Hollywood, Please Stop Ruining Shows and Movies With Terrible Needle Drops

This article contains spoilers for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” season 2 of “Yellowjackets” and “Beef.”

2023 has been a year saddled with head-thumpingly obvious needle drops.

Excited to see robots scuffle in “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”? A key fight scene will be soundtracked to LL Cool J’s 1991 hit, “Mama Said Knock You Out.” During the trailers beforehand, a spot for the Dracula movie “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” features a remix of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” in which Billy Corgan sings, “The world is a vampire / Sent to drain.” Chilling out after the movie to watch the new episode of “The Idol”? Prepare for star The Weeknd’s new song “Take Me Back,” which literally describes the toxic relationship between the two lead characters (Lyrics like “I’ve been manipulated a hundred times, but / None of them felt so soft and kind” and “Never understood why Mama cried, and / Could it be because our secret’s hiding?” could catch even the most casual viewer up to the plot.)

Why are so many blockbuster films and some of television’s most adventurous shows addicted to cringey song choices? The unlikely answer might be found at the 1995 Oscars.

That year was a cultural moment in which “Forrest Gump,” the family-friendly, milquetoast trot through American history faced off in the best picture race against the très chic “Pulp Fiction,” the film that turned Quentin Tarantino into a household name.

While the race seemed to devolve into a Boomers vs. Gen X, old school vs. new school litmus test, the films had one key thing in common: Their soundtracks were chock-full of needle drops and became mega bestsellers.

Yet much like the films themselves, the way in which pop music was dropped into the stories was much different. Tarantino’s cues were silky, retro hits, recalibrated into unforgettable moments: The smash cut from the opening diner robbery to the opening credits where Dick Dale starts shredding his surf-rock classic “Misirlou”; Mia (Uma Thurman) making Vincent (John Travolta) wait for her slinky onscreen introduction while piping in Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”; The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” soundtracking a revealing, quiet moment with Butch (Bruce Willis), before he commits a shocking act of violence. All of the choices were a perfect blend of sound, style and offbeat energy that matched the film’s kinetic spirit.

Meanwhile, “Forrest Gump” was a film about the ’60s and ’70s, and the song choices are right on the nose. A Vietnam scene soundtracked by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”? Check. A scene with hippies? Of course “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas is on. Forrest (Tom Hanks) returns to Alabama and Jenny (Robin Wright) teaches him to dance? Hell yeah, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd is blasting. Believe it or not, the famous montage of Forrest running across America features Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” Because he’s running!

“Forrest Gump” won the best picture Oscar.

Ever since that fateful year, more and more films and TV shows deploy pop music cues instead of scores in order to enhance their scenes. While music supervisors tend to be more considerate with diegetic music (songs that take place within the world of the characters, such as the “Wayne’s World” crew head-banging along to their tape of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”) projects are using non-diegetic songs to either spark insta-nostalgia for times gone by, or to artificially ratchet up emotion beyond what the script calls for.

Consider the final scene of this year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which ended with a dance-along to Florence + the Machine’s 2008 hit “Dog Days Are Over.” While Peter Quill’s music-packed Zune has been a source of needle drops throughout the series, its new owner, Rocket, plays this triumphant, everything-is-gonna-be-fine burst of mid-aughts nostalgia in order to transfer the song’s power over to the scene itself. The biggest problem is the obviousness of the track: While not every musical cue has to be a forgotten classic in order to be powerful, it’s much simpler to play a nearly ubiquitous song from the most influential years of the target “Guardians” audience. Plus, the lyrics line up so pat thematically that it feels implanted into the film with surgical precision, a committee-approved chance to stir up emotions and memories.

Two innovative shows this year — “Beef” and the second season of “Yellowjackets” — fell into the same trap. “Beef,” which is primarily soundtracked by late-’90s/early-’00s alt rock hits, ends its finale with enemies-turned-friends Amy (Ali Wong) crawling into badly-injured Danny’s (Steven Yeun) hospital bed, as a passing of time assures the audience that everything is going to be alright. It’s soundtracked to Smashing Pumpkins’ shoegaze classic “Mayonaise,” a singular work from the band that heaps emotion onto a scene that hasn’t been earned. Given what we know about Amy — even after a strange trip in the desert — this compassion wouldn’t seem to be her go-to move. By elevating it to epic levels with such a bombastic song choice makes it feel even more out of place.

The finale of “Yellowjackets” hits a similar note. The show, which is awash in early-90s alt rock, soundtracked the sudden and unceremonious death of adult Nat (Juliette Lewis) to Radiohead’s monumental work “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” an aching lament from singer Thom Yorke about the inevitability of death, buoyed at the end with his aching plea to “Immerse your soul in love.” It’s a wholly complete meditation on the life and the afterlife, and running it over a slapdash end to the season seemed like a quick fix to bring drama into the series.

