Pop music and films are like peanut butter and chocolate – well, maybe not quite. That implies some sort of undeniable cosmic, fated force drawing the two together like soulmates. Pop music and films are more like peanut butter and banana – still pretty damn good. There’s something about the perfect pop song synchronized beautifully with a key moment or epic montage that can prove iconic. Stealer’s Wheel will never sound the same after Quentin Tarantino got his hands on “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
But what about when several filmmakers grasp on to the same catchy ditty? What songs have been so overused that they border on cliché? Some of these songs are used so repeatedly that they become shorthand for what the scene in the movie is supposed to encapsulate. It’s a shame, as many of these songs were used brilliantly the first time, or even the first few times. After awhile, though, these songs are so overused that they are almost expected; they can’t even be used without irony. They are parodied so often that the parody itself becomes a cliché, and that parody gets parodied, and that parody gets parodied and so forth in an ever-rambling hall of postmodern mirrors. In effect, the song gets ruined. Or is in great risk of being ruined.
Thus, without further rambling, I present my list of 10 songs I think are overused in film and television. The artistic value of these songs is extinct, or else greatly endangered, which is regrettable as most of these are pretty kick-ass tunes:
10. The Clash – “London Calling”
As seen in: What a Girl Wants (2003), Die Another Day (2002), Billy Elliot (2000), Friends (1998).
How endangered? On par with the whales. Yeah, they’re endangered, but they’re still so awesome, majestic, and demanding of respect that it’s hard to imagine the world without this juggernaut of… er, awesomeness. How does the greatest punk band of the 70s become equated with the lowest point of Colin Firth’s career? Easy. When “London Calling” somehow because the go-to song for blasting over the establishing shots of London as the annoying American protagonist crosses the Pond. It quickly eclipsed “Rule Brittania” once that got the parody death-knell via Austin Powers, and a new generation of uninspired filmmakers grasped in vain for that hipster edge.
Honourable mention: “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
9. Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower”
As seen in: Watchmen (2009), Battlestar Gallactica (2009), Withnail & I (1987), Rush (1991)
How endangered? As long as filmmakers continue to use “All Along the Watchtower” respectfully (Does anything beat the way it was used in BSG? Although one would argue… no, I won’t go there.), this one should manage to pull through, kinda like a tiger. Hendix is equated with instant cool, and this tune is a smoky motif of the dark frontier of the counter-culture. Where is there to go next? The mystery is instantaneous but recognizable, and as long as this one manages to squeak through another ten years without gracing too many soundtracks, its beauty should remain intact.
Honourable mentions: “Foxy Lady,” “Voodoo Childe,” “Purple Haze”
8. Elton John – “Rocket Man” (suggested by Megan Maliszewski)
As seen in: Cold Case (2005), The Astronaut Farmer (2006), Life on Mars (2007), Nip/Tuck (2003), Six Feet Under (2003), K-PAX (2001), The Rock (1996)
How endangered? Like William Shatner’s career. Which isn’t that endangered, if we’re talking about pure survival. “Rocket Man” will be around awhile, but our respect for it? Hm, that’s another story. So, someone’s ascending into space/about to do something really epic or stupid – and you need a song to underscore it. You have two options, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Which one do you pick? “Space Oddity” is likely to scare the children, so here’s your answer, “Rocket Man.” Yes, O great song beloved of Shatner, “Rocket Man.”
Honourable mentions: “Benny and the Jets,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”
7.George Thorogood – ”Bad to the Bone” (suggested by Shannon Grant)
As seen in: Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), Las Vegas (2005), Joe Dirt (2001), 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001), The Parent Trap (1998), Problem Child (1990) AND the sequel (1991)
How endangered? Like an elephant. Whenever you see a giant herd of elephants stampeding towards you, it’s natural to get a little afraid (I’m assuming, as I’ve never actually had the pleasure of seeing a giant herd of elephants stampeding towards me. One can imagine, though.). I suppose this fear is what the original intent of “Bad to the Bone” was, but its application towards everyone from children to Chihuahuas to David Spade really only dregs up some long-lost semblance of fear that isn’t really recognisable as anything remotely frightening. Just large and lazy.
Honourable mention: Nothing as soul-suckingly overused as “Bad to the Bone.”
6. Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin’” (suggested by Scott Baitz)
As seen in: Glee (2009), Bedtime Stories (2008), Scrubs (2003), The Comebacks (2007), The Sopranos (2007), Monster (2003)
How endangered? A song as stereotypically uplifting as “Don’t Stop Believin’” will always have a soft, mushy, might-be-going-off part in people’s hearts. Like the Panda bear, its black and white view of sentimentality will keep you emotionally hooked, which is quite a feat for something that lacks any real depth. You can keep believing, but that doesn’t really mean anything. You’ll just feel like it does.
