The Caged Bird Sings: Five Stirring Musical Covers in BioShock Infinite

How important is the role of popular music in the floating city of Columbia?

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Editor’s note: The following evaluation includes spoilers for BioShock Infinite. Please proceed with caution.

The power of song elevates visual storytelling beyond what simple images and dialogue can achieve. Though "show, don't tell" is a centuries-old nugget of advice to those piecing together a narrative, it can be too easy to overlook the accompanying music or tracks cued to elicit certain emotions or mood. Would Top Gun work as well with any other cheesy '80s tune other than "Danger Zone?" Could we associate the heart-wrenching events of Titanic with any ballad other than Celine Dion's powerful "My Heart Will Go On"? Both examples complement the scenes they accompany because their emotional timbre resonates with the emotions on screen, amplifying the impact the scene has on the viewer.

But what about songs whose tone and content seem to clash with the scenes in which they appear? There can be power in contrast as well, such as when 2001: A Space Odyssey's glacially paced spacewalking scenes are juxtaposed with the waltzing strains of The Blue Danube. But what of songs attached to other emotions or projects, such as gospel music or blues? What happens when you associate a dark, synth-pop tune lamenting love having soured with a completely different set of events? Further still, what happens when you alter the mood of a song and transcend its original meaning?

BioShock Infinite is an intriguing study in the transplanting of several pieces of familiar music. Pop, gospel, blues, and other genres meet in the world of Columbia, each tune taking on a different connotation than originally intended. The musical covers act as Easter eggs for keen players and nods to narrative convention as well.

Here are some of the cover songs from the game accompanied by an analysis of the original artists, the social context of the original release, and the new meanings each one takes on within the world of BioShock Infinite.

1. Cyndi Lauper - "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"

Original Theme: Lauper's most recognizable hit is a whimsical, yet realistic look at the goals and aspirations of women. The song itself may state that girls just want to have fun, but the original jaunty tune transcended the traditional meaning of the word. It infused an infectious energy with a positive message in the face of those who may bark orders, force you into societal constraints, and try to tell you what's "acceptable" in life. Lauper's message was one of freeing yourself from emotional and spiritual shackles and living your life. It's about not resigning yourself to the boundaries of social expectations and the conventions of family life. It's a jubilant expression of womanhood and living on your own terms, and it's an important (if cheesy) song celebrating feminism and choice.

Location in BioShock Infinite: Battleship Bay

Traveling with Elizabeth immediately transformed the game into a much more varied affair, just like it altered the meaning of Cyndi Lauper's punchy '80s anthem. The cover is a soothing instrumental rendition that floats along with a carefree lilt across the beaches of Battleship Bay. Elizabeth is a bird who has escaped the confines of the "cage" that was her tower, and she's now wide-eyed and eager to see what the world has to offer. The idyllic beach scene is perhaps one of the most "normal" moments of the entire game. You can almost taste the salty sea air and feel the sun on your face. Like that, a more complex tune is instantly repurposed as the joyous celebratory exclamations of a young woman who's just been given one of the most precious tenets of human existence: freedom.

2. The Beach Boys - "God Only Knows"

Original Theme: The Beach Boys' sentimental melody stirs romantic feelings, security, and the enduring but not eternal "love" so many ache to feel. It's a message to a lover: if I were to lose you, how could I ever go on? As beautiful as the harmony is and as gossamer as the words are, however, there's a note of bittersweet longing as well. There's something powerfully final about making the statement that you simply couldn't fathom living without the one you love in your life, though of course life would always press on.

Location in BioShock Infinite: Welcome Center

We hear the classic Beach Boys tune being sung by an old-time barbershop quartet on a gondola. Though at first listen it channels much of the same sentiment the Beach Boys' rendition does, it also carries a rather disconcerting message. It's quite possible this quartet isn't just singing the praises of a lover, but the love shown to them by their Prophet Comstock, and the life they believe he's made for them in their gorgeous world up in the sky. In a way, the quartet sings Comstock's praises as if the people of Columbia simply couldn't go on living without him, just as the breathtaking environments and architecture belie the falsehoods that perpetuate the notion that Columbia is the closest you can actually get to heaven before death. Though it's arranged beautifully and sung by warm, believable voices, the environment changes the tone drastically, especially if you were ever lulled into thinking this world would be free of the sorts of social illnesses that infested Rapture.

3. R.E.M. - "Shiny Happy People"

Original Theme: R.E.M. themselves brought to light an explanation for the seemingly bright and chipper lyrics of this song, so it's certainly not much of a mystery if you've ever done any research into the '90s hit. The story goes that the song was written in reference to a piece of Chinese propaganda and a line on it that included the phrase "shiny, happy people." It's a harsh commentary on all the ways the world is cruel, and the fake and temporary happiness we're expected to put on instead of showing society our true selves and possibly politically incorrect thoughts. "Keep smiling. There's no time to cry." Eerie words, indeed.

