The Playlist Movie is Older Than You Think

Films like Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy may be drawing attention to them, but Playlist Movies have been a dominating force in Teen Films for decades.

Last month, Kaitlyn Tiffany of The Verge posted an article about Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, and the rise of what she terms “Playlist Movies.”  Films that deliberately draw a disproportionate-than-usual amount of attention to their soundtracks, usually at the expense of characters and plot and themes, creating a deliberate aura of auterism around them that doubles as a certain cool, like a big brother just slipped you a mixtape full of songs you just HAVE to listen to, whether they have anything to do with the plot at large or not.  And whilst I disagree in many respects with her article – I think both Baby Driver and Guardians do integrate their music into the film thematically enough to avoid being nothing more than hip branding exercises that take away from character work – I do think that Tiffany is on to something with her central argument.

However, I’d take it a step further than even she does.  Tiffany highlights Zach Braff’s 2004 Garden State as the moment that the Playlist Movie truly started to crossover and dig its claws into more mainstream consciousness, and whilst I won’t deny the importance of Garden State’s soundtrack, I’d say that it goes back even further than that.  Specifically, as with most cited signifiers of “cool” in films after he first turned up on the scene, to Quentin Tarantino.  Much like with Wright and Gunn’s processes for Baby Driver and Guardians, Tarantino’s specific cue choices almost always have their roots in either his extensive record collection or by an appearance in a different film that he’d seen before and wanted to repurpose to his own ends.  Much like with Wright and Gunn, his soundtracks are deliberately throwbacks rooted in a kind of retro, analogue cool from either the 60s or 70s, with any featured music made after those decades being very heavily influenced and sounding a lot like them as well.

And, in rather the same way as Braff’s Garden State started the Indie crossover in America, Tarantino’s soundtracks often get held up separately from the films that they are attached to as something era-defining, with specific cues and bands that see large spikes in attention and usage in other places once featured.  The Pulp Fiction soundtrack has gone 3x platinum in both the UK (900,000) and the USA (3,000,000) since its first release almost 23 years ago.  Guardians of the Galaxy’s Awesome Mix vol. 1, meanwhile, became the first soundtrack in US chart history to top the charts without having a single original song on it, going platinum in 6 months, and, at least here in my neck of the English woods, becoming a mainstay of CD aisles in supermarkets for years since.  It would seem that a legitimate successor to Pulp Fiction’s symbol has finally been found.

That’s because Wright and Gunn utilise music in much the same way that Tarantino does.  Each of these directors do often give story weight to the music featured in their films, but their specific taste in music is also an integral part of their aesthetic as filmmakers.  Their love for music is palpably genuine, hence why Gunn has to field roughly 40 questions a day on Twitter as to what songs are going to appear in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie, but it’s also a marketer’s wet dream since, as Tiffany notes in her article, these types of personalised, fussed-over playlists provide a tangible touch of individual personality that are very easy to sell to the public at large.  Art that’s playing with budgets as large as these directors do is ultimately commerce, regardless of how sincere and personal they may be.  This might also explain why the soundtracks of films like Suicide Squad and Atomic Blonde failed to take off in the same way as Guardians and Baby Driver; their choices ultimately feeling too impersonal and too wall-to-wall-hits to ride that same marketing zeitgeist that these directors can.

Or, then again, maybe not.  For Tiffany’s belief that the origins of the Playlist Movie can only be traced back to Garden State I’d argue ignores another subset of films that take a lot of their cues from the Playlist Movie, and have in fact been at it for far longer than Wright, Gunn, and even Tarantino have been making films for: the Teen Movie.

Soundtracks are one of the fundamental life bloods of a Teen Movie.  Whether they’re High School flicks, weepy romances, fantasy hybrids, or whatever, you can count on them to devote an almost equal amount of time to the curation of their own soundtracks as they do the rest of the film.  That’s not an insult, for the record; I genuinely find the soundtrack to a Teen Movie to be one of the most important parts of them, with the interplay between song and scene often being a vivid part of my memory of such.  Nadine’s awkward non-committal attempts to lose her virginity in what is soon revealed to be little more than a pity fuck feinting via the usage of Angus & Julia Stone’s “Big Jet Plane” in The Edge of Seventeen, Bianca’s Prom entrance with her reunited best friends in The DUFF collectively strutting in self-accepted confidence to the blazing guitars of “Give Life Back to Music” by Daft Punk – and an earlier goofing-around montage unfortunately being tainted by “#Selfie” – or, for a slightly less-recent example, D.E.B.S. making the single-best usage of Erasure’s “A Little Respect” in the history of all media forms.

These are films that make a conscious effort create a certain unified vibe with their soundtracks, in much the same way that Wright et al do.  They even, from time to time, carry that attempt at curation into the films themselves, much like the lauded directors of Playlist Movies.  In the recently released Everything, Everything, Olly’s first (semi-)physical meeting with Maddy involves him doing nothing more than connecting his phone to Maddy’s wireless speaker in order to play her José González’s “Heartbeats” as they wordlessly stare into each other’s eyes; not so removed from “You gotta hear this one song.  It’ll change your life, I swear.”  Later, the pair sing along to Mac DeMarco on their drive back from a beautiful day swimming together in Hawaii, a sequence that itself was noticeably backed by up-and-coming R&B singer Kehlani.

