Fall 2011, Volume 11

Nonfiction by John Coggin

Social Network Sonics

The Social Network was the film darling of 2010 for the Facebook-crazed millennial generation. Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor and English musician Atticus Ross composed the film’s score, to the chagrin of many film music aficionados eager to see industry veterans like James Horner, Hans Zimmer, or Danny Elfman tackle the meaty material. Perhaps it’s appropriate that an industry outsider score a film about an outsider’s war against insiders. The film details the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg’s vengeful but inventive social and economic ascension to his current status as the world’s youngest billionaire. The Academy Awards judges seemed to think so; they gave The Social Network an Oscar for Best Original Score, conferring instant credibility on the Reznor-Ross collaboration.

The Oscars, however, always stimulate recrimination from film fans as much as appreciation. We can still ask ourselves, what are the failures of The Social Network score? The value of this open-ended musical debate is what it tells about Facebook as an invention—when it comes to defining what Facebook means to us as a society, we’re nowhere.

Critics of The Social Network’s score point to its lack of cohesive themes or cues—they call it “forgettable.” Melody is indeed scant in this musical fog. The closest to a main title is the opening tracked played over a montage of Mark Zuckerberg running across Harvard campus to his dorm room after breaking up with his girlfriend. The sad title consists of triplets of piano notes, interposed by low-register synthesizer tones, all at a lumbering pace suggestive of a funeral procession or a slasher flick—anything other than a college campus or a racing imagination like Zuckerberg’s. The title would perhaps best accent a quiet fireside night reading Baudelaire or Sartre.

Other potential themes often try to exploit what sound like Nintendo special effects as melody over a pumping bass, like a techno nightclub. The composers process and distort the power chords and pinch harmonics on their guitar tracks that they become background noise. They especially lose relevance set against scenes with rapid-fire Sorkin dialogue and well-directed emotional tension. Processing and manipulation doesn’t necessarily muffle music; U2’s The Edge has produced some of the most processed, echoed chords in rock history. Who could imagine a better soundtrack for Bono’s honeyed wailings on the classic album The Joshua Tree?

So, what should the music of Facebook sound like? Let’s consider some recent film scores that evoke similar themes in a different manner.

James Horner’s score for A Beautiful Mind beautifully mixes themes of despair and intellectual questing. It specifically aims to capture the wonder of mathematical wisdom, the underpinning of so much computer science. Powerful solo vocal work unifies most of the “genius themes” like “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics,” while double-time, jazzy piano builds to crescendo after crescendo—denoting the disparate puzzle pieces of an idea locking together in one mind. Elsewhere in the score, on tracks like “Nash Descends Into Parcher’s World,” mournful vocals and wandering, rich string progressions create an atmosphere for long-term mental illness.

But however elegantly it tells the musical tale of mental architecture and demolition, A Beautiful Mind does not relate to the Computer Age thematically like The Social Network. Nor does Good Will Hunting, scored by Danny Elfman, target the rapid pace of the digital age in its music so much as the general theme of genius and its burdens. Not just keyboards and IQ tests but social experimentation and reinvention are necessary for film to compare well thematically to The Social Network.

Robocop, scored by the late, great Basil Poledouris, describes social experimentation by supposedly ingenious engineers and its potential for ultraviolent results. Its mix of mechanical and classical music attests to the title hero’s alienation and angst in a world that tried to prolong his life but end his humanity. But like the similar industrial score to The Terminator, the themes in Robocop are too violent and apocalyptic to be anything closer than a cousin to The Social Network.

Perhaps the film closest thematically to The Social Network in recent cinema is Christopher Nolan’s Inception, one of its competitors for an Oscar for best original score. The latter’s exploration of dream ideation and lost love in the information age, scored by Hans Zimmer, relies more on classic music than Network, but they both process their traditional sounds heavily to establish and re-establish a dark, imperious tone. The score to Inception is the grander of the two, befitting a film about something as abstract as dreams. The Social Network focuses on one young man’s prickly, mischievous mind at full intellectual gallop—it profiles intimately one dreamer, Mark Zuckerberg, rather than a team of them.

Another similar film to The Social Network is Wall Street; both concern corporate intellectual espionage. Despite his dramatic and comedic unraveling in The Social Network, Zuckerberg still owns and runs Facebook; his personality may not resemble Gordon Gekko’s but both frontmen are big enough businessmen for their own musical theme or a medley of cues. The hazy, harrowing orchestral title to Wall Street, composed by Stewart Copeland, is an appropriate template soundscape for an expose of malefactors of corporate greed.

Maybe critiquing the musical mood of Facebook is so hard because, as the fictionalized version of Napster founder Sean Parker warns in The Social Network, we don’t know what Facebook is yet. The film literally concerns one college student’s loneliness sometimes vengeful and sometimes brilliant reactions to this pain. But this history is so recent that it sounds more like a Facebook status update than history.

The Winklevoss brothers in the film tried to limit the prototypical website to the Harvard College dating scene—and saw Mark Zuckerberg’s vision expand the idea into a global phenomenon. The website is not simply a search engine with e-mail services—like Google or Yahoo. Facebook expands and changes from month to month; venture capitalists, or “VCs” as they’re called in The Social Network, would surely still call Zuckerberg’s company an immature enterprise. The Social Network aptly concentrates on Facebook’s founding and intellectual copyright conflicts. But greater legal fights loom on the horizons over privacy rights, corporate power, and cyber-terrorism. Trying to explain—and therefore limit—Facebook is as fruitless as trying to explain the internet.

The Social Network score has entered the cultural mainstream thanks to the Oscars. But the best music to describe the Facebook technological revolution remains unwritten.



BIO: John Dos Passos Coggin graduated from Yale University in 2005 and obtained a masterís degree in public policy at University of Maryland in 2009. He completed his first book, an authorized biography of former Florida U.S. senator and governor Lawton Chiles, in summer 2010; he is currently shopping for a publisher. Currently, he works as a freelance writer and political consultant in Annapolis, MD.