We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a movie theater, shoveling handfuls of popcorn in your mouth as the lights go down and the trailers begin. “Oh, hey!” you think. “I love The Rock! This movie could be a blast!”
And then it kicks in: the plodding, obnoxiously self-serious cover of some Top-40 hit from the ‘80s or ‘90s, reminding you how dark and grim this whole thing is supposed to be. Maybe it’s “California Dreamin’,” as performed by Sia like she was attending the world’s saddest funeral, while California is destroyed by an earthquake. Maybe it’s Lorde droning a low-energy take on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” while Dracula bounces around. Or maybe it’s a bunch of B-list supervillains hanging out over an operatic cover of a Bee-Gees B-side:
You’d have a harder time making a list of recent trailers that don’t fall back on creepy covers of pop classics than making a list of trailers that do. In fact, just last week, there were two brand-new trailers that eagerly embraced this trope. Behold: the trailer for Ang Lee’s latest, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which attempts to stir your heartstrings with a choral rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes”:
And here’s a trailer for The Woods, an otherwise promising horror movie that needlessly beats you over the head with a dirge-y cover of “Every Breath You Take”:
Not since those notorious Inception "BRAAAAAMS" has there been such an inescapable trend in movie trailers—but unlike that trendsetter, it’s hard to pinpoint where this “sad covers of happy, classic songs” thing first began. At the very least, Gary Jules’ grim cover of Tears for Fears’ bouncy “Mad World,” which first appeared in Donnie Darko, was pretty much inescapable for a decade after it came out.
But as far as I can recall, Patient Zero for this rapidly-spreading trailer disease was the 2010 teaser for The Social Network, which was scored to a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” performed by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a confusingly named Belgian women’s choir. At the time, the concept was novel enough for the teaser to “set the blogs afire,” and send entertainment sites scrambling to figure out who had performed the “Creep” cover. On the strength of that teaser’s reception, Rhino Entertainment signed the choir to a recording deal in the United States. “Familiar songs always have good opportunities in them, and Scala & Kolacny Brothers have been able to give their covers that unique twist,” said Rhino CEO and president Kevin Gore.
It was, of course, the last time that particular twist could be described as “unique.” That Social Network teaser inspired an absolute explosion of slowed-down covers, made possible by third-rate singers and lazy trailer editors. Once upon a time, trailers for crappy horror movies were the only place you would hear a child singing some ironically creepy kid’s song. Suddenly, it was the backbone of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s marketing campaign:
Why is this trend so irritating? It’s not just because it has become such a cliche (though that certainly doesn’t help). It’s because so many of these trailers are for god-awful movies, getting an unjustified boost in both gravitas and attention by falling back on something the audience already has feelings about. Why bother cutting a good trailer, or even making a good movie, when you can slap together a mumbly cover of “Opposites Attract” over some stalker movie and clock off early?
Look, I get it: There are a million movies out there. The competition is fierce, and anything that gives an audience that happy lightning bolt of recognition is another potential ticket at the box office. But if your trailer isn’t good enough to stand on its own, and you need to give it the kind of artificial boost that only a familiar pop song can provide, here’s a radical idea: Why not just use the original version of the song instead of a draggy cover? Wouldn’t that have the same effect without subjecting audiences to yet another self-serious gospel choir?
As it turns out, we don’t need to guess; we already know. Compare that glum “I Started a Joke” Suicide Squad trailer above with a more recent trailer, which sets the action to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Not some droning alto-singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” that hits the same sharp piano key over and over again either—the actual “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as performed by Queen:
Which trailer looks like more fun? Which sells the movie better? Remember, Hollywood: As soon as a hot idea becomes the grating norm, the best way to get your movie to stand out is to come up with a whole new trick.