illustration by Brianna Ashby
“…This old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being?”
–Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
“If it weren’t for you, I’d still be crying alone in my room, listening to Hootie & the Blowfish.”
–Note to my friend John in high school, from me
Four years after Empire Records was released, our beautiful friend Katie became pregnant while we were still in Catholic high school. At the time, the worn-in comfort of the 20th century had just a few months left in it. Now, not so many years into this new century, my generation is already lamenting 1999 like it was an altogether different age, some other civilization. Kids still bought CDs (compact discs!) from independent music stores and recorded mixtapes off the radio as gifts. In the Midwest, you could still legally smoke cigarettes indoors at diners. Students passed notes on paper in class. Teenage pregnancy was a secret kept safe from any kind of social internet, and Katie was allowed to stay in classes, a victory and precedent at our school. In a giddy euphoria one night, a few girls drove around with a camcorder (in retrospect, an apparatus of real dedication), videotaping friends sending well-wishes from our teenage bedrooms. We were asked to pick out a song to play in the background during our messages, and I was overwhelmed by the pressure, so the girls who visited with the camera chose a song for me: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Risin’”. The song was already over 30 years old at the time and seemed like a bit of a dark omen, but I tried to appear world-wise and comforting and also somehow punk rock as I spoke over it.
I have no idea what I said into the lens at that moment, and I’m not certain Katie ever watched that tape more than once. I’m not sure if those little negative film strips of our babyfat faces, speaking hope for her, are all compacted now somewhere deep inside a Cleveland landfill. But I do know whenever I hear “Bad Moon Risin’” these days at a bar or out a car window, that’s it. It’s not my choice to go there, but it’s back to the twin bed floral blanket all over again, a teenager in my old collage-covered room in the suburbs, being recorded beside the hand-painted gothic fairy and Smashing Pumpkins heart and Aristotle quotes in black marker on the bedroom walls. I am trying to think of bright, kind things to say into the camera at this precipice in our young lives, at the moment when we were consciously leaving behind childhood. All of it snaps back, immediately, two decades of lost details and miles between—all the small triumphs and disappointments of adult lives—collapsing in a heartbeat.
Anyone who has made it into adolescence knows this is what music does. Not just poetically, but neurologically. Not just the initial escape, but a return to the glory of the first transcendence, over and over, a kind of cyclical magic. We can make fun of Empire Records ’ infatuation with its own mid-90’s styling all we want, but the movie does know one big universal truth: when you’re young, and have very little autonomy, music will always be the quickest way to escape, a way to move beyond the confines of wherever your mind and heart might be trapped. And, years later, it’s still the fastest way to get back to that place all over again.
There is a moment when the movie’s goth-girl character, Debra (Robin Tunney), discovers the seemingly flawless, sugarcoated image of her coworker Corey is a lie. With her newly-shaved head and her own recent crises, Deb whispers kindly to Corey in the store bathroom: “I guess nobody really has it all together, huh?”
Watching Empire Records now, almost 20 years after it was released, comes with a rather bittersweet realization: most of us never seem to fully psychologically transcend our adolescence. Nobody—despite income, social mobility, marriages, divorces, dreams achieved or abandoned—is ever as genuinely composed or confident as they might appear. We are always metamorphosing beings, our core selves a mystery throughout adulthood, even to those who toil alongside us, or resent us, or love us, day in and day out.
From the film’s opening minutes—once the audience learns that Empire Records is likely going to close soon—the looming weight of adulthood hovers around an otherwise shining (if angst-ridden) day. It’s almost as if the movie’s obsession with music-as-antidote, as escapism, subconsciously infers the opposite. Underneath the hyper-confident band references and elated, blaring soundtrack runs a vein of imminent adult sadness to be fought off—the worship of money, the threats of drudgery and conformity. For all its goofy coming-of-age plot cliches, Empire Records is not a movie about high school—it’s a fable about warding off the end of youth altogether. As such, the film’s now archaic music store setting is both the ideal backdrop and, perhaps, the worst enemy to any future mass appeal the film’s story might have.
