The Sound of Evil
March 12, 2019 10:04 AM   Subscribe

How did classical music in movies and television become synonymous with villainy? If you’re a character in a current police procedural or prime-time thriller, there are few more frightening, heart-stopping words than when a polite, clean-shaven man asks in a vaguely European accent, “Do you like Bach?”
posted by gusottertrout (52 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I prefer Huey Lewis and the News.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:21 AM on March 12 [18 favorites]


I think it started with Arnold Schwarzenegger being asked about a possible role in one of these movies and replying "I'll be Bach!"
posted by DreamerFi at 11:05 AM on March 12 [11 favorites]


Huey Lewis and the News.

Their early work was a little too new wave for my taste. But when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Why do our films depict sociopaths murdering to Mozart and not Metallica? Why must master criminals always time their nuclear strikes at curtain time? The answer runs deeper than box-office populism and derivative filmmaking. How a society pictures its villains is a revelation of its own anxieties. Opera-house assassinations, while a familiar trope, still strike a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society—galas, gowns, orchestras—exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. That we imagine secret cabals planning world domination at Tosca rather than Davos exposes something about our unspoken apprehensions, tells us that the public does not fear perversity or power so much as deception. These scenes materialize the phantom suspicion that the real threat to the Common Man is not the raving lunatic in the streets but the polite psychopath in the opera box. We mistake malevolence as sophistication because it’s wearing a suit and a tie.

One of the things that makes Michael Mann's Manhunter superior to Brett Ratner's Red Dragon and Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs in almost every way (aside from Brian Cox being cast as a better Lecktor/Lecter) is the soundtrack, which is a departure from what's being described in the piece (e.g., Lector's Cell, and of course the deployment of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida in the final Dolarhyde/Will Graham showdown to great - almost comical - effect).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:07 AM on March 12 [12 favorites]


For the same reason that Manny in Modern Family is mocked for wanting to hear Vivaldi's Four Seasons (literally the most approachable piece of baroque music in existence), it's classic American anti-intellectualism. Particularly in mass media like television, anything outside the mainstream is suspect and questionable. Pair that with our tendency to give our villains foreign (usually European) accents because that makes them sound "smart" and you've got a perfect fit.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:07 AM on March 12 [42 favorites]


I figured it was because classical music is cool and interesting, and movie makers want their villains to be cool and interesting.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:10 AM on March 12 [13 favorites]


it's as if we repressed the politics of class difference and are compelled to surface it in bizarre obsessive ways that are detached from its meaning
posted by idiopath at 11:13 AM on March 12 [45 favorites]


Also, classical music is in the public domain, whereas Quentin Tarantino had to beg and plead to get "Stuck in the Middle With You" in Reservoir Dogs because--for some reason--Stealers Wheel was a little uneasy at the thought of their music being used during a scene with a sadistic villain. If we had a properly functioning public domain like we used to, filmmakers could have picked all sorts of songs to have their villains rock out to.
posted by Hypatia at 11:16 AM on March 12 [46 favorites]


Also, classical music is in the public domain

(Which makes me want to see a version of the Hannibal Lecter prison escape scene from Silence of the Lambs set to an old-timey recording of "Oh My Darling, Clementine")
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:21 AM on March 12 [7 favorites]


Which makes me want to see a version of the Hannibal Lecter prison escape scene from Silence of the Lambs set to an old-timey recording of "Oh My Darling, Clementine"

CELL DOOR swings open, LECTER emerges.

LECTER reaches into LAUNDRY SACK, removes TOP HAT and CANE

Hello my baby, hello my honey,
Hello my ragtime, summertime gal!
Send me a kiss by wire, by wire.
Baby, my heart's on fire, on fire!
If you refuse me, honey, you lose me,
And you'll be left alone, oh baby,
Telephone, and tell me, tell me,
Tell me I'm your very own, oh!


posted by leotrotsky at 11:31 AM on March 12 [48 favorites]


This is a neat essay. The 2008 book Beautiful Monsters by musicologist Michael Long covers similar territory, with a more nuanced (albeit more difficult) argument. From the first chapter (p. 26):
In mass-market musical discourse, “the classic,” or “the register of the classic,” possesses a special flavor; it is often associated with the invocation of death and the dead on the one hand, and reanimation on the other. By this I refer not merely to a condition of pastness, of being dead, but to the state of being monumentally dead, or in a monumental state of being dead, emphasizing monumentality to call attention to the architectural implications of invoking the register.
posted by phetre at 11:32 AM on March 12 [12 favorites]


Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music because he is an intellectual aesthete. It’s not related to his villainy. (Edit: well, I suppose intellectualism is part of his villainy) This is meant to be an ironic counterpoint to his savagery.

