Some days just get away from you. Today was just one of those days. I need music more on these days than others. And it’s not just soul-revivers or some Kenny Loggins’ soundtrack jams. Any music can movie you. Even parody.
I’ve been re-watching all of the episodes of Flight of the Conchords while I work out recently and I’m once again in awe of this show. I never make a weekly ritual out of watching a particular TV show. Certainly I look forward to catching up with Don Draper every Sunday but, as it generally goes, I don’t get to watch the new Mad Men until Wednesday or Thursday. I made watching Flight of the Conchords a priority. I watched it when it aired live and I recorded it on my DVR so I could watch the episode again during the week. My obsession with Community comes close. As funny as many of these FoC songs were, they had a depth beyond mere parody. They had heart and reverence. Jemaine and Brett deconstructed the genres, but still managed to respect the source material.
While I ponder how to kill a character with a string trimmer in my horror/coming-of-age/literary short story I felt compelled to share the song that kept me sane today. I had my daughter bobbing along with my own rendition tonight, and she, of course, latched on to one of the more inappropriate lyrics (Who’s touching these monkeys, please / leave these poor sick monkeys alone / they’ve got problems enough as it is) and repeated it, ad infinitum. To me, this song is the pinnacle of the Conchords’ songwriting and video production powers. And it makes me happy. Here’s the live version, just in case you hadn’t seen the stage show performance. I’m also assuming you’ve seen the show. You’ve seen the show, right?
I first introduced the concept of “synesthesia nostalgia” in my rumble-worship about movie soundtracks of the 1980’s. Catch up here. In the wake of this rumble I wanted to compile a list of my favorite soundtrack moments from the Me Decade. In order to qualify for the list the movie soundtrack moment must:
A) accompany a memorable scene from an 80’s movie;
B) contain contemporary ’80’s music — either reconstituted (but still representing the ’80’s) or written exclusively for the film;
C) not be played only during a static credit crawl. I’ve allowed opening credit tracks (see #10 and #7) because the set up for a movie can be infinitely more influential than anything that takes place while everyone’s deciding whether or not to take their leftover popcorn home with them.
11. National Lampoon’s Vacation – Opening Credits
Song: Holiday Road by Lindsey Buckingham
I wanted to include Iggy Pop’s opening credits from Repo Man here to be “edgy.” I just couldn’t shake the Griswolds though. “Holiday Road” is such a recognizable stalwart of the 80’s soundtrack pantheon that I couldn’t deny Lindsey Buckingham the credit he deserves. He certainly doesn’t get enough love for being a vital cog in Fleetwood Mac (damn you Stevie Nicks for stealing his thunder). I’m sure a mention in this rumble will certainly put his confidence over the top. Opening credits? Sure. But as far as I can recall this song plays through every second of the entire movie.
10. Back to the Future – Too Damn Loud
Song: The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News
The Power of Love appears early in Back to the Future when Marty skates to school after blowing the amps at Doc Brown’s. It then reappears, perhaps less memorably… perhaps more, here when Marty’s band, the Pinheads, audition for the Battle of the Bands and a bespectacled Huey Lewis proclaims the song to be “too darn loud.” A short scene empowered by the song’s repeated appearance in the movie and the trilogy as a whole.
9. Beverly Hills Cop – The Cigarette Truck Chase
Song: The Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters
One of my favorite opening scenes to any ’80’s movie. Axel Foley. Cigarette truck. The Pointer Sisters. Movie magic. A perfect blend of synesthesia nostalgia. Fun wiki fact: the Russian government misinterpreted the song, believing the lyrics to be about nuclear war. I’m not sure but this might also have been the first R-rated movie I ever saw. Bonus points for that. And the banana in the tailpipe. And Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F. And Rosewood. And Taggard. I love this movie so damn much.
8. Caddyshack – Opening Credits
Song: I’m Alright by Kenny Loggins
Dancing gopher. That’s really what this is all about. Nobody can listen to this song and not think Caddyshack and the gopher. Kenny Loggins was the Grandmaster of Ceremonies for the 1980s and this is his happy funtime anthem. Unfortunately I can’t get a clean embed to the actual movie footage. Instead here’s a fan video of the dancing gopher… since that’s really all we really want anyway.
