In Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.
The push and pull of whether teenagers are mindless idiots—whether they’re willing to swallow whatever bullshit marketing you ladle down their gullets, or savvy consumers who mock grown-ups’ ham-fisted attempts to sell them on the next big thing—is forever at the irony-laced core of youth culture. Those twin perspectives on adolescents are the diastole and systole at the beating heart of teenage cultural representation. And in terms of capturing that endless tug of war between jaded cynicism and open-hearted gullibility, Josie And The Pussycats is as relevant as Catcher In The Rye.
A marketing gimmick disguised as a movie disguised as a critique of marketing gimmicks, the film (based on the Archie comics spinoff of the same name) satirizes the shallowness of the music industry through its story of a girl-pop band suddenly thrust into stardom. Writer-director team Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan deserve special credit for turning the unimaginative cash grab of another TV cartoon-turned-Hollywood film into a send-up of unimaginative cash grabs. Unlike the duo’s previous film, Can’t Hardly Wait—which often plays like a campy parody of the very teen classics whose ranks it strives to join—Josie’s campiness is knowingly self-aware. As we’ve noted before, it “both relishes the meaningless pop universe it exists in while cynically demolishing any value to be found there.” And America, presented with this clever paradox in the spring of 2001, was supremely uninterested. As it turns out, the nation’s youth weren’t particularly fond of movies that double as their own meta statements and are even further up their own asses than they are themselves.
Josie’s accompanying soundtrack is a collection of largely original music that, depending on your point of view, is either an even more mercenary attempt at milking kids for their cash, or the most honest, artistically pure aspect of the entire enterprise. Producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ conceit was to put together an actual band to write and record original Pussycats songs, thereby turning the film’s fictional group into a mime act for a real-deal rock ’n’ roll band—the equivalent of Debbie Reynolds singing behind the curtain while Jean Hagen lip syncs at the end of Singin’ In The Rain. Edmonds wanted to mimic the sugar-smacks pop-punk exuberance that was then ruling the rock charts in the form of Green Day, Blink 182, and Lit. Avril Lavigne was about to prove that dressing up generic ballads and classic rock riffs in frenetic rhythms and dyed hair could be enormously lucrative.
Tellingly, while the film flopped commercially, Music From The Motion Picture Josie And The Pussycats was a success, selling more than 500,000 copies, certifying as gold. In joining the ranks of other commercially successfully soundtracks birthed from underperforming films, it achieved exactly the kind of fleeting, mass-market ubiquity the film mocked, becoming something people discovered at a Tower Records listening station and purchased on impulse without any thought to where it came from or what it was saying. This is due to the fact that, despite the corporate assembly-line nature of the project, the artists involved decided to do that weird thing where they actually took their jobs seriously, creating some artfully executed—and surprisingly kick-ass—girl-power-pop.
To accomplish this, Edmonds assembled a deep bench of acclaimed pop songwriters-for-hire, and he certainly got his money’s worth. (They got their money’s worth, too: Kay Hanley, the Letters To Cleo singer who signed up as the voice of Josie, said in 2008 that the Josie soundtrack “sold more than all the Cleo records combined… and allowed us to buy a house in Boston and then another one in L.A. when we decided to move here.”) And even if Edmonds’ own musical contribution is one of the album’s weakest spots, he can still take pride in knowing he served as musical coach to such a considerable team—even as he’s now performing embarrassing dance routines on network television.
As is so often the case, the best track on the album isn’t the lead single, but the song that closes the movie. “Spin Around,” written by Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, is a pop-rock anthem perfectly tailored to the film, existing in the same ambiguous zone between serious and ridiculous. The lyrics are fuzzy enough to come across as vaguely empowering, as well as plenty sassy (“You never needed anyone to change your mind, don’t waste our time, we’re fine”), and Duritz’s usual saccharine-sweet melodies translate well to pop-punk’s distorted guitars and hyper-caffeinated tempos—arguably better than they do with his own band. Duritz’s “na-na-naaa” coda is its sing-along secret weapon; as we’ve said in the past, it’s the best embodiment of the go-for-broke, shaggy-dog rock ’n’ roll earnestness the film unironically endorses. And along with the power of friendships, believing in rock ’n’ roll may be the only thing the film doesn’t openly scorn.
