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A sad, slowed-down breakdown of trailercore

What makes macabre covers work — and what doesn’t

90’s grunge style cover featuring Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow with the musical notes from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” superimposed across her face Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

Black Widow’s opening credits are set to Malia J’s chilling cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which might feel like a novelty if the movie had come out a decade ago. Nirvana’s 1990s grunge classic was already a moody song, but the images it’s paired with, as girls like Natasha Romanoff go through their brutal indoctrination in the Red Room program, apparently needed an even more ominous soundtrack. So naturally, the producers of Black Widow decided to follow a long-running trend, and “trailercore” the Nirvana song for some serious angst.

Anyone who’s watched a trailer for basically any genre of movie over the past 10 years or so — from horror and action to serious dramas — has probably encountered the “trailercore” phenomenon. Basically, it’s when a movie trailer uses a cover version of a familiar song that’s been slowed down and stripped back, with added emotional emphasis to the lyrics, usually overlaying them with darker meaning. Oh, and the song is usually a nauseatingly on-the-nose match for some basic idea in the movie’s premise: Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” in the Dune trailer, “I’ve Got No Strings” for Avengers: Age of Ultron, “Crazy” in the Birdman trailer, or “I Started a Joke” for Suicide Squad, to name just a handful. Usually, the trailer starts off with a score that builds up to the drop of the song, where viewers are meant to make the connection and experience a moment of shock and awe. But after a decade of this technique, it’s become harder to get that kind of strong reaction. There’s an art to trailercore, and not all trailers are made equally.

Slowing down popular songs for dramatic effect in trailers has been an occasional gimmick for decades, especially in video game trailers, like the 2001 Gears of War trailer built around “Mad World”. But the idea solidified into a trend with The Social Network trailer that used a creepy version of Radiohead’s “Creep” by Belgian choir Scala & Kolacny Brothers to suggest how it was going to address Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to power. Trailer editor Mark Woollen created the ad before any of the Oscar-winning score was finished, and in an interview with The New Yorker, he revealed that he used a 2001 cover of the song he had stashed on an old hard drive. That trailer radically influenced the sound of movie trailers for the next decade.

In the 2010s, these cover songs became ridiculously ubiquitous. Some people despise them; others can’t get enough. At this point, trailercore has become such a constant that movies are almost expected to feature their own signature cover versions, whether in the lead up ad campaign, the film itself, or over the closing credits. But it’s still most common to put these covers in the early teasers — hence, “trailercore.”

Trailercoring a song for a movie’s trailer serves a paradoxical purpose: It gives potential viewers a shock of recognition and familiarity, and yet it emphasizes that they’re going to see something new and exciting. It’s a form of novelty that also lets them feel like they’re in on a joke.

“You react by saying, ‘I feel like I’ve heard this before, but what the hell is this song?’” composer Simone Benyacar told The New Yorker about the concept of slowed-down trailer songs. “And, all of a sudden, when that clicks, that’s the magic moment, where the audience is invested into that emotional experience.”

In 2021, though, trailercore lacks the shock of novelty. It’s barely even satisfying to figure out what that song playing in the background is. But that doesn’t mean the slowed-down cover song is dead — it’s just a bit difficult to figure out why some work so well, while others come across as annoying and overly obvious.

Some trailers play it safe and start with a song that already has a dark theme or mordant ideas. The Social Network version of “Creep” falls right into this category, as does the slowed-down version of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” in the trailer for Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness. These sorts of covers are easy crowdpleasers, which might seem a little lazy (“Paint it Black” for The Last Witch Hunter? Yeah, sure, of course), but they’re usually amusing, at least. It really works in cases like the acoustic cover of “Every Breath You Take” for Blair Witch, where the song normally moves pretty quickly, but the new context makes the disturbing lyrics and unsettling subtext clearer. The key is sanding back the bells and whistles to make the song tonally different and have the inherent creepiness of the lyrics really shine. (Literally, when it comes to that cover of “Creep”).

