Emmy the Great on the art of the teen movie soundtrack

Tuesday February 14th 2012

© James Kent

We asked Emmy the Great to give a talk at Teenage Wasteland last week and she kindly agreed. This is more or less what she said, but written down:

I didn’t get a lot of time to prepare this. In a teen movie this is the point where if I was in Clueless, I would tell you that I have a note from my plastic surgeon that exempts me from making this speech. If I was in Mean Girls, I would get up on this lectern and I would say, “The truth is, I don’t even want to be popular, so you can keep your stupid prom!” and if this was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this is the point where I would bow out with the words ‘San Dimas High School Football Rules.”

But I don’t have those options. I did bring this book. If I blank or you don’t laugh, I’m just gonna start reading from it. (The book was Beverly Hills 90210: Which Way to the Beach? I did read from it. They didn’t laugh.)

I picked Mallrats for this screening, because watching it took up about 40% of my leisure time in my teenage years. I’d seen its predecessor, Clerks, and decided, without question, that Kevin Smith made cool movies, and that I had to be known as someone who watched them. Then Mallrats came out. It was funnier, there was so much swearing in it, and my parents let me watch it! Eventually I realised that some of what was inferred was about anal sex, and then I found out what that was! Edgy! And most of all, it ended with a Weezer song. A Weezer song, as it happened, that would become my favourite Weezer song.

Here lies that perfect synergy at the heart of teen movie soundtracks. Who knows if Suzanne, originally a b-side, meant so much to me because it was set to an edit of Jay and Silent Bob walking off into the sunset with a monkey, or the other way round? That’s a question that not even Kevin Smith, Rivers Cuomo, or the monkey called Suzanne could answer.

When you’re a teenager, music is the most important accessory you own. Trainers are important, sure, but nothing is more important, when it comes to your identity, as music. As you get older, you start to see that things are not so concrete, that there’s merit to many different types of music, genres, artists, that you don’t have to be so definitive in your tastes.

What a fucking shame.

I wish we could live forever in that teenage bliss of knowing something, really really knowing it. When you’re a teenager, you don’t understand your parents, you don’t understand the opposite sex, you don’t understand your bitchy friends, but you know you like the Smiths, and you know that you don’t like Cher. You will never have conviction like that again in your life.

That’s why I am fascinated by the teen movie soundtrack. The people who pick that music have more in their hands than they know. They’re like the high school teachers overseeing senior year as they bury a time capsule in the football grounds, a time capsule whose contents are designed to tell any future generation who we were at this moment in time.

Many of the things inside a soundtrack become defunct, but like relics from a time capsule, a mysterious power remains, to induce nostalgia, wonder, or maybe embarrassment, long after their moment has passed.

Here are some things you can learn from the teen movie soundtrack time capsule:


What can we learn from the Dumb and Dumber (1994) soundtrack? Mainly that Dumb and Dumber was made in the worst era for band names, ever! Deadeye Dick, Willy One Blood, Gigolo Aunts, Green Jelly, the Proclaimers … all of these names make an appearance. And Butthole Surfers. I know they’re famous for being the band that the Flaming Lips ripped off. But to 10 year-old me, they were the band on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack called Butthole Surfers.


What did teenagers listen to in 1999? Just check the American Pie (1999) soundtrack, featuring Third Eye Blind, Sugar Ray, Blink 182. Remember those bands? Just Blink? Oh, OK.

Blink lent a song to the sequel soundtrack too, in 2001, but by American Pie 3 (2003), the surf-punk numbers band on the tracklisting was Sum 41. The baton had been passed. Avril Lavigne was on that soundtrack too. I like to think that it was at a mixer for the American Pie 3 soundtrack that she met the guy from Sum 41 who she married for a year.


Every now and then a soundtrack comes along that defines a generation. When you read the tracklisting for Romeo + Juliet (1996), you see the story of a bunch of bands, big and small, who got swept up in a moment. Every song tells a story, not just the story in the song, but the story of who the band were before, and after that song. Watch the video for Des’ree’s ‘Kissing You’, with its Florentine arches and endless shots of infinity pools, and you don’t just remember how you sobbed, clutching a worn magazine cutout of Leo DiCaprio, at the quavering timbre of her voice, you also remember that, just after that song, she became the pop star who rhymes ‘Ghost’ with ‘Toast’.


When Grease (1978), Grease 2 (1982), Dirty Dancing (1987) and Coyote Ugly (2000) came out, even single women who weren’t born yet were given the the music that they would one day drink wine and jump up and down to, after I Have Never. Perhaps even indulge in a bit of hairbrush singing, in a rom-com montage, maybe.


Scream (1996): There is a scene in Scream where Billy Loomis and Sydney Prescott are having sex for the first time, set to a slowed down, industrial-lite version of Blue Oster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. I am not embarrassed to admit that I played this song to myself on repeat, dreaming of the day that I, too, would have a boyfriend, maybe one as hot as Billy Loomis, but without all the murder.

Cruel Intentions (1999): Our Buffy took a break from slaying shenanigans to play high school rich bitch Kathryn Merteuil. Incest, teen-bi-curiosity, coke and Catholic school, this film was Gossip Girl set to GOTH, with a soundtrack of the most dour offerings from Counting Crows, Marcy Playground, Skunk Anansie etc., and closing with the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. This was music a girl could listen to with her best friend while experimenting with cannabis and burning herself with candle wax. See also The Craft.