Ultimately, Empire Records is about what comes after adolescence. The film’s main concern is conveying the promise of just listening, and being able to always exist, or return, to a time of greater potential. There’s a reason we can free-associate the words empire and revolutions and records. Social revolutions set to music. Revolutions overturning empires. Revolutions back to a place you thought you’d left, but keep returning to, over and over. We revolve around the sun until one day we don’t.
On a single, eventful day, the following unfolds: Liv Tyler’s goody-two-shoes Corey learns whether or not she’ll be accepted to Harvard, while also revealing her addiction to pills; the artistic AJ (Johnny Whitworth) vows to confess his long-time love to her; Deb survives a suicide attempt; adorable village idiot Mark (Ethan Embry, a poster of whose wide green eyes and grin hung on my bedroom door throughout high school) saves the day; Lucas (Rory Cochrane) practically ruins the store with his good intentions to salvage it; a delinquent who calls himself Warren Beatty (Brendan Sexton III) shoplifts, brandishes a gun, and then admits he really just wants to be one of the record store staff. And, perhaps most importantly, the store is hosting pop star has-been Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), best-known for his hit single, “Say No More, Mon Amour.” Corey wants to lose her virginity to the guy; her best friend Gina (Renee Zellweger) actually fucks him instead. They’re a merry, tormented, suburban band of 1990’s white kid alt-rock oddballs.
The film’s look—shot in chrome-bright color, aesthetically grunge-infused—allows us to better see the contrast in world events that would take place over the next decade; most movies about adolescence would only get darker, dimmer, post-apocalyptic. No one could have predicted the dissolution of so much cultural comfort just a few years later. The end of the millennium brought with it the rise of Napster, and the subsequent decline of traditional music retail stores. Instead of discovering new music in a physical space, the internet soon became the “place” to find and listen to it. The illusion of American peacetime ended with September 11th, and we soon returned to war with a place we’d been at war with only a decade earlier. It felt a bit like being reminded that our country was just a forgetful teenager, too. By 2001, the oblivious optimism that had insulated our Empire Records America was mostly gone.
Still, the movie knows the thing about empires is that, in all forms—physical and metaphorical—they eventually end. Empires of adolescence qualify, too. Shining for a time, falling, new ones built upon them. For all its overwrought teenage drama, the resilience of what music can provide and protect us from still allows Empire Records to be a subtle joy to watch today. The blind faith of the staff in the magical power of loving music allows their on-screen adolescence to feel almost era-less. And we are never so timeless, ageless, as when we hear our own songs.
The portrayal of the Empire Records staff isn’t much of a departure from the actual kids I knew working in record stores back then, before digital music swept over all of us. One of those real-life kids ended up becoming my first true boyfriend, teaching me the foundations of everything I know about music history and its sub-categories. Much like in the movie, edifying others was a near-spiritual calling for all true record store employees of that era.
The soundtrack to Empire Records is not so much a cliched “seventh main character” as it is an energy running throughout the film. The wailing minor keys of The Cranberries’ “Liar” ring out as Corey rejects AJ’s love and she races off the roof because she, too, has just been rejected. Only a few minutes earlier, the upbeat sadness of The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” plays over the set-up for Rex Manning’s doomed in-store promotion—much like the store itself is doomed. And, after the staff raises enough money to keep themselves out of jail with an impromptu rooftop concert in the film’s final minutes, Renee Zellweger joins the band to sing vocals on “Sugar High,” an ideally-named song to end a movie from such a blind and blissful mid-90s American moment.
Credits begin to roll as the gang dances to a euphoric song medley, including “This Is The Day” by Manic Street Preachers. It’s nighttime, and everyone is laughing on the roof, whirling about in front of the blazing neon sign as the soundtrack declares: “This is the day/your life will surely change.”
The sweetness tugs at us because we have days like this, too. Single days careening from not speaking to our closest friends and coworkers to fiercely needing their love again in a matter of hours, from losing all hope to getting it back in seconds. It’s just that we get better at not talking about it. Not screaming about it into store loudspeakers, or arguing about it on rooftops, or shaving-off our hair into the company bathroom sink. But we still rely on music to help us make meaning out of those messes, long after youth has passed us over.
