From ‘Cantina Band’ to Power Ballads and Pop-Punk: The Evolution of Source Music in the Star Wars Universe
For decades, in-universe music in the Star Wars franchise was designed to sound ‘alien’ by incorporating slightly exotic forms and textures. Exhibit A, of course, is the “Cantina Band” music from the original Star Wars movie. In more recent years, however, particularly in several of the animated series produced since 2008, source music in the galaxy far, far away has sounded much more like contemporary music here on Earth. For an example, look no farther than the recent “Tatooine Rhapsody” episode of the anime series Star Wars: Visions, in which a former Jedi padawan voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in the English-language version) fronts a pop-punk band called Star Waver.
Before we go any further, let’s consider the context. Historically, scores for science fiction films employed the blips and bleeps of early synthesizers or the dramatic swoops of the theremin as aural signifiers of outer space or the future. (These were often folded into one as alien races were often depicted as wielding advanced technologies beyond our comprehension, and in many cases represented the possible horrors implied in such technologies.) The more out there, the better: the filmmakers and composers wanted the music to sound truly alien.
Star Wars took a different approach. With the “Cantina Band” song, creator and director George Lucas famously briefed composer John Williams as to how he wanted the music to sound: “Can you imagine,” he said, “several creatures in a future century finding some 1930s Benny Goodman swing band music in a time capsule or under a rock someplace — and how they might attempt to interpret it?” In response, Williams wrote a jaunty, syncopated tune and set it in a minor key, with bits of chromaticism in the melody creating a sense of tonal instability. Adding to the exoticism, he arranged the piece for instruments not typically heard in film scores, including Fender Rhodes piano, ARP synthesizer and steel drums. The effect was a sound both unfamiliar and familiar, alien and yet very human — much like the feel of the movie itself.
Over the next 40+ years, Williams would more or less stick to the same script in writing in-universe music for Star Wars films, even bringing back the steel drums for the “Canto Bight” piece played by the casino band in the 2017 entry The Last Jedi. On television, though, producers were relaxing the unwritten rules of Star Wars soundtracks and moving ever closer to the “familiar” side of the equation. By the time The Last Jedi hit theaters, in-universe music in other corners of the Star Wars galaxy already sounded a bit more like well-traveled genres here on Earth.
I don’t know what prompted this move, but I do know this: After more than four decades, the Star Wars universe is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness there is little need anymore to establish it as alien — or really as anything. Star Wars is simply Star Wars, and the occasional jump jazz tune or hair metal guitar solo isn’t going to change that.
Here are five songs from the Star Wars galaxy with a distinctly Earth-like vibe.
“Ziro’s Nightclub Band” and “Seedy City Swing”
In this scene from the 2008 movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a band of Bith jizz-wailers in Ziro the Hutt’s nightclub bust out a couple of jazz tunes, recalling nothing so much as a bad TV show about a wisecracking detective.
I learned two things when I first saw this 2016 episode of Star Wars: Rebels: (1) boom boxes also exist in the Star Wars galaxy; and (2) the character of Zeb is partial to ’80s power ballads. Both of these facts make me enormously happy.
The music playing in the background in this scene, from the final season of the Clone Wars TV show in 2020, is basically the Stars Wars version of the hipster playlist plugged in to the sound system at your local coffee shop. It might also be the latest single from Enigma. In any event, it’s a cool track.
Showing just how much music in the galaxy far, far away has evolved, an entire episode of the 2021 anthology series Star Wars: Visions centers on a band that could have been plucked from the green room of Total Request Live with Carson Daly, and it still may be the most Star Wars-y episode of the series. Check out my new favorite band: Star Waver.