Also, Lecter isn’t really the villain in Silence of the Lambs!

In the very same film, the true villain, Buffalo Bill listens to The Fall’s “Hip Priest” while pursuing Clarice through the basement.
posted by mpbx at 11:36 AM on March 12 [14 favorites]


Is this a place where we can talk about the NYTimes production "The Daily" and those really dramatic strings? Combined with the host's obnoxious speaking style? Fill me with dread.

Both of whatever current events are being discussed (pretty dreadful) and of hearing more of those strings with the halting, precious diction of Michael Barbaro throughout the broadcast.
posted by witchen at 11:40 AM on March 12 [5 favorites]


If we must imagine someone able to harm us, it's reassuring to imagine they would need to be smarter, stronger, more patient, a perfect specimen; bonus points if they are also clearly not one of us. A world where abuse is normal, stupid, and easy and mostly done to the most vulnerable is too real and too depressing to fantasize about.
posted by idiopath at 11:50 AM on March 12 [7 favorites]


A guy who listens to classical music, can outsmart his most brilliant opponent, and commits crimes for complex internal reasons is exciting.

A boring guy who listens to top 40 and does shitty things to sex workers because he can get away with it is just sad. It's normal.
posted by idiopath at 11:54 AM on March 12 [16 favorites]


In the very same film, the true villain, Buffalo Bill listens to The Fall’s “Hip Priest” while pursuing Clarice through the basement.

And don't forget:
Goodbye horses
I'm flying over yoooouuu...

posted by Atom Eyes at 11:56 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


cf. Wicked Cultured (TV Tropes).
posted by escape from the potato planet at 12:04 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


A guy who listens to classical music, can outsmart his most brilliant opponent, and commits crimes for complex internal reasons is exciting.

See also playing Chess (or better, Go).
posted by leotrotsky at 12:05 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


Brian Cox being cast as a better Lecktor/Lecter

Cox genuinely terrified me in a way that Hopkins' cartoonish, scenery-chewing version never did. He was also good as the school principal in "Rushmore".
posted by thelonius at 12:35 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music because he is an intellectual aesthete. It’s not related to his villainy.

I think it is, though. There's an association of refinement of taste with depravity of taste (unmoored from moral or community standards), to the point that you would eat someone else's liver as a delicacy.
posted by praemunire at 12:49 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Classical music also conjures the ghosts of colonialism and the insatiable havok that it has brought.
posted by cazoo at 12:49 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


classical music is in the public domain

Not necessarily. The sheet music may be public domain but the recording is often not and still require licensing from the publisher.
posted by acidnova at 1:10 PM on March 12 [7 favorites]


There was all kinds of great, fun classical music in Golden Age movies. You had movies about teenagers wanting to meet Iturbi and Stokowski, there was Humoresque and Four Daughters and heck, even A Night at the Opera had legit crowd-pleasing classical numbers. We all know about classical music in cartoons, but Fantasia took it out of the subtext and put Stokowski right on the screen. I could go on and on.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:20 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Lecter's refined tastes were definitely in line with his whole thing about being an übermensch who was beyond good and evil; he ate people because most of them were little more than cattle, see. The funny thing was, the example of classical music cited in the article for him--Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (they don't specify whether it's the original or the re-recording that Gould did just before his death) is one of the best-selling classical music recordings of all time, at least one that's not featuring a crossover superstar like Pavarotti. It's still a great album, but not exactly a deep cut.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:25 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


The psychology of Gould's obsession with Bach and the mathematics of the Variations might make his recording more interesting to someone in Lecter's field.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:32 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


(aside from Brian Cox being cast as a better Lecktor/Lecter)

I do not think you want to get into a Lecter-off with Metafilter.

Anyway, I think it's the dissonance that twigs us. Villains that in some super obvious way demonstrate that they are not unthinking animals scare us more because it subverts our expectations. Yes, even now in 2019 as this trope has been done maaany times. A person who can behave like a monster but demonstrates the intellect and reflection of a self-actualized human being is terrifying.

