Empire Records has been around for two decades and, yeah, it’s not very good. From a contemporary perspective so long after the fact it’s so incredibly dated that even its meager entertainment value becomes laughable and ridiculous. But…. We love it – we being that segment of a generation. Us children, now adults, born in the early half of the 1980s – wedged between Generation X and The Millenials, unable to really identify with either. We love Empire Records – we get it. This film which bombed upon its theatrical debut and snubbed by critics – we gave this movie a successful life on home video. We found good reason to make Empire Records a cult film and include it as a keystone in the pantheon of our generation’s collective conscious. On a technical and artistic level Empire Records is a failure – so why do we still embrace it so fondly even 20 years later?
Soundtrack Delivery Device
Empire Records is a day-in-the-life of a group of employees at a record store. The screenplay was written by Carol Heiekkinen who was a former employee at a Tower Records – her script based upon the people and anecdotes from that experience. With its setting the film obviously centers around music and has a very vibrant soundtrack. While Empire Records failed to make its mark in theaters its soundtrack was a bestseller. Thanks, in no small part, to the use of the Gin Blossom’s hot song “Til I Hear It From You.” A lot of people bought this soundtrack, loved it and then later sought out the movie they’d never heard of. Keep in mind that this was the 90s when one had to seek out stuff – they couldn’t just Google “Empire Records” and find it streaming somewhere.
The Gin Blossoms song was my sister’s introduction to the movie. The music video for “Till I Hear it From You” included plenty of clips from the movie. Like any tie-in the music video served to advertise both the film and the soundtrack – naturally it showed the movie in the best possible light, cherry picking the most visually enticing moments. Now there is nothing at all wrong with a film serving as a music commercial with a 90 minute narrative. A lot of Linklater’s Dazed and Confused was dedicated to its soundtrack and that movie is another timeless cult hit. Rock and Roll High School, American Graffiti, Boogie Nights, The Graduate and Pretty in Pink were all movies which owed a lot of their success to their soundtrack. Three of the above films were nostalgia pieces whose songs were part of an era. The Graduate featured exclusive use of music by Simon & Garfunkel. There were very specific reasons those soundtracks sold so well and it wasn’t just because of a hit radio single. So what ELSE did Empire Records have?
The Music of 1995
There are several moments in Empire Records where it is clear that scenes were shot with the intent of adding music but what music wasn’t decided yet. An example of this is where Renee Zellwegger’s character, Gina, enters the group break room wearing nothing but an apron. There is a song playing during this scene but Renee is dancing and singling along to something that exists only in her head – a song whose lyrics are apparently “La la la la la la ummm…. la la la.” The other characters also get into the spirit of the moment and start dancing along to completely different songs. Ethan Embry’s character, the goofy stoner Mark, likes to listen to hard rock and metal. He’ll put on some music and then start playing air guitar and screaming to a totally different tune the audience isn’t hearing. The characters look insane doing this and it becomes laughable later when a character says “I love this song!”
What made the soundtrack for Empire Records so significant wasn’t really a love for individual tracks or how they worked in the movie – it was the flavor of the soundrack people were drawn to. that flavor was 1995.
Grunge was starting to fade away since the death of Kurt Cobain. Record companies weren’t quite aware of the change in popular tastes and were too caught up in trying to find the next Nirvana – that band was HUGE for a brief moment. These were nobody kids from Washington, poor kids with nothing but dreams and they happened to make it big. Studios were looking for the next big nobody in 1995, trying to bring Nirvana level acclaim to indie bands. Listeners, however, were kinda done with grunge at this point. Even the popularity enjoyed by other great grunge groups like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots was starting to wane. People still wanted this independent sound but were also starting to lean back towards pop music. Three years later we got Britney Spears. Our parents’ pop music was out (represented in the film as past-his-prime “star” Rex Manning) but we hadn’t found our own voice yet. That post-Nirvana pre-Disney pop era of 1995 was a very unique tome for music that is not simple to put in to words; it is a feeling – a feeling that the soundtrack to Empire Records caught just right.
So what was 1995?