Picture credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros.
Artillery Row

Saltburn and the significance of sound

Why has Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” caught the world’s attention again?

The role of the sonic in amplifying the visual is profound. Mainstream motion pictures from at least the start of the 20th century have used music – by means of creating sounds, soundscapes, soundtracks, and curating pre-existing pieces – to mediate atmosphere, attention, and emotion. A film with little or no music is a rare thing indeed. The sparse sound effects of Hitchcock’s The Birds and the mere 16-minute soundtrack that serves the Coen brothers’ 122-minute No Country for Old Men stand in stark opposition to the modi operandi of sonic-visual mediation that underpin conventional film.

We expect blockbuster films to have blockbuster scores, we cling to proven composer-director collaborations

Let us consider the centrality of musical concerns in two of the highest-grossing films of last year. For 5 BAFTA and 8 Oscar-nominated Barbie, audiences expected Aqua’s quintessential “Barbie Girl” but their thirst for a smash hit was only partially quenched by Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night”. For 13 BAFTA and 13 Oscar-nominated Oppenheimer, audiences lamented the absence of the Nolan-Zimmer partnership that had spawned the era-defining scores of Inception, Interstellar, and the Batman Trilogy, but this changing of the guard paved the way for Swedish composer and Golden Globe-winner Ludwig Göransson. We expect blockbuster films to have blockbuster scores, we cling to proven composer-director collaborations, and, when the soundtrack really strikes a chord, we repurpose its melodies to suit every level of our daily lives. But, to paraphrase Batman’s Joker, when a film unexpectedly revivifies a song of the past everyone loses their minds.

Cue Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s black comedy psychological thriller. Points of critical departure are plentiful. Incisive satire marred by tried and tired class misconceptions. Indelible performances surrounding a miscast protagonist. Scenes of a sexual nature that, on the one hand, show very little, but, on the other, push beyond the boundaries of what is morally acceptable. However, none of these constitute the headline story. That honour belongs to the inclusion of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” which provides the sonic background for the film’s soon-to-be iconic finale.

The lyrics of Bextor’s song certainly resonate with the film’s narrative, but not to an uncanny extent. The song charted in multiple “Top Tens” around the world following its release in December 2001, though missing out on a single top spot. One could argue for the sustained nature of the song’s cultural power, though it did fail to conquer America, where perhaps the subtle charms and connotations of Bextor’s idiosyncratic accent fell on deaf ears. Yet, in the context of Saltburn, it is the premier talking point, and the listening stats don’t lie. Twenty-two years after its initial release, “Murder on the Dancefloor” has re-entered the UK charts, again at Number 2, but also attaining records on platforms that didn’t exist a vicennium ago: the song achieved its record number of daily Spotify streams (1.5 million) and daily Shazams (a figure now exceeding 3.5 million) on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day respectively. But why the musical-social contagion?

Commentators have recognised the “nostalgia-inducing soundtrack” but not delved into its deeper significance

Commentators have recognised the “nostalgia-inducing soundtrack” but not delved into its deeper significance. First, directors understand the importance of leaving their audiences in a heightened state of affect, and Saltburn is not a happy film. Spoiler alert: Oliver (Barry Keoghan) frames and threatens Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), poisons Felix (Jacob Elordi), convinces Venetia (Alison Oliver) to commit suicide, extorts Sir James (Richard E. Grant), and kills Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike). Nor is it a transcendentally beautiful film. There is menstrual cunnilingus and grave humping, all upon a bed of general debauchery. Despite the transgressively humorous, and at times farcical, turns, this is not an unmitigated comedy. Accordingly, audiences don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or turn away in disgust. However, the final scene, in which there is just one activity (Oliver dancing naked) accompanied by one song (“Murder on the Dancefloor”), provides the fertile soil for the cultivation of a protagonist-centred morality. Saltburn has been conquered! But it goes deeper than that…

Second, “Murder on the Dancefloor” is a high-energy disco bop engineered to stimulate our dopamine systems. Psychological studies have shown that less than ten minutes of music with a fast tempo and driving rhythm is all that is needed to uplift people. Such feelings of joy are heightened with music with which listeners are already acquainted: familiarity breeds content. “Murder on the Dancefloor” revives disco, encapsulating the excitement of early-noughties nightlife and intensity of club culture. But it goes deeper than that…

Third, there is the Reminiscence Bump. This is the tendency for adults over 40 to have an enhanced recollection of events that occurred during their late teens and twenties. The climactic curation of “Murder on the Dancefloor” is a direct appeal to the older half of Saltburn’s target audience: those who initially encoded their impressions of the song during the prime of their lives and are now predisposed to reverently rekindle those memories. Meanwhile, the younger half of Saltburn’s target audience meets this epoch-defining pop song, many for the first time, in an atmosphere of joyous sentimentality and unexpected reinvigoration.

These are the driving undercurrents that account for the vinyl revival, cassette renaissance, and current vogue for all things millennially fin de siècle. In Saltburn’s case, a longing for the materialities and memories of the past has been satiated and saturated through streaming.

This phenomenon of musical revivification is not new. Stranger Things did for Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” in 2022 what Saltburn has now done for Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” in 2023. Conspiracists and determinists alike might predict a similar musical resurrection in 2024. Then again, who can blame them? This is soon becoming a tried and tested method of steering consumption patterns by appealing to our musical instincts on a deep psychological level.

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