Robot rock: how to use the music in HBO’s Westworld to untangle the plot

18 October 2018

Robot rock: how to use the music in HBO’s Westworld to untangle the plot

Listen closely, those soft piano tunes accompanied by a classical orchestra in Westworld (2016-current, Seasons 1 and 2 are on Showmax) isn’t just there to soothe your soul. It’s much more calculated than that.

Westworld is a scripted theme-park for the sleazy super-rich to get sick kicks in an R-rated Disneyland that’s jazzed up with a cheap Western veneer.

“What is so great about using popular songs by Nirvana, Rolling Stones, The Wu-Tang Clan and The White Stripes to name a few instead of a normal series music score is that they are known melodies, which enhances the idea that this is all scripted,” explains series musical director Ramin Djawadi, who is also the musical director of Game of Thrones (2011-current, Seasons 1-7 are on Showmax).

“Season 1 of Westworld was full of pop references that, decoded, added context for the storylines,” says Ramin.

For example, in the first episode of Season 1, there was an ominous warning for the series from rock group Soundgarden with a piano version of their mega hit Black Hole Sun. In the original version, singer Chris Cornell sings “Times are gone for the honest man” and there are not many honest men in Westworld. The park corrupts them and brings the worst of the worst out in them.

HBO's Westworld S1-2 is on Showmax

Image: HBO

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Series creator and executive producer Jonathan Nolan adds, “We just loved the idea of being able to take advantage of popular music but recast it as something that you’d feature in the Old West. And we love the player piano as the symbol of the hosts (robots) themselves, but as a symbol for the kind of collision of the Old West and the modern world. The songs teach viewers how to read a scene.”

So, without skipping a beat, here’s a breakdown of the meaning of five of the most popular songs in Westworld Season 2.

The opening

The most iconic track from the series is the mysterious opening theme for Seasons 1 and 2.

“One of the main things that Jonathan and I discussed was that he wanted some sense of assembly,” says Ramin. “You see in the visual how the robots are assembled and he wanted the same with the music. We start off very small and we just have this little violin and then the cello. Then the piano comes in and more and more instruments enter as it shows how delicately the robots are assembled to the full-blown final product as they rise out of the white milky substance. Obviously, mood wise, we just have a bit of the mystery and there are so many terms I can use to describe the overall show – I guess the danger, the adventure. All of that is supposed to be captured in the 1:45-long opening theme.”

Episode 1

The first episode shows utter chaos as Dolores makes her Season 2 debut on a horse as she rides through scattered bodies outside the Mariposa saloon, gunning down guests in tuxedos and gowns, while in the background Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer plays. “The song is all about control and power, and now Delores has the power and she’s using it to enact carnage,” explains Ramin.

Episode 2

James Delos’s son Logan is mingling at a party when he learns what Westworld really is. Softly in the background Kanye West’s song Runaway is humming through the speakers. Logan would have probably fled from the party feeling guilty of introducing the concept to his dad in the first place. It’s also a sort of foreshadowing by using this song at that time. In the song Kanye raps, “Baby I’ve got a plan, run away fast as you can.” Very appropriate for the scene, don’t you think?

Episode 3

Foot-tapping head-banging song Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes is stripped down to its core. The sitar version is fitting as the viewers are introduced to the Westworld version of British-occupied India. One interpretation could be that it’s about beating an army, several armies in the series, in order for the one side or the other to win and eventually reign supreme.

Episode 4

Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box symbolises the love story of Ghost Nation leader Akecheta and his beloved Kohana, two characters in the Western-most storyline of Westworld. They are the original robots who haven’t been killed or updated, so they’ve learnt to love each other deep in their computer code. They also prefer peace to violence. Akecheta is locked in Kohana’s Heart-Shaped Box forever. Ramin’s version of the song features a sombre piano, eventually accompanied by violins and other strings before moving into a full orchestra rendition that builds up before decreasing again to a single instrument. True love at its best.

Episode 5

A short instrumental rendition of hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) is heard as a geisha, Madame Akane, dances for her enemy before releasing a hellish fury upon him. It is applicable to the owners of the theme park who do everything they do for money. Interestingly, RZA, a member of Wu-Tang Clan, is also a big fan of martial arts movies.

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