During this year’s Super Bowl, a trailer aired for the second season of Westworld. As you might expect, it featured some real Westworld-y stuff: vistas of the American West, enigmatic digital bulls, breathy narration that sounded like someone reading from Brave New World. But amid all the distinctive trappings of the show, there was something even more familiar, something that immediately took you out of the Westworld world and put you into a very different headspace: the first piano notes of Kanye West’s “Runaway,” which eventually led into an orchestral version of the song that was featured on the show Sunday night.
Watching the premiere of “Runaway” at the 2010 VMAs is to see Kanye at his best. Resplendent in blood red, enough gold around his neck to make a pharaoh blush, Kanye plays an MPC perched on a Roman plinth as he debuts one of his greatest songs, accompanied by a trio of ballerinas who foreshadow the short film that will later serve as a particularly grandiose music video for the track.
By that point, Kanye was well established as a controversial dude; the previous year’s VMAs had been the site of his infamous upstaging of Taylor Swift. But that performance in 2010 was also a reminder of what’s so irresistible about Kanye: that, no matter how bizarre his behavior became or how far he seemed to stray from even the precedent he’d set himself, he could, at any moment, deliver a piece of art so peerless and idiosyncratic that it would immediately overshadow his antics. “Runaway” was a particularly potent example of that notion, because it was a song about Kanye being Kanye: it was a toast to the douchebags, a toast to the assholes, a toast to the scumbags, all categories within which Kanye had, and has since, been placed into by both critics and supporters. Representing the height of Kanye’s … unique brand of self-awareness. He knows you know that it’s essential to the creation of his art.
In the seven-plus years since “Runaway,” this dynamic of ridiculous controversy preceding musical triumph has been repeated more than once, and, what with Kanye’s recent courting of Donald Trump and all the noise that’s come with it, we seem to be at it again — which is what makes the timing of this Westworld episode so fascinating. Obviously, the use of “Runaway” in the show is meant to be anachronistic, jarring, and disruptive in a way that symbolizes Westworld’s own toying with authenticity and appearances. But it also suggests that, as is already the case for the trailer, it won’t be effective in the way that it intends. As he so often does, Kanye has corrupted and hijacked the narrative, and in doing so he’s inadvertently shined a light on the peculiarity of his music being used in trailers for big-budget action extravaganzas. In fact, it’s probably time to retire not just “Runaway,” but the entirety of Kanye’s songbook from being used in this way.
Trailers for movies and television are a strange bastard of capitalism. On the one hand, they emerge from art, or, at the very least, entertainment; on the other, they’re advertising, designed to sell you a product. That this product just so happens to be art is a complicated thing, because it requires a certain dishonesty: when you watch a trailer, you’re watching the most digestible and streamlined version of a film or TV show, one designed to lure you in. But what you’re also seeing are the same techniques used to make film and TV appealing — namely, editing and underscoring, which is essentially just sound editing — put to the purposes of advertising.
There’s a reason that so many predominantly aesthetic or philosophical cinematic movements tend to sideline editing and underscoring in favor of long takes and diegetic sound: it’s because the more aggressively a film is edited visually and sonically, the less it resembles reality. While aggressive editing and underscoring are, of course, practiced toward artistic ends, they happen to play significant roles in the bulk of modern commercial cinema, which is more heavily and choppily edited than any movement in the history of film, and tends to feature overwhelming, bombastic soundtracks. Many trailers are heavily edited and underscored versions of movies that have already been edited and underscored to the edge of their lives, and this results in a product that is often compulsively watchable — show me a person who hasn’t accidentally spent an hour on trailers.apple.com, and I’ll show you a saint — but which can sometimes have a relationship to their source material analogous to the relationship between that source material and reality.
That this is being done in the interest of advertising just exacerbates the issue. Editing and underscoring are techniques based in emotional manipulation — every edit, every note of music is an indication of where to look, how to look at it, how long to look at it for, and how to feel about it — and so is advertising, which relies on triggering an emotional response in connection with the subject of that ad so that it will endure in your mind.
Kanye fits into this in an obvious way: his music is extremely effective, in the sense that it can’t help but cut through the noise and capture your attention. The notion of Kanye’s music being kept in the background is as antithetical to its nature as would be playing it at a wedding or funeral; this is not music that can be relegated to the service of ritual or tradition. Kanye’s mind is one that renders his influences and interests into a substance that defies and distorts them as much as it pays homage or builds upon its foundations. There are many legitimate arguments to be had over the lyrical content of Yeezus, but it’s hard to suggest that the compositions on that album aren’t bracingly, almost disturbingly, distinguished in their originality and power. When you look at the carousel of movies that have used Kanye’s songs in their trailers, you see that effectiveness co-opted for the purpose of lending these movies and their images a memorability and appeal that, at best, enhances the film’s inherent quality — see The Wolf of Wall Street — or makes up for its absence (take your pick). It doesn’t matter if the song isn’t in the movie itself, or has nothing to do with the movie itself, because trailers aren’t about the movie — they’re about making you want to see the movie.
You run into a similar issue when you consider how Westworld uses music; by stripping songs of their characteristic instrumentation and genre and then processing them through the same flattening prism —quivering strings, rolling drums, and especially that drunken bar-room piano — the show turns music from a vehicle for personal expression into another signifier of the idea that something just isn’t right here. It’s a stylistic nod toward the frisson of dissonance that provides one of Westworld’s main aesthetics, but when the song being used defies that kind of neat deculturalization, it hits a stumbling block.
Kanye’s music is evocative, but it doesn’t just evoke the swagger or pathos or beauty that the trailers intend it to invoke in you. Kanye’s music also invokes Kanye. Few modern artists’ songs are so fundamentally inseparable from their unique persona, perspective, and blend of influences; few statements feel safer than saying that no one could’ve made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, or The Life of Pablo who isn’t named Kanye West. Other songs can be stripped from their original artists and covered by bands that sound nothing like them in order to make you feel EXCITED or AFRAID or NOSTALGIC or READY TO SPEND MONEY, but hearing a Kanye song just makes you think about that song, or Kanye, or the way you feel about Kanye, or the way that song made you feel when you first heard it.
Chances are, Kanye is more interesting than your movie or TV show is, even when — especially when — he’s doing whatever it is that he’s doing right now. You invoke him at your own peril, and by doing so, you risk shattering the spell that a trailer is designed to cast. Sure, “Runaway” is great, but hearing it doesn’t make me want to watch Westworld — it makes me want to listen to “Runaway.”