only piece of text that Simon wrote directly for the film, the four lines of ‘Mrs. Robinson’, have, strangely enough, no connection to the Mrs. Robinson of the film[…].” (Larsen 155)

While Larsen’s conclusion, that music not made explicitly for the film it is featured in obstructs the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, is arguable, he does display a problematic example. If one is to follow Robb Wright’s ideology of a film as a complex collaborative effort, Larsen’s conclusion suggests an imperative status that music has in respect to the quality of a film.

In recent years, there has been one notable blockbuster film that patches the problems that Larsen has with popular music in film; Gatsby (2013). Gatsby’s soundtrack seems to be the combination of several elements highlighted in this curation, thus it cannot simple be ignored or glossed over. First of all, Gatsby (2013) primarily features an original soundtrack compiling unique renditions of popular songs. While these songs are contemporary hits, they are remade in a 1920’s Jazz Age fashion. This allows the romanticization of an authentic soundtrack that fits the film’s era, while also satisfying the lucrative notion of featuring topical music in a Hollywood blockbuster. While the songs, lyrically, were not entirely written with the content of Gatsby (2013) in mind, these specific covers or renditions were. Aside from evoking a specific era in American History, Gatsby’s soundtrack also gives insight to the characters and context of the film. The several tracks all orbit around a few shares themes and topics; love, death, and partying. They are exclusively played over scenes that visualize these themes, which allow the viewer to subconsciously understand the context of the scene. Finally, the songs seem to fit within the context of the film, lyrically. Larsen may question the relevance of several lines in Paul Simon’s Mrs. Robinson, but themes of ill-fated romances are plentiful in the story of the Great Gatsby.

Of course, there have been a countless number of films that include popular songs in their soundtracks. This has become a staple trait of a popular and contemporary film. However, in this collection, the most iconic and important examples were chosen that illustrate how films may use a popular song in a non-trivial way. Some may look down at the notion of a popular soundtrack, but it is important to remember that these songs are often placed into these films selectively. Wright explains that, whether the music is pre-fabricated or not, it is provided by an outside supplier (87), and as long as a filmmaker acknowledges this, there is nothing universally wrong with a film or scene being tailored to its score.


Larsen, Peter. “Striking a New Note: Film Music After the Golden Age”, in Film        Music. London: Reaktion Books, 2005, pp.146-165.

Wright, Robb. “Score vs. Song: Art, Commerce, and the H Factor in Film and             Television Music”, in Popular Music and Film. Edited by Ian Inglis. London           and New York: wallflower, 2003, pp.8-21.


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