Welcome to a new weekly feature from Screen Junkies. As the name “Soundtrack Studies” suggests, we’ll be examining the intersection of music and film in the most conventional manner possible: the soundtrack. This week, we’re taking a look at one of the most seminal soundtracks of the 1990’s for Cameron Crowe‘s ensemble Seattle dramedy, Singles.
While we can’t embed the film in the piece, we have created an embedded Spotify playlist below that will give you access to all or most of the songs that we’re discussing here. Ahhh, the Internet. Let’s get going.
In response to the excesses of the 80’s, both in the world of rock music and, to a far lesser extent, the country in general, an austerity was adopted that seemed to involve countless self-serious affectations like angry spoken-word poetry, a whitewashing of overt sexuality, and lots and lots of flannel. In short, people thought that being serious meant you could never appear to have any fun.
And this was the interesting dichotomy that Cameron Crowe took down with Singles, a remarkably tongue-in-cheek film that everyone in 1992 was too self-involved to view as an indictment. The fact that the film had insulated itself from criticism with arguably the most culturally significant soundtrack up that point didn’t help people sniff out its true character, either.
And the raison d’etre of Seattle in 1992 was the music, which Cameron Crowe puts front and center in this film. Over twenty years later, it’s fair to say that far more people endeared themselves to the soundtrack than they did the actual film. That’s not to say that the film failed at its goal – it didn’t. It’s a fairly masterful encapsulation of the contrived angst of the era, yet still manages to glorify it. Which is to say, it’s grunge.
To say the usual suspects are represented on the soundtrack would be an understatement. Crowe’s musical prowess is exhibited to varying degrees in his other films, but no film takes such a current inventory of the zeitgeist than Singles. While Crowe tends to look backwards with many of his films, harkening back to his Rolling Stone days in Almost Famous, and making spectacle out of southern rockers My Morning Jacket in Elizabethtown, Singles captured the moment as it was happening, and managed to turn a few late adopters onto the scene, man.
Anyway, back to the bands. Here we are:
(We’re not sure if YouTube is the right way to go here, but it offered far more tracks than any of the streaming services, so, while it may not be the most seamless experience, it gets the job done for this piece.)
The film’s soundtrack is all grunge (except for the charming Westerberg songs), and it provides an interesting foil for the clueless, self-involved characters in the film. It’s melodramatic score to a bunch of characters we can’t possibly take seriously. Of course, I only know that because have the luxury of context and hindsight, but it’s pretty clear that Crowe knew at the time what he was doing. That’s why he directs films, and I write about them twenty years later.
The soundtrack came out three months before the film, which was a brilliant bit of marketing that was seen frequently in the soundtrack-heavy 90’s. Everyone who had their finger on the pulse of grunge knew they had to see Singles because the soundtrack forced people to talk about it. And the while the soundtrack opens with the dark bass of Alice in Chain’s “Would?”, the film itself opens with a credit sequence that features a very upbeat Paul Westerberg (of The Replacements) song, serving as a jarring (albeit temporary) bait-and-switch.
Again, with the luxury of hindsight, you can see that this is an immediate indication of Crowe’s bait-and-switch. Crowe’s work isn’t particularly bleak (except for maybe Vanilla Sky), and that philosophy doesn’t mesh well with the dark days of grunge.
What Crowe does is tell a fairly normal story (with Portlandia-style barbs at the silly culture of the time) with a reference to music in general. Considering this is Seattle in the 90’s, that reverence is pointed with laser-focus at grunge. To his credit (and I suppose the credit of the seemingly-serious bands), he even gets the bands at the time to play in on the joke.
You want cluelessness amid the Seattle cult of personality? Here it is courtesy of Crowe, Pearl Jam, and Matt Dillon, with the members of Pearl Jam showing up as fictional band Citizen Dick who, sadly and remarkably, didn’t make an appearance on the soundtrack with their big-in-Belgium hit, “Touch Me, I’m Dick.”
This film’s self-awareness prevents it from wandering too far down the path of righteousness, and the same can be said about the soundtrack. For every three grunge anthems, there’s a Paul Westerberg song about a girl with a crazy name.
However, none of this could be intuited three months before from the soundtrack, which didn’t contain a trace of irony or winking. The Singles soundtrack remains THE quintessential time capsule of grunge. But the movie itself just takes a look at the scene, says, “Ohhhhh-kay,” and proceeds to dice up the stupidity and melodrama of young people in a way that that is both knowing, and sort of sweet.
And a steadfast soundtrack that alternates between the diagetic and non-diagetic masterfully leveraged every track to balance the self-seriousness of the time against the stupidity of it all.