Location in BioShock Infinite: Hall of Heroes

While traversing the Hall of Heroes you'll hear this rousing rendition of "Shiny Happy People," but it's taken on an alternate, sinister meaning. Where R.E.M.'s version acts as a sarcastic, even bitter look at the happy faces and positive moods those in turmoil force themselves to put on, this cover sounds as if it actually believes in its own message. To have it playing in a place so grim as the Hall of Heroes is a testament to how much the regime believes their way is the best way, and the citizens of Columbia truly are "shiny, happy people" despite the oppression, poverty, and heartbreak in so many of the areas. Who's legitimately happy living in such a state? The irony speaks to players on several levels.

4. Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Fortunate Son"

Original Theme: John Fogerty sent a fairly transparent message in this anti-war song. CCR found a tremendous amount of success with this rousing anthem, rallying against those "fortunate sons," those privileged enough to have been born into wealth and status, both of which make a powerful combination when forced into a compromising position such as that of a draft or other unpleasant obligation that those with means can avoid while those without cannot.

Location in BioShock Infinite: Bull Yard/Shantytown

This chilling gospel rendition plays while navigating the Bull Yard, where those persecuted and living in poverty are forced to dwell in a slum-like city. The pain in the cover artist's voice also reflects hatred and disdain for those who have placed her in the situation in which she finds herself. And the soulful tune goes on--none of the inhabitants of this area are fortunate in any way, shape or form. There's a violent revolution taking place, and a young woman is singing this song as a sign of revolt, not against those fighting the war, but those who caused a need for the revolution in the first place.

5. Tears For Fears - "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"

Original Theme: The song is taken to have several meanings, many of which seem to culminate in a "carpe diem" interpretation--everyone should seize the day, take control of their own life, and "rule" their own world. The world could be one's life, others' lives, or possibly the world as we all know it. It's up to you to decide. Themes of condemning indecision and lack of action accompany these messages as well, so it's easy to take the song as you will depending on the circumstances the individual is dealing with.

Location in BioShock Infinite: Fink's House

There's a revolution going on in Columbia, and coincidentally it involves factions battling to ultimately decide control of the supposed utopia. Fink is notorious for controlling people through labor and nefarious behavior, so this phonograph is strategically placed at his home for maximum impact. It also reflects on Elizabeth and Booker, both struggling to find a place in their own narratives, control over their predicaments, and the world around them. The song's title refrain also sums up BioShock Infinite's political philosophy. Though they claim to pursue the greater good, ultimately the Vox Populi prove to be no less brutal than the powers they fought so hard to overthrow.

Throughout BioShock Infinite, these covers and many others act as conduits between the game and players themselves, embedding particular notions in the audience's subconscious so deeply that when one may hear the song on the radio again in the future, it takes on a different meaning. With aural elements playing such a major role in BioShock Infinite and its myriad characters and set pieces, the use of music as something more than simply an accompaniment to the journey is an interesting approach. The next time you pick up a microphone to belt out some "She-Bop" and move on to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," you'll be remembering Elizabeth's plight--and that's the mark of a fantastic experience.

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Discussion

151 comments
PyreofKoL
PyreofKoL

I'm particularly fond of the reimagining of "God Only Knows". I could listen to it all day.

Owner34
Owner34

There is also a cover of Tainted Love in the pub n Shantytown

EL_Bomberdor
EL_Bomberdor

Very dissapointed in this game. Levine showed me in advertizing a very interactive FPS with the society etc and it started fantastic, 20 mins later, generic. Game for me is still worth playing but nothing ground breaking. An 8 in my eyes.

LessThanMike
LessThanMike

Love the game, love the soundtrack, very immersive.

Fandango_Letho
Fandango_Letho

The only song that is sadly missing from Bioshock's masterful repertoire of music is What is Love.

b10nutz
b10nutz

This is one impressive game and one of the best I played in a long time.

Ricksterb02
Ricksterb02

The use of Girls Just Want to Have Fun is also significant because of the time setting in the game, and the locale of the scene. Shortly after the turn of the century, leisure activity began to separate itself from home life. Previously, women were the primary caretakers of the family and oversaw domestic life. Life revolved around the house, and women hardly left it, while men went to work and maybe enjoyed leisure or social activities in saloons and pool halls. Places like Coney Island, and in Columbia, Battleship Bay, opened up leisure, separate from home life, to women.

