The most common argument used to discredit MTV, back when MTV aired videos regularly, was that it changed pop from a music-centric to a visual-centric medium. The assertion was that MTV diminished art in favor of image, brainwashing kids into buying Duran Duran records because Simon Le Bon looked fabulous riding astride luxury yachts. The sheer B.S. of this oft-made claim becomes clear after a quick Google images search. Is it a coincidence that nearly every major pre-MTV pop superstar — Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, James Brown, the Beatles, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Donna Summer, dozens more — also happened to look amazing? No. No, it is not.
Also consider the enduring popularity of movie soundtrack albums, one of the earliest and most effective forms of media synergy. Between 1957 (just one year after Billboard started compiling annual charts for album sales) and 1965, the best-selling LP for each year was either a movie or TV soundtrack (like West Side Story, Mary Poppins, or Peter Gunn) or a Broadway cast recording. West Side Story still holds the record for most weeks at no. 1 — 54 across 1962 and ’63 — which now more than ever seems like an unbreakable record of Joe DiMaggio proportions. (Adele’s 21, the ultimate example of a modern commercial juggernaut, held the top spot for 30 fewer weeks.)
In the ’70s, soundtracks from movie musicals remained reliable cash cows. In 1978, the most successful soundtrack of this kind, Grease, spun off four Top 10 singles in the U.S. (including two no. 1s) and moved more than 30 million units worldwide. Another soundtrack released around the same time, Saturday Night Fever, did even better than Grease, and set a template for subsequent blockbuster soundtracks.
Saturday Night Fever wasn’t a musical but rather a music-oriented drama in which Bee Gees songs played a pivotal supporting role. The film, in turn, galvanized the music. Without “Stayin’ Alive,” there would be no iconic Travolta strut; without that strut, “Stayin’ Alive” wouldn’t be quite so transcendent in the minds of listeners.1 While Saturday Night Fever included songs that had previously been hits (like Walter Murphy’s ersatz classical-funk 1976 smash “A Fifth of Beethoven”), it was sold on the strength of original material produced by a featured act. The Brothers Gibb appeared in white-suited and gold-chained glory on the soundtrack’s cover, an honor earned by the Bee Gees either performing or writing the album’s most popular singles, including “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than a Woman,” and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You.”
You could argue that Elvis Presley was already routinely turning out this kind of soundtrack in the ’60s, though many of those albums are pretty forgettable. An exception is the soundtrack for Blue Hawaii, which topped the album charts for 20 weeks in 1961.
In the ’80s and ’90s, soundtrack auteurs were occasionally superstars, like Prince on Purple Rain, Whitney Houston on The Bodyguard, and Celine Dion on Titanic.2 But more often they were reliable journeymen, like the Bee Gees, who were suddenly thrust into fortuitous circumstances — think Kenny Loggins, a veteran of the Caddyshack, Footloose, and Top Gun soundtracks; or Jan Hammer, the architect of Miami Vice’s percussive, humid soundscapes.
Apologies to T Bone Burnett, but lip-syncing George Clooney could perhaps be counted as the superstar auteur on O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Soundtracks of the ’80s tend to get more appreciation from nostalgists, but soundtracks were even bigger in the ’90s, with The Bodyguard, The Lion King, and Titanic outselling the competition in 1993, ’94, and ’98, respectively. By the dawn of the ’00s, however, soundtracks appeared to have outlived their usefulness. Why would people buy, say, the Bad Boys II soundtrack when they could easily download the album’s centerpiece, Nelly, P. Diddy, and Murphy Lee’s hit song “Shake Ya Tailfeather”? But people did buy the Bad Boys II soundtrack. (It was no. 1 for four weeks in 2003.) Somehow, the Internet didn’t render soundtracks obsolete. Packaging music with other media still gets music buyers to open their wallets, even as “music buyer” has become an outmoded construct akin to “wristwatch wearer” or “undivided attention.”
Many of the top soundtracks of the early 21st century have a distinct mid–20th century feel, with the High School Musical and Hannah Montana franchises returning to the roots of ’50s and ’60s musical and TV tie-ins. Then there are truly corny throwbacks like the chart-topping soundtracks for Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables, where Russell Crowe scored the Pyrrhic victory of finally notching a no. 1 album but without the other 29 Odd Foot of Grunts. Other recent soundtracks have been positioned as mixtapes supplementing YA-berthed juggernauts like the Twilight and Hunger Games films, recalling how John Hughes once operated with non-undead teen films in a pre-apocalyptic world. Both kinds of soundtrack albums still sell, so long as they can be integrated into a culturewide cinematic experience.
