Music Business

Whatever Happened To The 90s Music Movie?

Part of preparing for Dead Air has been immersing myself in ‘90s culture, with a specific focus on music. It’s been helpful for both Joe and I in visualizing how our characters look, how they act, and what they’re passionate about.
A few weeks ago this lead me to re-watching the movie High Fidelity, which I had last seen perhaps a decade or so previous. Although it was released in the year 2000 it’s very much a ‘90s flick, having been filmed in that decade and drawing its source material from a novel that had been published five years previous. It’s not a masterpiece, and there are aspects of it that haven’t aged particularly well, but it was eminently quotable to music nerds like myself back when it first came out, and it remains so today.

I realized, however, that High Fidelity represented a sort of book-end to an entire sub-genre that has almost entirely disappeared: the ‘90s Music Movie. I’m not talking about flicks that use music as a backdrop for intense character studies (Whiplash) or nostalgia mining (Almost Famous), but the ones where music itself plays a crucial role in binding together a community of (usually) young people, even if it’s not the entire focus of the film.
Although the 1980s made soundtracks almost as important as casting choices in terms of how movies were marketed, in the 1990s the music itself began to be woven into plots as more than just a reflection of the pop culture zeitgeist. There was Airheads, where a would-be rock band holds a radio station hostage to get their demo tape played; Pump Up The Volume, where pirate radio and underground music stand in for teenage rebellion when a new kid comes to town; Empire Records, which takes place over the course of one eventful day at the coolest record store you’ve ever seen; Detroit Rock City, where the quest to attend a Kiss concert is the overriding concern of every character; and Go, in which rave culture is a significant plot driver for twenty-somethings adrift in a McJob landscape.
Throw in more overt examples like The Commitments and That Thing You Do, and tangential fare like Reality Bites, and a clear image develops of a 1990s story landscape where music served an important purpose as the organizing force in the lives of its characters. Smart writers and talented directors realized that they could combine seemingly disparate groups of people—metal heads, preppies, indie rockers, folkies, hippies, ravers, skaters, punks, and that coterie of adults who never outgrew their respective “scenes”—by giving them the common thread of music to put them in friction with each other.

This simply doesn’t happen anymore. As I mentioned earlier, music movies nowadays tend to fall into the category of character study, nostalgia, biopic (itself a sub-genre of nostalgia), or musical (an entirely different use of sound in film). The idea of a group of people being drawn together simply because of their shared, or even antagonistic passions for music has almost entirely left the silver screen.

I posit that the main reason we don’t see these kinds of stories being told anymore is because the communal act of experiencing music has been fragmented into thousands of individualized experiences. Today, these are now linked almost entirely on a digital landscape that requires no one to raid their older sibling’s record pile for recommendations, or ask a clerk at one of the few remaining record shops (where the fetishization of vinyl collecting has in many ways iced out new and curious listeners) what other artists are worth listening to.

With the communal sharing of music reduced to ones and zeros and pasted hyperlinks, being together in the same room listening to the same song is far less common than it used to be. Instead, we retreat into the personal music bubbles of our phones rather than sample the tastes of others. All of this is reflected on film, wiping out an entire genre and potentially rendering the flicks of the 90s artifacts frozen in musical amber that are difficult for the current generation to connect with.

I want to be clear about one thing: I’m not sitting here pining away nostalgically for a bygone era in music. Prior to digital distribution it would have been almost impossible for me to have found hundreds of the artists I now listen to, as the gatekeepers who controlled mainstream media outlets had strict agendas that didn’t often include what I wanted to listen to. It’s also important to point out that these ‘90s-era music flicks are extremely, extremely white, with little representation of people of color and the genres and scenes that they often represented (see: mainstream gatekeepers).

Still, it’s fascinating to see that as the ‘90s ended and radio stations like our fictional CJNK found themselves fading into the background (as musical discovery shifted away from the airwaves and into online spaces), movie representations of how music was experienced by the monoculture began to reflect those same changes. We’ll never get another Empire Records or Pump Up The Volume because that entire experience is now coded as history, which often requires a different perspective to access when situating stories in the worlds that produced them.

As of yet, there doesn’t seem to be a film genre out there that’s capable of capturing the current spirit of how music is consumed by the hundreds, if not thousands of sub-genres and their fans. Perhaps the next great music movie will be about a festival, or set against the backdrop of bedroom DJs, or maybe it will chronicle the international cabal of SoundCloud rappers who turned their backs on the industry at large?

What do you think?

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