I mean, if we're going to talk a lot about Hannibal (I WANT TO TALK A LOT ABOUT HANNIBAL, I JUST FINISHED A REWATCH) the whole notion of Art Murder (which is, like, not a thing that exists in real life) is very this. Ethics become aesthetics.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:41 PM on March 12 [9 favorites]


I greatly dislike the fact that Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has somehow anchored itself to the cliché 'Mad Scientist' (or in many cases 'Mad Engineer') stereotype.

"So you like Bach. Are you, like, one of those Mad Scientist types with a huge Tesla coil in your bedroom?"

"It's quite modest in size actually. Now stop squirming, it's making it difficult to align the probes."


Check your prejudices at the door people.
posted by flyingfox at 1:49 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


I prefer Huey Lewis and the News.

*Points finger and screams* EEEEEEEEEEE-VIIIIILLLLLLLL!!!
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:55 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Hello my baby, hello my honey,

In furtherance of the discussion about copyright extensions and public domain, it is instructive to reflect that the publishing of "Hello! Ma Baby" and the debut of "One Froggy Evening" are 56 years apart. Now for many people, the two are permanently fused together, which makes you wonder what songs we all know now will be inextricably associated with something else in a century.

It doesn't even have to be a song out of copyright. "Stuck In The Middle With You" certainly brings up Reservoir Dogs for many people, but most of us can still recall it being a one-hit wonder for a minor seventies band. On the other hand, I have trouble thinking that for a decade people would hear "As Time Goes By" and not think of Casablanca, because it had not been made yet. A world where one exists but not the other is hard for me to intuitively grasp.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:06 PM on March 12 [6 favorites]


Fantasia took it out of the subtext and put Stokowski right on the screen. I could go on and on.

"Long-Haired Hare" features Bugs Bunny imitating Stokowski. It's a joke that (understandably) flies over heads now.
posted by praemunire at 2:08 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


*To make a completely contrarian and un-researched argument:

Ayn Rand's romantic manifesto is a troubling, wonderful, troubling thing. For one, it bends the concept of 'romantic' around until the word is used to embrace its opposite. Also, it argues that art's primary duty is to condense truth into an explosive unit, as one might pack a bomb. While trying to kill the author (in an uncharacteristic move), she insists that good art be judged only on its ability to express deep truths without, perhaps in spite of, context. Along these lines, she manages to argue that folk music is designed for imbeciles and that the only form of dance that isn't a children's game is 'tap.' This is to say, she plays idiot-tyrant with the ideals of artistic expression to prop up her sense of intellectual purity. But while abstract art and expressionist dance confound the woman to her core, she claims to read deep meaning in classical music. The passion and precision of thought is so obviously laid bare in this medium that even AYN-CAPITAL-LETTERS-FUCKING-RAND feels that these compositions are explorations of an idealic firmament, rather than an ecstatic effluence she lumps in with other non-representational formats.

ahem...I mean that people who think they're smarter and more objective than they are do sometimes get snobby about classical music (see, I hate to say it: Kundera) or music in general (see, I hate to say it: everyone I loved or sought the approval of in highschool). And 'people who think they're smarter and more objective than they are' is what we've collectively decided on as a short hand for psychopathy.

*metafilter: to make a completely contrarian and un-researched argument
posted by es_de_bah at 2:38 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


All I can say is that using King Crimson's Starless at the start of Mandy was soooooo good.
posted by parki at 3:12 PM on March 12 [8 favorites]


A suitably large majority of classical music doesn't have words (at least not that you can easily sing along to unless you try really hard and learn a couple of languages and have vocal range or are religious). It makes good mood music by design.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:19 PM on March 12


Now for many people, the two are permanently fused together

See also: Wonderful! Wonderful! by Johnny Mathis, used in a certain infamous episode of the X-files. I feel like using campy retro love ballads as a creepy/ironic counterpoint to grisly acts of murder is possibly even a trope at this point. I know I’ve seen it done more recently on the show Castle Rock.
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:25 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


"Long-Haired Hare" features Bugs Bunny imitating Stokowski. It's a joke that (understandably) flies over heads now.

