The Dos and Don’ts of Needle-Drops

Can the right song result in a scene that’s way more than the sum of its audiovisual parts? Don’t stop believin’. Photo: HBO

Consider the band T-shirt. A wearable way to advertise your musical taste, these garments nonetheless have their good uses and their not-so-good ones. Everyone knows the shibboleth against wearing a band’s T-shirt to their own concert: It’s a bit obvious, a bit on-the-nose, a bit too much of a good thing. But intent matters, and wearing a band T-shirt to spread the word about an artist you love and want to share with others is a different story. And sometimes, it just looks good and fits right.

When it comes to movies and on TV, much the same can be said about music itself. Films and shows frequently slip on songs like fans slip on T-shirts, using them to convey how they wish to be seen. The right song at the right moment can heighten the emotional impact of a scene. It can add a layer of irony or metacommentary to a moment. It can simply make you bang your head or shake your ass where appropriate.

Today, the use of preexisting pop in movies and television has become, if not more common, then at least more complicated. As record sales dry up, music licensing becomes a bigger part of any act’s revenue stream, and streaming platforms in particular learn to algorithmically target their wares to particular demographics. So there’s a lot riding on what your 1986-set high-school dance sequence sticks on the turntable — including your own artistic credibility as a filmmaker or showrunner. Do it right and you can craft a scene or sequence that’s way more than the sum of its audiovisual parts. Do it wrong and you’ve taken a cheap shortcut to your viewer’s heartstrings.

So before you drop that needle — or before you commence your next period-comedy binge-watch — give our list of music-cue dos and don’ts a spin.

DO: Use well-known songs in unexpected ways that still resonate with the original intent.

Recorded pseudonymously under the Derek & the Dominos moniker, “Layla” is Eric Clapton’s finest moment as a songwriter — an admittedly low bar to clear, since nearly all his best stuff was written by Jack Bruce, George Harrison, or JJ Cale, and also Duane Allman’s contribution to the song should not be underestimated. But still! It’s an outpouring of unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his best friend and frequent collaborator Harrison, a way for this guy to reforge his broken heart into a merciless series of interlocking riffs and shout-sung choruses. It concludes with a movement that’s as gentle as the body of the song is frenzied, though it’s no less desperate-sounding for that.

Naturally, Martin Scorsese used it to soundtrack the discovery of half a dozen dead bodies.

Why does it work in GoodFellas? Because it gets right at the heart of the mournful, elegiac feel of the original without simply rehashing its overt emotional content. No one is heartbroken over finding poor Frankie Carbone frozen solid inside a meat truck, except perhaps Mrs. Carbone. But there’s still a sense that something has been lost, that the promised happy ending will never arrive.

More than that, “Layla” plays the same role in Clapton’s career that the murders that result in this sequence play in the career of Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway. The song is Slowhand’s masterpiece, and the Lufthansa heist, literally the biggest robbery in American history at the time, was Jimmy the Gent’s. Both Jimmy and Eric were at the top of their very different games here.

Put it all together and it’s a complex, captivating song choice that elevates both the scene it accompanies and the song itself, without the former relying on the latter to do all the dirty work. Scorsese’s library is full of this kind of music cue —as is GoodFellas itself.

Fargo, “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “Easy Lover” by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins

DON’T: Use well-known songs in exactly the way they’re best known for being used.

The most common sin committed by soundtracks these days, particularly on television or in serialized film franchises, is “just not trying very hard.” And to an extent, who can be blamed for that? Life is hard, and sometimes you’re a filmmaker who just wants to drop a mega-jam you completely adore on your grateful public. I get that, I do. I’m just asking people to reconsider.

Take Legion. It’s a journey into the mega-powerful, mega-fractured mind of a peripheral X-Men character, tinged with retro-futuristic ’70s design and pull-out-the-stops visual-effects psychedelia. This ought to make it less inclined to play the first bona fide song from the best-selling psychedelic album of all time over one of said psychedelic ’70s mind journeys, not less.

And yet!

What does Legion gain from playing Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and “On the Run” during one of its telepathic main character’s induced dissociations? That is, what does its presence tell you, emotionally or intellectually or aesthetically, that you couldn’t learn otherwise? That Legion is trippy? We know that already. That Floyd fuckin’ rules? We know that already, too.

