n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
It all came together in 1992 for Singles. The actors, the location, the director, the story—and of course, most of all, the music—were all perfectly aligned to make Singles one of the best romantic comedies of the 90s. As I’ve said elsewhere, it was the first true nineties movie. The distance between Singles and the last truly great romantic comedy, 1989’s Say Anything (by the same director, no less), isn’t three years—it’s a whole decade. In fact, the only character in the movie that doesn’t seem to realize this shift has taken place—Sheila Kelley’s frazzled Debbie—is the only one in the movie who seems totally hopeless and clueless. The attitudes have changed, the locale has changed, the clothes have changed, the music has changed.
The attitude had become one of indifference, a total inversion of the over-ambition of the 80s. The locale had shifted north from the Valley to rainy Seattle, and from the hip mini-malls to the far hipper coffee shops. The clothes had been ripped at the seams and sold and re-bought at thrift stores. And the music had been shredded of its glossy sheen, dragged through the mud a couple times and ultimately totally re-packaged as Grunge.
Grunge had officially blown up by the time of the release of Singles, Nirvana having symbolically blasted Michael Jackson off the top of the charts and Pearl Jam having conquered MTV with “Jeremy”. Seattle was now the musical capital of the world—a coup that seemed to culminate in Singles. Upon first glance, the movie seems like little more than a 100-minute mass-marketed advertisement for the grunge scene. You get characters wearing t-shirts for Green River, Tad and Sub Pop records, you get live performances by Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, you get (speaking!) performances from Pearl Jam, you even get hip in-references like the Mudhoney-referencing name of Matt Dillon’s band’s first single, “Touch Me, I’m Dick”. With all of this, the public would be forgiven for feeling a little bit like a target audience for a whole lot of A&R; peddling.
Of course, this wasn’t actually the case. Writer/director Cameron Crowe set the movie in Seattle because he loved the music coming from the scene at the time—which was a good couple months or so before Nirvana’s breakthrough. The enormous success of Singles and its accompanying soundtrack—a top ten entry, spawning several enormous radio hits—was more serendipitous than planned, more a celebration than a capitalization. And in reality, though Singles has been immortalized as a snapshot of its time period, this association has also acted as a curse of sorts on the movie, rendering people unable to see the movie for what it is—a gloriously naïve movie about love, youth and idealism that, in essence, has absolutely nothing in common with the Grunge scene it seems to be birthed from. And, ironically, it’s the music in the movie, more than anything else, which proves this.
As the movie opens with shots of the skyline, moshers and crowdsurfers, flannel-clad couples and indie movie theaters—a Seattle tribute worthy of Woody Allen’s Manhattan—it’s not Nirvana that provides the soundtrack, nor Pearl Jam or even Alice in Chains. It’s Minneapolis thirty-something Paul Westerberg.
Now, Paul Westerberg has a fair amount of grunge credibility himself. As lead singer of The Replacements, Westerberg created teenage masterpieces Let it Be (which even appears in a character’s record collection later in the movie) and Tim in the mid 80s, marking (with their SST brethren) the exact point where US punk rock turned unmistakably into US indie rock—and eventually into grunge. But by 1992, The Replacements had broken up, and it’s no anthem of alienation and despair that opens Singles, but the sweet and hopeful “Waiting for Somebody”—a near adult-contemporary pop song with irresistible ah-ah-ahs and the sad but undefeated refrain, “all my life/waiting for somebody.” It’s ultimately telling that Crowe used this song to set the tone for the movie to follow, and not any of the grunge classics on the soundtrack.
“Waiting for Somebody” pops up several other times throughout the course of the movie, it’s bittersweet riff being brought back time and again during characters’ points of doubt or indecision—when Janet (Bridget Fonda) contemplates leaving her insensitive rocker boyfriend Cliff (Matt Dillon) or when Steve (Campbell Scott) and Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) wonder why neither of them had the guts to make their relationship work out, leaving an air of semi-hopeful desolation. Westerberg also has two other main musical themes that appear at places in the movie—an untitled theme with Bob Seger-esque paino that plays at high points in the characters’ lives, like the bliss of Steve and Linda’s first couple weeks together, Debbie finding her dream guy in Liam Neeson, and the “Dyslexic Heart” theme.
Aside from Westerberg’s three main themes, there isn’t much use of background music within the movie. Mother Love Bone’s gorgeous “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Throns” soundtracks the melancholy after Linda is left by what appears to be her dream guy, and the sweet sigh of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” shows up at the end when everything is starting to go right again. What there is, however, is a good deal of source music—most of which appears courtesy of the Seattle bands on the soundtrack.
The majority of the characters in Singles frequent grunge clubs—so frequently, in fact, that when Linda tells her friend Ruth (Devon Raymond) about getting married, her first thought is worry that they won’t “go dancing” anymore. At these clubs, bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden play blistering gigs that end up serving the movie thematically in two key ways.
The first is as an important background in the lives of the characters. The grunge club as an idea represents several things to the characters—though their love for the scene is clear, it also represents youth and immaturity to them, something which in their lives, most of the characters are transitioning—or attempting to transition—away from. Janet holds on to her rocker boyfriend (who the movie portrays as a sweet but musically incompetent idiot) for dear life because she’s worried about 25—the age where “wild turns to immature,” and she has to give up on the hopeless Cliff and the scene he comes from. And though Steve frequents these gigs as much as anyone, part of him also feels they are beneath him, as he comments to Linda, “why did I have to meet you at a club?”
The second function of these gigs is to act as a near Greek Chorus for the movie, commenting on the action and the thoughts in the characters’ heads. Pearl Jam show up during Linda’s moment of crisis when she finds out the previously mentioned guy of her dreams has been playing her for a fool with the tellingly titled “State of Love and Trust,” a song about listening “to the voice inside [your] head”. And Alice in Chains provide the perfect soundtrack to Steve and Linda meeting for the first time with their biggest hit, “Would?”, a song whose chorus (“Into the flood again / Same old trip it was back then”) wonderfully details the trying nature of starting a new relationship again, and whose closing line painfully asks the movie’s essential question—“If. I. Would. Could. You?”
These gigs are not the only place source music shows up to offer such insightful commentary. Tinny radios pipe in self-explanatory songs like Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” (when Steve and Linda contemplate the consequences of her newfound pregnancy) and The Pixies’ “Dig for Fire” (when Debbie fruitlessly tries her luck with a dating service). And during a pivotal scene in the movie, where Steve and Linda discuss the importance of love and passion over friendship and comfortability, they listen to Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”—the only sweet love song on Are You Expereinced?, an album full of sensual songs about sex and drugs. Linda comments “oh, I love this song,” and in that context, so do we.
Towards the end of the movie, Steve has fallen out with the grunge clubs—going to one and only being able to think of his (now ex-)girlfriend. And by Singles’s finale, all the characters have more or less settled down—Debbie finding an impossible romantic match, Cliff and Janet learning to appreciate each other the way they are, and Steve and Linda getting over themselves and their hang-ups and games and just letting themselves be in love with each other. As the movie ends, it’s Westerberg who gets to provide the second bookend to the movie with his “Dyslexic Heart,” an ode to the confusing nature of love, which, like “Waiting for Somebody,” is perplexed and frustrated with dating and romance, but still enamored with the feeling and willing to keep on trying.
It’s these two songs that give people their first and last taste of Singles because they, really much more so than the excitement and physicality of the grunge scene that dominates so much of the movie, are what Singles is all about—dating not just for sex but for love, and traversing your way through all the games and jerks and failures to find it. It’s an important statement that extends far beyond Seattle, and far past the year 1992, and one that wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the music to back it up.