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10 Movies That Changed the Meaning of Popular Songs

10 Movies That Changed the Meaning of Popular Songs

Music is one of the most important, and also one of the most overlooked, ingredients in a film. It’s the unseen actor in the cast, helping to set the tone and atmosphere with its performance. It might be an original score, a composition of notes that serve as the film’s theme. Or it could be an original song that was made specifically for the film, like “Lose Yourself” for 8 Mile or “Mrs. Robinson” for The Graduate. Or sometimes, it’s a pre-released song that’s already well-known.

In many cases, these records are played during a specific point in the story and have since created iconic moments, scenes that you can’t help but think of now whenever you hear those particular songs.

Despite their established popularity, these songs have become linked to the movies that feature them, forever embedded into the film’s DNA. It’s usually a song that aligns with the mood and actions of the scene, like “Twist and Shout” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or “Pretty Woman” in Pretty Woman. But sometimes, the sounds and meaning of the song actually represent the opposite of what’s unfolding on screen; the melody and words that we hear clash with what we’re seeing — and somehow, it often works beautifully.

Here are ten 10 that gave popular songs entirely new meanings.

10 Despicable Me 2 (2013)

“Without Me” – Eminem

despicable me 2

Despicable Me 2

Release Date
June 26, 2013

Pierre Coffin , Chris Renaud

Despicable Me 2 is the first sequel to Illumination’s animated, box office smash, Despicable Me. Here, former supervillain Gru (Steve Carrell) adjusts to life as a father of three little girls while juggling a heroic mission to take down the perpetrator of a spectacular heist. Yet another sequel, Despicable Me 4, is slated for a 2024 release.

Most animated films are family-friendly, and Despicable Me 2 is no exception. So it surprised many people when the trailer for Despicable Me 2 came out, and “Without Me” by Eminem was playing in the background.

Eminem is not what you’d call family friendly. Although he’s regarded as one of the best-selling musicians and greatest rappers of all time, Eminem became a controversial pop-culture figure for the excessive profanity and graphic content of his lyrics. His albums are literally stamped with a Parental Advisory label.

“Without Me” doesn’t actually appear in the movie, but the song’s appearance in the trailer still makes this a jarring combination for anyone who’s familiar with Eminem’s music.

9 The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

“Ca Plane Pour Moir” – Plastic Bertrand

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a biographical film that goes from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye, much like its main character, Jordan Belfort. The movie follows Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), his gorgeous wife Naomi (played by the then unknown Margot Robbie), and his merry little band of stockbrokers, as they swindle their way into wealthy, luxurious, and drug-fueled lifestyles.

Jordan’s life of excess is all fun and games, until his operation comes tumbling down like a house of cards. Multiple people connected to his shady, illegal dealings get arrested, including Jordan himself. As we see mugshot after mugshot, the punk-rock song “Ça plane pour moi” by Belgian musician Plastic Bertrand plays in the background.

Doesn’t sound familiar? Well, trust us, you know the song. It’s a global hit that’s appeared in various films, such as National Lampoon’s European Vacation, 127 Hours, and Jackass 3. The title is a French idiom that translates to “this works for me” or “it is gliding for me”.

The rest of it translates into a ridiculous tale of nonsense that’s hard to decipher. A cat swallowing his tongue while downing whiskey? A girl breaking the narrator’s sink and then walking out on him? The song may be a load of nonsense, but Scorsese utilizes it well as he captures Jordan’s downfall with a flash of comedy.

8 Pulp Fiction (1994)

“Son of a Preacher Man” – Dusty Springfield

pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction is arguably Quentin Tarantino’s best movie. It intertwines different narratives and characters with drugs and violence, alluring dialogue, and a mysterious, glowing briefcase to create one of the most original films in cinema.

“Son of a Preacher Man”

“Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield is a sexy, little song about a girl who falls for and sneaks off with the son of a preacher whenever he visits her house. In Pulp Fiction, one of the film’s protagonists, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), takes out his crime boss’ wife — at the strange request of his boss.

As Vincent aimlessly wanders their house, his boss’ wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), watches him with intrigue from her home’s security camera, while “Son of a Preacher Man” plays oh-so innocently in the background. Vincent seems like the furthest thing from the son of a preacher man; he’s a ruthless gangster, who’s currently high on heroin.

Unlike the song, Vincent and Mia never share any kisses. But the song’s seductive narrative does play into their story, as Vincent and Mia dangerously toe the line between flirting with each other and falling for each other at the risk of bloody consequences.

7 Watchmen (2009)

“Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen


Based on the iconic graphic novel of the same name, Watchmen is a very different kind of superhero story. It presents an alternate history, where America and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war. With the threat of nuclear holocaust looming in the background, the lives of several masked vigilantes, and one legitimate superhuman, intertwine as they unravel a sinister plot.

Don’t let the song’s title and gospel sound fool you; when musician Leonard Cohen first recorded “Hallelujah”, he said that it came from “a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”

Watchmen takes this concept of affirming faith in life with enthusiasm to a whole new level, as two aging superheroes have passionate sex while “Hallelujah” plays in the background. Despite its wholesome sound and meaning, the song does work well for the scene. But we doubt that Cohen ever imagined it being used in the background of two superheroes having sex inside a flying owl plane.

6 A Bronx Tale (1993)

“Nights in White Satin” – Moody Blues

A Bronx Tale is one of the best, and also one of the most underrated, films in the gangster genre. Based on Chazz Palminteri’s play and directed by the great Robert De Niro himself, A Bronx Tale is a coming-of-age story about a young man named Calogero (Lillo Brancato Jr.), who’s caught between two separate paths and the influence of two different men: his everyman father, Lorenzo (Robert De Niro), and the notorious neighborhood gangster, Sonny (Chazz Palminteri).

