Unexpected classical music

In Zombieland (a delectable movie), there’s a scene where the four dysfunctional people we’re learning to love smash up a store full of tacky western-style souvenirs. And have loads of fun doing it. They’re allowed to, because as far as we and they know, they’re the only human beings left in the US. It’s them against millions of zombies.

And what do we hear on the soundtrack while they’re smashing the souvenirs? The Marriage of Figaro overture, sounding like wild, crazy fun, just as it ought to in the opera. (It would work even better in the film if they’d chosen a better performance.)

This is another example of the new use of classical music on soundtracks and in commercials. It’s chosen, apparently, simply for its sound, without any overlay of classical music romance or pomp.

Compare this to the last movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto during an especially violent murder scene in There Will Be Blood. Again, the music suggests wild and crazy fun, though this time with a biting ironic edge, and without any overlap with anything Brahms most likely had in mind. (It’s a much more violent scene than anything in Zombieland, even though — or maybe because — the only monster around is human.)

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  1. Aric Isaacs says

    Greg –

    I have nothing against the use of classical music outside of it’s original context (although I think your question in your follow-up post about why music is chosen may have less to do with the “sound’ and more to do with the fact that the music is in the public domain – see the recommended music in the Make Your Own Doritos Commercial contest.)I do, however, think that there is a loss for our culture when music, art, literature have become completely unmoored from any common reference. When Vladimir Nabokov or Toni Morrison reference some other cultural work it is freighted with meaning that makes their works that much more deeply meaningful. I don’t know if our modern culture’s seeming inability to process deeper thoughts than a Hallmark moment or TV pundit’s rant is contributing to the decline of the classical audience, but I’m not so sure that a spot in Zombieland or a 30 second Amex commercial is helping any.

    I’d think we’re developing new cultural references. Hard to imagine the old ones continuing indefinitely. I love Nabokov, and personally can mourn the passing of the culture where his references made sense (thinking, for instance, of the web of crosscultural Russia/America references throughout Ada). But times do change.

    As for our culture’s inability to process deeper thought, I don’t buy that. How could The Wire have been such a success, if we weren’t thinking?

  2. says

    I look at it from the perspective that we think of Rock Stars and Film Stars with a sense of glamour, but classical music “stars” don’t get the same treatment. Classical music composers are somehow “less than” other composers even though numerous classical music composers also composed for film.

    I posted a more detailed comment on my blog…

  3. Aric Isaacs says


    I agree that we are constantly creating new cultural references, and we are richer for them. However, imagine how much better the scene in Zombieland would have been if they had chosen The Anvil Chorus (where you actually get to “strike” things in the original.) All I’m really saying, is that if the cultural reference for the Bach Suite is that Amex will replace my broken consumer goods, that is probably not the best thing for our shared culture. Granted, this has been happening for a long, long time – I still think of puffed rice whenever I hear the 1812.

    As far as the success of The Wire (which I love), it was a critical success with viewers never more than 4,000,000 – paltry in terms of TV audience. It was niche programming, much like classical and jazz have become.

    What was the cultural reference, in their time, for Haydn’s symphonies? The ones, for instance, that he wrote for Prince Esterhazy’s summer palace. Nice entertainment, showing how much taste and money the prince had. Maybe this is a road we don’t want to go down. What was the cultural reference for operas written for Louis XIV? Or for Palestrina’s masses? Can you separate his music from the church politics of the time? Only by an act of sheer wilfulness, I think.

    Besides, I like the Amex commercial. I think it’s clever and fun, and like many people now, I just push its message to the side. So that’s my sheerly wilful act. The cultural reference for the music, I’m thinking, is smart and cleverr fun. Which is exactly how the performance sounds. And how a lot of good classical music comes across. (I remember writing, more than 20 years ago, that the emotions in Steve Reich’s music — this was in reply to people who said there weren’t any — were a sense of joie de vivre and good, happy work. I’d say a lot of Bach comes across the same way.

    As for the Wire, sure. And also many, maybe most things of high quality. So if you want to stipulate, when you say that people don’t think deeply now, that they never did, on the whole, then I won’t disagree with you. Maybe I’m confusing you — and I apologize, if I am — with people who point with alarm to problems we have now as if they’re something new, which wouldn’t have been there in the days when classical music and other traditional forms of high art weren’t as challenged as they are now. I don’t care for that point of view, but of course I know that, compared to many things, the Wire had a niche audience.

    It’s still a larger audience than most classical music things have, still sets a cultural and intellectual and artistic standard that most classical performances can’t match, and still spoke to a smart audience that classical music doesn’t know how to reach.

  4. says

    You need to watch There Will Be Blood again. Brahms’s Violin Concerto is used twice, the first time when Daniel Day-Lewis strikes oil for the first time, the second after he kills Paul Dano’s character. The music doesn’t suggest “wild and crazy fun,” it symbolizes the triumph over enormous odds that the oilman has overcome, his implacable focus, and in the most unironic way possible. There’s nothing questioning at those points, there’s no introspection, it’s pure D major glory.

  5. Bill says

    Mr Sandow: I imagine you hear the AMEX commercial the way you described it because you are a classical music fan, and a very knowledgeable one at that. The vast majority of the audience is oblivious to the content, source and performance quality of the music: it’s just background!

    But it has an effect, as things in the background always do. You don’t have to track them consciously to feel something from them.

    And it’s perfect that nobody (consciously) notices the Bach suite as classical music, or anything else. That means it’s entered their world, without any of the usual classical music barriers. Classical music enters everyday life. That’s a good thing.

    Finally, I think all of us — including me — need to be careful about making assumptions. How do we know people don’t notice background music? Sometimes our common-sense assumptions turn out to be completely wrong.