Twilight (2004): Surely the first great teen-movie soundtrack of the 21st century, accompanying possibly the deepest teenage film of all time. You think you’ve got problems, John Cusack in Say Anything? Bella’s boyfriend is DEAD. He’s also Rob Pattinson, though, so any issue she might have with that is the boyfriend equivalent of a #firstworldproblem. Highlights from this soundtrack include Lykke Li’s Possibilities, and Muse. Lots and lots of Muse.


Heath, Heath. You were a babe. And empirically, you were slightly more babe-like while set to Letters from Cleo playing live on the gym roof in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) than riding a horse to Queen in A Knight’s Tale (2001).


When a director really does their homework, the teen-movie soundtrack can become an archive-quality tribute to a bygone age. Judd Apatow and his crew, before they became Judd Apatow and his crew, created something pretty close to perfect in the TV series Freaks and Geeks (2004), set in the early 1980’s, with a soundtrack of painstaking quality, featuring music from 1968-1980 (think Rush, Joan Jett…). The DVD release for Freaks and Geeks was delayed because of copyright problems – some of the songs were obscure, the others expensive.

A decade before, Richard Linklater had visited a similar era in Dazed and Confused (1994), with a soundtrack that reflected what the group of high school graduates in 1976 would be listening to as they prepared for the biggest blowout of the year. The climax of this film was a boy called ‘Pink’ Floyd getting tickets to a Aerosmith concert, so you can imagine the soundtrack involved more than a little classic rock. My favourite bit of this film is Parker Posey’s line: ‘Wipe that face of your head, bitch.’

Before any of the teen films you know and love, came American Graffiti (1973). George Lucas nailed a lot of things in this iconic piece of cinema, about another group of high-school grads, this time in the 60’s, who spend a night cruising round the streets of Modesto, California. Featuring songs from 1951-1964, with artists like the Platters, the Beach Boys, Del Shannon, etc. this 41-song soundtrack exists as as a perfect article with or without the film, and is one of the best movie soundtracks ever released.


Video Killed the Radio Star, but novelty songs live forever. Just ask the Buggles, who have licenced their song to The Wedding Singer (1998), GTA: Vice City, Take Me Home Tonight (2011), and Empire Records (1995).

The endlessly funny, endlessly creepy Johnny Burnette single, ‘You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine’ has appeared in American Graffiti, Happy Days, and early Sarah Jessica Parker outing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (1985). I love this song. I love that it is sung by a man with the deepest, gruffest baritone – a voice that screams not so much ‘Young Love’, as ‘Neighbourhood Pervert’. I also love that, when originally released, the 7″ was backed by a song called ‘I Beg Your Pardon’, presumably addressed to his girlfriend’s parents.

Meanwhile, Kim Wilde deserves a mention. Her song ‘Kids in America’ has inspired a teen film of the same name, but doesn’t appear on the soundtrack. It is on the Clueless (1995) soundtrack, but as a cover, performed by the Muffs.


Sometimes, a teen movie time capsule really is basically a teen movie time capsule. Take Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)/ Bogus Journey (1992), for example. Is it a most excellent film franchise that introduced the world to its favourite expressionless actor? Or is it a message from director Stephen Herek, intended to explain to us exactly what a pair of Californian meatheads would have listened to in 1988 and 1991? The answer? Megadeth. Steve Vai. Extreme. Did we need to know? Time will tell.

And so we get to my favourite soundtrack. Fans of Empire Records (1995) were disappointed when they bought the accompanying album. It didn’t have most of the really big songs that featured in the movie, like Dire Straits’ Romeo And Juliet, or The Cranberries, or The Buggles, or Throwing Muses, or Daniel Johnston, or GWAR … Well, thank you, copyright issues. The result of the filmmakers not shelling out for the big tracks mean that this soundtrack is a gem of 90’s also-rans. Empire Records LP took what it could afford – The Gin Blossoms (a poor man’s Lemonheads), The Innocence Mission (almost Mazzy Star) – and so listening to this album is like entering an alternate universe of what the 90’s might have sounded like. In typical underwhelming fashion, the song that Renée Zellweger sings on in the film doesn’t even features her vocals on the soundtrack. A perfect monument to underdone 90’s slacker-ism.

And finally…
Here’s Emmy’s ULTIMATE TEEN MOVIE MIXTAPE, as presented via this dope YouTube playlist:

Track listing
Suzanne – Weezer (from Mallrats)
You’re Sixteen – Johnny Bourette (from American Graffiti)
Bright As Yellow – The Innocence Mission (from Cruel Intentions)
School’s Out – Alice Cooper (from Dazed and Confused)
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm – Crash Test Dummies (from Dumb and Dumber)
Don’t Fear the Reaper – Gus (from Scream)
Mutt – Blink 182 (from American Pie)
Kids in America – Kim Wilde (from Clueless)
Roslyn – Bon Iver + St. Vincent (from Twilight)
Berserker – Love Among Freaks (Clerks)
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want – The Smiths (Pretty in Pink)
In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel (Say Anything)
Milkshake – Kelis (Mean Girls)
Bunny Rap – Bugs Bunny/ Jay-Z (Space Jam)
San Dimas High School Football Rules – The Ataris (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
(Don’t You) Forget About Me – Simple Minds (The Breakfast Club)