Honourable mention: “Open Arms”
5. Steppenwolf – “Born to be Wild” (suggested by Megan Maliszewski)
As seen in: Recess: School’s Out (2001), Connie and Carla (2004), My Name is Earl (2005), Herbie Fully Loaded (2005), Borat (2006), Dudley Do-Right (1999), Six Feet Under (1999), Home Improvement (1991), Knight Rider (1982), Easy Rider (1969)
How endangered? As the natural environment of the late-sixties rebel slowly erodes and is replaced with the more tepid waters of the snivelling pre-schooler (i.e. from Easy Rider to Rugrats in several easy steps), Steppenwolf’s classic will have lost all its bite and will only live on in captivity… like the polar bears. Cue all the “born to be mild” puns.
Honourable mention: “Magic Carpet Ride”
4. Alice Cooper – “School’s Out”
As seen in: Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth (2000), The Faculty (1998), Scream (1996), Reality Bites (1994), Dazed and Confused (1993), The Simpsons (the Kamp Krusty episode!) (1992), Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
How endangered? Every kid – at least the ones I knew – sang this song as they skipped home on the last day of school. Even at the age of occasionally wetting the bed we knew to sing it with a sense of irony. “School’s Out” is nothing but a stab in the back. School’s never out forever, children. Only for the summer (as Alice reminds up in his Staples commercial). Something in the bitter growl of Alice’s voice reminds us of this inevitability; that joy is fleeting. With the song’s inherent darkness, it became perfectly synched to wide shots of jaded youth everywhere. This “inherent darkness” of course inevitably meant cheesier and cheesier horror flicks before crashing and burning with pure spoof. “School’s Out” is a California Condor, an endangered vulture: full of ancient mystique but something of a ridiculous horror cliché.
Honourable mention: “No More Mr. Nice Guy”
3. 2 Unlimited – “Get Ready for This” (suggested by Andrew Brown)
As seen in: Bride Wars (2009), The Office (2006), How to Eat Fried Worms (2006), South Park (2004), Bedazzled (2000), Bring It On (2000), Flubber (1997), Friends (1996), Space Jam (1996)
How endangered? “Y’all ready for this?!” Not quite. Well, I was ready, but then I got bored and took a nap. This song doesn’t quite keep me awake and pumped up like it used to. Perhaps that’s due to it being used – repeatedly – as a the national anthem of Team Underdog as they prepare themselves for the almighty death-or-glory battle of a lifetime. We were interested, but now we don’t care because it’s just so passé. Kinda like the bison: a historical artefact that somehow is still kicking around like an unmatched sock in the laundry basket.(“What do you mean they’re not extinct yet?”)
Honourable mention: “Twilight Zone”
2. Marvin Gaye – “Let’s Get It On” (suggested by Jagoda Janik)
As seen in: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), High Fidelity (2000), Scrubs (2003), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason (2004), Crank (2006), Blades of Glory (2007), and more.
How endangered? Like the Baiji dolphin, assumed extinct. Obscure reference, I know, but fitting. The baiji dolphin – a victim of industrialisation along the Yangtze River – has not been seen for years, much how any ounce of artistry this song once had has been quashed by the reams of lazy filmmakers who couldn’t find anything more original. Its use in Austin Powers is the perfect example of something so clichéd that all irony has been sapped out of it. It’s just… dead. Even if we’re reluctant to admit it.
Honourable mentions: “Sexual Healing,” “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “What’s Going On?” and pretty much every song Marvin Gaye ever recorded.
1. Carl Douglas – “Kung Fu Fighting” (suggested by Megan Maliszewski)
As seen in: Kung Fu Panda (2008), Rush Hour 3 (2007), My Name is Earl (2006), Epic Movie (2007), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), That 70s Show (1999), Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), Bowfinger (1998), Daddy Day Care (2003)… so pretty much every comedy about ninjas ever… all three of them.
How endangered? Dinosaurs. And don’t give me this “dinosaurs are still around, they evolved into birds” crap (technically, you are correct, I know), but unless “Kung Fu Fighting” evolves into…. wow, there’s nothing I can think of that I can evolve into that will somehow be new and original. Nothing.
Honourable mentions: Did he have any other songs? That has to be the lowest blow of them all, your only hit is a now a cliché. I guess that must be expected when you write a catchy disco-type number about ninjas.
P.S. Assignment: Pirates are way cooler than ninjas and everyone knows it. Discuss.
Other Honourable Mentions: Green Day – Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) (suggested by Alana Peters), Queen (feat. David Bowie) – “Under Pressure” (suggested by Becca Strom), Simon and Garfunkel – “The Sound of Silence,” James Brown – “I Got You (I Feel Good),” The Specials – “Ghost Town”
Thank you great people of the interwebs for your suggestions! There are countless songs that have been overused by Hollywood. What are some more?