Dirt: Big Soundtrack
There is thunder in our hearts.
Foster Kamer on Kate Bush, Stranger Things and the golden age of the movie soundtrack.
There is just so much going on with Kate Bush’s 1985 “Running Up That Hill” topping the streaming charts in the Year of Our Good Lord 2022, at the start of summer, on the first day of June — and goddamnit: I love it all.
I loved the entirely predictable discourse cycle, watching people reflexively annoyed that the world was falling in love en masse with a song they loved first — a song that’s a shibboleth of nothing less than good taste in music — because of Stranger Things (fucking Stranger Things!). And then, of course: The rejoinders to those people.
I luxuriate in the deep Kate Bush fans’ hysterical takes, the non-sequiturs. And the way Kate Bush and her production — yes, hers! With those rolling drums, her seemingly metaphysical and astrally-projected synths, her rococo vocal harpooning of that bridge — how it all lays waste to the other 49 songs charting beneath her on the Spotify and Apple Top 50 playlists. I love remembering that it’s Big Boi’s favorite song.
I relish the dark poetry that a song about an English woman trying to cut a quasi-Faustian deal with a higher power — to put a man in her shoes — has risen to the top of the charts somehow on the week everyone is weighing in on one of the more unsavory, sensationalist celebrity news cycles we've seen in a while, a woman’s word against a man’s in a toxic relationship, and its predictably dark American ending.
And then there’s the weird coincidence that yet another cover of “Running Up That Hill” somehow got released this week, unconnected to all this. I love that every single cover of “Running Up That Hill” — and god there just so many — and all the music supervisors who ever tried to make it a Big Moment have clearly only demonstrated the original’s power, and the level of effort and epic scale it took to make it happen. But the thing I love the most about all of this, really, is simple: I love that song, I always have, and I love the idea that we’re all swept up in this, because of this song.
But then there’s another thing I love about it, that I can’t stop thinking about: The Proustian rush it’s given me to the golden age of soundtracks, and big Movie Music Moments. Consider: How many examples can you think of where a movie or a TV show took a dusty pop song and managed to fully thrust it into Song of the Summer contention? It brings me back to1992’s “Wayne’s World” putting Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” back into the limelight 17 years after it first debuted.
The soundtrack is, of course, totally still alive, both technically and figuratively (in the form of playlists). But the golden age of the soundtrack as an extraordinary release? That’s long gone.
During the CD and cassette era, you would go to a Virgin Megastore, or a Sam Goody, or you’d tear out a Columbia House order sheet from the back of a Rolling Stone or Spin, and you’d have a limited amount of CDs to pick in any of those situations. At $12 to $18 a pop, album collecting and CaseLogic-building were once totally fraught endeavors that could induce decision paralysis in even the most determined of music buyers. The soundtrack was the perfect solution: Twelve to seventeen songs, that could bring you back into the movie, while substantially widening the reach, musically, of a single purchase.
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And the music soundtrack used to be epic, especially in the late 20th century. The form peaked in the 80s and 90s. My own CaseLogic was loaded with them: Clueless, Empire Records, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Backstage, Belly, Bulworth, Swingers, The Saint, Set It Off, Boogie Nights (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), Cruel Intentions, Go, The Big Chill, The Breakfast Club, Almost Famous, Do The Right Thing, The Last Days of Disco, Dirty Dancing, Romeo + Juliet, The Crow, The Craft, Reality Bites, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Spawn, Ghost Dog, Scream 2 (where I first learned of D’Angelo — thus altering my taste in music forever — through his I-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e cover of Prince’s “She’s Always In My Hair” that opened the album), the absolutely out-and-out insanity that is fucking Judgement Night! (Though it merits mention, we will not speak of the Garden State soundtrack here.)
“It’s not just that great movie moments were born of excellent music supervision, but that great music tastes, lifelong love affairs with music, could find their very first building blocks in them.”
There were some summers where soundtracks writ large — not just their individual Big Single — were inescapable: Batman Forever put both a Seal single and a U2 single into heavy rotation, on an album next to PJ Harvey, Method Man, and Michael Hutchence covering Iggy Pop. The Godzilla soundtrack landed Puffy and Jimmy Page on SNL doing “Come With Me,” on an album which produced a video of The Wallflowers covering David Bowie’s “Heroes” alongside songs by Rage Against The Machine, Jamiroquai, Foo Fighters, and Ben Folds — a soundtrack that both contained a bunch of artists who might not want to be caught dead next to one another, and also managed to get several tracks into heavy radio play and on MTV.
And then there were the soundtracks that were more than just compilations, but albums in and of themselves. For example: Aimee Mann’s best LP, arguably, is the Magnolia soundtrack – part of an incredible feedback loop where Paul Thomas Anderson effectively wrote the movie around her music. A friend recently reminded me that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released an entire album as the soundtrack to Edward Burns’s 1996 She’s The One. Then there’s Purple Rain, which people forget is a soundtrack (and the very first Batman soundtrack which is somehow a Prince album).
It’s not just that great movie moments were born of excellent music supervision, but that great music tastes, lifelong love affairs with music, could find their very first building blocks in them. Trainspotting was my gateway drug to both Iggy Pop and house music (see: Underworld). Grosse Point Blank? The Violent Femmes, The Clash, and “Under Pressure.” It goes on.
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I’m not enough of a music writer or a movie writer to pinpoint and/or account for the present state of soundtracks other than to acknowledge the obvious, here: That this epoch isn’t that one. Big cultural music moments are being born of TikTok, and of course, streaming in all of its forms, with all of its options, in music, TV, and movies has ratcheted up the denominator of what we can consume in this era by an almost incalculable degree.
It’s not that these efforts haven’t been made since; Drive is a more recent classic soundtrack. The Black Panther soundtrack was basically a Kendrick Lamar and Friends LP. But the individual album isn’t the event it once was, to say nothing of the compilation. The chance for a single movie or TV show to create one of these moments — one that breaks through the cultural stratosphere, exploding in the air over all of us — isn’t huge. They’re just not getting the attention that they used to.
“But the individual album isn’t the event it once was, to say nothing of the compilation.”
Another 80s revivalist property recently tried their own hand at a big soundtrack moment with an old song. In the first five minutes of Top Gun: Maverick, Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” — one of the three hallmark tracks of the original film’s soundtrack, also a classic — blasts through the theater. Along with it, the movie’s producers (trying to replicate the original’s success of new songs by Berlin and Loggins, and old songs like “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”), try to shoehorn a middling new Lady Gaga song into audiences’ hearts at the film’s end. It falls completely flat — the song is fine, the moment is fine, but neither are all that special.
Say what you will about Stranger Things spinning Kate Bush into its lore, but: While critics might not agree on the quality of this season of the show, it’s almost universally acknowledged that the “Running Up That Hill” bit works. Without giving too much away: They wrote an entire plot arc around it, with a massive, emotional payoff. The kind worthy of the song — the kind that, as evidenced, has inspired a bunch of people to queue it up, put it on repeat, and send it to the top of the charts 36 years after it first made its presence known. — Foster Kamer