Harmonies of Discord: Pop Oldies and Horror Trailers

Curator's Note

The use of oldies and covers of oldies in trailers is not a new phenomenon. However, the harmonious discord at work when oldies are afforded an afterlife within trailers for contemporary horror is distinct from other implementations. This particular recontextualisation provides an interesting opportunity to consider the relationship between emotion and affect.

One such example can be found in the international trailer for Alexandre Aja’s breakthrough film, Haute Tension/High Tension (2003), which uses Sonic Youth’s renowned cover of ‘Superstar.’ Its presence marks the beginning of a broader trend in horror film trailer editing that incorporates oldies for their jarring and subversive effects, generating audience interest by challenging their expectations while appealing to the increasing appetite for nostalgia in popular culture. While this cover is emblematic of such tendencies, it is unique in its difference from other oldies in trailers for All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2005) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006), in that it is both “old” and “new” simultaneously. ‘Superstar.’ is a multi-layered object that reappropriates The Carpenters music while continuing to engage with it. In doing so, it actively contributes to and enhances the uncanny effects of its use within the trailer. When hearing Sonic Youth we also hear The Carpenters, or more specifically, the ghost of Karen. This ghostliness in combination with the pervasiveness of the group’s music within popular culture and collective memory creates a deep sense of unease within the audience, not least because Sonic Youth’s interpretation is so stylistically and melodically changed from the version that is widely regarded as definitive.

Sonic Youth’s interpretation also performs another function specific to the way High Tension is interpreted by international audiences. The transformation of ‘Superstar’ from a plaintive, melancholy love song into a sinister and dangerous ode to obsessive love is also an act of translation, underscoring the central themes of the film, making it intelligible, appealing, and marketable to a global audience. This process allows us to re-encounter songs and re-engage with them in new and often radically different contexts, thereby lending them much greater cultural and emotional significance.


Leanne- Great example of a doubly recontextualized pop song. Good opening to the week. You are certainly right that the cover by Sonic Youth haunts the images we see in the trailer, however I'm not sure it's just the ghost of Karen Carpenter that does the haunting. Do you think the audience needs to be aware of this recontextualization--that this is an oldie that's been covered--to feel the haunting effect of the song in the trailer? How can this recontextualization haunt without that knowledge? My sense of horror films is that the audience tends to be on the younger side and more male than female (a quick google search seems to support this, and adds that it's also working class). Given that this is a French film (as you note at the end, another set of recontextualizations as it's globalized) my assumptions may be wrong in this particular case, as the audience demographics there might be different. Nevertheless, it seems like much of the pleasure of recontextualized pop songs, and in this case, the audience may not be fully aware of the substance of that recontextualization. Perhaps that adds to the haunting effect here, as that audience is made uncomfortable in finding a strange familiarity to the song that cannot quite be placed. Is this the re-encountering you reference at the end? A familiarity that just eludes our ability to identify and thus haunts us a bit more? Thanks for the post!

Thanks for your comment, Aaron. I think the recontextualisation here is something of a unique case, which is what lead me to writing about it in the first instance. On one level, I do think the audience needs to be aware of it, that’s part of where its effectiveness and affectiveness originates. However, by the same token, the potency of subverting the lyrics of a song that’s been generally considered to be romantic lends it a power that’s quite separate from the spectre of Karen - for lack of a better phrase - that lends the recontextualisation a different meaning for those younger audiences unaware of the song’s lineage. I agree that not knowing is part of the pleasure, and indeed, the strangeness of Thuston Moore’s vocals certainly adds to the haunting effect. In regards to thinking about the re-encountering of songs through recontextualisation like this, I was indeed thinking about the relationship between familiarity and strangeness. I hadn’t considered the effect of the lack of ability to identify - because I grew up in a household aware of both The Carpenters music and this Sonic Youth cover - so that really intrigues me. I think that could certainly be considered as another form of haunting, and when framed against in the context of globalised cinemagoing and marketing that takes on even greater resonance.