7. Flashdance – The Last Dance
Song: What a Feeling by Irene Cara
Regrettably I have no choice but to place this song in the countdown. Like it or not Irene Cara’s anthem is dripping, oozing with synesthesia nostalgia. This is the epitome of the concept itself. Movie and music are inextricably linked in form and memory. Still it pains me. Jennifer Beals has really aged well though, hasn’t she? The guitar solo at around 4:30 just kills me a little inside every time I hear it. I doubly cringe because now I must also think of Jennifer Lopez too. Urgh. What I would give for this song to be erased from our collective memories.
6. Better Off Dead – VanFrankenBurger
Song: Everybody Wants Some by Van Halen
I can’t really vouch for the song. On it’s own, it’s just not a very good Van Halen song. And then you have to get into the question about whether Van Halen was really a decent band rather than just a fascist conglomerate. I’m not prepared to go there. I am prepared to laud the awesomeness that is Better Off Dead. This is the best scene in Better Off Dead and it just happens to involve John Cusack doing a Dr. Frankenstein impersonation with a few pounds of raw ground chuck that turns into he and she burger patties singing Van Halen and it’s suddenly the best that Van Halen has ever sounded.
5. Footloose – Chicken Race
Song: Holding Out For a Hero by Bonnie Tyler
I’ll spare you another Kenny Loggins anthem. It would have been easy to pick just about any clip from Footloose and call it iconic. What moment in that movie isn’t strikingly noteworthy for one reason or another? I challenge you to find one menial, tedious moment in the whole film. Trick challenge. There isn’t one. But if we’re downplaying all the more awkward musical/drama moments, the scene that rises above all others is the Chicken Tractor Showdown. Pure teenage stupidity played for thrills and set to Bonnie Tyler?? Movie magic while the theme for Footloose just makes me think of ratty sneakers in close-up.
4. Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Phoebe Cates
Song: Moving in Stereo by the Cars
We could be more subtle about the reason for this scene’s infamy, but why bother? Any male knows this as the Phoebe Cates scene. It might not be immediately obvious but there’s a song playing when she exits that pool. And whenever men of a certain age hear this song by the Cars, they’re 90% more likely to experience a spontaneous erection than, say, men of any other age. It might not fit the other criteria for true synesthesia nostalgia, but there’s true potency in those subliminal messages.
3. Say Anything – Boombox
Song: In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel
This is by far my least favorite entry in the countdown. Not because I don’t love the song… or the movie… but because I hate being predictable. There’s no way to exclude “In Your Eyes” because no 80’s movie moment is more iconic than John Cusack standing outside Ione Skye’s window with that boombox. I miss the days where it was socially acceptable to haul a 20 lb. apparatus for blasting treble-heavy tunes on your shoulder. Maybe this should be #1 but I prefer it here. In the middle. Fun fact: the original working title of the film was …Say Anything… instead of Say Anything…
2. Ghostbusters – The First Call
Song: Cleanin’ Up the Town by the Busboys
What else did the Busboys do? I dunno. Don’t care. Their song begat the Ghostbusters into this world on their first honest paying gig. This is enough for three for four lifetimes. The best Hollywood movie of the 80’s has to have a killer 80’s soundtrack. While Ray Parker, Jr. got all the press (good and bad – shame on you for stealing Huey’s beat) the Busboys cranked out the real hit. Is it a great song? Without the movie, nobody remembers the band or this song. At the same time, what could have replaced the song? The whine of Ecto 1’s siren has become one with the jazz-fueled piano riff. (For the record, they put out a pretty decent record called Minimum Wage Rock & Roll.)
1. Top Gun – Beach Volleyball
Song: Playing With the Boys by Kenny Loggins
So you wanted “Danger Zone” did you? “Danger Zone” is a great track. I’m pretty sure I’ve tested all of my car stereos by cranking it up to 11. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some “Danger Zone” but when you hear the song what scene in Top Gun comes to mind? Maybe my experience has been warped somehow but I don’t think of anything other than F-14s flying around and landing, taking off and landing like I’m at some Blue Angels festival in the glowing dusk sunlight. There’s no scene attached to the song. And yes, I know I included the song from Caddyshack because of the dancing gopher… but that’s different. That’s different because there wasn’t the greatest homoerotic beach volleyball scene in history slapped dead in the middle of the movie backed by yet another killer jam from Kenny Loggins. The man really was a god among boy scouts.
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.