Soundtrack Studies: ‘The Social Network’

About 5 hours ago by
That's dangerously close to a Wes Anderson font, Mr. Fincher.  

In an effort to keep this column as pop-culturally relevant (more for my sake than the sake of my readers), Soundtrack Studies was created with the intent to avoid “scores” and focus on “soundtracks.” I did this under the somewhat misguided understanding that a score was essentially composed instrumental music for a film, and soundtracks consisted of non-instrumental, sometimes non-original, music for a film.

This delineation works for the purposes of casual discussion, which is basically what I intend this feature to be, but for the sake of at least acknowledging the technical aspects of a soundtrack (or a score), I’d like to clear things up. For instance, all the pop songs for Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 were written FOR the film, so they’re part of the score. And the soundtrack. The soundtrack is ALL MUSIC in the film, and the score is ALL ORIGINAL MUSIC in the film. Semantic, but I figured after like a dozen or so of these installments, I could actually get around to defining what I’m writing about.

So what I really wanted to avoid were orchestral or instrumental soundtracks, original or not. I also wanted to avoid, at least initially, soundtracks (or scores or whatever) composed by just one artist. Like Badly Drawn Boy’s excellent soundtrack for About a Boy. I don’t really take issue with either approach, but the former is just a little obscure and hard to put in a relevant cultural context, and the latter ignores the curative aspects of soundtrack compilation that I find to be most interesting aspect of them.

The Social Network’s soundtrack AND score, composed by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and his collaborator Atticus Ross (a composer and producer in his own right), is entirely instrumental, and features no other composers or artists (save for a sample or two). But I felt it was too important and good to ignore based on a arbitrary premise that I set for myself for no particular reason.

It accompanied a film featuring a dream team of creativity; a film based on a successful book written by Ben Mezrich, adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin, and directed by David Fincher.

Academy Award-winning composer Trent Reznor

It was the film about how Facebook was started, which was so culturally relevant that even fans of the auteurs thought was an extremely ephemeral subject matter, no matter how profound its reach at the time of its release.

With a subject as mass-marketed, ubiquitous, and accessible as Facebook, the creative powers worked very hard to ensure that the film maintained a grit that wouldn’t reduce the film to the cinematic equivalent of kitten pictures and “Which How I Met Your Mother Character are YOU?” quizzes. It succeeded to the surprise of even Reznor himself.

To that end, the enlistment of David Fincher went a long way. And while Reznor and Ross didn’t have breadth of creative control that the director had, their involvement didn’t just result in a soundtrack that pleasantly defied expectation to the end of winning an Academy Award for their work, but also just gave the entire effort some credibility.

Here’s the soundtrack for the film:

The titles will likely mean nothing, as this is original, instrumental music, so judgment here lies even more so than usual in the content of the music itself.

While you’re listening to the soundtrack, let’s discuss a bit the relationship, real and conceptual, between David Fincher and Trent Reznor. They seem to share a creative DNA, operating in the realm of the mass markets, but with a subversive darkness that doesn’t seem to alienate, but rather endear. Sure, they’re not Mumford & Sons (thank God) or Steven Spielberg, but they’re both considered artists and craftsmen as much as they are a musician and a director.

Trent Reznor contributed to and took a supervisory role on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which seemed to parallel the themes of the later Fight Club by Fincher. (In fact, there was a time when the director had been lobbying for Reznor to do a musical of Fight Club. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.) Fincher had also used a remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” in Se7en, a film that, in its entirety felt like a film based on a Nine Inch Nails song and resembled what we knew to be Nine Inch Nails music videos.

The two had a working relationship and friendship before Fincher approached Reznor to produce the soundtrack. Reznor declined, then accepted, as these stories so often go. The end of opening scene, which contains the ominous first track “Hand Covers Bruise,” was originally presented for working purposes with credits and an upbeat rock song.

Trent Reznor spoke with Fincher about dialing down the merriment, through a couple songs in from his instrumental album Ghosts, and the tone was set. With those marching orders, Trent and Atticus put together the rest of the album with a new confidence, and proceeded without much interruption or interference from anyone.

I don’t have much to say on the soundtrack songs itself, because, as was my initial concern, I feel that composed instrumental work is far better felt than discussed, at least in this medium. So here are a few clips that convey the feeling.

And then there’s the regatta scene, which plays closer to an action scene or music video (a hallmark of Fincher, even in his films) than any other part of the film.

From these, hopefully my sense that this soundtrack demonstrates a side of Trent Reznor apart from Nine Inch Nails which is not softer, but perhaps more insidious. Regardless of whether that’s actually true, it’s hard to argue in the wake of the acclaim for the film and its soundtrack that it wasn’t a success. And Fincher’s use of Reznor’s skills in the subsequent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and upcoming Gone Girl further that assertion.

See ya next week, when we’ll get back to some soundtracks with words and songs and stuff.