Leopold!
posted by Chuffy at 3:35 PM on March 12 [12 favorites]


So what's happened here is I've wound up wishing more Master and Commander movies could be made.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:52 PM on March 12 [7 favorites]


Now for many people, the two are permanently fused together

See also "The Dying Swan" and Béla Lugosi.

There is that whole Nazi/Wagner thing, and the whole racist shit about jazz "polluting" "white" music, so there may still be some of that floating around in the cinematic soup
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:21 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Nazis. Or, more accurately, the nationalist and romanticist forces that gave birth to Nazism also had Strong Opinions about music. Also, Germany's post WW1 revulsion against American culture. This meant that as the Nazis rose to power there was a decade or so in which one of the best known things about them was their insistence that some forms of music were acceptable, and some not. Jazz, for example, was very unacceptable, while Wagner was a profound expression of the Aryan spirit. The association of musical snobbery with Nazi leaders was reinforced when the US public learned that some concentration camp commanders had established their own slave-labor orchestras. Consequently, movie shorthand for "this person is a Nazi commandant" was a figure listening to classical music while people are being killed or worked to death -

Holocaust-era movies aren't as popular any more, but "wicked cultured" has spilled out into popular depictions of villains generally.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:48 PM on March 12 [10 favorites]


Much more generally, we tend to use music as a marker to identify who is one of "us", so a form of music that is well known but not popular is an easy way to show a character as "not quite right", an outsider or eccentric or enemy.
posted by idiopath at 4:52 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


just in case you reading my post...i don't know how sarcasm objectivist. Assume a lot. Like more than already assumed. Add two: that's how much I'm sarcastic.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:12 PM on March 12


Maybe millennials are repelled by classical music not for coherent reasons but by a vague sense of mistrust, nourished for decades by movies and media.

Maybe it’s because they work three jobs and still can barely afford rent, let alone a $250 ticket to the opera, you fucking cretin.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:21 PM on March 12 [8 favorites]


There is that whole Nazi/Wagner thing,

My understanding is that for a couple of generations, "Ride of the Valkyries" was inescapably the score to a KKK ride in Birth of a Nation; it has since been repurposed to be the score of a helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, of course. One film is at least less somewhat less horribly racist than the other. Bit by bit we pry culture away from the red hats.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:19 PM on March 12


Maybe it’s because they work three jobs and still can barely afford rent, let alone a $250 ticket to the opera, you fucking cretin.

Tickets to Broadway musicals and professional sports are comparably priced. Yet Knicks games and revivals of Starlight Express aren't widely used to evoke evil.
posted by Iridic at 7:19 PM on March 12 [9 favorites]


I like where the article came down: classic music taste as an expression of increasing inequality.

Note that the piece mentioned 1960s rock as a turning point away from popular immersion in classical. That's also right in the middle of the 20th century's "great compression," when US economic inequality was at a historical low point. Inequality started to take off around 1980 and has boomed ever since. Perhaps we associated rock and pop with the popular audience, letting classical move to the (wealthy, older) edge. Some movies picked up on that.
posted by doctornemo at 7:31 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Maybe it’s because they work three jobs and still can barely afford rent, let alone a $250 ticket to the opera, you fucking cretin.

Also, you can get opera tickets—at the Met!—for $25! They’re not great seats, but they’re significantly cheaper than the cheapest seats for a broadway show. Even pretty good box seats at the Met are usually around $60 or so—not inexpensive, but on par with most concerts and cheaper than non-nosebleeds for any team with a winning record.
posted by thecaddy at 8:13 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


Not to mention big discounts for students--the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has $15 tickets for some performances for students--and any number of free public performances in most of your big cities, and very reasonably priced performances in smaller cities that have them; I went to a really good performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in Peoria, and I forget what the ticket cost, but I'm pretty sure that it didn't break $20 (or not by much if it did). I also sang in the chorus of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, with no formal vocal training, when they did the Missa (I had had formal musical training before that, and sang in a church choir). I've ushered for performances and effectively gotten paid to go to concerts (well, and to take tickets, escort people to their seats, and give out programs, totally worth it).
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:15 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Maybe millennials are repelled by classical music not for coherent reasons but by a vague sense of mistrust, nourished for decades by movies and media.