What’s frustrating about both shows is that there are moments of brilliance in song choice. For example, the “Yellowjackets” theme song — “No Return” by Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker — has always sounded like a beautifully bizarre Breeders b-side, fitting the vibe and time period of the series with lyrics that only point to the themes without being overtly literal. Meanwhile, one of the key moments in “Beef” is Danny’s acoustic performance of Incubus’ “Drive,” mercifully not a reference to the road-rage in the pilot, but rather a wonderful interpretation of his musical gift, remixing a secular song into a religious lament.

At this point, it’d be fair to think, “What does it matter?” Good music is good music, and good music in a TV show or movie makes it even better. Films like 2023’s “Air” and 2016’s “Suicide Squad” are stuffed with oldies that will send younger generations to Spotify to download playlists with classic rock…what’s so bad about that?

When the needle drop is used sparingly and particularly, it can be incredibly powerful. Think of the claustrophobia of season one, episode seven of “The Bear,” which was nearly soundtracked in full by a live version of Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” an unpredictable Krautrock meltdown which added to the anxiety of the series’ most stressful lunch service.

Think of how effectively “Stranger Things,” a show built on nostalgia, was able to incorporate Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” as a theme throughout the season. Besides being an anthem for Max (Sadie Sink) that perfectly encapsulated her character, it also lyrically touched on the themes of the season without being obvious, and inspired some great orchestral flourishes in the score. So too was the indelible performance of Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets” by Eddie (Joseph Quinn), a spot-on metalhead anthem which brought chaos to the last stand the characters were facing in the Upside Down, as well a perfect finishing salvo for Eddie’s sacrifice. Both songs act as the secret sauce that ties the scenes together, without becoming more than the scripted material.

Pushing on scripts so they don’t require the crutch of pop music only makes the movies and shows better. If they don’t NEED that needle drop to conjure up emotions, it will only be stronger when there is a great song enhancing it.

When it gets to that point, please refrain from something so on the nose that the lyrics literally describe what the character is going through. Does the film end with a character driving down a highway? If so, it cannot use “Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway” to send the message home.

Otherwise, excessive needle drops just push society to become filled with Memberberries, the sentient fruit on “South Park” that are driven only by brainless nostalgia (“‘Member ‘Ghostbusters’? ‘Member ‘Bionic Man’? ‘Member ‘Jurassic Park’? ‘Member ‘Goonies’?”). It’s easy enough to put on Spotify’s “90s Pop Rock” playlist, but that alone doesn’t create of great art.

Here are some successful needle-drops through the years that elevate the film or TV show they’re featured in.

Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” in 1984’s “Miami Vice” pilot: The most iconic scene of “Miami Vice” took place over a four minute mix of this rock hit. Minimal dialogue and sound effects meant several minutes fetishizing the beautiful shots of cars, Miami streets, neon lights, and the gorgeous duo of Crockett (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), speeding on the edge of control into the night, perfectly setting the tone for this stylish cop show.


Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again” in 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle”: Rusty at dating, widower Sam (Tom Hanks) amps himself up to call a woman with the help of this gentle cowboy classic, the perfect soundtrack to a small victory.


Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” in 1999’s “Fight Club”: As buildings crumble around them, The Narrator (Edward Norton) and Maria (Helena Bonham Carter) hold hands and watch the destruction to the dreamy vocals and angular guitar riff of this Pixies classic, which helps to further blend fantasy and reality.


Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” in 2005’s “The O.C.”: Imogen Heap created a solemn choir of vocoders for this futuristic and mournful song, which debuted during a critical moment of the second season of primetime soap “The O.C.” As heroic hunk Ryan (Ben McKenzie) is about to be killed by his brother Trey (Logan Marshall-Green), Marissa (Mischa Barton) grabs a gun and shoots Trey, which kicks in Heap’s ultra-dramatic tune. Such a cultural touchstone that it was immortalized in an SNL Digital Short, the song has been repurposed to soundtrack other soapy ennui on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and “Normal People.”


Queen’s “Under Pressure” in 2022’s “Aftersun”: It’s a testament to the power of “Aftersun” that it’s able to so deftly decontextualize one of the biggest rock songs ever. This tender dance scene between Calum (Paul Mescal) and his daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) rewires the inner workings of their relationship — past and future — with very little dialogue and many things left unsaid.


Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” in 2022’s “The Dropout”: Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) loved dancing to hip-hop music through the series, and this scene in which she tried to lighten the mood with her lover and business partner Sunny (Naveen Andrews) was a masterclass in cringey sincerity.


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