BIoshock: Infinite has it's gameplay flaws, no doubt, but as a full narrative package, it is one of the best games ever made. The layers of meaning in the tiniest of details are something I've never seen in a game before. BI has received heavy criticism for the various ways it deals with race, and for the way it leaves some story questions unanswered. My own opinion is that it ties up enough of the story's loose ends, and leaves unanswered huge questions around race, class and gender dynamics, especially as they have played out in the U.S.  I think this is great, because it's spurring a lot of discussion around these issues, and letting us talk to one another to answer the burning questions we have about them in our own lives. This is a game about choice, and right now the gaming community is coming together to reconstruct and figure out how we will continue to deal with and talk about race in our cultures.

LukeWesty
LukeWesty

So what was Levines excuse for modern music? was it as pathetic as quantum mechanics for everything floating?

loafofgame
loafofgame

Argh, I can't read the article or the comments, because I still haven't played this game. But anyway, it's a good thing the music gets highlighted. The original Bioshock also used popular music to comment on the narrative. William Gibbons actually wrote a nice article about that: http://gamestudies.org/1103/articles/gibbons.

Siosal01
Siosal01

No mention of Tainted Love?

DomZeal
DomZeal

I dreamed about playing the pre-2012 version of Infinite last night, it was so amazing that I cried when I wake up. I don't know why I say this, I just really did.

Big_Pecks
Big_Pecks

My god. I never noticed Girls Just Wannna Have Fun. That makes the scene ever better.

cyborg21s
cyborg21s

Does anyone know the name of  the violin song that plays at the First Lady's Aerodrome ticket station before Booker and Elizabeth are ambushed? A man is playing it and will stop if you get too close. I can't find any info about the song anywhere. Other than that the music in this game and the game itself  is amazing!  

Dasim64
Dasim64

My personal favorite was the remake of Everybody Wants to Rule the World. I loved the original song and have it on my iPhone and it was so amazing to hear it remade in that style of music. They did such an amazing job with the music in this game. I love the duo during the credits performed by the actors who played Booker and Elizabeth. That is also very beautiful and it was a nice look into how they actually performed for that scene in the game. I never would have guessed that the guy playing Booker actually was the one playing the guitar. So much great detail in this game that can easily be missed if the player rushes though.

Snakepond1
Snakepond1

Most important game of this generation for me. Never has a game moved me and touched me the way this game has.

SPOILERS! 

God only knows how low Booker must of sunk to give up his only kid and to have to relive it over and over again.

dkpunk
dkpunk

Also they missed Makin Whoopee!

jiggybuff
jiggybuff

You guys missed tainted love

Temperedelm
Temperedelm

I missed so many things on my first play through.

Lotus-Edge
Lotus-Edge

Christ this game was beautiful....

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

Bioshock Infinite is the Sixth Sense of games. Boring movie but everyone gets through it just to see the twist at the end.

Imperiusmax
Imperiusmax

A good soundtrack can definitely help enhance your gaming experience. Skyrim is a good example of this, but it cant fix a lousy game.

Bread_or_Decide
Bread_or_Decide

I only hope the royalties they paid to use these songs didn't kill their budget. The game needs to make a profit. 

Fembot_Eulogy
Fembot_Eulogy

I only found one of these tears. Man, I gotta look again...

Ferg1213
Ferg1213

"Meh, this game's nothing special." Yeah.. great characters, brilliant soundtrack, incredible story, good gameplay, a game that literally can't relate to any game ever made, memorable/interesting environment and atmosphere. But yeah, other than that NOTHING SPECIAL. God, what is wrong with the gaming community these days?

Pandajuicy
Pandajuicy

@EL_Bomberdor I think it says a lot about the quality of a game when you're "very disappointed" yet still give it an 8.

RaggedyDoctor88
RaggedyDoctor88

@Ricksterb02 I thought the use of Girls Just Want to Have Fun was also due to the lyrical symmetry with Infinite's plot, 

spoiler warning 

because so much of the song is about a young woman's relationship with her parents, particularly with the lyrics:  
"Oh Daddy dear, you know you're still number one" and "Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world"
In the context of the game it's about Elizabeth/Anna's relationship with Comstock/Booker and beautifully poignant. 

mateyman
mateyman

@LukeWesty 0.o . . . I'm going to assume you haven't played the game. I'm also going to assume you don't really care for the answer to this.

