The Song Covers In Westworld Have A Deeper Meaning Than You Think

John P. Johnson/HBO
The most gruesome sequence in the season 2 premiere of Westworld is set to the music of Scott Joplin. As the jaunty song "The Entertainer" plays, the camera pans over scenes of carnage. Bodies are scattered outside the Mariposa saloon, and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) makes her season 2 debut atop a horse, gunning down guests in tuxedos and gowns.
Westworld is known for embedding recognizable songs in its soundtrack. Season 1 featured a string of covers of dark rock songs, like "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones. Series creator Jonathan Nolan said that these modern songs were supposed to allow viewers to "short-circuit or shorthand an idea or feeling." The songs were teaching modern audiences how to read a scene.
What do the other instances of song covers — whether on the player piano or in the background music – indicate for the show? Here's a running list of all the covers we've heard in Westworld, and their deeper significance. Like all aspects of Westworld, the meaning is there, if you know where to look.
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"C.R.E.A.M." by the Wu-Tang Clan
Season 2, Episode 5: Akane No Mai

For the episode that introduced "Shogun World," Westworld made the clever choice to include a cover of Wu-Tang Clan's song "C.R.E.A.M.," a.k.a. "Cash Rules Everything Around Me." The references here are twofold: Wu-Tang Clan's name is a nod to East Asia, in the same manner as Shogun World, and the content of the song feels directly related to Delos' uninhibited need for money, money, and money.
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"The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin
Season 2, Episode 1: Journey Into Night

In season 1, the player piano was prone to covering dark '90s rock songs. The first player piano cover of season 2, however, is a classic ragtime song associated with Western movies. The jovial song "The Entertainer" actually came up earlier in the show. In season 1, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) snaps his fingers, and the player piano beings playing the Joplin song. Of this scene, Djawadi said, "That’s about control. It just shows the power he has. He calls the shots for what happens.”

Now, Dolores has that same power – and she's using it to enact carnage.
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"Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden
Season 1, Episode 1: The Original

This song, Westworld's first player piano cover, arrives a little over halfway through the series premiere. In the original version, Chris Cornell, Soundgarden's frontman, sings "Times are gone for honest men," and there are certainly few honest men in Westworld. The park corrupts everyone.

More broadly, though, the inclusion of this song signaled to the viewer the artificial nature of Westworld itself. The song signals to Westworld visitors and viewers that even if this park looks like it's the Wild West, it's situated in modern times. As the show's composer, Ramin Djawadi, explained to Vulture, “What’s so great about using these [contemporary] pieces instead of the score is that they are known melodies, which enhances the idea that this is all scripted."
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"Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones
Season 1, Episode 1: The Original

In this scene, Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) storms into Sweetwater with his gang of criminals, and starts to carry out his robbery plan. Suddenly, the familiar notes of "Paint It Black" begin. It is, by all means, an iconic scene.

Apparently, "Paint It Black" was included because it simply fit the mood of the scene. “‘Paint It Black’ happens during a really big action scene, and it has all these great ups and downs — the shooting, the talking — and so I bring it down and then back up a bit, which was a lot of fun to arrange for the orchestra," Djawadi told Vulture.
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"No Surprises" by Radiohead
Season 1, Episode 2: Chestnut

"No alarms and no surprises," sings Thom York in the Radiohead song "No Surprises." And there are no surprises in Westworld — or at least there aren't as of season 1, episode 2. Everything is entirely scripted. The "No Surprises" cover arrives when Maeve (Thandie Newton) is working at the Mariposa Saloon. Her thankless job as a Westworld sex worker also can be linked to the lyrics: "A job that slowly kills you."

"No Surprises" connects back to the episode's name, "Chestnut." In addition to being a nut, a "chestnut" is a piece of music that has grown stale from repetition.
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"A Forest" by The Cure
Season 1, Episode 4: Dissonance Theory

Looking into the lyrics for "A Forest" by the Cure, it's evident this song continues Westworld's theme of repetition and futility. Like the Radiohead song in episode 2, "A Forest" seems to be speaking directly to the hosts' feelings (if they have them!) of entrapment. The song, which follows a man searching for a girl in a forest, ends with the lines, "It's always the same / I'm running towards nothing / Again and again and again and again." The hosts are searching for an answer they cannot find — yet.
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"Something I Can Never Have" by Nine Inch Nails
Season 1, Episode 5: Contrapasso

Just before Dolores and William (Jimmi Simpson) enter the brothel in Pariah, they hear a string quartet playing a curiously modern song: "Something I Can Never Have" by Nine Inch Nails. The song's melancholy lyrics don't necessarily fit the mood of an orgy: "In this place it seems like such a shame / Though it all looks different now / I know it's still the same." Whatever the guests think they're getting at this orgy, they're not really getting. It's empty, artificial pleasure.
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"Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead
Season 1, Episode 6: The Adversary

Looking at the lyrics, it's quite clear why "Fake Plastic Trees" was included in the show. It's a song about increasing degrees of artificiality. The song begins with listing artificial objects — a "fake Chinese rubber planet" and a "green plastic watering can." But soon, even people become artificial: "a rubber man," and a "cracked polystyrene man." Even love, by the end, is "fake plastic love." Essentially, if you didn't get it already: nothing in Westworld is real.
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"Motion Picture Soundtrack" by Radiohead
Season 1, Episode 6: The Adversary

We knew Maeve's adventuring would take her to this tremendous, awful revelation: That she is a creation, and a part of a strange, artificial world. The original song is a heartbreaker about lost love. "It's not like the movies / They fed us on little white lies," Yorke sings. And now, Maeve is confronted with her white lies.
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"The House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals
Season 1, Episode 8: Trace Decay

Most of us associate "The House of the Rising Sun" with the Animals, but it's actually an older ballad. The oldest published version of the song dates back to 1925. The lyrics in that version are, "There is a house in New Orleans, it's called the Rising Sun / It's been the ruin of many a poor girl / Great God, and I for one." Typically, it's assumed that the House of the Rising Sun is a brothel. Westworld corroborates that theory. At the moment when the player piano would get to the "Great God, and I for one" line, Maeve slams down her glass and the player piano music ceases. She has been the victim, but no longer.
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"Back to Black" by Amy Winehouse
Season 1, Episode 8: Trace Decay

In "Back to Black," Amy Winehouse sings about having "died a thousand times" — just like the hosts in Westworld. But the song is triumphant in its own way, too, and is perfect for Maeve's first moments of empowerment. As she breaks out of her pre-determined loop, new music plays. Music that she, in a sense, has chosen by making a choice.

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