Free-ads - Forum News and columns Features & Interviews Film links Calendar dates for festivals Contact details Statistical Info Funding Info
site web
About Netribution Contact Netribution Search Netribution
interviews / reviews / how to / short shout / carnal cinema / film theory / whining & dining
netribution > features > essays >

by laurence boyce | september 7 , 2001

"I didn’t know you liked The Delfonics":
How does the way Quentin Tarantino’s characters talk about and react to music relate to the manner in which that music is heard in his films?

"... pop music can serve as a film’s memory, instantaneously linking it with its audience, tapping into a nostalgic past or fixing the film firmly in the present."i

The use of pop music in the cinema has been prevalent since the mid 1950’s and, as the above quote illustrates, is often seen as an integral part of the way in which an audience can read a film. What makes pop music so interesting in relation to the cinema is that, unlike a film score, it will often not be composed especially for a film. Instead it pre-exists (i.e. not be written specifically for the film) and will often be chosen by a director to accompany a scene. Some may claim that the use of pop songs in films is simply commercial: what better way to advertise a film, and earn more money, than have a song that is associated with the film on a best-selling soundtrack or single? Whilst I agree that this is often the case, it still seems that pop songs are, at points, integrally bound up to the narratives of some films. Immediately this raises a number of interesting questions. Could we say that pop music works in a different way from traditionally composed score and, if so, why? Does the fact that a piece of pop music will often ‘pre exist’ have an effect upon this. What is it that informs the choice of a specific piece of pop music within a film? I will attempt to analyse these questions by looking at how Quentin Tarantino uses pop music throughout his films. I believe that Tarantino is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, all of Tarantino’s films are scored by pop music. Secondly, and something that I think is especially interesting, is the fact that part of Tarantino’s work is typified by the way in which his characters actually discuss pop music. It is this cultural element expressed in his films is something that I shall examine first.

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, Miramax, USA, 1991) begins with a black screen and the following line:

"‘Like a Virgin’ is all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The whole song is a metaphor for big dicks"

Suddenly, a man, later revealed to be Mr Brown (Quentin Tarantino), is revealed to us as the one making this statement and we find ourselves at a diner where a group of men are having a debate about the songs of Madonna. Here we can see how we have been introduced to the characters in the film by the fact that they are discussing music. This discussion has begun to define their relationships before we even know who these people are. The fact that they banter about the true meaning of ‘Like a Virgin’ or express shock at somebody who doesn’t know the song ‘True Blue’ implies that they have a close friendship. When we discover later on in the film that these people hardly know one another then we can tell that this discussion about music has in fact brought the characters together. We can also see something similar occurring in Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, Miramax, USA, 1997). At one point Jackie (Pam Grier) mentions her love of The Delfonics to Max (Robert Forster). Later on we see Max in a record shop buying a Delfonics album and then listening to it in his car. It is as if, vicariously through the music, Max is attempting to get closer to Jackie. But it is not only the characters in the films whose relationship is being defined by this discourse around pop music. It is also our relationship to the characters. We could find ourselves agreeing with Mr Brown’s rather interesting interpretation of ‘Like a Virgin’ or liking Jackie because of her taste in music. We are partly relating to the characters because of their taste in music. Simon Frith claims that pop music is often an integral part of how we define ourselves and our tastes. As he points out:

"‘We all hear the music we like as something special, as something that defies the mundane, takes us ‘out of ourselves’, puts us somewhere else. ‘Our music’ is, from this perspective, special not just with reference to other music but, more importantly, to the rest of life ... Music constructs our sense of identity through the experiences it offers of the body, time and sociability"ii

If discourse around popular music is something that is a part of defining identity then this discourse must also be shared in culture. This is because part of this definition must come from how we compare ourselves to other people. In simple terms it could be described as: "I like this piece of pop music whereas this other person doesn’t". This shared discourse then creates the way in which we think about pop music as something that is, in the words of Frith, "... a jumble of references and assumptions, (a fusion) of musical, cultural, historical and cinematic allusions"iii . Pop music then is loaded with meaning, it has a cultural specificity. A song could have a meaning outside of its lyrics and tune, conjuring up connections with a time, place or event that it does not necessarily refer to. This is just not limited to specific songs. A style of song, or perhaps even the artist of a song, could also carry these culturally specific codes. I think that this idea of the importance of the discourse around pop music is crucial to examine for two reasons. Firstly, I think that the way in which the characters talk about music in Tarantino’s films reveal partly how the discourse around pop music works within a culture. Mark Kermode mentions how dialogue from Tarantino’s films is included on his soundtracks and notes:

