Last week, one of the stars of the cult ’90s comedy Empire Records compared Kurt Cobain to a has-been in a frilly pirate shirt. “The reason we picked April 8th as the day to have the powdered/coifed Rex Manning visit Empire is because Kurt was found on the 8th of April, the day the music of the 90s lost its mascot,” actor Ethan Embry, aka Mark the lovably dopey record-store clerk, tweeted. It’s not clear exactly what Embry meant. Numerous websites rushed to report that Cobain was a “secret inspiration” for the Rex Manning character. But what I think Embry was suggesting is that Manning signifies the emptiness of ’90s alt-rock culture in the wake of Cobain’s death.
It’s fitting that this tweet, like Empire Records, is a bit of a generational Rorschach test. The news that a Broadway musical version of Empire Records is currently under development is further confirmation that the 1995 film — which was essentially thrown away by the studio that made it upon release, only to be revived as a grassroots smash on video and in TV syndication — has become a defining movie for “a shoulder demographic between Generation X and the millennials,” as Buzzfeed put it in 2014.
Directed by Allan Moyle, Empire Records is a loosely plotted (and, some would argue, loosely written, acted, and shot) day-in-the-life story about a coterie of record-store employees that touches on drug abuse, suicide, gun violence, the perils of small-business ownership, and boss-on-employee battery without ever really deviating from a mood of light, happy-go-lucky insouciance. There are Gin Blossoms and Toad The Wet Sprocket songs, and a deeply weird GWAR cameo, and people headbang good-naturedly to AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood, You Got It.” Many of the film’s stars — Liv Tyler, Renee Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, Embry — went on to lasting careers in other projects that had more short-term success, though Empire Records has unexpectedly become one of the most beloved entries on any of their IMDb pages.
I’ve seen Empire Records twice — which is about five percent of the viewings for a typical celebrator of Rex Manning Day. The first time was many years ago, and at the time I would’ve described Empire Records in terms similar to our own Vince Mancini, who called it “an obnoxious movie for obnoxious teens” in a piece timed with the film’s 20th anniversary in 2015. The second time I watched Empire Records was in preparation for this piece, and while I liked it more this time, it still irritated me in ways I didn’t quite understand at first.
Here’s one thing that bugged me: the anachronistic Rex Manning. As countless critics of Empire Records have pointed out, nothing about this guy makes sense. As portrayed by Grease 2 star Maxwell Caulfield, Rex looks like a 45-year-old supper-club singer. He’s totally wrong as a mid-’90s “tired rock star” archetype. He should resemble Bret Michaels, not Leif Garrett attempting to emulate Tom Jones. The character just feels a little lazy, and disconnected from the culture of the time — like the rest of Empire Records.
Comparing Rex Manning to Kurt Cobain, however, is even more inexplicable. Unless… Embry is self-aware about what Empire Records actually is, which is the personification of what happened to alternative culture in the mid-’90s. While Empire Records gets so much wrong otherwise, the film itself is a perfect artifact of how that culture was commodified and, eventually, nullified. Empire Records is disposable as art but absolutely essential as anthropology.
But that’s the opinion of a person who still identifies with the Nevermind part of the ’90s. I’m slightly older than the “shoulder demographic” of young Gen-Xers/old millennials who love this movie, and that inevitably impacts how I view it. I think my resentment of Empire Records ultimately derives from the fact that the version of the ’90s that it represents has taken over my ’90s.
This also happened with the ’80s — the underdog Our Band Could Be Your Life narrative once forwarded by music critics has been drowned out over time by the more comforting and meme-able saga told by MTV videos. With the ’90s, signifiers such as grunge rock and gangsta rap and endless angst have been down-voted in favor of frothy gifs showing young, good-looking white people in thrift-store clothes wiling away their carefree, totally ’90s days doing nothing all that important or stressful. Just try Googling “so ’90s” and see what comes up. It’s not Badmotorfinger or Ready To Die. It’s cast photos of Boy Meets World and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. In this telling of the ’90s, the greatest band on Earth is no longer Nirvana, it’s the cast of Friends.