On popular film scores

Two Steps From Hell are a band I’ve been recommended three times, always to the detriment of my opinion of the person recommending it. That may sound harsh. But there’s a good reason for it.

Two Steps From Hell is a music production company – and note that, not a ‘band’ by the way – that makes painfully generic orchestral music for movie trailers, run by Americans Thomas Bergerson and Nick Phoenix. If you’ve ever been to the cinema once in the past decade you already know their entire discography.

Epic track after epic track – in the infantile pop culture sense, not the Homeric sense – tires the listener out after a very short time. Computer-generated orchestras that build up to painfully obvious crescendos, pounding, relentless percussion that may as well have been played by a drum machine, choirs with no actual words, just constant OHing. Every piece that isn’t like this is an artificially-emotional piano-driven female vocal. Their music is a soundtrack gone bad. With no specific movie attached to it, it can’t associate itself particularly with a character, or a theme, or mood. It has no choice but to be restricted to two and a half minutes of ‘epic’ crescendo.

And that’s all it is. A soundtrack with no tracks for the sound to run on. There’s no set of connections to anything, no concrete emotional attachment.

Any Hans Zimmer clone, boring as they are, can at least rely on the connection the soundtrack has to the movie. But the stuff made by Two Steps From Hell is tailor-made to serve as a movie soundtrack lacking the movie attached to it. It’s made for the specific video for which it’s used, but it sounds so painfully generic that all it can remind anyone of is the concept of movie trailers themselves. Music has the wonderful effect of sounding different for everyone, obviously, and popular songs can often create a watercooler effect when people bring them up in conversation (‘Oh, I heard that one back in [x year] when they played live. That was where [amusing personal anecdote]’).

Trying to imagine a human being listening to this often and enjoying it is like trying to imagine Jacob-Rees Mogg eating McDonalds. There’s something so banal and crass about it that it just repels a discerning listener. And it is really the McDonalds of music – corporate, calculated, ubiquitous, unoriginal, and unhealthy.

This is sound that’s tailor-made to bring to mind the brain-deadening experience of sitting in a grimy, anonymous chair, chomping on popcorn mindlessly while the juvenile superhero images are beamed into your brain. As someone with actual taste I can’t imagine much worse. It may not even be that poor in terms of composition (although the arrangements are, to put it bluntly, bland as fuck), but the ideology is what I have a problem with.

(A quick note on the composition: With ideology comes a change in content – I read an interview with the two where one said he wrote the piece he wanted to write, and then essentially butchered it to make the final product more generic and less in line with his own style. Of course it wasn’t put in such unfair terms. But the fact that he’s willing to do that, surely, discredits the pair as serious musicians?

‘Oi! Hang on. Define ‘serious musicians,’ says the strawman I just cooked up, anticipating your rebuttal. Alright. How about ‘people who make music for artistic purposes, to follow a particular vision, rather than purely for the sake of shekel-farming’? That’ll do. Unfortunately, Two Steps From Hell absolutely fail, based on their own comments.)

I’m not asking that every single piece of music in every single film be on the level of a Bach fugue. Just that we get more examples of people giving a shit. Take, for example, Michael Giacchino’s credits piece for ‘Doctor Strange,’ a comic born from the late 60s, early 70s, and LSD. When he wrote the piece, he took that origin into account, actually learned what the film was about, and released something that sounded vaguely proggy – there was even a little keyboard solo – and it’s one of the most distinct pieces I’ve heard from a movie soundtrack. Actually possessing a personality is quite rare in major motion picture soundtracks, where many composers just riff off Hans Zimmer to the detriment of the film.

Then there’s the trend of using pop music in both trailers and in soundtracks for films. To an extent, this is even worse than the pre-fabricated trailer trash, because it’s taking the capacity for people to individualise their memories of music away from them. Every piece of music you listen to naturally associates itself in your brain with a time and place. Obviously. Perhaps it reminds you of the person who introduced it to you, and the resulting capacity for different human experience based on a single source is vast. None of that is news to anyone.

An issue arises when millions of people are introduced to something in the exact same way – we lose the only benefit of post-Renaissance individualism, which is the capacity to share different experiences, and go back to the ancient Sumerian framework of placing little to no importance on personal memories. Only in this case it’s not because we’re obsessed with human sacrifice or celestial formations, but because our experiences are so similar that they become boring.

That is a ridiculously huge jump to make, I understand, but for a position to exist naturally implies the extreme of that position. And I like being ridiculous.

The notion of a particular song being associated with a pair of people, for example – ‘oh, this is our song’ and so on, is gone; everyone remembers it as the piece from that one movie. Where there is mass production, individuality and personal memory become footnotes.

You may have noticed the contradiction in what I’ve written here. But if not, it’s this: how can I berate Two Steps From Hell for being generic – which is to say, it can be applied to a wide variety of contexts – and then complain when movie music recontextualises pop and essentially steals its meaning for itself in the popular consciousness? Which is to say, it’s not generic, because it’s been applied to a single context and now has its own web of associations and so on.

Well I’m not criticising the pop music. It’s an entirely different complaint. The problem with Two Steps From Hell is the music itself, which manages to be generic enough that it only fits into the context of action – people running, wide-angle shots of impressive landscapes, fighting, and so on. The issue with the use of pop music is not the music, but its use. The film in question, Guardians of the Galaxy or Suicide Squad or whichever, picks a random popular piece that already had its own web of connections and shoves it, into the popular mind, into one context, into one specific pothole. The web is destroyed. It makes what could have been an interesting ‘six degrees of’ anything into one degree. As someone who enjoys forming associations between art and life, this is a travesty whenever it happens, especially if the film’s not very good. An example? Take a look at Youtube comments on Bohemian Rhapsody and you’ll likely find a ton of people who all came from Suicide Squad…and all feel the need to tell you about it.

Am I arguing that no recognisable songs should be in any film? Of course not, because that way lies madness – but it needs to be done with taste, and with regards to the content of both products. Again, Giacchino; he gave a damn. Bergerson and Phoenix are literally just pumping out trash to fit in anywhere. DC and Marvel are picking random popular songs for their films because they’re popular without regard to the content.

Universally good art should have universal accessibility. But if it applies naturally to a wide variety of contexts, it should be able to do that without sacrificing its own character.

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