“Nights in White Satin” by Moody Blues is an intimate song. Band member Justin Hayward wrote and composed it after his girlfriend gifted him with satin bedsheets. With its melancholy notes and lyrics, the song laments a yearning, unreciprocated love. “Nights in White Satin” appears in A Bronx Tale — in one of the least intimate, most violent scenes of the film.

While hanging out on the streets of the Bronx, Calogero’s racist friends attack a group of African-Americans, who are innocently bike-riding through their neighborhood. “Nights in White Satin” plays in the background, as the Italians punch and kick their neighbors into the dirt. Although there’s no love in the scene, the record’s forlorn words and melody perfectly echo the tragedy that’s unfolding on the screen.

5 Office Space (1999)

“Still” – Geto Boys

Office Space

Office Space is a satirical comedy that most people can relate to. Fed up with the mundane 9-5 cycle of life, three colleagues decide to rebel against the system that they despise so much.

Three of the main characters in Office Space are buttoned-up, white-collar office workers. You can’t help but laugh when they surround an office printer in an open field, in a threateningly slow-motion manner, as “Still” by Geto Boys blares in the background. “Still” is a classic rap song, a gangsta anthem that talks about life in the ghetto and features a hook that chants, “Die muthaf***as!”

And yet in Office Space, we watch three middle class dorks beat the crap out of a machine in tune to this rhythm. The song’s violent lyrics play up the comedic nature of the scene. Since 1999, this has become a classic comedy moment and is regarded as the most iconic scene in Office Space.

4 Reservoir Dogs (1992)

“Stuck in the Middle with You” – Stealers Wheel

Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs is the crime thriller that put acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino on the map. And according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of the director’s best works.Reservoir Dogs follows a group of criminals who, in the aftermath of a diamond heist gone wrong, scramble to figure out which of them is an undercover cop.

Reservoir Dogs’ most iconic scene is also its most violent. As Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) gets ready to torture a restrained cop, he grabs a straight razor and flips on the radio. He smirks to himself as “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel begins to play.

Performed as a parody of Bob Dylan’s musical style, “Stuck in the Middle with You” is a satire of the band’s place in the music business (the clowns and jokers mentioned in the lyrics are studio executives), reflecting the band’s feelings of being trapped in an uncomfortable social setting — in this case, a cocktail party.

Little did the band know that the cocktail party mentioned in the song would be morphed into a torture room. The cop and audience watch in disbelief as Mr. Blonde dances to the folk rock melody, unfazed by the torture that he’s about to inflict.

3 American Psycho (2000)

“Hip to Be Square” – Huey Lewis and the News

American Psycho

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a disillusioned business executive who goes from mergers and acquisitions to “murders and executions.” American Psycho captures his descent into madness, as he goes gallivanting through 1980s New York City on a psychotic murderous rampage. Or does he?

“Hip to be Square”

In arguably the film’s most iconic scene, Bateman slips on a raincoat to wear indoors, grabs an ax, and throws on “Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News. He then dives into a humorously unhinged and enthusiastic rant while the song plays, providing an in-depth assessment of the tune.

As Bateman tells us, “I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip to be Square’, a song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.” Bateman then viciously murders his colleague Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with the ax, a jarring contrast to the upbeat melody that plays in the background.

The song’s meaning does connect to the overall theme of American Psycho — but we doubt the band expected it to be tied to a murder scene.

2 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

“Goodbye Horses” – Q Lazzarus

Silence of the Lambs

In The Silence of the Lambs, FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is on the hunt for a serial killer known only as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Her best chance of catching him? Consulting with an incarcerated cannibal, the brilliant psychiatrist-turned-psychopath, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).

During the 1980s, the singer now known as Q Lazzarus was a struggling artist who worked as a taxi driver in New York City. At one point, she played one of her songs for a passenger named Jonathan Demme — the future director of The Silence of the Lambs. One of the tunes was “Goodbye Horses”, an introspective song about seeing beyond our Earthly trappings. Demme loved the musician’s style, and about six years later, he used “Goodbye Horses”.

Buffalo Bill is listening to this song, while he’s cross-dressing and gazing at his feminine reflection in the mirror. The song’s androgynous vocals pair well with what’s happening in the scene. Thanks to “Goodbye Horses” and Levine’s improvisation, this has become one of the most iconic scenes in The Silence of the Lambs.

1 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

“Singin’ in the Rain” – Singin’ in the Rain

A Clockwork Orange

Based on the novel of the same name, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange takes audiences into a dystopian future of crime and unusual fashion. After his incarceration, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), a gang leader of violent youths, participates in a controversial experiment that will supposedly cleanse his mind of violent tendencies and desires.

“Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the most wholesome, cheerful songs ever recorded. It’s about a guy who’s just happy to be alive, and no amount of rain or stormy clouds can change that. Despite popular belief, this song did not originate from the 1952 musical of the same name; the original version was actually released in 1929. However, the film does contain the most iconic iteration.

In this scene, the wholesome Gene Kelly tap dances, smiles, and sings his way gleefully through the rain. For nearly 20 years, this was the image most people thought of whenever they heard “Singin’ in the Rain”. But A Clockwork Orange changed that.

Related: 10 Director-Composer Duos That Have Made Movie Magic

In one of the most brutal and controversial scenes ever filmed, Alex and his “droogs” break into a poor, unsuspecting couple’s home. In a true act of depravity, Alex belts out this cheerful tune while sexually assaulting and preparing to rape a distraught woman, right in front of her equally distraught and helpless husband.

The song’s gleeful notes and lyrics clash with the violence and horror unfolding before our eyes to create a jarring contrast. People still think of Gene Kelly’s happy face whenever they hear this song; but now, looming beside him, is also the taunting mug of Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange.

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