A while back we were talking about underrated movie soundtracks. That got my friend James, a reporter over in London, thinking about the decline of the great movie soundtrack. He’s working on a freelance piece and would love the Stereogum readers’ input. Here’s what he sent me to pose to you:
Many of us own soundtracks such as The Blues Brothers, Pulp Fiction, Romeo + Juliet, Trainspotting, The Big Chill, Pretty in Pink, The Wedding Singer, Singles, Almost Famous, High Fidelity, and American Graffiti. In fact, almost every single soundtrack celebrated in the comments section of your blog are from the 90s.
What’s more, take a look at Amazon’s current best-selling soundtracks. It’s dominated by TV shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Grey’s Anatomy. Recent movie soundtracks that sell well include Joaquin and Reese bleating away in Walk the Line, and Jack Johnson’s aural ambien for Curious George.
So, besides Garden State and The Life Aquatic, where have all the great soundtracks gone? (And I mean soundtracks, not musical scores). Perhaps it’s because there was a more coherent music scene in the 90s that was driven by a handful of influential magazines and MTV channels. That fostered all those popular soundtracks and experiments like Judgement Day. But, with countless blogs, zines, and radio and TV channels, today’s music culture is more atomised.
Or perhaps it’s because the album itself is a weaker concept. If so, it stands to reason that the soundtrack is too. Far easier to generate a soundtrack-buying audience through syndicated TV shows (which can use numerous songs over the course of a season) or sell them as gimmicks (e.g. Walk the Line). The only breakouts are directors who specialise in fusing music and images, such as (in the populist Western canon) Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Cameron Crowe, or (beyond Hollywood) Wong Kar-Wai.
Most likely, though, the decline of the great movie soundtrack can be explained by the internet. That is, because music can be illegally ripped now, the excitement of watching a movie with an unreleased song, a bootleg, or an obscure cover — and then buying the soundtrack to own the songs in question — has gone forever.