And yet, people don’t trip over themselves to label Everything, Everything’s soundtrack as cool or a unique selling point in its own right.  Ditto those for Nerve, The DUFF, The Edge of Seventeen, or most other teen movie soundtracks.  This is not to say that Teen Movie soundtracks don’t get the usual press release news story upon their reveals or can’t be commercially successful like Guardians of the GalaxyThe Fault in our Stars’ soundtrack peaked at #5 on the Billboard Album Charts and went Gold, for just one recent example – but you rarely see them being as dissected or speculated-upon as the likes of Guardians, or held up as arbiters of cool like early Tarantino or even early Danny Boyle soundtracks.  If they do get talked about in-depth, and this is a really big if, then it’s as a retroactive anniversary long after the fact in a kind of faintly-curious novelty way, such as with Stereogum’s 20th anniversary retrospective on the Clueless soundtrack.

Part of this does admittedly have to do with the Teen Movie’s gradual move away in the late-00s/early-2010s from soundtracks filled with curated songs featured in the film to soundtracks filled with curated artists making original tracks as separate companion pieces to the film – the most notable perpetrators of this being Lionsgate-Summit’s later Twilight movies and Lionsgate’s own Hunger Games series.  Another part of it is due to Gabriela Claymore’s rightful observation that the Teen Movie is automatically designed to be ephemeral, to become instantly-dated in its aesthetics practically the minute that it is put out even if the content is otherwise timeless, and that bleeds over into a soundtrack largely designed to reflect what’s cool and on the cusp of breaking through right now.

But neither of these fully explain why we don’t recognise the lineage of the Playlist Movie in the Teen Movie to me.  I mean, if we’re going to put films like Atomic Blonde and Suicide Squad up on the same pedestals as Baby Driver or Trainspotting, then the argument that the Teen Movie soundtrack is comparatively anonymous and lacking in the same personal touch as those other films is blatantly horseshit.  And if we want to argue about their commerciality and ultimate fate as one more piece of marketable merch for the studio to push, then I would like to point you in the direction of Baby Driver’s #4 peak on Billboard’s Soundtrack charts in order to squash that prejudice.  So why is it, then, that the criticism world at large can kick up such a storm about the latest playlists provided by Tarantino or Wright but otherwise largely ignore those found in films like Nerve that also take their music incredibly seriously?

My guess would be to do with the fact that Teen Movies are predominately for girls with soundtracks that take root in the Pop and R&B that they find cool, whilst the other so-called Playlist Movies are for and by White men with soundtracks that take root in the old-school Rock and Soul that they deem to be cool.  It’s a somewhat reductive argument, of course it is since both types have room for digressions outside of those formulas and aren’t exclusively for or loved by those specific audiences, but it’s one that makes sense the more I think about it, primarily since that takes into account the history of music criticism.  Music criticism, after all, has itself been criticised for years for being very male-centric in its criticism, its difficulty in awarding due respect to non-Male musicians – prior to Solange’s victory last year, you would have to go back to The Knife in 2006 for the last time that Pitchfork awarded their Album of the Year to a female artist, whilst Rolling Stone have done so exactly 4 times in the last 2 decades – and for being heavily biased towards traditional Rock and old Soul music over Pop and most forms of R&B and Hip Hop.  Their recent belated embrace of Pop music has even had to be given a ridiculous quirky term, “Poptimism,” in order for those reading to understand that there is no irony here; Pop music is just really good you guys(!)

This itself is somewhat of an offshoot of Film criticism’s gatekeeping of cool being typically designated around what middle-aged White men consider cool; hence why any Film Studies student will almost definitely be able to attest to being sick of hearing about the awesomeness of Fincher, Nolan, and Tarantino by the time that their course is up.  And where do most Playlist Movies crib most of their selections from?  Classic Rock and Soul records, alternating between accepted canonised classics and “forgotten deep cuts” in a similar vein as those that Jack White probably spends his weeknights furiously masturbating over.  Meanwhile, where do most Teen Movies crib most of their selections from?  Pop music, primarily, or a certain kind of Alternative Pop music that’s bubbling under and waiting to cross over into the mainstream, punctuated every now and again by a few trusty staples of the form like the aforementioned “Heartbeats” or, predictably, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”  These are cool in a different, more immediate way; aimed not at the cool sensibilities of the middle-aged Male gatekeeper, but at the young teenaged girl with different notions as to what they consider cool to be.

(The outlier to this, as I’m sure some people would want to bring up, is Garden State, filled as it is with a mixture of Indie Folk and Indie Rock.  On that, I wish to defer to a 2007 Saturday Night Live sketch in which it is correctly pegged as “a Pitchfork mix CD” for why it still applies to the point I’m making.)

None of this is to dismiss Baby Driver, Guardians of the Galaxy, or any of the other films I’ve talked about here, as films or as soundtracks (I happen to love most of them in both facets).  What it is meant to do, however, is to request that we share the love around somewhat, that we recognise that the Playlist Movie – which, effectively, is just a polite shorthand for “Cool Soundtrack, Bro” – has been around for far longer than these cited examples.  It’s just that those Playlist Movies aren’t providing the specific kind of cool curated soundtracks that the sorts of people who typically lose their minds over movie soundtracks would appreciate as their own narrow definition of “cool.”  Teen Movies have been playing this game to a different audience for a long while, and if we’re going to talk about and criticise the Playlist Movie then we should acknowledge that fact.

Callum Petch was busy dreaming ‘bout boys.

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