I will always associate vinyl records with the soundtracks of the 80s: Footloose, Rocky IV, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun. These were some of my father’s favorite records to play, especially after my mom banned Abba from public presentation. She had become a conscientious objector; Abba had been relegated to the headphones. How many times have I heard each of these albums? Undetermined. However, I will say that I could probably sing along to every song on each of those records with at least 90% accuracy. Some better than others. Nobody owns me in a Footloose karaoke. If I did karaoke.
For someone not familiar with the 80’s – too young or perhaps too “not here” as my friend from college Jimmy Kuo often claimed when we questioned his ignorance on specific pop culture phenomenon – it might be hard to understand the pure, unadulterated righteousness of the 80’s and its excellent movie soundtracks. Removed from the movies in which they appeared, would these songs have endured? A great soundtrack not only contains great songs but the songs must also benefit the movie. I’m not so sure we remember Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” if not for National Lampoon’s Vacation. Search Youtube for “Danger Zone” and you’ll find no fewer than a dozen tribute videos to Top Gun featuring the song. The soundtracks were integral to the movie-watching experience. As I’ve written elsewhere, music grounds our experience in a place and time. Music does the same in movies, but only if the music benefits the movie as a necessary component, the blood, the pulse. It often creates an identity far more powerful than the influence of the screenwriter or director. While we’re damn sure that Kenny Loggins performed “Footloose,” who directed Footloose again?
At some point in the early 90s, movie soundtracks became a dumpsite. Artists contributed lesser tunes excised from previous or upcoming albums so that the distributing label could slap the artist’s name on the CD sticker. The Soundtrack for Transformers VI featuring a brand new jam from Justin Bieber.
I’d like to blame The Bodyguard for kickstarting the deficient movie soundtrack phenomenon. Maybe they wouldn’t sell 17 million records, but the pretenders could damn sure move a few million without putting in any more effort than what was required to compile a mediocre mixtape. But this movie-product tie-in business is almost as old as the industry itself. Is it as simple as saying that at some point, Hollywood just decided it didn’t care anymore? Serious filmmakers will always care about the score – movies are really the last stronghold of contemporary classical music composition. But can you name more than a handful of movie soundtracks from the last fifteen years that A) instantly recall a movie moment; B) contain mostly (if not all) contemporary music; and C) proved integral to the movie itself?
It took me twenty minutes to come up with two examples.
Biographies like Ray and Walk the Line had to be removed. Then there’s the question of the 40-Year Old Virgin and Anchorman which feature ornately orchestrated performances of cover songs. But these, again, are covers played for laughs and slathered with irony like chocolate syrup on a hot-fudge sundae. Consider the soundtrack to Friday. It satisfies a number of requirements – though it relies as much on new music as it does nostalgia tracks. There are plenty of excellent soundtracks that are no more connected to the movie than a sober Phish concert is to good times. The more research I did, the more Top 100 Soundtrack lists I scoured, the more I realized that the 80’s soundtrack model really wasn’t an isolated phenomenon (the theory of a contemporary, integrated pop soundtrack goes back to the 60’s with Easy Rider and The Graduate) but it has definitely become an endangered practice. And on top of everything else, nobody did it better or as often as the 80’s. But why? Righteous grooves weren’t proprietary to the Me-Decade.
In the early 1990’s, soundtrack trends splintered as popular culture fragmented. Gen X and the too-cool for pop-hits alternative culture commandeered the notable early 90’s soundtracks. Angst ruled. See Reality Bites, Singles, The Commitments. A few proud examples of killer, integrated mixtape soundtracks survived and oddly they almost always starred Mike Myers.
The Bodyguard and Boomerang sold bucketloads due to hit tracks from major recording artists. Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men struck gold in soundtracks for arguably terrible movies. After this the soundtrack business degraded into mix-tapes of B-sides from popular artists (maybe one huge single makes it out alive). These songs have no impact on the movie itself. See The Coneheads, Batman Forever, throw a dart and you’ll hit ten or forty-two compilations ranging in quality from useless to still-on-my-iPod. Not that these weren’t always around… just that their omnipresence seemed to increase.