" the case of Pulp Fiction it seems likely that a large proportion of Tarantino fans would have known whole speeches before they even saw the film thanks to the high profile release of MCA’s soundtrack album"iv

We can see how both the film’s music and its narrative seem linked even outside the film itself. Secondly, and most importantly, this idea of the cultural specificity of pop music has a huge impact on the way that pop music works within a film. I have already mentioned how much pop music will exist before a film is made and simply inserted into the soundtrack and this is true of the music in Tarantino’s films. However what we can also see that there is much more than a commercial imperative at work here. He chooses some songs for a specific reason. For example the playing of "Girl you’ll be a woman soon" over Mia’s (Uma Thurman) dancing in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, Miramax, USA, 1994) is actually specified in the script. Tarantino himself has said:

"...if I start to seriously consider the idea of doing a movie, I immediately try to find out what would be the right song to be the opening credit sequence even before I write the movie"v

So, why does Tarantino choose a particular song? What is it about a piece of pop music that could possibly make us examine a scene in a different way and how exactly does this work?

Thus we can say that there is a chance that pop songs, as they have a cultural specificity before a film is even made, can bring a new level of meaning into the narrative of a film. For example look at the extensive use that Jackie Brown makes of soul and funk. Soul and funk are often associated with the blaxploitation films of the 70’s and the film is often seen as a homage to those films. Therefore we can see how a type of pop music, not necessarily a specific song, is being used to evoke associations with a particular type of genre and a specific time in history. However this evocation of the 70’s also come from the fact that the main character is played by Pam Grier, famous for her roles in blaxploitation films, or the fact that it is based on a book by Elmore Leonard , an author famous for his crime novels of the 70’s. Therefore we can see that the pop music is not necessarily the factor that is ultimately responsible for evoking a certain mood but, as it is part of the complex set of cultural relationships that I mentioned earlier, it is an integral part. But what I would say is that Tarantino uses the cultural specificity of pop songs in a very precise manner. He very rarely chooses songs and artists that are generally regarded as being extremely well known as opposed to a film such as True Romance (Tony Scott, Miramax, USA 1993)vi , which was based on a script by Tarantino. We could argue that the songs that Tarantino chooses are extremely well known to himself and that’s why they are chosen. However, could the argument be made that Tarantino is attempting to avoid songs which could perhaps bring too much ‘outside influence’ onto a film? Look at the scene in Pulp Fiction set in Zed’s shop. Maria McKee’s "If Love is a Red Dress" is a given a minor status compared to the rest of the songs in the film by being relegated to being barely audible on a portable radio. It is as if Tarantino does not want us to notice the presence of McKee, who at the time of the film was a major recording artist, and her song. Tarantino appears to be attempting to ‘filter’ the types of cultural messages that we could get from a song. As Jonathan Romney and Adrian Wootton argue:

"Arguably...Tarantino’s use of the Revels surf number ‘Comanche’ for Bruce Willis’ big revenge sequence in Pulp Fiction appeals not at all to our knowledge of surf music and the way it’s been used in the film. It works purely as score - because of the dynamics, because the rasping sax is a chainsaw"vii

He seems to be very aware of the role of the music in his films and appears adept at manipulating its use. I think that this can be seen in the way that many songs that are used in his films are now solely associated with his films. Ask a question about ‘Stuck in the Middle with You" and most people’s reply would include something about Reservoir Dogs. As Tarantino himself says:

"If a song in a movie is used really well, as far as I’m concerned, that movie owns that song, it can never be used again"viii

It is as if Tarantino has been able to take a pop song and manipulate it to somehow make it ‘his’. So, the question that must be asked now is how is this manipulation affecting the film? To understand this I believe that we must now look at how he applies the music to the narrative.

