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Video Essay. The Semantics of Adventureland’s Mixtape

A new audiovisual essay and text exploring the soundtrack of Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” now playing on MUBI in the United States
The eleventh entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. Greg Mottola's Adventureland (2009) is now playing in the United States through February 29.

Few subjects divide people more sharply and ferociously than respective tastes in music. We build our identities, our system of values, even our world-views, through the music we choose to love and cultivate, whether as players or listeners—and we project our musical distastes onto a screen (or a variety of screens) constituting those monstrous Others from which we differentiate and dissociate ourselves.
Popular movies have a lot to do with propagating this fascinating but treacherous and unstable cultural process. Especially teen movies, which involve themselves with the vagaries of pop, rock, and other musical styles more extensively and intimately than most genres—particularly at the level of ‘sampling,’ of the selection of pre-existing tracks for the film soundtrack (and, often, for the subsequent CD tie-in).
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland (2009), as a typical example, cries out for a structuralist breakdown of its musical-cultural semantics. On the one side—the side of its central characters, James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Em (Kristen Stewart)—we have a raft of personal, sensitive, poetic, thoughtful, sometimes angry, supposedly “authentic” songs. An intriguing mosaic is pieced together here: set in 1987, the film aligns certain, revered singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s (pre-eminently Lou Reed, in and out of The Velvet Underground) with the “indie rock” of The Replacements or Hüsker Dü, and the early 80s post punk/neo-romantic/New Wave of The Cure—with a special place of affection reserved for several non-American tracks by INXS and Crowded House. (First sign of the treacherousness of these semantic operations: to our Spanish-Australian ears, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a nightmare of bland, middle-of-the-road pop fare.)
On the other, negative side, another mosaic: Heavy Metal (Judas Priest, Rush), 80s Euro disco (Falco, endlessly pilloried for “Rock Me Amadeus”), ‘dance music’ in general (Shannon, Animotion), MTV, and some highlights of mainstream rock/pop (The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie in his “Modern Love” 80s, not as the 70s Aladdin Sane glimpsed on Em’s wall). This side of the music-culture equation is associated, overwhelmingly, with values of superficiality, vulgarity (a nasty class bias peeks in here), consumerism, and commercial values. The tawdry emblem of this particular world-within-a-world is Adventureland itself, with its endlessly flashing lights and mindlessly spinning rides and games. To the fairground’s grinding “Musik Express” is opposed James’s customized “Bummer Mixtape,” the playlist details of which can be deciphered on microscopic inspection.
All these associations are deftly meshed with the dramatic and comedic situations of the film. The good, cool music is almost always situated in a personalised way, within the fiction: the characters manually place needles on records, push a cassette into a car radio, press jukebox buttons. These lyrical songs usually accompany travel of many kinds, from solemn or happy car and bus rides to thrill-fun on the dodgems. The tracks are chosen in order to underline the characters’s emotions, and to express their moods. The uncool music, by contrast, is always just ‘there,’ blaring away—in the clubs, on TV, or at the fairground. It prompts robotic physical movement, and preening personal display—especially as condensed in the character of gum-chewing Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva). The one occasion on which Em and James deign to immerse themselves in Lisa’s musical world at the Razzmatazz club, they dance ‘against its grain,’ in an old-fashioned way, ironically—and to a song (Animotion’s “Obsession”) that, suitably, is often mistaken among casual music listeners as being by The Human League.
Not many movies remain content to simply oppose ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ poles of music, however, an A-Side and a B-Side—and Adventureland is no exception in this field. Movement, slippage, and mediation between these extremes happen for three reasons, along three axes. First, for semantic color and complexity: it is necessary that characters ‘cross the tracks’ sometimes for interesting things to happen, and for the general, narrative situation to evolve. The dance of Em and James at Razzmatazz, for instance, functions in this way; and, from one end of the film to the other (and providing one of its plot resolutions), the link of the shifty adult character of Connell (Ryan Reynolds) with Lou Reed and the song “Satellite of Love.” Second, for expressive purposes: Judas Priest may not be exactly revered by this movie, but the track “Breaking the Law” serves well enough to punch a bit of instant energy into a chase scene. Third, for all-round entertainment’s sake: popular movies are always balancing (trading off) their semantic argument about cultural values (which is an inherently polarizing operation) against their pressing need to please (and thus not alienate) any possible audience member: therefore, there should be no truly ‘dud’ tracks in the central soundtrack mix, and nothing that cannot be proudly included on the CD release. Hence “Modern Love,” and “Tops” by The Rolling Stones, even “Let the Music Play” (which didn’t make it onto the official Adventureland CD) or “Rock Me Amadeus” (which did).
Obligatory Disclaimer in any forum that raises the issue of musical taste: we don’t happen to share the system of musical-cultural values that we lay out in our audiovisual essay The Semantics of Adventureland’s Mixtape, and so we are not proposing these ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ positive and negative categories as absolute. Indeed, studying Mottola’s film closely makes us more keenly aware how—in another context, another story, another film—these semantic poles could be exactly reversed, or otherwise completely scrambled and complicated. And, as a side benefit, it makes us appreciate, all over again, the lack of any kind of snobbishness accompanying the gesture of Leos Carax including “Modern Love” in his Mauvais sang (1986) or, supremely, Claire Denis making sublime cinematic poetry from Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” (in Beau travail, 1999) or Commodores’ “Nightshift” (in 35 Rhums, 2008).

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