21st Century Soundtracks #2: The Social Network

21st Century Soundtracks is about music in Film, Television, and Video Games released from 2000 onwards that have had a lasting effect on me. It started out as one long post that eventually became too long to be manageable, so I’ve decided to make it a semi-regular series. Open to recommendations and reminders.


In 2011, both the Oscars and the Golden Globes did something right for a change – they awarded Best Original Score to Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross for their amazing work on The Social Network. Part of the reason why the score works is because of the freedom director David Fincher gave them. Reznor recalls that even their initial ideas received very few notes; Fincher simply told them “I don’t have anything bad to say– that’s never happened before”. To set them along the right path, the director did provide some general direction for the duo to launch off from:

“David wanted something that had electronic leanings and was a bit iconic. He referenced things from Tron, Blade Runner, and talked about a Tangerine Dream-ish kind of sound. Something that would feel like it had a uniqueness and a presence in the film”

While there is a definite electronic, sci-fi leaning, the contrast of fervour and gloom, intensity and melancholy is the most identifiable aspect of the score. There is a turbulent urgency, helping the scenes of coding and business disputes become more thrilling, that occasionally gives way to moments of haunting, sad respite. There is almost a purposeful ugliness to certain sections of feedback and glitch noise, that always drop off at their peak to return to the central piano. As Reznor puts it:

“Generally, we use a piano as kind of a human centerpiece. Anytime there’s something that’s rooted in melody, it’ll be anchored by piano; and that piano will have a sense of humanity and frailness or vulnerability to it. And then we’ll drop that piano down into an alien landscape, which might be icy and synthetic.”

Hand Covers Bruise was originally the seventh track on the soundtrack, and not intended as the theme for the title scene, but it’s hard to imagine it any other way. It is the anchor of the album, a theme often returned to, telling us the story wordlessly. The opening scene’s astoundingly fast-paced dialogue shows us the narcissism of Eisenberg’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, but also grounds it in his insecurity. We see him being dealt a serious blow to his ego, and his cowardly and angry response; Hand Covers Bruise bridges that gap. The director was immediately taken with it*:

“It was kind of astounding, because it seemed to talk about this loneliness. The piano was this lonely… It was almost child-like, and yet it had this kind of seething anger, vitriol that was, sort of, bubbling under it”

This underlying frustration, coupled with melancholy, cuts right to the centre of what the film achieves in tone and content. It’s insecurity and rage coming from years of exclusion that sets the plot in motion; a man connecting millions across the world who can’t truly connect with anyone. It’s the 21st Century spin on the misanthropy of Daniel Plainview. This track perfectly demonstrates the tremendous sense of loss running simultaneously to the energy that comes with technological progress. It is beautiful and sad, yet ominous, hinting at the dark turns the plot will take. It’s very similar to the direction Angelo Badalamenti often takes, which makes the fact that Reznor collaborated with him on David Lynch’s Lost Highway unsurprising.

In Motion feels like a dark twist on a more typical club song, a dance track with its energy going into coding instead of movement. It has a propulsion to it that flows seamlessly from the first song, the bitterness and sadness motivating this new activity. It gets inside the adrenaline that comes with the act of creativity, ideas sparking off more ideas, endowing a scene of voice-over and typing with excitement and anxiety. A Familiar Taste is the closest the soundtrack gets to rock music (other than the inclusion of The Beatles, obviously), but is reserved enough to bring the explosions of guitar noise in rarely, while fragmented sounds and record scratches build a unsettling landscape. It Catches Up With You and Almost Home are hypnotic and off-balance, as if reeling from a blow, a mistake ringing in your ears long after. Appropriately, both tracks are played at points where Mark is dealt a personal blow – in the former he is passed an insulting note by an anonymous female classmate, and in the latter Eduardo freezes their account.

Intriguing PossibilitiesPainted Sun In Abstract, and Pieces From The Whole all sound like remixes of 8-bit video game themes; a distortion of technology, taking the initial excitement of possibility and development and stretching it into something alienating and strange. Following this tone, 3:14 Every Night wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie, a terrifying portrayal of insomnia and moral disquiet.

In The Hall of the Mountain King is one of the more recognisable music moments in the movie, but is actually my least favourite on the soundtrack. It’s an interesting alternate version of the Edvard Grieg piece, but – like the scene itself – is disjointed from the rest of the composition in a distracting way. While the rest of the soundtrack follows general themes, this one feels tacked on, an isolated experimentation that works more as a separate music video than a natural development in both the film and the music.

The record reaches its cathartic peak with Complication With Optimistic Outcome, but in what feels like a twist even in the soundtrack order, this is followed up by two intense tracks, one of which is probably the best on the album – The Gentle Hum of Anxiety. This song is played at a time of intense paranoia for Sean Parker, and realisation for Mark. It fits its title well, bringing us into his feelings of regret and fear. Again the piano tells a story of loss and isolation, while the ominous hum of that central destructive rage slides in and out of the foreground.

When Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross first saw Hand Covers Bruise played as the title theme, the former remarked* that:

“I was amazed at how much the music could change your expectation of the film, your impression, and set the whole tone”

In essence, this is what great scores contribute to a film. Simple emotional manipulation and following the trail left by the plot can support the work, but not necessarily add anything. Enter Reznor and Ross, who explore the themes separately, while Fincher connects them to the images on screen in a more abstract, intuitive way than most would. If The Social Network OST were to be removed from its context completely, and enjoyed by its own merits, it would still be hitting the same marks and provoking the same trains of thought. They explore the meeting between harsh, brittle technology and human fragility, dubious business ethics clashes with the joy of ambition and success. Whether the humanity evoked is a glitch in the system or whether the system is in a state of collapse itself, the question is communicated through this meeting of melody and feedback.

Attention should also be paid to the album artwork, created by Rob Sheridan:

“An early idea I had was to digitally corrupt the images we had from the film, combining a “glitch art” visual aesthetic I’ve always been interested in with a metaphor for digital images shared on Facebook, the corruption they’re susceptible to, and the corruption portrayed in the film. This idea resonated with Trent, so I began experimenting with different ways to destroy the publicity stills Sony had sent me.”

Rob Sheridan

You can see more of the artwork, and Sheridan’s description of the creative process here.

Standout Tracks:
Hand Covers Bruise
A Familiar Taste
Painted Sun In Abstract
3:14 Every Night
The Gentle Hum of Anxiety

*The Social Network blu-ray featurette ‘David Fincher,Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Discuss the Process of Creating the Score’

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2 Comments

  1. I absolutely love this soundtrack! I’m a huge NIN fan too. Rob Sheridan has done art direction for NIN too.

    I thought I was one of the only people who obsessed about the effect this soundtrack has on my experience of the film!

    Interestingly, check out the Gone Girl soundtrack. It has the same combo – Fincher, Reznor, Ross – and is *amazing* too.

    Although my NIN fandom probably makes me biased…

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    1. I’ve had the Gone Girl soundtrack recommended to me before, so I should really get around to that. Reznor + Ross also collaborated on Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake and that one has some great tracks too

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