PIZZABOY_1980
PIZZABOY_1980

@DomZeal  listen i've been experiencing the same thing here...i have been deeply depressed since i finished the game 2 days ago. it's elizabeth  i guess, cuz whenever i  think about her and the cyndi luper song it just really makes me cry. i can't even talk to my wife coz she wouldn't even understand it.....it is really the most meaningful video game i've ever played in my 30 years of life

jecomans
jecomans

@Dasim64 Definitely the 40 second duet in the downstairs in the bar was a huge highlight for me in Infinite. A strange bit of rather melancholy respite. The song that hit me the most was a distorted and scratchy version of Pachelbel's Kanon in the room in the asylum where there is a recording of an Elizabeth saying that I had abandoned her. I couldn't stand being in that room. I love the song, and I felt (unusually for me in life, let alone a game) really upset in that moment.  

fredyellowone
fredyellowone

@Snakepond1 

Snake, you are right.  As I was touched by System Shock 2 ages ago, this current gen, Bioshock Infinite is the best game hands down.

marshalmathers2
marshalmathers2

@cousinmerl Do you know what's the name of that song?

I tried searching YouTube for "Bioshock Infinite Theme Song" but couldn't find it  :(

Fembot_Eulogy
Fembot_Eulogy

@Bread_or_Decide I'm pretty sure the game is popular enough for a large enough profit to be made. It's huge here in Asia. 

kratospete
kratospete

@Ferg1213 nothing is good enough for ya i guess, i think the game was very special yet still as a fan of the franchise felt like i was missing something, but cannot say this game is special, i`m gonna punch you in the face

LukeWesty
LukeWesty

@Ferg1213  

Good game play? the game is as ungripping as they come, I honestly struggled to want to finish it, only fun challenging part of this game was deffending the ship and the only gripping part of the storyline is the ending which ifluences people to think the story was great when it wasn't, it actually hardly made any sence. No explenation to what the song bird even was or why it existed, same NPC's used round every corner. Levine's advertizements influencing people to think this was an interactive FPS but after the first 20 mins it instantly turns into a one dimentional generic corridor shooter. People who was let down by the game actually had plenty of reason not to like it at the same time the game was visually appealing so I understand why people liked it, but its a love/hate type of game and I guess nobody is right or wrong.

PIZZABOY_1980
PIZZABOY_1980

@fredyellowone @Snakepond1  Indeed! ken levine is the genoius, i respect the man so much. can anyone , i mean ANYONE  make a game even a bit close to bioshock infinite standards,?? i really doubt it. only Levine can do that....only him! BEST GAME OF THE DECADE OF EVEN MY GENERATION

cuddlyfuzzle
cuddlyfuzzle

@GamerNerdTalk @USAPATRIOT21 it was boring if he thought it was, just as it was good because you liked it. woooooo!

Fembot_Eulogy
Fembot_Eulogy

@Bread_or_Decide @Fembot_Eulogy I'm actually playing it through slow enough to get a lot of that stuff, but that said, you always miss something the first time through. I'll be playing this   through another time to do everything I missed, and play it using different vigors than I usually use. I'm too used to using fire rather than possess or undertow. I like trying out new different options, it teaches me a different method of playing as well. 

jiggybuff
jiggybuff

@LukeWesty @Ferg1213  It explains that song bird was built using the big daddy technology fink stole from rapture and repurposed it for Comstock's use. Kinda like how his brother stole these songs and reused it for his own purposes

Zevvion
Zevvion

@LukeWesty @Ferg1213 The story was written the way it was. Just because it's difficult to wrap your head around at first, doesn't mean it makes no sense. Maybe you just have to play through it again? Because pretty much everything is explained. Including your issue with Songbird.

Skacore_Al
Skacore_Al

@LukeWesty @Ferg1213 Actually, it explained why Songbird existed, it didn't go into a whole lot of detail as it wasn't relatively important to the plot, but you obviously weren't really paying attention. The ending made perfect sense, it was just difficult to wrap your mind around at first, but trust me, any plot hole you might try and point out is explained and if you still don't understand then that is your fault and not the fault of Irrational Games.

OuTLaWzGamer
OuTLaWzGamer

@Fembot_Eulogy @Bread_or_Decide Murder of crows + upgrade that makes victims of the spell release a crow trap on their body   +  the pantaloons Ghost Posse that makes the weapons of victims dead to traps float by your side and fight for you for 30secs

blackrunie
blackrunie

@LukeWesty @Skacore_Al 

why? do you know the limits of quantum mechanics and are able to claim ''that's not possible''? i highly doubt it.

i'm not being defensive, i'm asking you.

LukeWesty
LukeWesty

@Skacore_Al

I liked the ending and the visuals but that was it, the game wasn't groundbreaking like people say it was it was another FPS in my eyes still worthy of an 8 so I'm still saying it's worth playing. Other things like the pathetic quantum mechanics for everything floating was annoying.