Trailer music research group Trailaurality take us through the key trends and developments in trailer music as we continue to emerge from a global pandemic.
For those who might think trailers (and trailer music) have lost their popular appeal due to their relegation to small screens and speakers during the pandemic, consider the recent $5 million lawsuit brought by two fans against Universal because Ana de Armas appeared in the trailer but not in the film Yesterday. Late-night pundits like Trevor Noah and the entertainment press were quick to pounce on it at the end of January. The case might seem frivolous, but to de Armas fans and trailer consumers the frustrated anticipation from a “misleading” preview can occasion a form of trauma, as also evidenced by the 2011 suit filed against Film District, since Drive was not the high-octane film advertised in the trailer. Tip to potential litigants: film studios aren’t responsible for making the trailers you love or hate (dedicated trailer houses are).
Turning to the soundtracks of trailers released since our last Synchtank blog at the end of 2018–we apologize for the tardiness of this submission–we at Trailaurality are pleased to report that music still plays a central role in previews for movies, television programming, and video games. The pandemic may have caused studios to cease production for a time, yet trailer production has remained fairly robust, as streaming companies picked up some of the slack created by empty movie theaters. The following observations are based on our ongoing study of the music used in trailer soundtracks at Trailaurality.com:
One continuing strategic trend we have observed is the use of cover songs, whether in teasers or “official” trailers: for releases between January 2020 and September 2021, one source lists over 250 previews using covers. Their deployment in the shorter teaser (usually 1 to 1½ minutes) is primarily to catch the attention of audience, like through Petula Clark’s “Downtown” for Last Night in Soho (Buddha Jones, 2021) or Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” for The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (Revolve Agency, 2021). They also figure prominently in full-length trailers (2’20”), and if the teaser used a cover, the official trailer might feature another, as we heard in the campaign for Scenes from a Marriage with the teaser song “The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me” by Monsters of Folk (HBO In-House, 2021), while the subsequent trailer used “To Build a Home” by Patrick Watson (same). And in 2021 we also heard trailer songs by such diverse artists as Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Whitney Houston, Billie Eilish, Guns N’ Roses, Blood Orange, Bruce Springsteen, and yes, even Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy.
Of course the recognizable music by such leading artists is typically chosen for some kind of tie-in between the lyrics and the trailer narrative. For example, in the trailer for the latest Matrix film, there’s an allusion to Alice in Wonderland both on screen and in the chosen track, a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” In another case, David Bowie’s “Starman” makes a reference to children, quite fitting for Lightyear being about a realistic version of children’s toy Buzz Lightyear. The nature of the tie-in is quite variable, whether a mood (“You Are My Sunshine” for Luca), the lyrics (“Crazy in Love” for Made for Love), or an ironic contrast (“Take Me Home, Country Roads” for Clarice). It’s obvious that these cover versions are carefully selected and remixed for the purpose of attracting an audience.
Existing music and biopics
The use of existing music makes sense in particular when promoting biopics of musicians’ lives, which has become one of the most popular film genres during the pandemic, and indeed a cinematic force to be reckoned with at least since the 1970s. It stands to reason that their trailers would present music by the featured artist, the only questions remaining, which songs and how many of them? In terms of full-length covers the official trailer to Tina features “Proud Mary,” Janet Jackson “Control,” Summer of Soul “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom “Deep Moanin’ Blues,” while we hear “Bennie and the Jets,” “Your Song,” and–of course–“Tiny Dancer” in the trailer to Rocketman. There’s also “Don’t Eat That Yellow Snow” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down” for Zappa and Tammy Faye’s “Jesus Keeps Takin’ Me Higher and Higher” and Guess Who’s “These Eyes” for The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Introducing new songs through trailers
The introduction of songs through trailers is not new, with Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer” having premiered in the trailer to Star Trek Beyond (June 2016), but such song-film cross-promotion remains a rarity. For example, Alessia Cara took advantage of Comic-Con and the trailer to the anime series Blade Runner: Black Lotus (2021) to premiere her song “Feel You Now.” Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) debuted the new track “Born to Be” in the trailer for Beckett, and a significant number of people checked out the trailer for that specific reason. And most notably, in our year-end awards, Trailaurality recognized one trailer as the “Best Musical Tie-In”: King Richard for Beyoncé’s single “Be Alive,” which she debuted in the trailer. Given all of this activity in taking pre-existing and new music and adopting or adapting it for audiovisual previews of various kinds, it appears that trailer producers are by no means finished with cover songs, even though their ubiquity leeches some of the originality and novelty from the practice.
