One of the most talked-about scenes in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s justifiably adored directorial debut, concerns a group that has always received mixed notices from critics, the Dave Matthews Band. Actually, there are two scenes in Lady Bird that feature DMB’s 1996 hit “Crash Into Me,” a creepy dorm-room staple about a stalker done up in the guise of a romantic, finger-picked ballad. In the first, the film’s titular 17-year-old protagonist (played by Saoirse Ronan) uses the song to soothe her sorrows with best friend Julie (Bonnie Feldstein) over a romantic setback. It’s funny, but also touching: We’re meant to understand that this is a genuine bonding moment for these young women, no matter the song’s corniness.
It sets up the crucial scene later in the movie, when “Crash Into Me” comes on the radio while Lady Bird rides in a car with her cool new friends, whom she has embraced at Julie’s expense. When her hip indie-rocker love interest mocks the song, Lady Bird defends it. “I fucking love this song,” she says defiantly, marking an unlikely but nonetheless palpable turning point in the film.
The cloying “Crash Into Me,” distinguished by Matthews’ usual oddball vocal affectations and hair-raising lyrics (“Hike up your skirt a little more / and show the world to me”) is “schlocky and largely irredeemable,” The New Yorker‘s Amanda Petrusich recently observed. But the scenes in Lady Bird ring true because “to a sixteen-year-old, ‘Crash Into Me’ is equal parts alluring and appalling,” she writes, particularly given that Lady Bird is set in 2002, which means Ronan’s character would’ve first encountered the song when she was 11 or 12, the perfect age to take “Crash Into Me” at face value as a beautiful, romantic statement.
When I saw Lady Bird, I immediately responded to how Gerwig utilized “Crash Into Me,” because it runs counter to how most filmmakers use pop music in their movies. It’s the rare instance of a primary character’s musical preference being foregrounded and actually feeling authentic, as opposed to a show-offy signal from a director or showrunner that screams, “Hey, I like awesome stuff, please listen to my cinematic mixtape!”
You might have noticed numerous examples of the “cinematic mixtape” phenomenon in various high-profile TV shows and movies this year. The most egregious example has to be little Chloe Mackenzie in HBO’s Big Little Lies, a first-grader whose knowledge of ’60s and ’70s soul goes beyond mere precociousness. While most kids her age are obsessed with songs from Moana, this kid is crafting playlists that make insightful connections between “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by The Temptations and “This Feeling” by Alabama Shakes. Forget sending Chloe to an exclusive grade school in Monterrey — get her an early internship at Numero Group.
And then there’s Jonathan Byers, the resident fan of underground rock from Stranger Things. While the seventh episode of the current season was widely criticized for exhibiting a supposedly tenuous grasp on punk, the bigger problem with Stranger Things from a musical accuracy standpoint is its tenuous grasp on the culture of Indiana in the early ’80s. It’s possible, I guess, that a sensitive brooder like Jonathan might truly spend his Saturday nights listening to Talking Heads and reading Kurt Vonnegut. But not a single person on this show — not even dorky big-hair enthusiast Steve — is into John Cougar Mellencamp? Even though it’s the middle of Indiana in 1984? Please!
Chloe and Jonathan could be younger siblings of Baby from Baby Driver, the iPod-sporting wheelman with impeccably eclectic tastes that span Queen, Jonathan Richman, Sam & Dave, and the Dutch prog-rock group Focus, a band that’s otherwise familiar only among record-collector types. Baby is obsessed with iPods, in part, because his late mother gave him one as a child in the early ’00s, not long before she died. Given the timeframe, it’s likely that he was jamming on some Eminem or Limp Bizkit when he was a kid. But we never witness Baby’s aggro-adolescence in Baby Driver. As far as we know, he’s always had the sensibility of an All Songs Considered listener.
This pet peeve of mine, which makes me hyper-aware of filmmakers telegraphing their own tastes at the expense of realism, has undermined my enjoyment of films and TV shows with great soundtracks that I otherwise enjoy. It’s one thing, for instance, to make Margot a Rolling Stones fan in The Royal Tenenbaums, but isn’t it a little much that she plays “She Smiles Sweetly,” a largely unknown cut from 1967’s Between The Buttons, on a frickin’ record player? And why did April Ludgate from Parks & Recreation love Neutral Milk Hotel, of all bands? Was Pavement already deemed “too normcore” as a ’90s indie-rock touchstone at the time? And in what world do strippers dance to the Melvins, like they did on the first season of True Detective? Because I would like to go to that club — for the music only, of course.
Martin Scorsese once said that he built his soundtracks by picking songs that he thought his characters would like. But most filmmakers don’t appear to follow that advice. An exception was David Chase, the creator and executive producer of The Sopranos, who was always good at brilliantly casting the right songs for each character, whether it was MOR classic rock for Tony, melodramatic pop-opera for Carmela, or nü-metal for A.J. (David Simon of The Wire, meanwhile, could never resist making his characters fans of classic blues, R&B and other forms of “real” roots music.)
Gerwig in Lady Bird grasps a fundamental truth: While it’s possible for anyone to have cool taste, it’s clear that not everyone does. And yet the number of characters in movies and TV who happen to be hip connoisseurs that read liner notes and proselytize about deep cuts by obscure cult heroes seems implausibly high.
In a typical film, a character like Lady Bird — an iconoclastic outsider who doesn’t fit in at her school — would probably be more like Ellen Page in 2007’s Juno, who earnestly declares that her three favorite artists are Patti Smith, The Stooges, and The Runaways. In other words, she’d be a fictional teenager who’s into things that screenwriters in their 30s and 40s like. Or, if she were into DMB, it would be portrayed as a jokey character flaw, akin to how Patrick Bateman’s obsessive love of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News in American Psycho is intended to illustrate the depth of his sociopathic soullessness.
The value judgments embedded in these artistic choices are not subtle: If you have “good” taste, you are a decent and interesting person. If you have “bad” taste, you are a craven and probably evil person.
This is obviously a phony way of looking at the world, not to mention extremely boring from a narrative point of view. In reality, millions of extraordinary people each day live their lives listening to a personal soundtrack of music that you or I might believe is garbage. And, if you are a dramatist that aspires to a certain level of verisimilitude, this is worth noting, in the same way it’s also worthwhile to faithfully recapture a regional accent or one’s professional codes of conduct.
The counter-argument is that awesome songs are often inherently cinematic. Just ask Edgar Wright, the writer-director of Baby Driver, who dreamt up the opening heist sequence set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s hyperkinetic “Bellbottoms” more than 20 years before he filmed it. And, sure enough, it’s dynamite to watch, with Spencer’s exaggerated machismo perfectly accenting the bravura camerawork capturing those cars careening through the streets of Atlanta. But from a character perspective, why does Baby like this song? What does it say about his life?
As far as I can tell, very little. The music in Baby Driver is driven by curation, not characterization, and that style of soundtrack can feel oppressive, even exhausting, like you’re watching a commercial for the hottest new streaming platform. In Lady Bird, Gerwig isn’t selling anything, but rather presenting people who might very well remind you of yourself in private moments, when you listen to that playlist of disreputable pleasures that you’ll always love and never share in public.