This combination of show and soundtrack isn’t a combination at all, really. Juxtaposing the song and the visuals neither compounds the effects of both nor reveals something new about either. It’s just one stacked on top of the other, for no better reason than the idea behind the Laser Floyd show at your local planetarium: It’s bitchin’, man. At least stoners who play The Dark Side of the Moon and watch The Wizard of Oz at the same time get something that not only reveals potentially hidden meaning to the music but also speaks to the nature of fantasy narratives. Those bong-water impresarios are using the music in a more innovative and artful way than a major television production.

The Handmaid’s Tale, “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore
Mindhunter, “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads

DO: Dive for deep cuts, obscurities, and forgotten bops of yesteryear

Crate-diggers of the world (who are also directors or music supervisors), unite! Busting out songs beloved, or even merely beknownst, to few people other than yourself — at least relative to the likes of “Layla” or “Breathe” — is a win-win proposition. Yes, you have to do it well, but that’s a truism; you have to cast good actors and write good dialogue and hire a good cinematographer too. Whether it’s a deep cut by a well-known artist or a one-hit wonder’s forgotten claim to fame, you can use it to give a song a second life and inject new life into your film or show all at once.

The past master of this is Quentin Tarantino. You think anyone was blasting insanely technically proficient surf-rock jams at parties in 1994 before Pulp Fiction kicked off with Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”? Or that the masses knew Kool & the Gang for more than just “Celebration,” all those years removed from their unbeatable funk glory days, before “Misirlou” segued right into “Jungle Boogie”? Say what you will about Tarantino now that we’re about 15 years into his baroque period, but his voracious ear for music of all eras and genres, and his knack for using it like the sonic equivalent of special effects — kicking up the action, intensity, and overall Tarantino movie-overload vibe — is basically unbeatable.

But songs don’t have to have faded into obscurity, or never emerged from it to begin with, to work in this way.

Prior to its use in the finale of The Sopranos, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was no one’s idea of a lost classic — it wasn’t anyone’s idea of a classic, lost or otherwise. “Classic” in the sense of “classic rock radio”? Okay. “Classic” in the sense that it’s considered one of the top anthems in the history of rock music? Friends, it was fucking Journey, not Jimi. But David Chase recognized that going with something well respected, like “Born to Run” by Tony Soprano’s fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen (Silvio Dante’s other Boss), would bury the scene beneath the song’s accrued cultural weight. Going in a more original direction paid dividends for the scene, the show, and ultimately Journey themselves, whose best song finally found the respect it probably deserved all along.

Too Old to Die Young, “Homicide” by 999
The Americans, “We Do What We’re Told (Milgrim’s 37)” by Peter Gabriel

DON’T: Play the hits of yesterday just to say “Hey, remember when?”

The same year Pulp Fiction did what Pulp Fiction did, Forrest Gump did what Forrest Gump did and won Best Picture for it. And what did its soundtrack do, you ask? It found more ways to say “Playing the Hits of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s” than the commercial-free lunch hour on an oldies radio station.

Seriously, look at this thing: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Fortunate Son,” “Respect,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “California Dreamin’,” “For What It’s Worth,” “Break On Through,” “Mrs. Robinson” (that’s right, a song from another soundtrack!), “Volunteers,” “Get Together,” “San Francisco,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” — track upon imagination-free track of not only the biggest songs of each respective era but the ones that are most definitively of that era, particularly the ’60s. Not the real ’60s, which were as varied and fascinating a time period as any from a musical, cultural, and political perspective. The Time-Life ’60s, the Freedom Rock ’60s, the Hippie Halloween costume ’60s. It’s a version of the decade just as rote in its throwback button-pushing as the film itself. The fact that Gump treats the counterculture from which these songs sprang as a boogeyman shows how little thought went into the selections, and how little connection the soundtrack has to the movie in general beyond “Remember when?”

Now that Forrest Gump is the product of a decade that is itself viewed through the gloopy Vaseline-smeared lens of nostalgia, it has heirs that do what it did with the same sledgehammer subtlety. Captain Marvel does for female alt-rock and R&B artists of Generation X, for example, what Gump did to the protest musicians of their boomer predecessors: slap a bunch of their best-known shit together and call it a day, sanitizing the work those acts did to chip away at the stultifying templates available to women in music at the time in service of a movie about a super-soldier turned space cop. (The fact that Carol Danvers was not even on the planet during the period in which these songs were popular adds insult to injury.)

• Anything in a show or movie for grown-ups that reminds you of George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” in The Parent Trap.

DO: Play the hits of yesterday if they say something specific about your characters.

