Are We Turning a Corner on Bad Cover Songs in Movie Trailers?

Probably not, but it's nice to think about

YouTube/Warner Bros. Pictures
Nicholas Russell

The trailers for The Matrix: Resurrections and Paul Thomas Anderson’s delightfully named Licorice Pizza came out recently and both do what I thought might never be possible again: they used original versions of popular songs (Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Bowie’s “Life On Mars," respectively). A small glimmer of hope in a desolate marketing wasteland. It’s sad that these songs felt like breaths of fresh air.

The other day, when I was driving home from work, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” came on the radio and my first thought was “They should use this song in a trailer." Maybe now that will be possible! A few years ago, I would have maybe thought “They should use this song in a movie.” Really, the most likely scenario involves an alchemy of these two ideas: the original song appears in a trailer while a really awful cover version is in the actual movie. The last time this happened (that I can recall) was when Atomic Blonde, a supremely overrated movie, used New Order’s “Blue Monday” in its trailer while using some inferior cover in the actual film.

There’s a trend these days of complaining about this sort of thing. Obviously, I’m not above it, but I think we’re far enough away from The Social Network’s teaser to think that bad covers represent not necessarily the death of creativity but the supreme power of nostalgia. Maybe we blame Mark Woolen & Associates, the trailer house that came up with the idea to use a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep," as performed by a choir of Belgian girls, as the aural backdrop for a movie about Facebook. Certainly blame Brian Monaco, president and global marketing chief at Sony Music Publishing, who has “teams of writers working on reimagined versions of legendary artists’ catalogs,” as per a Variety article from late August. Maniacal man that he clearly is, he said, “The goal is to catch people’s attention. Maybe they’re not paying as much attention to the trailer, and they start to hear the chorus of the song, and they go, ‘Wait, I know this song.’ They start paying attention, and now they’re watching the trailer.” Even better is when they’re like “I know this song, it’s the actual song.” Whatever. I’m sure Monaco has reams of data to prove me technically wrong, but every time I hear a bad cover, I fixate on how much better the original is then work myself up into a muted rage as to why they didn’t just use that.

I can’t tell whether or not we were always bound to end up here. Of course, in 2006, the first trailer for the third-person shooter Gears of War used Gary Jules’s moody, but eminently effective cover of Tears For Fears’s “Mad World." No sound effects, no voices, just Jules’s quivering voice and melancholic piano over images of an apocalypse. Not bad, given more cache since it was created for Donnie Darko in 2001.

But there’s been a growing industry of these types of songs used solely for films and trailers and it’s here that you can Google screeds from Vulture and ScreenRant listing the most egregious examples. The Tomb Raider reboot uses a cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor." Promising Young Woman uses a cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic." Maleficent uses Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon A Dream” (that one isn’t bad actually). Birdman uses a cover of Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy," and on and on. In 2019, writer Alex Pappademas, in his New Yorker piece on the topic, said, “They are the signature movie-music form produced by Hollywood’s era of perpetual reboot: riffs on preëxisting intellectual property conceived solely to promote movies that also tend to be riffs on preëxisting intellectual property.”

Pappademas seems to miss exactly how these songs are used. There’s been a gradual evolution over the years, from something like Logan’s use of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by NIN to the Candyman remake’s use of Destiny Child’s “Say My Name." One endeavors to juxtapose the gravitas and vulnerability of an aging music icon with Hugh Jackman’s supposedly last stint as a nigh-immortal superhero, himself also aging and vulnerable (I have a sinking feeling he’s going to come back in the post-Disney-Fox merger era). The other plays on a sort of meta-joke that’s also meant to be amusingly literal: say Candyman’s name five times in a mirror and he appears. Both are obviously intentional aesthetic choices, but it seems we’re well into a period of nostalgia for the past that is no longer about tribute or genuine pining but laced with irony. From that same Variety piece, Jonathan McHugh of the Guild of Music Supervisors said, “Audiences familiar with a song will remember it, and the younger people will say, ‘I discovered this,” which is depressing for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the idea that all anyone wants to be is a consumer who can claim they heard something first.

It’s true that covers used to be something of a shrewd business decision, at least in the music industry. Whatever topped the charts was fair game to be reworked by enterprising record companies to try and compete. But how the fuck did it end up being like this? Where it all gets recycled, except this time to sell stuff, like a movie or a car. Few things make me turn into a complete, earnest, hand-wringing cheese ball like music does. To see it bandied about as a tool for tricking people into seeing something that might not even be good (like Candyman!!) makes me want to walk into traffic.

The framing of some sort of inevitable generational conflict between the olds who wish the youth knew their history better and the kids who treat everything slightly older than them as some long lost artifact feels forced. A good example of this: the trailer for Jordan Peele’s Us featuring Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It." The olds were mad at the youth for not being familiar with the song and then mad again when the youth started listening to it and playing it on their own as if they’d unearthed buried treasure. Is it better to have old things rediscovered? Or is just never going to happen the way we want it to? People like Brian Monaco of Sony don’t seem to care. It makes them money either way.

Earlier this summer, cultural critic Lesley Chow, whose recent book You’re History highlights and praises strangeness in music, specifically with female vocalists, was interviewed for The Believer. Chow observed, “I would say that soundtracks today sound a lot more curated and have less to do with creating a total mood for a film...It seems like more about, often, ironic use of music. Ironic use of a track that you’ve heard before.” That irony isn’t, by nature, disingenuous. But it is getting old. If there’s any hope for a less repackaged and remixed trailer future, nostalgic needle drops that turn on a modicum of sincerity, or at least melodramatic seriousness might be the way forward. Who wants to hear some whiny-voiced zoomer covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Bringing back the original shit is always better.