High Scores: Aerith’s Theme

I can’t help but hear “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII the way I hear “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Both are 1997 babies. Both elegize a young, poor, plucky, orphaned savior. Both build to swollen, gushy climaxes. And while both are wildly successful songs in their respective genres, both suffer from some degree of overexposure. A person of a certain age can’t hear Celine Dion’s bravura belting after the key change in “MHWGO” and not remember hearing it at least once a day from December 1997 to March 1998. In the world of videogame music, “Aerith’s Theme” has enjoyed a similar ubiquity—and, to its credit, a longer shelf life. As it approaches its 25th birthday, it remains a critical and popular darling, voted as high as No. 3 on Classic FM’s Hall of Fame and written about in graduate theses. Musicians cover it widely and expertly. For just one of many instances, take this violin and piano cover by Taylor Davis and Laura De Wit, with over 1.4 million views on YouTube. Squaresoft even produced a hundred exquisite Aerith’s Theme music boxes, which embody both the rarefaction and commodification of the song.

The danger of writing critically about a megahit like “Aerith’s Theme” is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t get me wrong: I like this song. A lot. It’s pretty, it’s sad, it’s iconic. Sappy as it sounds, the Davis & De Wit cover made my arm hairs stand on end. But this elegy has become such a classic—such a meteoric Moment in Videogame Music—it’s in danger of eclipsing the other songs on the FFVII soundtrack, if not itself.

It is hard to overstate how beginning-to-end fantastic the FFVII soundtrack is. This is not the first time I’ve written about a Nobuo Uematsu score; but even by Uematsu’s standards, the FFVII soundtrack stands apart. It also stands in sharp contrast to the homely, rickety, Lego Man character models that populate the game. Perhaps this particular soundtrack goes the extra mile because Uematsu knew how blunt the 3D models would look. Their unexpressive blockiness requires other in-game elements to pick up the emotive slack, which the soundtrack does almost to a fault. Every song feels just right, from the seedy “Under the Rotting Pizza” that plays in the Midgar slums, to the goofy “It’s Hard to Stand on Both Feet!” that plays when the party is disguised (poorly) as sailors aboard the Shinra cargo ship, to the heart-racing “J-E-N-O-V-A” that plays as the party fights Jenova∙BIRTH, the mutated arm that has just slaughtered most of the actual crew on said cargo ship.

This last song is my pick for the best track on the FFVII OST. It may not be as famous as “Aerith’s Theme,” but it slaps. It epitomizes a certain subgenre in videogame music: the major boss theme, a song that disrupts the established boss theme and signals the heightened moment of confronting this particular adversary. In FFVI, the equivalent song would be the unsubtly titled “Battle to the Death,” which bears a number of similarities to “J-E-N-O-V-A”: the accelerated tempo, the high-pitched chromatic arpeggios, the synthesized brass that comes in toward the end of the loop. Similar as the two songs are, “J-E-N-O-V-A” is faster, darker, more modern, much like the game it was composed for.

I go on about “J-E-N-O-V-A” so long in an essay about “Aerith’s Theme” partly because I don’t think the former song gets its due. But the two songs, different as they are from each other, are linked. “Aerith’s Theme” plays over the fight with Jenova∙LIFE immediately following Aerith’s murder, which creates at least two kinds of dissonance. Having already fought a form of Jenova, the player knows “J-E-N-O-V-A” should be playing during this battle; later, the Jenova∙DEATH fight re-introduces “J-E-N-O-V-A” as the battle theme. So “Aerith’s Theme” breaks the in-game pattern, but it also breaks rules of tone and genre independent of the game. This is not what battle themes, let alone major boss themes, sound like. Swapping in an adagio ballad for prestissimo techno is jarring, to say the least.

Which fits the occasion: Aerith is a main character who, à la A Game of Thrones (which was published a year prior to FFVII, in 1996), gets murdered right before the end of the story’s first act. While not unprecedented in the FF series, a playable character dying is a shock and, if you have spent time leveling the character up, a major middle finger to your efforts. Forcing you to fight a major boss immediately after the murder is a particularly cruel bit of sequencing by the game developers but a compelling narrative moment that rings true to the experience of grief. Like life, the game doesn’t slow down for you to absorb the shock.

In this way, the song is much more compelling than later ballads in the FF series. Importantly, the song has no vocals. In fact, it is the last game in the main series that does not contain a ballad with lyrics sung by a human voice. FFVIII began the trend with “Eyes on Me,” continuing on to “Melodies of Life” in IX, “Suteki Da Ne (Isn’t It Wonderful?)” in X, and so on. In FFVII, the PlayStation’s capability to render human voices is saved for “One-Winged Angel,” the final boss theme. While there is a version of “Aerith’s Theme” set to lyrics and sung (“Pure Heart – Aerith’s Theme”), Uematsu has distanced himself from it, saying he is “not responsible for the lyrics,” and that “there were compositions other than ‘Aerith’s Theme’ that would have been easier to make into songs.” If I could deign to put words into Uematsu’s mouth, I would say “Aerith’s Theme” is already on the verge of being overstated as an instrumental. Anyone who’s played FFVII knows what the song stands for.

And that is a murdered woman, in a game with no shortage of murdered women. The sheer body count of mothers in FFVII is staggering: Cloud’s mom dies, Marlene’s mom dies, Tifa’s mom dies, Aerith’s biological mom dies, Red XIII’s mom dies, Yuffie’s mom is probably dead. Even Jenova is a kind of dead mother. In a story that is ultimately about saving a dying planet, an abundance of dead mothers makes thematic sense. But it also feels like a shortcut to tragedy, a way of darkening the story by using women as plot devices. Aerith, while not a mother, is a “Pure Heart,” a sort of virgin sacrificed on a quite literal altar. Her character’s central meaning is in remaining forever unblemished, sanctified through extinction.

Uematsu says he “didn’t really think about her death” as he was writing “Aerith’s Theme,” but who couldn’t think about it? Whether consciously or not, Uematsu wrote an elegy. Perhaps it is this disingenuousness, this pretense that Aerith might live to fight on Disc 2, that makes her theme sound just a bit insincere to those, like me, who’ve been listening to it for most of its life.