Let’s examine a couple of sequences in Pulp Fiction. Initially, there is a scene at Jackrabbit Slim’s when both Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia dance to Chuck Berry’s ‘You never can tell’. Previously we have seen an awkward relationship between the two: they hardly know one another and feel uncomfortable. Mia then forces Vincent to enter a dance competition with her. On the dancefloor they move together in perfect harmony. Returning to Mia’s house, after winning the competition, Mia dances to "Girl you’ll be a Woman soon" and then accidentally overdoses on drugs. I think that throughout this sequence of events the music plays an important part in commenting upon the narrative. Part of the reason for this is that the music is actually danced to. Throughout these sequences Tarantino uses a lot of close up on the characters which suggests a close relationship between them and the music. With this then established the lyrics of the music seem to comment upon what is happening and what is also going to happen. The actual lyrics "You never can tell" seems to refer to the relationship between Vincent and Mia. After their initial discomfort with each other we are surprised to see how comfortable they are in dancing together. It also seems to refer to what is going to happen, namely Vincent being forced to get Mia out of her drug induced coma. The upbeat tempo of the song also seems to define their relationship as something that is now enjoyable. Compare this with the use of "Girl you’ll be a woman soon": both the lyrics and the almost mournful feeling to the song seems to warn us of Mia’s impending danger. We can also see this kind of ‘commenting’ about onscreen action in Reservoir Dogs. When a policeman is captured and subsequently beaten up, Joe Tex’s "I Gotcha" plays on the soundtrack. Again, it appears that the pop music is adding levels of meaning to the narrative. Kermode notes:

"Tarantino ... knows that the exact placement of a song within a movie can shape and change the nature of the on-screen story"ix

It also seems that there is some sort of irony at play here: we begin to discover things about the narrative and characters that they don’t know themselves. At one point in Pulp Fiction Butch (Bruce Willis) sits in his car listening to the radio which is playing The Statler Brothers "Flowers on the wall". In the song there is a line "Smokin’ cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo" which Butch sings along to. It seems to tell us a lot about him and reinforces what we have known about Butch for a long time: he is a combination of the childlike and the adult. He is singing along to a bouncy pop tune and a few moments later he is purposefully running somebody over with his car. However, I think that the relationship between the music and character / narrative works on other levels besides the ones that I have just mentioned. What we have seen here is how the characters listen to music: more often than not it is on a radio or being played by a band. This leads me on to the question of the how the songs in Tarantino’s films are placed within the diegesis.

I think a crucial part of this is related to a point that I made earlier about how Tarantino can manipulate the pop songs within his films. The songs he uses are mainly from the 60’s and 70’s and evoke memories from that era. Yet his films are all set in the present day. Thus note how he mainly makes use of diegetic music (i.e. that within the world of the film, such as on a radio) throughout his films. Also note how, within the narrative itself, he gives us reasons for the songs to be there. So, in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino doesn’t just have the pop songs playing from the radio. He also creates the "K-Billy’s Super Sounds of The Seventies" programme that would give a reason for the songs to be played in the first place. This whole process suggests that Tarantino is worried that non-diegetic music would send the wrong ‘message’. The 70’s feel created by the music would clash with a narrative that is set in the 90’s. It seems that Tarantino is ‘keeping the music under control’. He is making sure that it is helping to inform a film but is also ensuring that it never becomes a dominant factor. Notice the opening credit sequence to Pulp Fiction. As the credits roll, Dick Dale’s ‘Mirislou’ plays. This 50’s style surf music makes us wonder about what we are going to see: Is it set in the 50’s perhaps?. Suddenly the music is tuned out and replaced by Kool and the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’. This continues to play for a few seconds until the credits are replaced by Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent in a car. We discover that the songs we have just heard emanate from the car stereo. The volume of the song goes down as it now becomes subordinate to the conversation between Jules and Vincent. This suggests that the ‘tuning out’ of ‘Misirlou’ was done by either Jules or Vincent. I think that this is an important point as it seems to indeed indicate that non-diegetic music has some sort of power over how we relate to a film. In the opening sequence this seemingly non-diegetic music goes into diegetic and becomes subordinate to other factors within the film. The influence of the music still remains but it is never all encompassing. By placing the majority of the music in the diegesis, he gives the physical control of that music to the characters. Music is never allowed to overcome other elements of the film unless the characters allow it to do so. I think that, importantly, the traditionally difficult task of determining where the music comes with the diegesis is being played around with in Tarantino’s films. Frith notes:

