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.'