That route is the most effective one, but it’s also the most expected. Trailer editors take a big risk, however, when they use edgy remixes of actually sweet songs in ironic ways. Perhaps the most annoying and persistent trailercore crime is using “What a Wonderful World” for disaster or dystopian movies. Yes, yes, we get it — you’re ironically implying that the world is not wonderful. The disaster film Geostorm and the YA dystopia story Insurgent both use that song, with different cover versions. The critically panned Dolittle also uses an edgy cover of the song; this one is supposed to be more genuine, but considering how bad the movie is, the sincerity backfires spectacularly. An early Pokémon: Detective Pikachu trailer should get a nod in this category — it uses the original recording rather than an edgy cover, so it doesn’t count as trailercore, but it does work in the same vein, because the song choice strikes an unexpected tone for the movie, and yet it unironically fits the visuals.

Disaster and dystopian movies aren’t all doomed to promote clichés, though. Mad Max: Fury Road bypassed using “Mad World” and “What a Wonderful World” and instead went with a cover of Yusuf Islam’s “Wild World” in the first Comic-Con-debuted trailer — unexpected, yet still on theme. The trailer editors for the disaster flick San Andreas decided to home in on the location of the movie, and went with a cover of “California Dreamin’.” Specificity in the lyrics that connects to something in the movie helps make the trailercore pop, even if the cover itself is comparatively bland.

The core problem with that “California Dreamin’” cover is that the song itself is already pretty melancholy and on the slower side, so remixing it doesn’t subvert expectations, or even really change up the song much. It’s one of the more tasteful disaster-movie renditions, but it falls into a similar territory as Maleficent 2’s “The Season of the Witch” and Wrath of the Titans“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)”. All these songs have been changed just enough to give viewers a little “Aha!” moment when the lyrics drop, but not enough to make the song shimmer under a new light. These covers are different from the really slowed-down versions, like The Social Network’s “Creep,” because even though both trailercore subtypes draw from already angsty and somber songs, these aren’t actually stripped back that much, they’re just remixed a bit to sound slightly different. And because their lyrics aren’t specifically ironic, there’s little joy to be found there either.

Trailercore covers are so expected at this point that they’re modern use is often gratuitous to the point of parody. Take the use of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” for the newest Rambo movie. Sure the song kinda fits with the vaguely Western aesthetic of the movie, but the song was just so overwhelmingly in the zeitgeist that it seemed a little pandering, like it’s trying to guess what a hypothetical younger audience might want to see.

And Avengers: Age of Ultron almost crosses into pandering territory with its haunting cover of “I’ve Got No Strings On Me.” Six years ago, when it came out, it felt unexpected and edgy, but since Disney owns both the song and the movie, and the company is increasingly smooshing all its IP together for ultimate crossover synergy, the same schtick in 2021 might just feel obnoxious. Companies can avoid seeming so mercenary, though, by letting creators draws from their projects’ existing musical canon: for instance, the slowed down version of “Once Upon a Dream” for Maleficent’s trailer, or Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power trailercoring its own usually upbeat theme song in its high-stakes final season.

Ultimately, peak trailercore serotonin satisfaction comes when the original song choice is fun and upbeat, and the cover represents a dramatic change that puts a new spin on the song, making it fit with the movie thematically. What’s key here, too, is that the cover isn’t necessarily just slowed down or acoustic, but also personalized to the genre of the movie. Some of trailercore’s best include a haunting rendition of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” in the trailer for the newest Candyman, which seamlessly integrates into Philip Glass’s iconic score. The sultry rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” from the first Fifty Shades of Grey was recorded by Beyoncé herself, for extra oomf! And the intense, stripped back version of “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child for Tomb Raider.

This is trailercore at its finest: covers that take on a whole new life and interpretation — and give the audience a little fun at the same time. It’s a small, brief puzzle to figure out what the song is, but when it all clicks, there’s a sweet zing of satisfaction. All three of these covers radically change the songs, but they do it differently in order to find the best fit with their movies. Even if the lyrics themselves aren’t specifically ironic, the covers themselves shift them just enough to make them distinct and memorable. “Crazy in Love,” for instance, is still a love song, but this version is steamier and plays into the darker edge of obsession in Fifty Shades of Grey. Iconic! Amazing! Wonderful! This is the trailercore content we need in the world.

Then again, actually, looking at this list of top-tier trailercore songs, maybe it isn’t that complex. Maybe the secret to good trailercore is just a sweet Beyoncé cover.

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