Eulogizing the Movie Soundtrack
Accepting that we aren’t “old,” but aren’t exactly “young” anymore is the inconvenient truth my generation is currently struggling with. Remembering the “Rollin’ with My Homies” scene from Clueless takes us back to our childhoods, but we stop dead in our tracks upon realizing the film was released two decades ago. Awareness is peppered with defining moments of cognizance like that. As time elapses, it’s proportionally illustrated via the ever-widening gap between then and now. Think about how far away the concept of a Tower Records or Sam Goody feels today. And it looks like the movie soundtrack, once an impactful symbol of pop culture, is rapidly headed in the same direction.
Marveling at my parents’ carefully-stacked collection of cassette tapes and CDs is one of my earliest memories. Among the most fascinating of these little rectangular cases of varying size were soundtracks for movies like Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Mo’ Money. They featured new music from established and rising artists, and analyzing their cases and booklets, as well as occasionally catching the videos (back when music videos kind of mattered), made up the bulk of my exposure to films I was still too young to see. Before I knew that Christopher Williams played Kareem Akbar—the “pretty motherfucker” that Nino Brown “never liked”—in New Jack City, I knew that he brought scenes from the film to life with his baritone in the “I’m Dreamin’” video.
These soundtracks highlighted integral parts of the films they were created to support, and they were fortuitously intertwined with audiences’ emotional attachment to those moments. For example, the Boomerang soundtrack is the platform that launched Toni Braxton, as the title of “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” was taken directly from the script. P.M. Dawn’s “I’d Die Without You” is now synonymous with the moment Eddie Murphy’s heedless lothario, Marcus Graham, realizes he actually loves Halle Berry’s Angela. Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” which essentially sums up the film, became one of the biggest singles of all time (and helped the Boomerang soundtrack go triple-platinum).
Funny enough, the connection that consumers developed between the songs and the film is what made movie soundtracks so successful during the 1990s. When Boomerang and Mo’ Money were released in July 1992, their soundtracks pitted two sets of legendary producers against each other: Babyface and L.A. Reid vs. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
As the Sun Sentinel explained in August 1992, Boomerang had the edge in terms of chart-position and quality:
Without a doubt, the Boomerang release is a knockout. Babyface, whose Give U My Heart was the first release, along with LaFace Records, compiled a package that was crisp, engaging and, most importantly, will establish its own identity independent of the movie. It has sold more than a million copies.
Unfortunately, the Mo’ Money soundtrack, with nearly a million sales, is inexorably tied to its movie.
The release features 10 dialogue snippets, ranging in duration from six to 18 seconds. They are placed between every couple of songs. The lyrics to many of the songs are far more engaging than the dialogue from the movie. And who wants to hear that tired conversation over and over? (If you heard it in the theater, you’ve been punished enough.)
Although Boomerang’s soundtrack is bound to the film, the success of its singles has allowed it to stand on its own years later. Where the Mo’ Money soundtrack tried to force the film down listeners’ throats, Boomerang, like Singles, Romeo + Juliet, and Love Jones, allowed consumers to form enduring relationships with the background music and the action on screen. In the ‘90s, that was enough to coerce consumers to spend money on that music. During the aughts, that influence began to fade.
It’s been a decade since the sweaty hip-hop of Memphis set the scene for Hustle & Flow. What’s more, it’s been nearly 10 years since Three 6 Mafia shocked the world by winning an Oscar for the film’s thesis, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” RZA may have had a hand in the music for both Kill Bill films and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood composed the music for three Paul Thomas Anderson works (There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice), but they did all that during a time when the soundtrack had become considerably less significant.
Soundtracks of the ‘90s simply had more effort and promotional dollars invested in them. Pharrell’s “Happy” is a brilliant (if not infuriatingly catchy) accident, but be honest about its success: did it make people want to buy the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack? Did you even know that’s where that song was from? Music isn’t consumed the way it was 20 years ago, and because album sales have tapered off since the early 2000s, the value of the soundtrack has diminished so much that it’s not worth the same effort as before. With all of the streaming and download options (as well as the reality that there’s no foreseeable end to illegal downloads), it’s difficult to rationalize incurring the expense of creating a compilation of music that people aren’t even likely to buy. Pushing a single for a soundtrack is a fool’s errand in this climate because it won’t move albums or tickets.
It goes deeper than soundtracks being less marketable, though: the association between the music and the films they buttress has also deteriorated. The deep affinity for certain soundtracks reverberates years later because of personal ties to the movies. It’s the product of a sentimentality which leaves a lasting impact. The Above the Rim soundtrack is why I grew up listening to the other “Big Pimpin” on Saturday mornings before playing basketball, and why “Pain” is one of my favorite 2Pac songs. The party scene in Romeo +Juliet is why both The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and Des’ree’s “Kissing You” remind me of middle school dances. Edwyn Collins’ decade-betraying ode to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, “A Girl Like You,” is probably the best song on the Empire Records soundtrack, but Coyote Shivers’ “Sugarhigh” was included because it’s a nod to one of the Gen X cult classic’s most memorable moments.
It’s rare that you come across a soundtrack today that truly resonates unless it’s comprised of old songs; each carefully chosen selection tugging at the love of nostalgia embedded in us all. That’s why I loved The Wackness’ soundtrack and its Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… inspired purple mixtape — both were rife with music Yo! MTV Raps exposed me to as a child.
Market conditions have made it so that we’ll likely never see another Boomerang, New Jersey Drive, Clueless, or Above the Rim soundtrack, but we’ll survive. I can still listen to Purple Rain on Spotify, and the dwindling value of physical CDs allowed me to find it in Best Buy for $5 earlier this year. A kid younger than me complimented me on my find, proving that movie soundtracks of old may be dead, but there’s still a splendid afterlife for them.
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