"If, for example, the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction refers to the source of a sound, then this is not just a question of what we can actually see in a scene but of what we might expect to see as part of the film’s realistic ‘soundscape’"x

I think that Tarantino uses this expectation and makes the audience aware that the music is there rather than just having the music work upon the audience at a subconscious level. In a way then, it could be said that the audience have some form of control of the music that is heard. Look at the credit sequence of Reservoir Dogs. After the scene in the diner is finished the screen goes to black and we hear a DJ (Steven Wright) introduce ‘Little Green Bag’ by The George Baker Selection and the credit sequence begins with the characters slowly walking as the music plays. Where the music comes within the diegesis is unsure: the DJ introduction would suggest that it comes from the world of the film yet it is not sourced. However this implication of the control that both character and audience have over the music suggests they are as aware of it as we are. As they seem to move along in time with it, it seems that the music is there because they want it to be. Again the music has been subordinated to character. I think that all this links back into this idea of the discourse that surrounds pop music that Tarantino uses in a very knowing way. The audience actively engages with the music so that they may actually question what it might mean in terms of the characters or story. Go back to the examples I gave about how songs are used to comment on the narrative. One of the reasons that I think that Tarantino’s films can successfully do this is because of this awareness that the audience has of the songs within the films themselves and, by association, the discourse that surrounds them in society. Thus there seems to be a very special relationship at work here. The music is creating a link between the characters and the audience. I think that Tarantino utilises this link and so I am going to look at ideas of how we as an audience might be complicit in a scene.

Perhaps the most famous scene in a Tarantino film is the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. Famed for its gruesomeness it is interesting to note that all the actual violence that occurs in that scene (specifically the cop [Kirk Baltz] having his ear sliced off) happens off camera. Equally interesting to note is that the sequence is also famed for the fact that it is done to the accompaniment of Stealers Wheel’s "Stuck in the Middle with You". Could there in fact be a correlation between the two? The sequence begins with the cop tied to a chair and gagged whilst Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) prepares to torture him. He switches on the radio, and turns it up. At this point the song becomes very dominant on the soundtrack. He then proceeds to dance around the cop whilst singing along to Stealers Wheel. Initially the music helps to show how helpless the cop actually is by emphasising the amount of control Mr Blonde has: he can dance, sing and generally torment the cop. But, if we think back to how the music links the audience with the character, then it emphasises how much control we have over the cop. We can sing along if we like, or tap our feet if we are so inclined. At one point Mr Blonde asks the cop whether he likes the music. He obviously can’t answer. We can. There is a discourse about music being conducted in the midst of this violent situation. To be aware of the music would mean that we are taking part in this discourse even if it is only in a small way. The fact that Mr Blonde is talking about the song may have turned our attention to that. He then pulls out a razor and proceeds to cut the cop’s ear off. I don’t think the shocking thing about this scene is the act of violence itself. I think that it is the fact that we perhaps realise that we were thinking about the catchy tune we are hearing and not caring about the plight of a helpless man making us much like Mr Blonde. As Jonathan Jones says:

"He (Mr Blonde) does his torture as a dance to the music. It’s only when the spell of the music is over that we are freed ..." xi

Thus we have been complicit in somebody’s brutal torture thanks to our concentration on the music and how it has made us engage with Mr Blonde. It seems as if Tarantino has taken a radical incongruity: the torture and the bouncy pop song and made us choose what to be interested in. What does that say about us when we choose the bouncy pop song? Also note how the scene continually emphasises Mr Blonde’s control of the music and its link with the violence that is occurring. As we follow Mr Blonde in a brief trip outside the warehouse the music leaves the soundtrack immediately, which exaggerates its presence (i.e. As Mr Blonde moves away from the radio the volume does not gradually get quieter. One minute we can hear, the next minute we can’t). For a brief moment Mr Blonde has stepped into the ‘real world’ away from the violence and, by association, away from the music. As soon as he re-enters the song immediately returns to the soundtrack and he again dances as he throws gasoline over his helpless victim. Here I think the music is used as a form of entrapment: have us enjoy ourselves and then shock us by showing how uncaring we can be. Yet he can also use it to reassure us. In Jackie Brown O’Dell (Samuel L. Jackson) forces Max to drive him to Jackie. On the car stereo Max’s tape of The Delfonics plays to which O’Dell remarks: "I didn’t know you liked The Delfonics". However, we do and also know Jackie’s love of the band. This shared relationship, that O’Dell is obviously not a part of with the implication being that his control has diminished, suggests that Max and Jackie may not be in so much danger after all.

