You Can’t Not Surrender To The ‘Challengers’ Soundtrack

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Yeah, that’s 10 yeahs. And, yeah, that’s how Challengers makes you feel. That song, the third on the film’s soundtrack, is scored entirely by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and is simply called “Yeah x10.” But to be honest, every single beat drop—needle drop is too quaint for the pulsing, thumping, rhythmic club sounds that pervade Luca Guadagnino’s sports romance—makes you want to bob up and down and repeat “yeah” over and over again. The score is right up there as one of the central reasons this addictive, not-quite-summer-but-might-as-well-be romp about the shifting power dynamics in a love triangle between three tennis pros (played by Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor) is not just about the game, but is itself a game. This is a film in which the tennis metaphor is so extreme that at one point the audience takes on the perspective of the ball as it’s slapped around the court. And the music—with its layered bleeps and trickles and claps and whoops and thwaps and wacks and smooth rumble towards soaring shimmering crescendos—is, excuse the pun, instrumental to pulling this off. Reznor and Ross are not just turning a game into music; they are sublimating the emotions of the players inside that game. 

I very rarely listen to film scores. I think it’s the secondary nature of them; the fact that they were conceived in service of a bigger piece of art, rather than simply existing on their own terms, somehow makes them seem insubstantial or incomplete to me. And yet I haven’t stopped listening to Challengers since seeing the film. Hoofing it like crazy to a hair appointment over the weekend with “The Signal” blasting in my ears, I felt like my frenzied lateness, channeled into those pedals and wheels, was being captured in real time and had perhaps become one of—if not THE—coolest moments of my life. And then, in the lull between tracks, hearing the actual squeak of the bike’s gears, the dull sound of the traffic beside me, the banality of my situation returned with a limp. That’s when I could tell how much work that music was doing to lift each scene of Challengers—even accounting for the stylish cinematography and editing beneath it—the same way a night club, even with the lights down, even with all those hot people in the dark, can only really hit you when the beat does.

Which is another reason it’s surprising I like this score so much. I have always kind of hated dance clubs. I have always kind of considered dance music itself pretty lame—machine-made shlock that could never be as finely crafted or as transporting as compositions on actual instruments by actual musicians. I rate it the way I rate collage, as simple reconfiguration. I could hear my prejudice even through Challengers. Every time a track would drop into piano or a flurry of violins—perhaps produced entirely by machines as well—it was as though it suddenly acquired authority as an actual piece of music. And yet in thinking that way, I wasn’t acknowledging the reason this kind of music hits: its unbridled feeling, its naked emotion. Dance music has nothing to do with the mind, and everything to do with the body. And that’s what makes it so perfect for Challengers.

Critics have tempered their enthusiasm for Challengers over its lack of depth, but it is a sweaty, heavy-breather of a summer blockbuster designed to feed on your endorphins, not your intellect. Even the poster itself—animated Zendaya’s sunglasses reflecting her two guys—recalls low stakes summer hits of the past like Risky Business. Challengers is about sports, but more than that it’s about the passion it entails—the power, the adrenaline, the cool, the sex. And that’s what Reznor and Ross do here, propulsively, orgasmically—what else is professional sports but energy amped up to 11? The score, like Zendaya’s character when she trounces her opponent, is a constant stream of: “COME ON!!!”

According to Ross, Guadagnino, with whom he and Reznor had worked on Bones and All, emailed them the following invite to score Challengers: “Do you want to be on my next film? It’s going to be super sexxy.” According to Reznor, the director also said, “What if all the music was driving, thumping techno, like a heartbeat that makes the movie fun?” The duo was inspired, specifically, by Berlin techno and ’90s rave music, which struck me in particular on “Brutalizer,” a track which automatically conjures a guy with a soother around his neck, parachute pants, spiky pink hair, his eyes closed, almost convulsing on the dance floor to the point of decapitation. The track contains multiple elements of Reznor’s past, from his synth-pop work in the mid-80s to his ‘90s industrial rock Nine Inch Nails sound. 

According to Reznor, Guadaginono’s notes on each scene were always a variation on “unending homoerotic desire.” But to get closer to the answer of how they were able to turn notes like that into score, I found a December 2022 episode of the podcast Soundtracking with Edith Bowman, which happened to be recorded when the duo was working on Challengers. Here, Reznor gets incredibly granular on how he and Ross work, and it’s such a great bit of insight into an artist’s practice—and such a welcome slap in the face for people like me who have never taken dance music seriously—that I am going to just transcribe what he said in its entirety here:

Our process typically, well, always, is to spend a lot of time very cerebrally thinking about what instruments we might use, what the score might sound like based on as much information as we can extract from the director, logical choices of our style of composition, any techniques we are going to deploy. [We] think all that stuff up, choose the right instrumentation or people to work with, then try to turn all that off and not think about it, and try to get lost in the story. That’s the strength we bring to the table—not incredible technique or whatever the fuck else it might be—it’s about, can we get lost in it, can we mine from our own emotional well and experience, can we tune into wherever good ideas come from and bring the passion and the emotional resonance and goose bumps to the thing that needs to happen.

Trent Reznor

And perhaps as one more fuck-you to me personally, the duo actually got in touch with Boys Noize (German DJ Alex Ridha, who has also produced albums for Frank Ocean and Lady Gaga, among others) who reimagined the soundtrack as CHALLENGERS [MIXED] specifically to play in clubs. “They sent me all the stems to all the songs and I went into every song,” he told Paper. “I added production, new parts, new sounds, rearranged things.” Apparently it really hit, because of course it did. If you listen to the lyrics of the soundtrack’s final song, which plays over Challengers’ credits, you will hear the following lines Guadagnino co-wrote with Reznor, which play like the film’s mantra, for everyone, but particularly for skeptics like me: “Repress (Repress), compress/And thеn just surrender/One, two, three.” 

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