Apparently, Duritz was in a real “na-na-naa” phase at the time, because it’s also all over his other major contribution to the album. “You’re A Star” appears in the film during the obligatory makeover montage, and—as with most things in the film— it’s both heartfelt and utterly ironic, as an anthem of empowerment and rejection of mainstream culture becomes the backing to scenes of stylists swarming the girls with manicures and blow-outs.
“You’re A Star” also acts as a testament to the narrow stylistic tightrope walked by the whole Josie endeavor. Too cheesy and it would be mocked as an example of the very thing the album was trying to avoid; too raw and it would betray the intent of the material. Upon reflection, Duritz’s choice to just write the same song twice, essentially, seems canny. “Star” is basically “Spin Around” done in a more carefree and upbeat style, replacing the former’s “Don’t waste your time, we’re fine” kiss-off with a slightly peppier “We don’t care what they say, we’ll be all right, we’ll be okay.” After all, a lot of great bands write slight variations of the same song; why shouldn’t Josie And The Pussycats?
Adam Schlesinger’s lone solo track gets at that dual nature of Josie in more direct fashion than any of the others. The Fountains Of Wayne bassist (who also co-penned That Thing You Do!’s Oscar-nominated title track) writes a typically catchy midtempo stomper—something he can likely do in his sleep (as his current near-constant output on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend suggests). Over a start-stop guitar riff and Paul-Bunyan-goes-jogging rhythm, “Pretend To Be Nice” addresses the film’s themes explicitly, chastising a cruel boyfriend who’s oblivious to the emotional pain he causes. But rather than demand he wise up, its singer simply asks him to fake it: “If you could just pretend to be nice, everything in my life will be all right.” As in his own band’s songs, Schlesinger’s tongue-in-cheek approach feels more honest than a straightforward condemnation.
On the other side of the spectrum is the on-the-nose “3 Small Words,” pushed as Josie And The Pussycats’ lead single in both the movie and the real world. Co-written by Elfont and Kaplan with music from the Gigolo Aunts’ Dave Gibbs, the song embodies the film’s spirit and ethos, but as with the film itself, its aims are decidedly over the top—and not always for the better. “3 Small Words” is both an empowerment anthem and a parody of one, but it never quite lands satisfyingly on either side. It’s catchy and fun, but still just shy of being the unapologetic, fist-in-the-air assertion of girl power to which it aspires. It sounds like the pose, not the reality.
The album’s other original tracks mostly maintain a bubbly, effervescent feel, hummable without becoming syrupy or hammy. Hanley’s sole contribution, “Shapeshifter” (written with her Letters To Cleo bandmate Michael Eisenstein), echoes Schlesinger’s “Pretend To Be Nice” in exploring the many ways people try on different personas to get what they want. Calling out the fakers and frauds in Josie’s music industry world (“Shapeshifter, guest lister / If you think that’s cool, whatever dude”), the song calls out that universal teenager enemy, anyone who’s less than 100 percent authentic. It also echoes the film’s parting message that basically everyone tries to be someone else, and that we should all just embrace our true selves—an admirable sentiment that’s also largely inapplicable to real life, where most of us are required to be a different person the second we interact with anyone besides our cat.
As noted earlier, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ own personal contributions make up two of the album’s weaker moments, almost as though a man who found success in new jack swing and soulful R&B a decade earlier wasn’t ideally suited to crafting a brash, early-2000s punk-pop hit. To be fair, it’s also likely the songs suffered from a case of too many cooks. Credits for both the ballad “You Don’t See Me” (the soundtrack’s sole downtempo number) and retro rock rave-up “Come On” are an epic pile-up of names: “Kenneth Edmonds/Harry Elfont/Jason Falkner/Dave Gibbs/Dee Dee Gipson/Kay Hanley/Steve Hurley/Deborah Kaplan/Adam Schlesinger/Jane Wiedlin” on the latter, and Duritz subbing in for Schlesinger on the former.
