The 10 Most Overused Songs in Movie History

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Talking to BFI a few years ago, Martin Scorsese said (and this is worth quoting at length): "It's very easy for the music to become a kind of security blanket, for the filmmakers and then for the audience. It's bad enough when it's used for nostalgic purposes, or when it's used to place a scene in time, but there's nothing worse than when music is used to tell the audience what they should be feeling. Unfortunately, it happens all the time." Music in movies can be great, but not when the songs become punch lines beaten into a tasteless pulp through years of overuse. It's not that the songs on this list are bad — many of them are still very good — but they've long since ceased being funny or serious or in any way meaningful in movies. Classical music's no exception, either. These melodies have become crutches, and they've turned into a kind of easy shorthand for filmmakers. It's time to retire them. Scorsese said so.

  1. "London Calling," The Clash

    The Clash were a fantastic punk band that formed at a pivotal time for rock music and shaped what was to come. They started blowing up in the U.K. in 1977, but it was 1979's London Calling, their third album, that took them to a new level of fame at home and abroad. Make no mistake, "London Calling" is a great song, a soaring, minor-key, doomsday tune that summed up fears about the future in a new way for young listeners. But it's since become a cheap go-to for movies looking to score a montage set in London. It's as if there's a California law requiring the song to be used every time a movie character heads to England. Do yourself a favor: skip those movies and stick with the record.

  2. "At Last," Etta James

    Etta James has a set of pipes like no other, and in her heyday she produced some of the best R&B/blues singles of the century. That's a fact. But listening to movies, you'd never know she's had a career spanning 60 years. You'd only know her for one song: "At Last," a 1960 recording of a song penned in 1941. Granted, James' powerhouse vocals make the song her own, and after hearing her sing it, it's impossible to imagine anyone else bringing the same mix of joy and yearning to the tune. But it's been used so often as a default romantic song that the novelty's worn off. Instead of being a real expression of story or character, it's a way for a filmmaker to telegraph that all is well and that you should applaud.

  3. "O Fortuna," Carl Orff

    It's in everything. Everything. You're humming it right now without knowing it. You know the song without remembering you know it. It's that popular. A medieval poem set to music by Carl Orff when he turned the Carmina Burana into a cantata in the 1930s, the song is a blasting mix of high drama, eerie choruses, and pulsing strings that seem destined to be set against visuals of football players, aliens, and everything in between. No one uses this song un-ironically anymore, either. It's always set against bad comedic montages or cheesy sports clips.

  4. "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (medley)," Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

    Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was a hit on the islands and not much more, but then his 1993 album Facing Future hit shelves. The record featured a medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," with "Iz" crooning in a gentle tenor while Hawaiian strings bobbed along. It was, essentially, the best made-for-ads song recorded to date, and it began to appear almost immediately in movies and TV series. It hit the saturation point when it was used in Adam Sandler's 50 First Dates, and it hasn't recovered since.

  5. "Low Rider," War

    Are you making a movie set in the 1970s and/or about marijuana consumption? Guess what, you're gonna put War's "Low Rider" on the soundtrack. The familiar horn blasts and guttural growl are instantly recognizable thanks to the song's use in dozens of film projects, from the period coming-of-age flick Dazed and Confused to the decidedly less emotionally resonant Baseketball and The Final Destination. It's one of the worst offenders in the category because no filmmaker ever really cares about the song, nor is any viewer ever excited to hear it. It's just a lazy way to telegraph era or attitude, without doing of the work of actually writing a movie.

  6. "Bad to the Bone," George Thorogood and the Destroyers

    When a filmmaker wants to communicate that his character is edgy — not actually dangerous or anything, just rough in a PG kind of way — this song gets fired up. Without fail. It's become a goofy joke to use George Thorogood's 1982 song in cornball comedies, largely because the song was never that tough to begin with. One of the most well-known uses: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 steals clothes and a motorcycle from some bikers and gets crazy.

  7. "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd

    So iconic, but so tired. Lynyrd Skynyrd's musical beef with Neil Young might be lyrically petty (and also weirdly supportive of, or at least ambiguous about, Gov. George Wallace), but it's a Southern rock classic thanks to its swampy sound and easy guitar groove. The problem is that the song's so popular it's usually the first one people think of when considering Southern rock, so it gets used in tons of movies to set a tone that's not wholly earned. It's used a lot in comedies and in brassy action movies like Con Air and Crimson Tide. Also, KFC ads. So there's that.

  8. "Let's Get it On," Marvin Gaye

    Such a fantastic soul classic that's been absolutely ruined by overuse in movies. Marvin Gaye was one smooth operator, and this 1973 track became a landmark song for couples looking to, let's say, spend some time together. But now it's in just about everything that comes out of Hollywood. If there's a slightly comedic love scene, rest assured this song will be played. The titles are too numerous to begin listing here; check out IMDb for a full rundown. Best use? High Fidelity.

  9. "Kung Fu Fighting," Carl Douglas

    "Kung Fu Fighting" was popular because, well, Americans like weird stuff and one-hit wonders. Martial arts movies and imports were taking off in the early 1970s, so Carl Douglas rode the zeitgeist to infamy. The downside is that one-hit wonders do not age well at all, and any future placement of the song in film skipped past comedic and went to ironic and sad. Like, everyone can sing the chorus to "Kung Fu Fighting," but no one actually thinks it's a good song. It's just a kind of groaner. The only acceptable use so far was in Bowfinger, an absurd Steve Martin comedy from 1999 that no one takes seriously anyway.

  10. "In the Hall of the Mountain King," Edvard Grieg

    Dating to 1873, the actual words that accompany the music are about gnomes, trolls, and mythical old kings, but that's not important. It's a bold, mostly minor-key piece that builds to speedy blasts of strings and winds, making it ideal for anything frenetic or scary. It's played a huge role in movie history, too, with its first film use in D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic Birth of a Nation and appearances in many works since. Peter Lorre's character whistled it in M; the Winklevi raced to a remix in The Social Network. It's a well-known and well-regarded piece, and that's why it's time to put it in the vault, or at least severely restrict its use. It's decent enough but just plain overplayed. Music in movies should create a new experience, not try to remind you of old ones. All apologies to Grieg's descendants, but this one has to go.

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