Eh, any idiot can pick up a cheap guitar and learn to play rock. Four chords and you're done. Three even! If you want to play classical it's a whole lot more expensive, takes years, and you need like, a whole orchestra's worth of people. Even if you're playing chamber music or music scored for quartet you need to find at least three other people who can play the right instruments.

Popular music is very democratic. It's cheap to learn. You can sing along with it in the car, and you can get the same catharsis from it that people used to get from from a full symphony or an entire opera cast. It's got a much lower bar to participation. It was mentioned briefly that the abysmal state of music education is a contributing factor, and I think that's a bigger part of it than movie villains.
posted by Jilder at 12:06 AM on March 13


It's a common pattern for one culture to have two broad sorts of music, one that's fun, made for dancing, participatory, simple and builds community and another that's serious, difficult to play, esoteric, that establishes an elite or sophisticate status for both listeners and the few who are good enough to be performers.

A relatively novel thing is that we now record our fun dancing music accurately for posterity (and have machines that do so automatically even for untrained performers who aren't musically literate). There was pop music that poor people could learn easily and enjoy at parties in Bach's time, we just don't know it as well (and most of what we know comes from what the literate composers did with it, and what Mozart called "Turkish" should be a good hint of how accurate an impression that leaves).
posted by idiopath at 1:45 AM on March 13 [4 favorites]


Showing that a character appreciates the finer points of classical music is an easy shorthand for "this is a person of wealth and power, perhaps even an aristocrat".

We've been using the word "refined", but I think it's more accurate to say that classical music – fairly or not – is coded as "one of those unrelatable things that that rich people do for fun". Like opera, and eating pâté, and sculling. Sure – in real life, even people of lesser means are sometimes into classical music. But that's not how it's understood in the language of cinema. It's firmly established as a class marker.

And the association between villainy and aristocracy isn't exactly new. Dracula, any number of antagonists from Victorian-era literature, German barons and Nazi officers, mad kings and tyrants of all stripes, even 80s movies that cast Ivy League prep-school kids as the villains...the link has plenty of examples.

And if you have a brutal character, who enjoys being brutal, and whose brutality is enabled by their high social and economic class – then adding some familiar shorthand for "stuff that rich people do for fun" simply serves to reinforce that theme. "Look at this rich person, reveling in their strange rich-person pleasures, some of which involve wanton cruelty, which their privilege allows them to get away with". And the delicacy and elegance of the music serves as a contrast to the cruelty, thus throwing it into sharper relief. And suggests that the villain savors their cruel acts with a similar degree of spiritual involvement, thus making them seem even more monstrous.

That trope can bleed over (heh) into similarly cruel characters who aren't, necessarily, rich or aristocratic. (Maybe they just share the affectations and aspirations of the aristocracy.)

I dunno. It doesn't seem all that complicated to me. It's kind of a dumb TV shorthand, but that's kind of how TV works.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:41 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Although classical music has long been associated with a prosperous milieu, the massive media and advertising industries over the past 50 years transformed the image of the concert hall from a beacon of artistry into an emblem of exclusion. Symphonic music became a kind of shorthand for sneering affluence and institutionalized elitism.

If you only sell tickets at prices that the winners of a class war can afford that is what you get.
posted by srboisvert at 10:50 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I feel like using campy retro love ballads as a creepy/ironic counterpoint to grisly acts of murder is possibly even a trope at this point.

*cough*
posted by non canadian guy at 11:30 AM on March 13


If you only sell tickets at prices that the winners of a class war can afford that is what you get.

People keep saying this, but as an ex-official poor student, I can say that it is easier to afford tickets to the average classical music performance than to any pop concert (and they're only a bit more expensive than a movie ticket in the same city). The "Family Circle" at the Met--an entire level of the auditorium--is primarily the $25 tickets mentioned above. You can find similar seating somewhere around that price point for most classical performances that aren't explicitly special occasion galas or similar. And you can actually buy them.
posted by praemunire at 11:55 AM on March 13 [7 favorites]


And the association between villainy and aristocracy isn't exactly new. Dracula, any number of antagonists from Victorian-era literature, German barons and Nazi officers, mad kings and tyrants of all stripes, even 80s movies that cast Ivy League prep-school kids as the villains...the link has plenty of examples.

Yeah - the interesting thing is that in some kinds of stories the association of aristocracy and villainy is treated as natural, while in others it's an intentional contrast.
posted by atoxyl at 1:56 PM on March 13


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