First it was the Don LaFontaine’s now-risible “In a world…” introduction. Then came the all-too-aggressive Inception horns. Now, we have a new, equally sensational trailer trend that’s on the cusp of becoming a punchline: Popping in a slowed-down cover of an otherwise cheery pop song. Because slowing it down makes it all “creepy.” Because it makes it “deep.”
But really, it’s a colossal gimmick. It’s the trailer editor’s way of putting a bird on it—taking something that’s usually just okay and slapping on something “weird” in an effort to make the montage more artistic.
That’s not to say this tactic can’t be effective. We’re responding exactly how trailer-makers thought we would. You’ll send the clip to your friend not only because it’s a Fifty Shades of Grey trailer, but also because they’ve got to hear that even sexier version of “Crazy in Love.” And, more importantly, these trailers—like any good trailer—are more mood than plot synopsis. They stick, and these temperamental tracks get stuck in your head.
But that feeling rings false to me. Taking a happy song and setting it to a glacial BPM doesn’t make it sad.
I’m not saying the slowed-down-song thing can’t work. There have been plenty of instances where these songs connect to what they’re scoring in a way that’s real, human, and perfectly in tune with what’s happening on the screen. Take, for example, the first trailer for The Social Network, from esteemed arthouse trailer editor Mark Woollen, in which we hear a choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep” while we watch someone scroll through the Facebook pages of exes and friends they’ve presumably lost touch with.
In an interview with Vulture, director David Fincher said this the “spellbinding” trailer helped to convince Sony Pictures execs to greenlight the film the very day they saw it. (In-house marketers had reportedly created a trailer set to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” that advertised a far less interesting-looking film.) Mark Woollen & Associates used a similar strategy almost as effectively in a teaser trailer for Birdman, which uses a down-tempo version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” to foreshadow Riggan Thomson’s imminent unraveling.
The Social Network wasn’t the first documented case of this trend, but that’s right around the time it became a bonafide thing—probably because of just how effective that trailer was. It’s become so commonplace now that slowed-down songs make weekly appearances on Stalker. And now, for every one of those trailers that do work, there are about eight more that totally don’t—that come off as phony, like that time Hilary Duff covered The Who. Take the brand-new San Andreas teaser—the very thing that prompted my rant—which absolutely fails in its use of a slowed-down, creeped-up version of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin.'” To call the song’s presence discordant is generous—it’s laughably out of place in The Rock’s CGI-heavy festival of chaos.
Equally gimmicky, although admittedly far more clever, is Avengers: Age of Ultron deflowering one of your favorite childhood Disney songs, Pinocchio‘s “I’ve Got No Strings.” Like the San Andreas teaser, it seems like the editors picked the song before they even cut this trailer, and forced the connection down your throat with an ominous line from James Spader: “You’re all puppets tangled in strings. Strings.” This trailer’s proof that if you have to ask “Get it?”, there’s something wrong with the joke.
The Great Gatsby wins the prize for perhaps the most transparent of the slowed-down pop song with its use of Filter’s shouty industrial-rock cover of the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” See? They’re singing about how happy they are, but it’s slowed down. So it’s sad. That cover also appeared on the soundtrack of the 2009 horror The Stepfather, about a group of equally unhappy people.
Granted, some of the blame here falls on Filter, one of the many, many artists who pat themselves on the back for taking someone else’s creation, slowing it down, and calling it artistic.
We can surely do better, right?