The AV Club, the arts arm of The Onion, publishes a feature on its blog called Sound and Vision, which looks at the use of pop songs by movies and TV. The latest one, from earlier this month, discusses the pregnant cultural moment in which Garden State appropriated The Shins’ “New Slang.” That instant, it has been argued elsewhere, indie went mainstream. Well, that’s debatable, but the general topic of the interaction between pop songs and movies has long fascinated me — and, where the point of this feature seems to be to gather the social clues underlying that moment: I am more interested in the basic way that, individually, songs and films either augment and detract from each other.
Several years ago, Daniel Green wrote on his blog The Reading Experience about a similar relationship that he saw developing between novels and screenplays:
“If the novel is being marginalized, it is not because too many people are watching HBO; it’s because too many novelists are writing novels that are clearly meant to be made into movies. If fiction is being undervalued, by readers and critics alike, it’s not because shows like The Sopranos are better, or more accessible, than contemporary novels; it’s because fiction writers themselves implicitly concede that film and television are the narrative forms to which they ultimately aspire.”
But I suspect that for many this is not an aspiration — conscious or otherwise — so much as it is their most familiar standard. It isn’t unlikely that, for many of these novelists, the structural traditions of film and television are more familiar and immediate than those of literature (especially modernist literature). It’s possible that they are not corrupted by a commercial motive, or driven by a desire for a wider audience, but merely limited by a narrative sensibility influenced most deeply by those arts to which they’ve had the most exposure.
This comes at the point from a different direction than that of the combination of pop song and movie. Novels written for the screen are affected in their actual substance, rather than merely their context. But it’s more a range of intensity than a difference in kind. The cover of a book might tint its reception almost undetectably, whereas the genre a given movie is understood to follow might radically alter its understanding [i]. But the ultimate effect: the intrusion and coloring of perspective in the reader or viewer, is the same phenomenon.
I have found that the effect of seeing a music video before hearing a song alone can be distracting. It can be difficult to “un-see” its style of presentation; to unlearn whatever you then think you know about the speaker’s voice. In cinema, it seems to me that things get even more intensely interwoven: the usage of The Doors’ “The End” provides a lot to Apocalypse Now, and Apocalypse Now provides a lot to “The End.” The confused, overlapping guitar and keyboard lines generate a tension with the relatively slow, dark exposition. And the song, which has pretty ineffective lyrics, benefits from the film’s dim depiction of tribal rituals, the flickering torch-light melding in with the undulating guitars—it’s a correlative effect. If I had never heard “The End” before I saw the movie, my experience of the song might be inextricable from the emotional moment as it is in the film. As it is, after seeing the film I found things to like about the song that I wouldn’t have otherwise — but things that, strictly speaking, aren’t part of the song except through, or as the product of, an association. Where are such things rightly filed? Is it possible (or desirable) to try to ignore them for the purpose of looking at the song itself?
But I expect in many serious cinema-goers and people whose whole experience of popular music is mediated by music videos, the understanding and ultimate judgment of songs has, by now, a highly parasitic relationship dependent on the quality of the corresponding visual component. Sometimes this can be pretty surprising in its range. ELO, once considered obsolete in many quarters—a dinosaur of seventies radio pop—became suddenly respectable in the circuit of Starbucks and NPR when “Mr. Blue Sky” was used in a Volkswagen spot. Music that was previously only represented visually by the spaceships on its album sleeves suddenly became digestible thanks to a sharply photographed short featuring a whimsical, arty type fashionably groomed and attired.
But probably the matter of its social acceptability isn’t quite as simple as such a description makes it sound—it isn’t merely a reawakening of interest or a contemporary contexualization that makes the song available for this new audience (if that were true, the use of samples in hip-hop would widely rehabilitate interest in their sources—but they usually only do so among musicians and collectors). Rather, for those who came to understand a sense of the song through its usage in the commercial, there was the necessity of a visual-narrative cue. With an incomplete visual context, the song could not be fully understood — an intermediary operation was necessary, a sort of translation from the original language of pop music. This would point to an aesthetic literacy that ends with film and television — where even arts as apparently easy and accessible as pop music are difficult to comprehend on their own terms, and can only be understood through the idiom of the screen.
[i] Denis Dutton argues persuasively for an intentionalist attitude about genre his essay on Wimsatt/Beardsley.