It doesn’t have to be that way! Some period series — The Get Down, The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story — are far more selective and astute in the songs they picked to represent their respective eras. They pay attention to what characters would be listening to. They use songs specific enough to those characters to say something about their lives.

Despite being set largely in the ’90s, Versace relied on ’80s hits, because they were from serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s teenage years, when people’s taste in music tends to crystalize. Halt and Catch Fire gave a great deal of thought to what its four idiosyncratic leads would have been into at different moments in their lives and usually avoided massive hits in the process. And as a person who got picked on by lacrosse players for most of my adolescence, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Lady Bird made a bold and worthwhile choice by making “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band a linchpin song. Love it or hate it, it soundtracked a lot of basically normal kids’ adolescence, and using it instead of, say, “Fake Plastic Trees” may have lost the main character some street cred but earned the film a lot more artistic stature in the process.

Halt and Catch Fire, “Velouria” by the Pixies
Twin Peaks: The Return, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Otis Redding

DON’T: Misinterpret a gigantically popular song that’s famous for being misinterpreted for the sake a surface-level nostalgia hit

Photo: Netflix

Remember when Stranger Things used “Every Breath You Take” by the Police as a love song? Just a straight-up, first-kiss, puppy-love, high-school-dance love song. A song that gets a legion of YouTube commenters to say “MILEVEN FOREVER!” It’s not hard to imagine why the Duffer brothers seized on “Every Breath You Take” as the final needle-drop of season two of the series, seeing as how Billboard ranks it as the 31st most popular song of all time. Yet despite sounding intimate and romantic and yearning and all that good stuff, it’s creepy as hell — according to Sting, the guy who wrote and sang it.

“I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership,” said Sting as reported in a Financial Times piece on the first page of the song’s Google results. “It sounds like a comforting love song, [but] I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is,” he says in an interview from the Independent quoted in the Wikipedia article. “I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.” The Sopranos — maybe you’ve heard of it? — mashed it up with the Henry Mancini theme from the spy show Peter Gunn to soundtrack the FBI’s attempt to bug Tony’s house. This is not an obscure point to make!

To give Stranger Things at least some credit, at the end of the scene, when “EBYT” has been used to accompany the big emotional-climax moment for multiple couples among the teenage cast, it does fade out into the creepy sounds of the Upside Down, where the Mind Flayer continues to loom and lurk menacingly over the kids. So at the very least, the Duffers thought to say, “Hey, you know who else is watching them??” In other words, once they got finished using the song straightforwardly, they did excavate its creepier side — but only after mining it for all the throwback school-dance pathos they could. They let the surface-level reading of the song prevail until the final possible moment.

Now, there’s a lot of egregiously bad needle-dropping out there, up to and including, like, jeans commercials that turn “Fortunate Son” into a patriotic anthem and what have you. But it’s worth paying attention to the dance sequence from Stranger Things specifically, because this particular sync is just a symptom of a bigger problem.

Which brings us to David Lee Roth, as all paths eventually must. As far as rock myths and legends from the 1980s go, the “no brown M&Ms” clause in Van Halen’s tour rider is right up there with, well, the fact that “Every Breath You Take” is actually really creepy. But demanding that concert venues carefully weed out the brown ones from Eddie, Alex, Mike, and Diamond Dave’s “munchies” served a larger purpose: Van Halen had an elaborate tour production that could be very dangerous, to the band, the audience, and the crew alike, if it wasn’t set up properly and some kind of mishap or malfunction took place. If Roth noticed brown M&Ms backstage, he reasoned, it was a distinct possibility that the venue had screwed up other, much more important details as well.

Same thing applies to Stranger Things and “Every Breath You Take.” A show that can screw up the use of a song in such an infamously common way will probably screw up other songs in other ways: using a mournful song by a comparatively obscure British postpunk/goth band whose lead singer committed suicide before its release to accompany characters from a small town in the American Midwest mourning for a character who is very obviously still alive, for example, or picking the most obvious Big ’80s hits imaginable and using them in the most bog-standard, straightforward ways imaginable.

And this problem won’t stop at the Hawkins town line. The more TV —streaming in particular — becomes a series of microtargeted systems, the more “Oh shit, that was my jam!” will become the be-all and end-all of period music on soundtracks. It’s Stranger Things Syndrome, time after time.

Other, better shows and movies try harder. They use pop to communicate things pictures and dialogue can’t do alone, and they add those pictures and dialogue to communicate something pop can’t do alone. Can yours be one of them? Don’t stop believin’.

The Dos and Don’ts of Needle-Drops