The film itself is charming. It is quite funny, and the denouement is just perfect with Romy and Machele standing up for the value of their own lives. But it shows all the signs of needing a few more drafts. The whole dream sequence really muddiest the film and makes the rest of it (which is fairly unbelievable) hard to believe. Still, the film is quite enjoyable, the acting is wonderful, and its ultimate message about friendship is wonderful in our postmodern world.
Since the film represents the two women’s tenth-year reunion, it requires us to take a disturbing trip into 1980s pop. It was a time of twice destroyed music. First punk became “new wave” and then it just became pop. But it’s not always so bad. I’ve tried to pick the better material.
Time After Time
We start with the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time.”
Interestingly, the song was not on the soundtrack for the film. But it is the most important song in the film. It is featured when Romy is stood up by Billy Christensen, and then it is played again when Romy, Michele, and Sandy perform their their interpretive dance number before flying away in a helicopter.
When the song was playing on the radio, I liked it quite a lot. Now it sounds dated. I can’t make out a single acoustic instrument despite the fact that it really doesn’t need any electronics at all. The song is solid, even with the cliche hook. But the drum samples and synth sounds are really not that offensive. I think that producer Rick Chertoff gets a lot of credit for creating an overall sound for the album that doesn’t make my skin crawl.
The thing that I most dislike in “Time After Time” is something I was very fond of at the time: guitar flanging. But like anything that’s interesting in pop music, it was used to death and then for a few decades more. Flanging quickly became the go-to guitar sound when a producer had no idea what to do. But it worked on this song at that time, as I recall.
But you can’t make me sit through that any more than I already have, so here is a beautiful, almost acoustic version of the song live.
Just a Girl by No Doubt
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion starts with a song that is not from the 1980s, because it is supposed to reflect their lives now. It’s a good song, “Just a Girl” by the band No Doubt. It isn’t great, like Trapped in a Box, but still.
What’s interesting about “Just a Girl” is that it is the perfect song for the film. Although it sounds light and pleasant, it is a highly political song. Slow it down and perform it with an acoustic guitar and you have a Natalie Merchant song. Although “Just a girl” is repeated more often, technically the refrain is, “I’ve had it up to here!” And that is, ultimately, what Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is all about.
“Just a Girl” starts with what was always a curious lyric to me, “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes.” Now it seems ridiculously obvious what that’s all about. The trappings of femininity are used to blind women from their subjugation. And the line is followed by a far more disturbing line, “I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise.” I see “exposed” as a synonym for “naked.” The song makes many references to the objectification of women. But it also indicates that regardless of the pink ribbons, women still know their situation on a more fundamental level.
Of course, “Just a Girl” is also exactly the kind of music that Romy and Michele would have been dancing to in the mid-1990s.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
In a sense, this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion Morning Music week has been a bust. The idea was that we would have a lot of terrible music from the 1980s, but thus far, the music has been pretty good. Today does not help matters: “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by The Pretenders.
But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great song. But it works very well. The first part of it seems to be a very cheery celebration of being in love. The second part of it is about the volatility of love. The key line is, “Don’t get me wrong if I fall in the mode of passion.” The “mode of passion” is, put simply, lust. And the singer seems to be saying that she should be forgiven the ebb and flow of her love just as she forgives it of her lover.
Regardless of how you want to read the song, there is always something incredibly compelling about Chrissie Hynde when she’s singing something that is sweet as in perhaps my favorite Pretenders’ song, Kid. But today, it is the much more straightforward “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” It’s nice. Nothing that Elizabeth needs to be ashamed of liking. But I will search the film for something really awful. There is at least some material that is mediocre.
Oh, and regarding this video: I had never seen it before, so it’s interesting that I should have mentioned the British television series The Avengers in yesterday’s Odds and Ends post. Although I think the video matching is terrible in it. But it was doubtless state-of-the-art at the time.
Just What I Needed
I’m going to veer off the Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion soundtrack and go back almost a decade to present “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. But let’s face it: it would fit in fine in the film. And there is much to recommend it. The truth is that music hadn’t change over that period of time, although admittedly, this song sounded pretty new back in 1978.
I’ve long favored guitar focused pop music, unless you are going to do something as pretty as Breaking Us in Two (although Joe Jackson was rather good at doing guitar based songs as well). But that’s the great thing about 1978: it was still before the explosion of FM synthesizers. There’s no pretense! “Just What I Needed” is using something very much like the Minimoog. Blessed be the analog god! I also like the guitar work on it — well, the lead work, which gives me chills. The rhythm guitar is pretty standard pop-rock.
