Afro Commentary: Music from Media – The Unsung Hero

Originally published 2014.02.10

Last October, I took my wife (who a few of you may know as Artemis Nyx from GEEK SOUL BROTHER LIVE!) to see Video Games Live along with her sister and brother-in-law. Not being geeks like Artemis and I, the others in our party did not know what to make of the event that filled the Bell Center on a brisk October night. And even though they did not enjoy the experience as much as everyone else in the arena, they left respecting the music that was played. It even spawned the conversation “Why don’t they do this for movie music?” (As a side note, I did mention they have, using Star Wars: In Concert as an example.)

Music, like any art form, invokes the imagination of the audience. It inspires us or helps us cope with certain emotions we have at that time. When added to a scene in a movie, show or video game, it makes that moment special. There are countless times we have watched or played something and have either teared up or cheered for the characters; the music is part of the reason for this. Good directors and producers work with composers and sound engineers to make these moments all-encompassing and special; with them succeeding so well, many never even notice the score.

With that in mind, certain directors and show runners have taken this to the next step by in their own, creative ways over the last 15 years. Guillermo del Toro is one stand out of this by utilizing a score to either be integral part of the movie or to make a point. Good examples of these are Pan’s Labyrinth, and the use of Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Another example is Quentin Tarantino’s use of music to add his trademark twisted sense of humor to a movie. Christopher Nolan has collaborated with the composer Hans Zimmer (who I find to be one of the most intelligent composers in the industry) with memorable results each time. A prime example of this is in Inception when he incorporated the wake-up music in the score, creating the now overused “BRAAAAaaang” sound. Fringe was also known to incorporate the music into the story, using the creepier music at some rather tense times to put a unique spin on the scene.

Game music has also come a long way since the 80’s, using full orchestras, electronica or heavy metal tracks, and even well-known music. One of my favorite recent gaming moments was from Call of Duty: Black Ops when they recreated the Apocalypse Now boat attack scene, using “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect utilized world spanning scores to help tell the story and enhance the exploration of the respective worlds. The music becomes another layer in the envelopment of the gamer and as game productions become even bigger every year, music will become even more of an important part. Tommy Tallarico, game composer and one of the founders of Video Games Live, said in an interview that “it’s become the radio of the 21st century.” With the gaming industry already an over billion dollar industry, I can whole-heartedly agree with this assessment.

Games, shows and movies have served as launch vehicles for a few music artists over the years. Even though the use of Dido’s “Thank You” in Eminem’s track “Stan” brought attention to her, many fans already knew of her first single (“Here With Me”) as the opening theme song for the show Roswell. The Japanese singer Utada already had a built-in fan base when she entered the mainstream North American music scene from the songs used in the Kingdom Hearts games. Despite how you feel about the Daredevil movie, it helped launch the group Evanescence into the mainstream music scene. Even Flo Rida gained popularity from his music being featured in the Step Up franchise of movies.

Yet, outside of the geek community at large, there is a vast under appreciation for the music used in media in North America. Yes, there are exceptions, like when larger acts like U2 or Adele are tapped to do songs for a movie; but these are conscious marketing decisions based making these songs Top 40 hits. However, if you enter into a casual conversation with a non-geek about a movie and you mention a song used or the score, they will look at you weird (which, in my case I don’t really mind so much.) This kind of music is treated as disposable to the general audience, despite the work that goes into it. It’s disheartening, because there is a lot out there that is good on its own. In my personal experiences, it has widened my appreciation for all types of music. My mind-reading iPod is half filled with movie, anime and video game music along with 90’s rap, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and other music.

There have been some encouraging notes to this topic over the last few years. Last year, Christopher Tin won a Grammy for a compilation album of his work, which included the opening song for Civilization IV. Austin Wintory, the composer from last year’s hit indie game Journey, was nominated for a Grammy this year for the games soundtrack (UPDATE: he lost to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack) . Hip-hop artists who sampled game music for tracks were the focus of an list recently. Videos of the Vocaloid pop princess Miku Hatsune are some of the most watched videos on YouTube. Tours like Video Games Live and Distant Worlds: The Music of Final Fantasy bring more exposure to the music we enjoy to a more general audience.

At the end of the day, music is music; whether it is from a major record label or from a game or movie. And if Gagham Style, in all its 90’s era Puff Daddy-like excess, can make it big in the US, why not JPop? If songs used in Grey’s Anatomy can show up on iTunes top download list, why not songs used in Arrow or other geek shows? If it’s good and catchy (which is a given, if guinea pigs like us listen to it), people will buy it.

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