Notes on Movie Music: The Film Reader

Cover of Movie Music: The Film Reader; image courtesy of

Cover of Movie Music: The Film Reader; image courtesy of

So, one thing I didn’t mention in my indictment of (500) Days of Summer is the soundtrack. While I may have mentioned my thoughts on how music culture is configured in the movie, I didn’t discuss the soundtrack itself: how it serves to bolster the narrative, enforce the movie’s indie-ness, or its commercial success as an ancillary product.

I didn’t discuss it because I don’t really have any opinion on it. I wasn’t particularly familiar with or blown away by the songs in the movie — I thought the music was pleasant. I’d imagine it’s doing a respectable job as its own product and as an extension of the movie’s marketing campaign, though say this while qualifying that running the numbers is now a completely different game than it was, say, in the 1990s, when soundtracks were big business that could easily be reflected by a quick glance at the Billboard charts. Now, we have iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook groups, online ad campaigns, innumerable blogs, and several other outlets fragmenting the marketplace. But I’d imagine the soundtrack is doing well.

All this is to say that I wondered what the scholars who contributed to Movie Music: The Film Reader would make of the movie’s soundtrack. The anthology is a slim collection of essays edited by Kay Dickenson that was published in 2002 but primarily feature pieces from the 1990s, a decade that I’ve already defined (along with many others) as a peak time for soundtracks, which is reflected in some of the scholars’ inquiries. Perhaps it drove home for me just how temporal the objects of analysis in media studies can be, particularly music. A good reminder, if still a frustrating dillemma.

With that said, I thought I’d briefly highlight some essays that I found useful.

Jeff Smith’s “Structural interactions of the film and record industries” is a fascinating and concise industrial history of the relationship between record labels and film studios from the 1950s on. Starting out as a mutual-benefit relationship, film studios tried to form their own record labels with the intent to fashion albums and recording talent in-house, which was met with little success. As a result, record labels kept the upper-hand from the 1970s on, but left movie studios the opportunity to further develop cross-promotional and synergistic strategies without having to worry about A and R. 

This is interesting to read alongside romanticized notions that the 1970s was a renaissance period for maverick filmmaking that eschewed studio control (I specifically like to think of this story while working out the bureaucratic steps that may have been taken in order for Martin Scorsese to get the rights for The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” for Mean Streets).

And, as Smith’s piece was originally published in 1998, I also think of it as a harbinger of deregulation measures and conglomeration to that defined the culture industry at the end of the 20th century.  

Lawrence Grossberg’s “Cinema, Postmodernity, and Authenticity” gives a cursory glance at the importance of rock music in teen pics from the 1950s on, but pays particular attention to movies from the 1980s (specifically the ones aligned with the Brat Pack). He argues that while rock music is meant to indicate an intergenerational upheaval of value systems between establishment parents and rebel kids, movies from the 1980s actually saw teen protagonists questioning and grappling with identity politics while ultimately (or presumably) toeing the line, doing very little to break down gender norms, class divides, racist ideologies, and heterosexist agendas. At the same time, these movies incorporating more a post-modern political sensibility through irony, parody, and reference.

I wonder what Grossberg would say about how French electronic act M83 hails the 1980s, specifically in 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, an album heavily indebted to both the sound and style of the Brat Pack movies and soundtracks. I’m sure he’d get a chuckle out of learning that Anthony Gonzalez, the man behind M83, is in his mid-20s and too young to remember these movies “authentically.”

Kay Dickinson’s “Pop, Speed, Teenagers, and the ‘MTV Aesthetic'” is an interesting look into how teen movies and their soundtracks incorporate the look and sound of MTV, specifically looking at Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (a movie dear to my heart — I still have a copy of the soundtrack and nursed a brief crush on DiCaprio when he was at his most androgynous). Dickenson is particularly interested in three aspects:
1) The symbiotic relationship between the highly stylized movie, its soundtrack, and the music videos that accompany both.               
2) The deliberate uniformity of each text’s aesthetic and how they maximize youth-oriented marketing potential for what was widely regarded as a teen movie.
3) How the fast editing style of the movie and music videos popularized by MTV result in visual imperceptability (i.e., that the eye cannot keep up with the images); while a bit of a tangent, this phenomenon reminded me of John Cline’s Flow column about the increasing incomprehensibility of many segments in action films shot on digital camera.

I think there are limits to Dickenson’s argument — the Brat Pack movies or the Hughes-influenced teen pics from the late 1990s, which were not so reliant on fast editing as they were on soundtracks, trendy clothes, slang, and photogenic young actors, talking about their feelings still uphold the MTV aesthetic in my mind, perhaps suggesting that the network did not have a uniform visual style.  

Also, there’s minimal discussion of how Luhrmann’s kinetic style heightened the story’s romantic elements and how this might have played into its intense popularity among teenagers (seriously, I saw this movie dozens of times during my junior high and high school days; I also assume that DiCaprio’s vaunted teen idol status as a result of the movie led him to be cast in Titanic, a movie beloved by kids of my generation, including my friend Brandi, who saw the movie at least sixteen times in theaters and taped the ticket stubs to the wall by her bed). I’d be very curious how Dickenson reads Luhrmann’s visual style against Hughes’s (and Dawson’s Creek creator-wordsmith Kevin Williamson’s) use of dialogue, particularly regarding matters of the heart. 

Lisa A. Lewis’s “A Madonna ‘Wanna-Be’ Story on Film” is a piece I was already familiar with because, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on here, Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference, from which the essay originally emerged, was a formative text for me as a media studies scholar. 

In this piece, Lewis does a formidable job mapping out a multitude of texts surrounding Madonna in the mid-1980s. There’s star text (Madonna). There’s film text (Susan Seidelman’s 1984 classic Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Rosanna Arquette, who plays a young suburban housewife who becomes obsessed with and later develops a liberating friendship with Susan, a mysterious club denizen, played by Madonna). There’s soundtrack analysis (Lewis particularly pays attention to the club scene where Susan dances to Madonna’s song “Into the Groove”). There’s fan discourse (teen girls and young women — maybe unmentioned young men as well — appropriating the Material Girl’s iconic look, while mutating and individuating it; this development is read alongside the movie, which shows Rosanna’s Roberta becoming Susan, as well as behind-the-scenes goings-on, as Rosanna and Madonna became friends off-camera). There’s even consideration made for how corporate culture feeds into all this, coming to a head when MTV and ABC document a Madonna lookalike fashion show at Macy’s to coincide with the film’s release. In short, a dizzying but lucidly plotted out argument about the power female artists (and their fans) can exert within and outside of an increasingly synergistic media culture. 

Hmmm. Also a reminder of how much I love Desperately Seeking Susan, which I would catch on Comedy Central from time to time when I had cable. I haven’t watched it in a while. May warrant a repeat viewing ASAP.

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