Quentin Tarantino ushered in a refreshing new (and by new, I mean old) soundtrack paradigm – nostalgia for vinyl stacks and killer tracks (see American Graffiti). Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs begat more nostalgia in Dazed and Confused, Grosse Point Blank, Almost Famous, etc. Wes Anderson took this model and added a single-artist instrumental thread. The Life Aquatic being perhaps his most interesting experiment. Scored by regular collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and featuring David Bowie covers by Seu Jorge (a Brazilian artist who cites samba music and Stevie Wonder as his primary inspirations) Anderson combined the single-artist instrumental score with the single-artist mixtape. A brilliant soundtrack that still fails the 80’s model because outside of the few die-hard aficionados (like myself) no one could identify one moment from that film based on the music. Though I challenge you to watch the audio/visual poetry of the final scene of Life Aquatic (backed by Sigar Ros’ “Staralfur”) and not forever fall in love that song. Alas, the song doesn’t even appear on the final soundtrack.
The notable exception seems to be a short period in the 90’s where rap/hip-hop oriented soundtracks contained solid, previously unreleased tracks. See Juice, Judgment Night, Friday, New Jack City. Also Romeo + Juliet proves problematic for my oversimplified history. “Lovefool” probably sirs instant-coffee memories of Danes + DeCaprio, but this is a bl-g, not a motherflippin’ thesis and I don’t really
want to remember that movie. Moving on. The end result is the degradation of the big movie moment. The modern-mixtape soundtracks are nothing more than a collection of disconnected, disjointed songs. The New Moon album boasts an impressive roll call of indie favorites but what do they contribute to the movie? No one seems to build scenes or characters around pop music any more, certainly not without the sense of irony mentioned with regard to The 40-Year Old Virgin’s rendition of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” This is equivalent to the awkward kid making a sex joke on a date because he doesn’t know how to make his first move. Misfired sincerity is much harder to laugh away.
What always seems to be missing is the iconic movie/song combination that instantaneously recalls a moment, a movie, a character. Synesthesia nostalgia. I started writing this rumble because I thought a quick study might lead me to profound thoughts about the nature of music and the way we watch movies. My profound thought is that people just had more fun in the 80’s. No really. That’s it. Everyone believed that they were living in the best of all possible worlds and Kenny Loggins was the Grandmaster of Ceremonies. And then, suddenly, everyone found cynicism. Not only were we not living in the best of all possible worlds, but pop culture was and always would be a false prophet peddling false hope and a subpar product.
Demographics fragmented. A puritanical undercurrent rose up and conquered the Carefree 80’s just as it had conquered the Roaring 20’s. The music industry also changed. As I discussed in my rumble about Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the studios tried harder to protect their property as it became increasingly more difficult to promote and protect the “superstar.” Soundtracks became infomercials for movies and music samplers to promote a label’s artists. As a result the soundtrack album has become irrelevant. We can cherry pick singles of our favorite artists at $1.29 a pop. There’s no more slogging through the instrumental “Dana’s Theme” on Ghostbusters if we can just download some Ray Parker and the Alessi Brothers’ “Savin’ the Day” on their own. If we are to claim that digital media killed the album as an art form then the idea of a contemporary pop soundtrack has been tarred and feathered. We live in the Now Generation.
The end result is that soundtracks can still be great, but the 80’s (and the 70’s while we’re at it) Hippy-hippy-shake-take-my-breath-away-man-in-motion model of soundtracking has been shelved up there in the cabinet next to your grandma’s marmalade because we’re too damn busy being nostalgic and f$#%ing serious all the time. The fact is that no one has the balls to orchestrate a two-minute, all-male beach volleyball montage to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys” anymore. Today we mock this scene because it’s an easy target. But weren’t most of the 80’s? The Top Gun volleyball scene doesn’t represent the worst of the decade – it represents some the best. The fun, the confidence, the unbridled enthusiasm (to borrow one of a thousand favorite Seinfeld phrases). It’s possible we missed the overt homoeroticism at the time, but we were all so innocent then. So innocent that we watched movies just because they were good clean fun, often backed by thematically relevant killer jams. Imagine the novelty.