Baby Driver and the Temporal Collapse of Pop Music Nostalgia

Before getting back to my #genre series, I wanted to jot down some thoughts I had after watching Baby Driver a couple months ago. Better late than never? I won’t make any big points about the movie since I’m unqualified to do so, but music’s centrality deserves a little reflection.

In short, I was sort of entertained but ultimately disappointed. I heard that music played an integral role, the main character (“Baby”) listened to his iPod a lot, and there were some sweet car chases, but that’s all I knew before heading to the theater. That’s basically what happens during the 112 minute runtime (which felt about 20 minutes too long), with some zany heists and gratuitous violence liberally sprinkled into a trite guy-finds-and-rescues-girl/muse narrative. (I think the movie failed the Bechdel test pretty convincingly, but correct me if I’m mis-remembering.) It seemed like movie meant to be a tongue-in-cheek homage to a genre well past its heyday, but the directors/writers couldn’t decide how seriously or earnestly they should be. Alas, I’m no critic, and I rarely go to the theaters since it’s expensive, so I should probably stay in my lane before I become the target of diatribes about Edgar Wright’s ouvre.

Rather than complain about being bored, I’ll explain why I was struck by the relative homogeneity of the music. For a flick predicated on the protagonist employing “deep cuts” and an apparently huge and carefully curated collection of music housed in his dozen-or-so themed iPods (including different colors, generations, bedazzlings, etc.) to time his escapes and plots just perfectly, I thought the soundtrack would be more diverse and adventurous. Instead, the collection of tracks sounded like a slightly spun out version of the canonized pop/rock and classic soul/funk corpus of successful soundtracks like that from Guardians of the Galaxy. Even if you haven’t heard all the songs on Baby Driver before (and I only knew a small handful), you already know them; they’re cut from a stylistic and generic cloth that borders on ubiquity throughout many media, reinforcing a bland hegemony of classic rock/soul, broadly construed. The clichéd Tarantino et al. trope of juxtaposing violence with some fun, classic sing-along only buttressed the lack of imagination and pigeonholed any imaginative musical esthesic potential.

What’s perhaps more noteworthy about the soundtrack is that it collapses a whole back catalog of music into a single synchronic, temporal slice. Take the very first scene in the movie, which features “Bellbottoms” by the John Spencer Blues Explosion, released in 1994. The band’s name, the song title, sartorial signifiers in the video, and everything in the track ( instrumentation, lyrics, vocal style, form, harmony, etc.) all clearly point towards early-’70s bands like Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, Humble Pie, and the like. The past collapses into a myopic nostalgia where Britpop, Beck, and 90s blues cohabitate with The Beach Boys, the Commodores, and Steve Miller. Notions like Kevin Holm-Hudson’s “sonic historiography” perhaps lose their chronological, referential capabilities when genres concurrently resound in an iPod-driven haze. Since iPods are already mementos of a bygone age, they lump neatly with records, tapes, and whatever assemblage of digital and analog production equipment Baby uses to mix his own songs. Even when hip-hop enters the fray, as it does with Young MC’s “Know How” and Run the Jewels’s eponymous track, it’s of a kind explicitly reliant on samples and timbres associated with prototypical hip-retromania.

(This sort of chronological flattening of pastness happens all over the place. A quick Soundcloud example. Here, labels of “#Pop, #80’s, #Synth Wave, #Indie Pop, #Alternative, and #Synthesizers” mix together with an embedded sample from the sitcom, “Friends.” Historical strata meld into each other.)

The brand of nostalgia in Baby Driver‘s music is different than retro shows or movies like Happy Days and Stranger Things. Rather than evoke a certain era, however problematically, it instead squashes temporally disparate music and tech into a mash of culturally inert signifiers of pastness: a nostalgic bricolage of pastiche. Even without a perfidious nod to “listener competence,” the employment of music in Baby Driver presents an almost Fukuyaman end-of-sonic history in which a particular kind of genre-system takes an autocratic power, reifying stylistic circumscriptions. Or at least, it suggests a central signifying regime toward which other styles should necessarily point.

And that’s the rub, I guess; there’s a certain sort of music that remains central, meant for a certain kind of audience to relate to and appreciate. It’s no surprise that the soundtrack mostly passes over influential and successful pop and rap from the 1980s, even though these more directly guide lots of 2010s popular music than blues or rock. (This critic worries that appearances by artists like Sky Ferreira, Killer Mike, Big Boi or Danger Mouse might alienate some of the audience.)

I confess that I like a good deal of the music from the movie, and it helped me discover some new tracks I genuinely enjoy. But, then again, the flick is geared towards people like me. One reviewer suggested that, “musical gimmick aside,” the movie “is largely familiar — not that it matters.” It does matter, and it matters that the sonic materials which enable the gimmick are familiar. As another critic notes, in a laudatory manner, some of these tracks are “more on the Pitchfork side of things,” making manifest the rockist tendencies that structure the soundtrack selections. (For issues of gender in this perspective, see, for example, Johnson-Grau 2002 or Straw 1997.) The collection of hackneyed musical idiomsno matter how “deep” the cutspanders, and that’s about it.

So, given the homogeneity of the cast and its not-quite-ironic use of token characters/stereotypes (the ingénue, the exotic girlfriend, the token black guy who happens to be unpredictably violent), the flattening of genre and chronology generates something more serious than a banal wistfulness for the time of iPods (and of rock’s long-distant heyday). The gaze of the director and his protagonist leaves experiences conspicuous by their absence, and the music prescribes a particular perspective. I know, I shouldn’t expect a summer movie to smash hierarchical boundaries or anything, but I just wish the soundtrack did more than provide a generalized and unimaginative nostalgia. At the very least it could’ve not been boring.

(P.S. Lots of scholars have written about pop music and nostalgia in general, but I felt that’s a bit out of the purview of this little post/critique. So, check out some of these links if you feel like it.)

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