For the Season Two trailer of recent hit HBO show Westworld that dropped on March 29th, the music is a true highlight. Credited to series composer Ramin Djawadi, the music embodies the second season’s tagline – “chaos takes control.”
While it is another trailerized cover song in an environment where such an approach has become if not tired then certainly a norm, this rendition of seminal grunge band Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” is impactful on multiple levels. The first and most immediate aspect of note might be its intertextually allusive power. For a series that is a “dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin,”fn the themes implied in the title of “Heart-Shaped Box” resonate with those of Westworld, a series that is nothing if not an elaborate rumination on suffering and consciousness.
The trailer begins with a 19-second dialogue between Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright); both of them are “hosts” (artificial beings) who have both recently become aware of their apparent inhumanity. According to biographer Michael Azzerad, songwriter Kurt Cobain said that the song was inspired in part by documentaries about children who have cancer. The music video, meanwhile, was a surreal landscape that included imagery from The Wizard of Oz, and various other absurdist, surreal elements such as artificial crows. In this context, the choice of song is generationally powerful; those in the teenage demographic at the time of the song’s release are now well into their 40s and well in the position of recognizing what the song stands for and how it ties into the themes in this HBO drama.
All that being said, this pairing also works not least because the music is quite powerful in its own right, whether or not you might be aware of the original song. At first, the piano simply outlines a minor chord, and even the keenest listener would be able to identifiably discern that a cover song is underway.
By 0:38, however, the piano plays the quasi-famous riff in full, and there is no doubt for those familiar with the tune. At 0:50 a cello enters with the main melody and the dialogue continues over a montage of violent and dramatic scenes. At 1:15 we get a subtle pick up of energy; with every repeat of the riff, the intensity slowly builds. At 1:27, the staccato strings enter and we get additional harmonization to the main melody that wasn’t present in the original.
At 1:35 we get a brilliant musical takeout as everything cuts out except a closely-mic’d piano playing a tritone (known sometimes as “the devil’s internal”), which in turn allows the chorus of the song at 1:38 to enter in full epic bore, with pounding orchestral percussion and blaring brass. The jarring tritone that acts as the chorus’ hook works in tandem with the clearly mounting and ever-escalating conflict. At 2:14 we get a slight shift in the melody to direct it towards a climactic moment, rather than the usual descending tritone.
A black screen at 2:14 and a soft but clear major piano chord connote a bookending return to the opening aesthetic. Dolores’ smile enters in conjunction with a descending chord that chromatically modulates keys; it is bittersweet – just as we know Dolores’ smile is a brave one, fraught with all of the concerns presented to us earlier, the two major chords are separated by a minor third, and there is an underlying sense that something is fundamentally wrong.
Dolores asserts, “why on earth would you ever be frightened of me?” – and the Westword and HBO with release sate title cards quickly enter at the end as the piano plays the tritone motif once more, with a static hiss in the background and the last few notes fading out. It’s an ending as creepy as it is intriguing.
Westworld’s Season 2 trailer joins a fairly short list of paratextual media that very convincingly justify its sustained use of a cover song. It’s most reminiscent of the campaign for last year’s Logan, which used Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails track “Hurt.” In both trailers, both the musical motifs and their connotative thematic resonance feel effortlessly compatible with the trailers they underpin.
– Curtis Perry