The first time I saw Empire Records was on TV at my friend Sarah’s house. Her home was our favorite sleepover location because of its large back room, cute artistic older brother (in a band), and wide dark field next to the barely-operating railroad tracks. On clear nights, we would lay down in her old wooden playground fort and watch satellites blink around the black sky. Poetically, her dad was our high school music teacher. Just a few years after graduation, our high school closed. The Ford manufacturing and steel mill jobs closed first.
As a 14-year-old girl watching the older, cooler “beautiful little tattooed, gum-chewing freaks” in the movie, I was in awe that the whole thing took place in one day. The idea that such big days could happen in this life. The thought that, with enough artistic temperament and a pack of plucky outsider friends, no one could bridle you.
Our friend Suzy had the Empire Records soundtrack, and it was one of the first cassettes she played in her car after receiving her license. As Catholic school girls, we were more than just a bit inspired by Liv Tyler’s outfit from the movie, wearing Doc Martens boots with our plaid skirts. All of us watched the film in Sarah’s living room right around the time I was learning about music being made by artists, songs with (I thought) deep, real edges and a true comprehension of hurt. I was kissing goodbye my childhood love of musicals and The Beatles, having just had my first big break-up with a bassist who knew everything about classic rock. I painted a replica of Pink Floyd’s The Wall on my bedroom wall.
This past winter, I took photos of that old bedroom, weirdly frozen in all its teenage décor. I was attempting to acknowledge some day it will all have to go. Suzy, the one who played the Empire Records soundtrack on repeat in her first car, wrote some lyrics on one of the walls, beside some of my own, and those of a dozen other high school friends. Dusty cassette tapes and old CD’s are shoved into various nooks and crannies and bags throughout the room. A magazine ad for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the cut-out center of a huge, fallen collage. My old bedroom is an encapsulation of a pre-internet-soaked teenage mind—almost two decades later, it still holds like a mausoleum to the last years of the millennium, the years right after Empire Records came out.
My teenage hand had also scrawled out, in black Sharpie ink, a quote I must have found somewhere and believed to hold some kind of truth: “Music is God’s gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth.”
Eddie, a grunge pal of Mark’s in the movie, makes him a mixtape and hands it to him like it’s composed of precious stones. “This music is the glue of the world, Mark,” he says with complete gravity. “Without this, life would be meaningless.”
I recently read an article about how processing music is a core brain function for human beings, something we comprehend even earlier than language. Listening actively to music can help improve cognitive abilities, but appreciating it and understanding it are not cognitive, per se. It brought to mind the best-known scene in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, his description of the phenomenon of involuntary memory: the kind you don’t work to retrieve, the kind of memory that retrieves you. (Proust dunks a madeleine cake in a cup of tea, and as soon as it touches his tongue he is a boy back in his aunt’s room, eating pastries and drinking tea with her all over again.) The article went on to say that there’s no evolutionary reason for why music would be so fundamental, since it doesn’t relate to survival.
But, wait—what? Ask any young person, in any country, and they will quickly tell you how music has the power to help transcend reality or heartbreak or oppression. Ask anyone who is no longer young, anywhere, how music instantaneously evokes associated memories and can also, if only for a few seconds, seem to stave off mortality.
Aristotle has a piece of rhetoric explicitly complaining about the young people around him in Ancient Greece. Reading it now, it could just as well describe the kids at Empire Records. It could read as me mumbling about the loud middle school boys in the subway last week. It could sound like your own parents talking about you.
“The young have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations… All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything; they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.”
Aristotle made this observation over 2,000 years ago. We tell ourselves the more things change, the more they stay the same, but perhaps we say this more as an incantation of consolation rather than a genuine acceptance of the world barreling on without us. Does the younger version of ourselves live inside us forever, as rings demarcated on a tree? Empire Records seems to believe this: that the euphoria and melancholy of youth are ingrained within us, as necessary to survival as the fear of mortality. Music may constantly change, but the need to listen to it does not. Play that song. Go back, for a minute, to invincibility. Damn the man. Save the Empire. Forever and ever, recirculating.