2014 is hardly anyone’s idea of a normal year for pop under most circumstances, but the center has basically held for soundtracks. Barring a major fourth-quarter rally for Taylor Swift’s 1989 fueled by spurned Spotify users, the year’s best-selling album will undoubtedly be the Frozen soundtrack,3 currently way ahead of the pack at more than 3.5 million sold.
Frozen, like Grantland, is a Disney property.
Even in a disastrously down sales year, Frozen’s chart dominance shouldn’t be given short shrift. Frozen has been the nation’s no. 1 album for 13 nonconsecutive weeks; no other album has been on top for more than two (though 1989 could reach three weeks if it can hold off the Foo Fighters, Garth Brooks, and Pink Floyd on this week’s chart). In the first half of 2014, Frozen was a “default” blockbuster, a fixed constellation in a sky full of shooting stars, kindly stepping aside for a no. 1 chart debut by Bruce Springsteen, Eric Church, or Rick Ross, and then reassuming its throne the following week. (As of last week, Frozen remained in Billboard’s top 15.)
If Frozen is solidly planted in the “movie musical” camp, the newly released soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 belongs with the soundtrack auteurs. In this case, the auteur is Lorde, the album’s biggest and busiest star (she appears on four tracks) as well as its so-called curator. Lorde is essentially the soundtrack’s spine — her sensibility and taste is what holds it together as a cohesive collection of gloomy, glowering, goth-tinged hook-delivery devices. Lorde has recruited artists with whom she is aesthetically aligned (Chvrches, Tove Lo, Charli XCX, Tinashe, Haim), indebted (Bat for Lashes, Grace Jones), or tolerant of for the sake of the bottom line (Ariana Grande). Mockingjay feels a bit like a Lorde album on which different singers have been cast to play the bewitched leading lady. (A notable exception is Jones’s reliably bonkers, seizure-inducing dub excursion “Original Beast,” which only sounds like Grace Jones.)
If you like a soundtrack to immediately set a mood and not deviate from it one iota, Mockingjay can be appreciated as an oft-excellent mix of witchy, manic-depressive, death-disco dirges. Like all great soundtracks, it captures a moment in pop history that may or may not age well, along with a wacky tangent or two that will definitely confound future generations. At the very least, no other album before or after Mockingjay will likely feature guest spots from Pusha T and the still-fab Simon Le Bon.
“Curator” is an annoying, overused buzzword that has replaced perfectly fine preexisting terminology like “producer” or “A&R.” (It’s kind of like how people say “stan” when “fan” already exists as a modified version of fanatic. Hasn’t The Marshall Mathers LP already done enough damage to our culture?) But soundtracks really are an orderly oasis in an otherwise maddeningly cluttered pop landscape. Soundtracks make consumers feel safe. What else explains one of the more confounding success stories of 2014, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, which ranks among the year’s best sellers with sales nearing 600,000?
Guardians of the Galaxy fits in neither the movie musical nor soundtrack auteur slots. It is an utter anomaly in the history of big-time movie soundtracks: In August, it became the first soundtrack ever to top the Billboard albums chart without a single original song. How threadbare is the Guardians soundtrack? Even 1987’s mega-selling Dirty Dancing soundtrack, which was rounded out by golden oldies like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” turned out newly recorded hits by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, Eric Carmen, and the man himself, Patrick Swayze.4 And that movie is actually set in the early ’60s, as opposed to “the present” in outer space. Back then somebody decided it was a good commercial decision to set Dirty Dancing’s climactic dance number to a song obviously recorded two decades in the future with synthesizers and drum machines. Guardians, meanwhile, was assembled with the idea that “I Want You Back” requires a fresh introduction.5
“She’s Like the Wind”!
Obviously, there have been soundtracks that didn’t go to no. 1, but nonetheless did well in spite of being composed entirely of recycled material — boomer manna like The Big Chill and Forrest Gump being the most notable examples.
Not only are the tracks on the Guardians soundtrack old — the newest song is Rupert Holmes’s spry 35-year-old “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” — they are as familiar as the playlist for the safest soft-rock radio station in your town. Several tunes (including Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”) are already associated with other movies, making the Guardians soundtrack a de facto greatest-hits compilation for some of the greatest soundtracks ever.
Frozen has the numbers, The Hunger Games has Lorde, but Guardians might be the year’s defining soundtrack, the one that most accurately reflects the times. With the exception of the backward-looking 1989, Pharrell’s “Happy,”6 and that goddamn Iggy Azalea song from the summer, 2014 has been lethally bereft of pop touchstones. Consumers have instead drifted to the comfort of the bundled mundane. Two volumes of the deathless NOW series also topped the charts this year, and, in the year’s most egregious callback, the Bob Marley greatest-hits package Legend entered the Top 10 for one week in September, 30 years after it was first exhaled into our nation’s dorms. Pop lately hasn’t just been hooked on a feeling — this is a relapse.
Also originally a soundtrack hit.