Trailers Use Slower and Moodier New Versions of Classic Songs to Lure Viewers

The higher the intensity of a trailer, the slower the song that accompanies it. This may seem fairly recent as a reliable rule, but it’s not a completely new phenomenon. What goes back at least to the 2001 trailer for the first iteration of Xbox 360’s apocalyptic warfare video game Gears of War — with Gary Jules delivering a heart-ripping cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” — is an visual-aural contrast that’s now common practice.

More recent examples of the trend include FJØRA’s echoey take on the 4 Non Blondes perennial “What’s Up?” in the terrifying trailer for 2020’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse”; Lana Del Rey’s creepy version of “Once Upon a Dream,” from the classic Disney animated film “Sleeping Beauty,” in the trailer for 2014’s “Maleficent”; and ConfidentialMX featuring Becky Hanson’s operatic interpretation of the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke” in the dark trailer for 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” All have shown that the formula keeps viewers buying movie tickets and streaming services ticking.

“It’s what I call the old-comfortable-shoe phenomenon,” says Jonathan McHugh, a music supervisor, director and founding member of the Guild of Music Supervisors. “You give people something familiar, like Destiny Child’s ‘Say My Name’ in the new ‘Candyman,’ and all of a sudden they’re more engaged in the content and predisposed to enjoy what they’re watching because they love the song.”

Says Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony Music Publishing: “It’s called ‘trailerizing’ a song. That means changing every aspect of the song but leaving the lyrics. People know the lyrics. The goal is to catch people’s attention. Maybe they’re not paying as much attention to the trailer, and they start to hear the chorus of the song, and they go, ‘Wait, I know this song.’ They start paying attention, and now they’re watching the trailer.” At Sony and in his four-times-a-year writing camps, Monaco has teams of writers working on reimagined versions of legendary artists’ catalogs. He has entirely reworked ELO’s discography, has redone a large portion of the Beatles’ songs and now is tackling Paul Simon’s newly acquired hefty songbook.

The “writing exercise,” as Monaco calls it, is beneficial for everyone involved. Newer artists performing the covers are getting paid (and at a fraction of what the original masters would command, providing they were cleared at all, but still a good payday for their level). At the same time, these artists gain visibility on high-profile trailers for mass-appeal films. The writers, many of whom are or were performing musicians, are also getting paid without having to be concerned about appealing to or alienating their fan base. The heritage artists whose songs are being rerecorded are seeing an uptick in their streaming numbers. And, of course, the publishing company is reaping the rewards from all of the above.

“In a two-minute trailer, people are assessing whether or not they want to see the film,” says McHugh. “It’s all about manipulating the emotions of the viewer with music that is provocative while still showing the action and getting the message across. Audiences familiar with a song will remember it, and the younger people will say, ‘I discovered this.’”