Music

This TV and film music trend is here to convert you into a classical fan

String covers of popular songs are becoming the hot topic of conversation thanks to the successes of Bridgerton and Promising Young Woman.

String covers of popular songs are becoming the hot topic of conversation

'It's a clever way of refreshing something you love,' Promising Young Woman composer Anthony Willis says, of string covers of pop hits. (Netflix, Focus Features; graphic by CBC)

Netflix's latest hit series Bridgerton starts off like any other period drama: lavish Regency-era gowns, a formalized courting season framing its romance narrative, and a cinematic, period-appropriate orchestral score by Kris Bowers (Green Book, When They See Us). But as the show's protagonist, star debutante Daphne Bridgerton, rolls up to her first ball of the season in the premiere episode, the soundtrack takes a sudden left turn. 

A violin kicks off a melody that many viewers immediately noticed didn't belong in the 1800s. It was, in fact, pop star Ariana Grande's 2019 hit "Thank U, Next." The day after the series hit the streaming platform on Dec. 25, Netflix cheekily tweeted: "If you listen closely to the music in Bridgerton, you're gonna hear a few ye olde bops." 

Over the holidays, Bridgerton quickly became Netflix's most popular new series with more than 82 million viewers tuning in. Many were enthralled by the tales of young love (the show is based on a romance novel series by Julia Quinn), others were intrigued by the show's attempt at crafting a post-racial landscape where its fictional queen is Black and the town it's set in is more diverse than any other show or film of its kind.

But a surprise topic of conversation that blew up was its playful use of music, a seamless combination of Bowers' score with pop covers primarily by the Vitamin String Quartet and Duomo, two acts that are known for their instrumental twists on chart-topping numbers. (Alexandra Patsavas of The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy fame serves as Bridgerton's music supervisor.) Along with the Grande hit, the show also included string covers of songs by Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Billie Eilish and Shawn Mendes. InStyle described the little joys of discovering these songs embedded into the episodes as "a classical-tinged Name That Tune." 

Since then, Vitamin String Quartet's streaming numbers have skyrocketed by 350 per cent, a feat that VSQ's brand manager Leo Flynn says is "very gratifying to see work within this bigger picture, and to see everyone embrace it." This unexpected achievement suggests an appetite for more string arrangements of pop hits. And it's further bolstered by the recent success of Emerald Fennell's new film, Promising Young Woman, which features a scene-defining string rendition of Britney Spears' 2003 single "Toxic," as well as another VSQ placement: a cover of Red Hot Chili Peppers' 1999 rock song "Scar Tissue" used in the 2020 Pete Davidson film, The King of Staten Island. All of this, of course, comes a few short years after composer Ramin Djawadi made a name for himself, post-Game of Thrones, by creating an entire soundtrack of orchestral covers of Radiohead, Amy Winehouse and more for HBO's Westworld

The evolution of cover songs in film and TV

Song covers are by no means a new trend. Movie trailers in the 2010s were largely dominated by a similar musical trademark: of cover songs arranged to maximize a mood or feeling that matches its product.

"The auditory signature of the modern movie trailer is a deliberately eerie cover version of a recognizable pop song," Alex Pappademas wrote for The New Yorker in 2019. The difference then, compared to the covers we're hearing more of now, was that the songs were, as Pappademas continues, "usually sung at a dramatically slower tempo, often by a breathy female vocalist whose delivery suggests a ghost beckoning a living playmate from the far end of a haunted-house hallway." 

In the 2010 trailer for David Fincher's The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — who are credited with kick-starting this covers trend — used a Belgian women's choir to transform Radiohead's 1992 hit "Creep" into a haunting hymn that, when paired with scenes from the film, heavily suggested a more dramatic and sinister story behind the invention of Facebook. Even those who weren't familiar with the social media platform's history could get that by watching the two-and-a-half-minute clip. But with the absence of vocals conveying these emotions, stringed instruments are challenged to convey equal amounts of suspense, romance and more without words or the vast range of a human voice. 

"Stringed instruments, whether it's violin, the cello, viola — it's like the closest thing to having the human voice," Vitamin String Quartet's A&R James Curtiss posits. "So even if the lyrics aren't there, it's still got that presence." Promising Young Woman composer Anthony Willis agrees: "Emotionally, [stringed instruments] can do so many things. I'm not sure I ever thought of strings as being particularly vocal sounding, but what they do have is so much nuance and there's so much timbre and shift that you can get from the time you start one note to the time you finish it." Willis argues that pianos and guitars, while beautiful, are more limiting because often the first notes establish a tone, leaving little room for complexities to fill in the spaces.

Leah Zeger, one of the violinists who performs on the Vitamin String Quartet's cover of Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy," praises the VSQ for its arrangements of pop hits, noting that most people's attempts at these types of covers can be "somewhat dull, to be honest."

"With other arrangements of pop music, it's usually long whole notes," she explains. "But VSQ arrangements are the best arrangements I've ever done. Each player gets to have their own solo moments, and we get to rock out and get our moment in the sun."

The natural advantage of using instrumental covers over ones featuring vocals is that it never threatens to step on the toes of dialogue. But Flynn says that string instruments can also bring their own history and narrative to a scene.

"These stringed instruments are very old, there's a lot of story packed into these instruments," Flynn explains. (Willis likens classical music's antiquity to letter-writing.) "And you can hear that in the detail of the strings. Then you add in a great player like Leah, who brings a lifetime of craft to it, to getting the sound and the story out of the instrument, and those are priceless things. 

"That's what has kept us going for so long. The farther we go along in time, the more history there is to unpack, and as we go along in time, all genres including pop continue to evolve and try new things, so we have that to feed off of as well. So it's just this constant experiment yielding new, interesting things."  

'It's a bit of an epiphany'

Beyond the satisfaction of identifying the original track, many of the musicians behind these covers believe that this meeting of pop and classical can act as a gateway for fans of the former to grow interest in the latter. 

"I think it's a cool way for the average person or young people to get into the classical sound because, for me personally, that's how I found out about a lot of jazz, honestly, was through hip hop," Bridgerton composer Bowers explains, noting how listening to one genre can lead to the discovery of another. "So having that bridge, those points of access for people might open the door for them to check out something a little bit different." 

And as Zeger points out, classical music is a genre that is often hidden in plain sight. "People don't really realize that classical music is around them every day," Zeger says, noting its ubiquity in commercials, TV shows, film and more. Flynn adds: "Any time people hear classical music or even like, ironically, the score to a show, they may put it in a certain category in their mind, and when they hear their favourite tune on stringed instruments, it just kind of breaks that wall down. It's a bit of an epiphany." 

Willis describes this method as ushering a "Trojan horse within what you think at first is the score," but once the familiarity of the pop melody sinks in, offers the listener a different perspective and sound. 

He adds: "It's a clever way of refreshing something you love."  

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