One of the creepy, haunting things about encountering a ghost (I gather) is that you're not sure if it's really there or not. Are you imagining it? Can anyone else see it? In other words: are you the only member of its audience? Aaron and Leanne's exchange suggests that this very ambiguity is central to the haunting — we don't have to decide if the audience does or does not recognize the source of the song; the fact is that some folks will, some will not, and many will fall somewhere in between. I can imagine someone sitting in a theater, seeing this trailer, and immediately recognizing the song — only then to realize that the person next to her didn't share the moment of recognition. Before she has time to process, the trailer has moved on, and the song has disappeared. This particularly haunting recontextualization is reminding me for some reason of the Chanel No 5 ad directed by Baz Luhrmann, featuring Lo-Fang's eerie cover of "You're The One That I Want" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8asRWe5XNw8 (The original is of course from Grease https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oKPYe53h78) Luhrmann does this kind of thing all the time, but I found this example especially haunting. As the song says: 'I got chills. They're multiplying.'

Hi Michael Yes, the knowing and not knowing or seeing and not seeing definitely part of why it works so well. Thanks for your comment and for bringing Luhrmann’s ad into this discussion, it has a very similar feeling. We tend to think of our cinematic experiences as personal ones rather than shared ones – even though we’re aware of its shared nature. Since I’m not a music theorist or a musician, I’d be really interested if this style of cover is arranged/composed in a specific way for the very effect we’re discussing. The use of ‘slowed down’ covers is a commonplace trailer trick. Of course, as this clip illustrates, the origin of it comes in foreign-language trailers to bridge the language barrier for global distribution, but I think it’s become equally commonplace in contemporary trailers for all films. I think this practice also opens up some interesting ideas about legitimating certain kinds of music and making them ‘cool’ through covering them. Just like the Sonic Youth interpretation, I think the Grease cover in the Chanel add is a great example of this trend. It certainly forces us to reconsider the hierarchies of a value within music and the importance given to some genres of music over others within popular culture and criticism.

Thanks for drawing the connection between the shared and unshared in the experience of watching a trailer, that gives another dimension to the way the song might "haunt" us. This may be a stretch, but reading the exchange also makes me want to revisit the time period from which the songs originate. Why an "oldie" of the Carpenters instead of, say, a cover of a hip-hop song or some other contemporary genre? I can't help thinking that, instead of signifying an "increasing appetite for nostalgia in popular culture," it signifies a kind of anti-nostalgia; old is scary!

I think we're both right, Aaron. There is an anti-nostalgia element at work here on some level, but I think the lyrical content and the style is what swung it for this one, which makes it a unique case. You make a really interesting point though. I've heard cross-genre covers like that in trailers for other genres - the choral cover of Radiohead's 'Creep' used in The Social Network springs to mind - but I've only ever found oldies used in horror. I wonder why this marriage came about?

What an excellent case and writeup, Leanne. As you note, there are so many layers here. In relation to the discussion of audience, I think that awareness of the original matters only in that it allows access to a different dimension of ghostliness. Certainly, the performance and production of the Sonic Youth version have their own ghostly aesthetics; I don't think that processing these aesthetics (and the song's use in the trailer) are contingent upon awareness or familiarity with the original. However, familiarity with the original allows access to another layer of ghostliness. I think that this is typically true of recontextualized oldies in film. We don't need to be familiar with "Stuck in the Middle With You" or Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" to process their cinematic appropriations. However, having that familiarity adds another layer of text and associations to process. Lastly on the matter of ghostliness - your piece reminded me of Laura Shearing's (2014) article on The Beatles' "Free as a Bird," as well as Blanco & Peeren's (2010) book Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. Great post!

Thank you, Zack.

Familiarity does indeed add another layer of ghostliness. It’s especially true here, and, as you suggest, in “Stuck,” and “In Dreams.” Though now you’ve made me think of a formative recontextualisation I’d forgotten about completely, a UK anti drink and drive campaign from the early 1990s that uses Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’ (see here if you’re not familiar). Even now, it has the same kind of effect on me as the songs/texts we’ve been discussing. It begs the question whether these associations we’re drawing out have a limit and how this impacts on our own memories.

Thanks for those reading recommendations, I think it’ll fit in nicely with my ongoing work on early music television. The Beatles Anthology is another obvious candidate for this week’s theme. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it!

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