What’s problematic is the lyrics. They are entirely typical of everything Ric Ocasek would ever write. He gets a good idea and then takes it nowhere. The best example of that is My Best Friend’s Girl, an idea that is so rich with emotional potential that he mines for exactly nothing.
Similarly, “Just What I Needed” means, what? I never get the impression that Ocasek knows. I guess we are supposed to take “I needed someone to bleed” as meaningful. But all I can find in it is that the word “bleed” rhymes with “feed.” Does he mean suggest that he needed someone who loved him so much that she bled?
I’m more than willing to interpret songs. That is, after all, what the listener is supposed to do. But the songwriter has to do their part and provide something to work with. I know emotionally what’s going on here: it’s about the beginning of a relationship that is a bad idea. But none of that much matters, as it doesn’t matter in any of Ocasek’s songs, because his mastery of pop songwriting is perfect.
We Got the Beat
I think there are a couple of songs by The Go-Go’s in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. But I picked “We Got the Beat” because I know it was in there and I don’t want to go back to the film and search around. Anyway, it’s an amazing, and maybe even great, song. Writing something that charmingly awkward is really hard. I can do the awkward, but certainly during the last 20 years, no one thinks what I write is charming — in fact, they can’t even bear it.
But I was wondering earlier if I considered The Go-Go’s a punk band. Being of limited skill is really not what punk is about. For example, Minutemen were amazing musicians. And overall, I don’t think The Go-Go’s were a punk band. But they definitely had those roots. You can definitely hear this on the original Stiff Records version of “We Got the Beat” from 1980. The music is raw; it reminds me of early Kinks. But more than that, it pays explicit tribute to the “girl groups” of decades previous. And that is very much one kind of punk music. I would say that is ultimately what makes Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers punk.
The later recording of We Got the Beat (the one in the film) is much more polished. It’s still arguably a great tune in the tradition of Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets. (According to Wikipedia, the song “evolved” from The Miracles’ “Going to a Go Go,” but I don’t especially hear it.) Regardless, it’s a fun song. But I think this earlier version is more fun because I can imagine them in Beehive hairdos. Just click “play” and close your eyes and imagine.
N-Trance’s Stayin’ Alive
Continuing our Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week, we have N-Trance’s remix, rap version of “Stayin’ Alive.” It isn’t an 80s song. It is playing at the club when Romy and Michele go out before even hearing about the reunion. But I thought I would highlight it because I hate the original song.
Look, it isn’t that I hate disco. The truth is, there was a lot of great disco. I just can’t stand that falsetto lead. It is quite a bit less annoying with the harmonies in the chorus. Also, the lyrics are ridiculous, although that’s at least true to form. The rap lyrics (by Ricardo da Force, who is also the rapper) are along the same lines, but quite a bit stronger. (Just to be clear, N-Trance is more of a music project, with two producers heading it and a floating, but dependable group of musicians helping out.)
I can’t say that I like this version of “Stayin’ Alive.” But I certainly don’t dislike it as much as I do the original. But the song works in the film, because when Romy initially has the idea that they will impress their classmates because of the cool lives they have, she isn’t wrong on the second part of that. Certainly Christie Masters-Christensen wouldn’t have been going out to clubs and listening to music that hip.
Watching a bit of the film again, I’m reminded that Mira Sorvino is so much better a dancer than Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow is amazingly stiff in all the dance numbers; she reminds me of myself! Or maybe it’s just great acting, because somehow it seems to fit her character.
Blood and Roses by The Smithereens
We will finish off this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week with The Smithereens and probably their best known song, “Blood and Roses.” It’s what I think of as “power pop,” but most people wouldn’t classify it like that. It’s very pleasant, melody-driven music with a bit more heft to it than pop normally has (or had).
The song has a very nice bass riff. And there is something very compelling about Pat DiNizio’s voice. The verse is almost modal. The interesting thing about that is I was always obsessed with that when I was writing songs in my youth. But the truth is that as a listener, at least now, it is fairly boring. I suppose what I used to like about it was its hypnotic quality. But the song breaks into a more interesting chorus.
Lyrically, there isn’t much there. But interestingly, we are back to the image of blood. Still, it’s distinctly adolescent material, “I want to live but I don’t belong.” It reminds me of a stand-up comedian I saw decades ago. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I found this poem I wrote when I was 15, ‘The moon is high; the sea is calm; I hate my parents.” Obviously “Blood and Roses” is more thoughtful, but not by a whole lot.
Just the same, it’s quite an enjoyable tune. And I suppose we can all relate to the basic idea of the death of love. Now that I think about it, the song is kind of like American Music Club’s Firefly, but from a writer who didn’t drink himself to sleep each night. That may be why “Blood and Roses” was a hit, and “Firefly” was not. But it’s still the case that American Music Club is a better band. Feel free to disagree.