A comic-book movie, a heist movie, and a biopic about the Iran-Contra affair might not seem to have much in common, but in the new trailers for each of these movies, they’re all being sold the same way: with music that sounds an awful lot like Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.”
The first was the latest trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming, released the week before Memorial Day, which, around 1:20, begins to use music that could easily be mistaken for the Yeezus single:
The second, released over Memorial Day weekend, was the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s new movie Logan Lucky, which uses “Black Skinhead”–esque swinging drums right from the top:
The third is the trailer for the new Tom Cruise movie American Made, released earlier this week, which, starting around 25 seconds in, uses another piece of music that sounds a whole lot like “Black Skinhead” without actually being “Black Skinhead.”
Though the release of these three trailers in quick succession represents an unprecedented flood of “Black Skinhead”–ish sound-alikes into the market, they’re not the first. In fact, the intertwined history of “Black Skinhead” and movie trailers began before the song was even released. The studio version of the song first appeared not on Yeezus but the day before that album’s official release, when the track debuted in the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street.
That trailer, thanks in part to West’s music, became a sensation, spawning countless parodies and mashups—and soon other advertisers began to get in on that action. For Netflix’s take on Richie Rich, the streaming service released a trailer that appeared to be edited as a parody of the trailer for Wolf of Wall Street, complete with its own “Black Skinhead” sound-alike:
Around the same time, other trailers began to use mashups and remixes. The first trailer for Neighbors 2, for example, used “Black Skinhead” in a more fittingly collegiate, marching band–style cover version, which Shazam identifies as being performed by lesser-known artists Jacques, THURZ, and El Prez. (It starts around 0:49.)
The second trailer for Charlize Theron’s action vehicle Atomic Blonde, meanwhile paired “Black Skinhead” with Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” (The songs had been mashed together in various versions as early as 2013, when Dan Chamberlain posted his mashup “Personal Yeezus.”)
Using Kanye West songs to soundtrack movie trailers is nothing new. “Power” has been used in advertisements for everything from The Social Network to Limitless to, most recently, the Power Rangers reboot. By 2011, the song was used in so many video game trailers that the phrase “No One Trailer Should Have All This Power” became its own miniature meme. After that, “No Church in the Wild” became the next favorite, and recently “Wolves” has started to nip at these other songs’ heels.
But what’s most unusual about these most recent trailers is not that they’re using “Black Skinhead,” but rather that they’re not quite using it. Instead, many of them seem to be using what is commonly called a sound-alike. A sound-alike is, most broadly, anything that sounds like anything else, but in advertising, the term often specifically refers to songs commissioned by ad agencies and movie trailer production houses to sound like other songs while changing enough of the composition to avoid copyright infringement.
One of the more well-known examples of a sound-alike is a piece of music used in an Apple commercial that was reminiscent of Shamir’s breakthrough single “On the Regular.” The recording is instead a song called “Hey Hi Hello” by a group called Hollywood Life, and if you’ve never heard of Hollywood Life, you’re far from alone: The previously unknown group consists of three songwriters who, as Sony noted at the time, “all have a great track record of placing songs in film, TV, and commercials.” In another controversy, a Volkswagen ad used a piece of music that sounded to many fans like the dream-pop song “Take Care” by the indie duo Beach House. Volkwagen and its ad agency, DDB, had repeatedly asked Beach House for permission to use the song in the ad. Beach House turned them down each time, and they used a song created by the music-production team Sniffy Dog instead. (Volkswagen denied that the soundtrack was composed to deliberately imitate the song.)
Shazam tells me that the “Black Skinhead” sound-alike used in the Logan Lucky trailer originated from a similar group of musicians. It’s a recording called “Down We Go” by a group called With Lions, and though the track was released in 2015 and therefore couldn’t have been written for this trailer, the band doubles as a production team that makes music for advertisements and is putting out an album of movie trailer cues.
The instrumental music in the Spider-Man trailer, meanwhile, comes from a much more well-known song, the 2015 single “Confident” by pop star Demi Lovato. While this song, similarly, wasn’t written for this trailer, its similarities to “Black Skinhead” were immediately noted by critics, with side-by-side comparisons posted to YouTube.
When it comes to the music for the American Made and Richie Rich trailers, Shazam was stumped. We reached out to the distributors behind these two trailers earlier this week to ask what the music was and why they selected it, but so far they have yet to identify the songs.
Distinguishing a deliberate sound-alike from a coincidental sound-alike is always a tricky business, since sound-alikes can be more or less designed to give the advertiser and the production house plausible deniability. (Licensing remixes and cover versions, meanwhile, can also be easier and cheaper than securing permission to use the original recording, though that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.)
Further muddying the waters might be the fact that “Black Skinhead” itself seemed to be inspired by Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” or the Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You,” depending on who you asked. Not only is it tricky to prove an inspiration, but these trailers could have been inspired by one or more of these other songs. (In fact, before “Black Skinhead” was ever released, the Black Keys sued a casino owner for using music that sounded similar to “Howlin’ for You.”)
If there’s any sin here, it may be simply a lack of originality. It’s no secret that whenever Hollywood finds a formula for success, it milks it for all it’s worth, and that applies to trailer music as much as it does to sequels and reboots: Recent clichés in movie trailer music have included everything from Inception-style blaring foghorns to slowed-down covers of pop songs to overusing the music of (of all the groups in the world) Imagine Dragons. If nothing else, it’s past time for Hollywood to move on to finding the next formula.