The Problem of Music In Movies

There is a particular thrill associated with finding the perfect song. I’m not talking about a song you like; I’m talking about a song which speaks to something secret within, which is just perfect and flawless and good. These songs are uncommon and (almost counterintuitively, considering the excess of music available today) increasingly difficult to discover. However, the search is well worth it; finding one of these songs is incredibly rewarding. Recently, I was lucky enough to come across a song that felt this way to me. It was evocative, melodious, chillingly beautiful. I’ve had it on repeat on iTunes for about a week now, and it has been stuck in my head for nearly that long.

Except that I now have mixed feelings about this song. This is not, surprisingly, the result of overexposure (damn you, Hey Soul Sister!) and having it stuck in my head for a week, but rather the result of something that has absolutely nothing to do with the song itself. The song is Rufus Wainwright’s “Hallelujah.” It is a lovely song. But I then found out that it is actually a cover of an original, and that it was featured on the Shrek soundtrack.

There are two issues here, and it is best to unpack them separately. As for the matter of the version I fell in love with being a cover, well, my hesitancy with covers is an entirely different issue and is best left to another discussion. But right now, I would like to focus on the fact that this song was on the Shrek soundtrack, and why that matters to me so much.

First, though, I want to point out that “Hallelujah” is objectively a fantastic song.  It is an inspired retelling of a Bible story, by turns admiring and gently critiquing the source’s pretensions. And, as I am a sucker for meta cleverness, I particularly appreciate that aspect of the song – like, for example, the lines “It goes like this/the fourth, the fifth/the minor fall, the major lift,” where the music and lyrics mirror each other. It is melodic, pensive, quiet – the perfect kind of music for our anxious, busy, harsh and noisy lives.

It seems a bit silly that I should be so bothered by the fact that this song was on the Shrek soundtrack. I fell in love with Kimya Dawson after I heard her music in Juno, and Elliot Smith after he was featured in Good Will Hunting. Hollywood reappropriates indie music all the time, and people who have a problem with this are generally (and probably rightly) considered to be snobs. But I’m not entirely sure that’s fair, and I would like to point out two major differences between my experiences with these artists and with “Hallelujah.” First, movies like Juno and Good Will Hunting at least have aspirations of indie cred. Snobby and pretentious as it may be, I have less of a problem with indie movies (even pseudo-indie movies) using indie music than I do with summer blockbusters doing the same. Second, I first heard these songs in the movies, and that, I think, is at the heart of my problem.

When I react to a song the way I initially did to “Hallelujah” (it’s almost visceral, in a sense), my relationship with the song feels like we share a secret, like the song exists just for me. Obviously, I know that other people have heard and enjoyed the song, particularly since I tend to introduce something I’m excited about to others, but there is still a sense of exclusivity, of a special circle. This, incidentally, is for many people the allure of non-mainstream culture – it is a lot easier to have a relationship with something when that something comes with the reassurance that it won’t be polluted by the masses misunderstanding it. Again, I will readily admit that this is snobby and pretentious, but I cannot help (and nor, I suspect, can a lot of other people) that little knot of anger that forms when someone else hears or sees or reads something I adore and likes it for completely different (instinct might say wrong) reasons.

Because I first heard Kimya Dawson and Elliot Smith in fairly mainstream movies, there was never that illusion of exclusivity, of a personal experience. Because the movies I heard them in shared a similar cultural outlook with the music, I could accept their presence in these films. With “Hallelujah,” it was bad enough that I began with the impression that this was a lost-in-a-dusty-corner type of song, but the sheer extent to which it was anything but was what really threw me. I mean, Shrek? Really? I do so want to not be a douche, but I can’t help but be put off that this song is brought to you by the same franchise that also created projectile-vomiting ogre babies.

I realize that I may be creating the intention here that I do not appreciate mainstream entertainment, and this is not true. While I do enjoy uncovering the edges of culture, I am by no means above shelling out $11 for a willfully stupid summer action blockbuster. It’s just that, sometimes, I don”t want to share something I love with the entire world. There is, of course, something to be said for a shared cultural experience, but a personal cultural experience is equally valuable. And so, here is the core of my current mixed feelings about “Hallelujah” – I thought it was personal, but it turned out to be public. It’s like having a diary published or dating a celebrity or being on Candid Camera (not that any of those things have ever happened to me, but you get the idea). It feels like an intrusion, and it feels wrong. I don’t hold Rufus Wainwright’s success against him, but I am sorry for that little bit of exclusivity that was lost. Everything nowadays is so public – it makes me want to cling even more tightly to the things that are not.

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