The last contributor on that overstuffed list, Jane Wiedlin, is intriguing simply by the fact that her band, The Go-Gos, is obviously a direct musical antecedent of the Pussycats’ movie incarnation. “You Don’t See Me” isn’t far from a Go-Gos song, albeit one sapped of any rough edges or interesting moments. And Hanley sings it well enough, but it fails by virtue of not sounding remotely like something Josie and her pals would actually write. “Come On,” while closer in spirit to the Josie aesthetic, flat out just isn’t very good. It’s about 20 years past its prime, a throwback to those generic, ’80s-style homages to classic ’60s guitar riffing, a revival that was already awfully banal during its me-decade rehashes. It’s rote Chuck Berry, parlayed into a too-simplistic effort at replicating the kind of anthems that surround it.
Fans of the movie know Josie And The Pussycats also tells the story of another musical act, one that can be summed up by a simple mantra: “DuJour means friendship!” An assemblage of dim-witted but well-intentioned morons, DuJour sends up every shitty, cookie-cutter boy band from the era. (It’s surprising the film doesn’t just out-and-out call them N’98 Degree Boys.) They’re clueless lunks who argue over who gets to make a certain facial expression during photo shoots and spout self-referential catchphrases. Their musical contributions here, particularly “DuJour Around The World,” are equally brilliantly stupid.
A three-minute boast set to a maximally generic backing track, “DuJour Around The World” is barely two steps beyond a Casio demo button, and that’s the point. So much of glossy, contemporary pop is dedicated to recycling the most basic, blandly appealing sounds, and while many great producers work overtime to lend soul and distinction to those interchangeable melodies and beats, here producer Brainz Dimilio (with lyrics by Kaplan and Elfont) make an intentionally bargain-basement version. It’s the aural equivalent of Adam Sandler holding up a pickle under his nose and saying, “Hey, I’m Crazy Pickle Mustache Man!” And in its self-aware embrace of emptiness, it becomes kind of great. They even do it again with “Backdoor Lover.”
After the sounds accompanying Breckin Meyer and Seth Green crotch-thrusting aboard a Target-branded airplane have faded, the back half of the album can’t help but feel like an anticlimax. Taking up some of the lamest spots are several cover songs, possibly added to the mix in case the public didn’t warm to Josie’s originals. Instead, it mostly comes off like an old exec insisting the 1959 Motown staple “Money (That’s What I Want)” was still totally jerkin’—right, kids? In fact, it was distinctly non-jerkin’, and even Hanley sounds a little unhappy having to sing it.
Similarly, covering the equally mothballed “Real Wild Child” registers as another dud, likely giving kids who bought the soundtrack the impression that perhaps there’s a deleted scene in the movie where Josie And The Pussycats are forced to play an early gig at a retirement community. (There’s also a cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” that was left off the record; fortunately you can still hear one at every bar band in the country.)
There’s also one song that sounds like a cover, but isn’t: Anna Waronker, of ’90s alt-rock act That Dog, has the sole songwriting credit on “I Wish You Well,” a tune that manages to achieve that ineluctable “out of time” vibe of the best pop songs, where it’s difficult to say when it was written or how it came to be, yet it creates the unmistakable sense of déjà vu. A catchy fusion of classic hard-rock riffing and harmony-heavy vocal delivery, “I Wish You Well” is a truly great song—and the last original, Josie-led track on the album.
Much like the movie from which it was birthed, the Josie And The Pussycats album is an enjoyable pop confection that has a surprising depth—a savvy application of surface-level sparkle that masks some genuine artistry. It captures the love-hate relationship many of us have with the frustrating, occasionally vapid universe of mainstream entertainment, which perpetually draws us in with its promise of instant gratification, even while repulsing us with its appeals to the lowest common denominator. And while the film itself had a limited market of people who can appreciate an arm’s-length ironic detachment in their Hollywood silliness, the music speaks to a much larger crowd because it dares to take itself seriously by providing authentic songs for an inauthentic band. Most of us feel like frauds, most of the time. Josie gives that feeling its own soundtrack.