When analysing the use of pop music in films, it can immediately be seen that there are a number of complex relationships at work. In trying to understand how a piece of pop music works within a film one must also try to understand the kind of cultural codes that piece of music will bring with it. It can be difficult as it sometimes seems as if there is a never-ending set of references with which to deal with. Film can often be a cultural reference for pop songs and vice versa. However I think that Tarantino’s films provide us with an excellent example of how this kind of discourse works within a society. We see how his characters talk about and react to pop music and understand how this discourse is often a way of understanding not just pop music but other people as well. Crucially I think that Tarantino has a good understanding of how this discourse works and uses it to great effect during the course of his films. Note how the main characters of his films are typically gangsters, thieves, murderers and the like. Yet, rather than being turned off by them, we engage with them perhaps even liking a lot of them. The way in which they talk about music gives us a chance to understand them better. Of course, Tarantino also closely ties the pop music in with the narratives of his films, and that plays a large part in our engagement with his films. I think that we have also seen how Tarantino ‘restrains’ the use of pop music so that it never ‘overloads’ a film whilst remaining an integral part of it. This could perhaps go some way to suggesting the differences between a traditionally composed score as a opposed to a pop comprised score: pop music perhaps works on many different levels and, to be truly successful within a film, has to be ‘handled correctly’. Ultimately I think that Tarantino is extremely adept at using pop music within his films which, in turn, makes his work endlessly fascinating.


Frith, S . 1996. Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music. Oxford. Oxford University Press

Frith, S. 1984. "Mood Music" Screen (Vol 25, No.3) Pgs 78-89

Jones, J. 2000. "The Sound Of Violence" The Guardian (14/04/00)

Kermode, M. 1995. "Endnotes" Sight and Sound (Feb ‘95) Pg 62

Kermode, M. 1995. "Twisting the knife" in Romney and Wootton, 1995. Pgs 9 -19

Romney, J and Wootton, A. (eds.) 1995. Celluloid Jukebox: Popular Music and the movies since the 50’s London. BFI Publishing

Romney, J and Wootton, A. 1995. "Introduction" in Romney and Wootton. 1995. Pgs 1 - 7

Romney, J and Wootton, A. 1995. "Interview with Quentin Tarantino" in Romney and Wootton 1995. Pgs 131-139

Tarantino, Q. 1994. Pulp Fiction. London . Faber and Faber

Tarantino, Q. 1994. Reservoir Dogs. London. Faber and Faber


Quentin Tarantino - Use of Music
by Laurence Boyce

Stanley Kubrick - Shooting the Magic
by Jonathan Key

Scorsese and Eastern Mysticism
by Seamus Enright

Is Catwoman a Replicant? - Tim Burton and the New Bad Future
by Jonathan Davenport

An Analysis of the Opening of Fargo
by Jonathan Davenport

Boxing Clever - essay on Raging Bull
by Lisa Sabbage

Vladimir Propp and the Universality of Narrative
by Will da Shamen

Le Mepris and The Modernist Aesthetic
by Will da Shamen

Gilliam's Battle for Brazil
by Laurence Boyce

Nikita & The Assasin - Hollywood vs Europe
by Will da Shamen

Jerry Bruckheimer and the 'New Economy'
by Seamus Enright

Getting Away With It - Morality and Violence in the films of John Woo
by Laurence Boyce

Visual Meaning in The Third Man
by Rich Swintice

Listen to Britain: Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson
by Rich Swintice

The Cinephilia of Le Mepris
by Rich Swintice

The Truman Show and Three Colours Red: European vs American allegory
by Rich Swintice

Copyright © Netribution Ltd 1999-2002
searchhomeabout usprivacy policy