A Movie Is About Much More Than the Pop Song They Stuck In There

I don’t get the disproportionate attention some critics give to pop tunes in secular movies.
on Jan 14, 2019

Ever read a movie review or comment that draws too much attention to a pop song the moviemakers stuck in there? It makes me imagine a pro restaurant reviewer, or some guy on Yelp, only commenting about the green garnish alongside the entree.

A recent example: the wildly popular (and now billion-dollar grossing) DC superhero film Aquaman. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably already know that it has a song called (looks it up) “Ocean to Ocean,” by a chap styling himself “Pitbull.” You may also know this song quotes another song, Toto’s “Africa.” To many Aquaman critics, this is an absolutely hilarious joke.

I don’t get it.

But then again, I don’t get this critical tendency to pay so much attention to such a small part of the movie.

For my part, I don’t go to superhero movies for the pop songs. I go for the superheroes and the story. This is why I severely dislike it when critics (or movie producers) assume that I regard the pop songs as highly as they do.

Oldie songs! I remember those! … Oh, also, I guess this movie has people, plot, and such.

Do you remember when Guardians of the Galaxy released? People went nuts over the simple fact that It has oldie pop songs in it!!! And while I can understand nostalgia’s appeal, for me, the 1970s songs ultimately provided mere seasoning for Guardian of the Galaxy. Crazy characters and surprising heart drove that movie. Pop songs only gave audible seasoning—which the filmmakers bought and paid for based on simple knowledge of what oldie songs had already gotten popular among mass audiences. (And likely at great cost. Surely it does not come cheap to license any old pop song with this level of tune recognition.)

Similarly, Suicide Squad‘s creators (or editors) rounded up pop songs, including some hip-hop and other random noise. They just threw that into the movie. The result was headache-inducing. To me, it made an already stressful film the equivalent of the “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme.

By contrast, other DC and Marvel films haven’t done this. Their soundtracks, not the add-on pop songs, are really most memorable.1 But I think that film critics (and many fans) simply don’t pay as much attention to the “background music.” If the soundtrack artist isn’t somebody who performs with a band on stage somewhere, then he/she seems to get ignored.

So it is with Aquaman, which has a great soundtrack by Rupert Greggson-Williams. He’s the same composer of Wonder Woman, though he used/deconstructed/rebuilt the heroine’s main theme composed by Hans Zimmer. But reviews act as if the film’s soundtrack is entirely composed of one artist’s odd/cheesy sampling of Toto’s “Africa.” It’s not. See, or rather hear, this grand and watery theme for our hero.

Interestingly, Christians in their movies do the same thing with pop songs. They seem to think that simply tossing a band in there will add to the movie’s cool factor. Thus you get Third Day in Miracles from Heaven or (more infamously) the Newsboys (2.0) in God’s Not Dead. Everybody talks about the stage-performing band. Nobody regards the film’s actual music soundtrack.2

For Christians, this overvaluing of music over movies makes sense. Most of us have at least a suspicion that music is a special way to worship God. Or that it’s at least useful in church services. But as for movies—we haven’t quite figured out their place.

But I don’t get the disproportionate attention some critics give to pop music in secular movies. Or maybe this overemphasis only applies to superhero and other genre films. If I’m right, perhaps this is just another example of some critics blindly trying to feel their way along these (very popular) genre offerings. After all, if you get lost among all the –Women and Captains and –Men that “geeks” can identify but you cannot, never fear. The movie might at least have a familiar pop song you can praise or scoff about!

Anyway, in this field I know I’m a little weird. Apparently many people prefer music you can party to. I much prefer music you can tell stories to.

  1. Some people go on as if either superhero universe (especially Marvel) doesn’t have “memorable” soundtracks. I disagree. I think people simply aren’t paying attention to the soundtracks. With so many fantasy and superhero universes, and many more film composers, the soundtracks’ “memorability” gets lost among the crowd. It also doesn’t help that many Marvel films simply don’t repeat themes from previous films or heroes. The lone exception is Alan Silvestri’s theme for The Avengers. See this YouTube video that expounds more on this. (Caution: some language therein.)
  2. Hilariously, according to this Cracked article, parts of the God’s Not Dead background music were done for a pittance by someone hired via Craigslist.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
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