Ticking and clapping
Ever since its use in the teaser to Dunkirk (2016), the sound of ticking (and similarly, clapping) has been a “thing” in a number of different trailer contexts, almost like the new Inception “braaaam” when it comes to editors reaching for a go-to motivic device. As opposed to a particular sound that may or may not fit the moment, it allows for flexibility as a sonic bed for synch points with the on-screen action. It could represent an actual clock, or may metaphorically mark the passage of time, or may in the most general sense introduce an element of threat, but that which unites all such uses are its percussive quality–like hits–that quickly recur with strict regularity. The ticking sound effect (note?) is only rarely synched with moving images, but when it is, the sources are as varied as a metronome (Insidious, 2011), a watch (The Rhythm Section, 2020), probably a clock (Moon Night, 2022), or an unseen accompaniment (Cruella, 2021). Rhythmic clapping is easier to justify in musician biopics, since it can serve as an audience sound to reinforce the perception of an authentic performance (when it really isn’t): for example see the trailer to Tina (2021), but also a section of the teaser (?) for Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022).
The disappearance of the micro-teaser
We were not sad to observe the gradual disappearance of the micro-teaser, those few seconds at the beginning of the official trailer that set the tone for the following two minutes. The purpose of those audiovisual moments was never clear other than further branding for the film, but if you are like us at Trailaurality, we grew weary of those snippets of sight and sound. Another cliche that seems to have lost its grip is the trailer opening on a single piano note, which above all characterized the beginnings of fantasy and superhero films, as if to signal the start of a cinematic trailer journey and–by inference–the outset of the leading character’s activity. While it may have represented the initiation of a trajectory that would come to climax over the length of the trailer, there was little one could accomplish with that one note in long-ish values.
At the same time, we do miss two important sources for our work on trailers, web-based TrailerTrack and Trailer Cover Songs. For over four years we were beholden to Anton Volkov’s regular TrailerTracks postings of upcoming trailers, which kept subscribers in the loop through his own many sources (including the film censorship boards in Canada). Anton was kind enough to feature a monthly column of choice soundtracks collected and commented upon by Trailaurality. He moved on to other pursuits in the summer of 2021, and was not able to find anyone to take up the work: you are sorely missed, Anton, but we thank you for your contributions to our knowledge of and pleasure in trailers!
Likewise we lament the passing of the Twitter site Trailer Cover Songs (@trailer_covers), which announced its cessation of operations on January 3 of 2022. As the curator noted, “after 5 years of collecting and over 1000 trailers with great cover versions I decided to end this project.” In leaving they remarked that it has always been a hobby project–perhaps someone else will be motivated to undertake this valuable task, which is so important (and fun) for the many fans of trailers and cover songs? In any case, we also thank you, unidentified trailer fan, for the countless identifications of obscure and not-so-obscure music sources!
New musical paths in trailers
We would like to close our blog with a big thumbs up to those trailer makers and music creatives who are seeking new musical paths in promoting films, television shows, and video games. You may not have the budget for a newly composed trailer soundtrack or for a cover by a famous band like the Beatles, yet we appreciate the work you are doing in creating interesting and appealing trailers. We would like to hear more along the lines of the sound design in Everything, Everywhere All at Once that uses music/sound to demonstrate the presence of a multiversal self, or the minimalist nostalgia of the teaser to West Side Story that evokes memories of the original through only two notes, or the bespoke music by Alexandre Desplat–Wes Anderson’s longtime collaborator–in the trailer for The French Dispatch, which in its wild variety represents the opposite to a library underscore.
We at Trailaurality applaud these examples of creativity at work, and hope to hear more such innovative approaches to trailer soundtracking in the coming months and years!
Your Trailaurality team,
James Deaville & Curtis Perry