The Thing They’re Paying For Is Not The Thing They Want and other lessons learned from Josie and the Pussycats

A "Caroline likes the wrong movies" update

This weekend we watched Good Vibrations, a movie about a man who invents punk and solves Northern Ireland. It’s a good movie, I liked it, even though my enjoyment of it was somewhat tempered by the fact that it ticks off almost every stereotype on the Walk Hard List. Items on this list include:

  • A seen-it-all record exec and/or studio manager who is exhausted and jaded by the very concept of music until he hears the era-defining, expectation-smashing, genre-defying song, at which point his eyes light up and he announce it has “restored my faith in the Jewish people”.

  • A shrew wife who is permanently pregnant and resentful of her husband’s success.

  • A hit single that not only captures the spirit of eternal youth but also encapsulates a major political and extremely time-specific conflict.

  • A dozen characters who the lead character is constantly hugging or disappointing. You watch these people for 120 minutes until eventually you realise that if someone put a gun to your head and asked you what the bass player’s name was you wouldn’t have a fucking clue, and that actually, this movie truly has no characters aside from the lead era-defining, genre-defying muso at the centre of the story.

  • Cocaine! and so on.

I don’t resent movies for using this formula, but I don’t respect them for it, either. Walk The Line, Ray, La Vie En Rose, Control, A Star Is Born, La Bamba… they’re all the same fucking movie. Really. They all suffer from the same illness. They all go out of their way to emphasise to you that whatever music you’re hearing is important, and that the people who made it were important also. Which, in my opinion, is sort of a losing battle before it even begins, because you’re relying on a visual medium (film!) to convey the weight of an audio phenomenon (music!). So, most music movies consist of showing you something that you need to just feel, and they show you by including scene after scene of screaming fans, overdosing geniuses, and shrill women.

One movie that relies on very few of these stereotypes is Josie and the Pussycats.

Josie and the Pussycats is a 2001 film with an Metacritic rating of 48% and was labelled “brainless pre-teen fodder” by the late Roger Ebert. It is also my favourite music movie. It is camp, and girly, and incredibly strange – Alan Cumming is a secret albino for no reason! Seth Green is in a boy band and their hit song is about anal! – and the soundtrack absolutely bangs. Rachel Leigh Cook has that one short spiky bob we all went to the hairdressers looking for when we were 14, only to come out with a mom-cut an hour later. Tara Reid is a drummer. This world is upside down, is what I’m saying.

The deal is, The Pussycats are a band who play at bowling alleys until Alan Cumming crash lands in their town of Riverdale (!) after murdering his boy band (!) and offers them a record deal.

This is thrilling news, because as the audience already knows from the opening number, The Pussycats slap. Their songs are sung by Letters to Cleo alumni Kay Hanley (who 10 Things I Hate About You fans will recognise from their I Want You To Want Me cover), and the soundtrack includes writing credits from Adam Durritz of The Counting Crows and EGOT nominee Adam Schlesinger. It’s important to stress here just how much work went into the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, creating a record that sounds like the radio-friendly version of riot grrrl that should have been popular, but never really was. The Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack is the record we would have gotten had the cultural climate of the early noughties allowed for there to be more than one Gwen Stefani, or more than one Courtney Love.

(This is also why I adored Sarra Manning’s Guitar Girl as a teenager, because it allowed for a world where a British girl pop-rock group really could have a number #1 single and be on the cover of NME, instead of having to settle for a ‘Single of the Week’ mention before promptly disappearing.)

To reiterate: by the time Alan Cumming’s character Wyatt shows up, we already know that The Pussycats are great. But Wyatt doesn’t know that. And Wyatt never really finds out, either, because despite the fact that he has offered The Pussycats a record deal, he has never heard a second of their music.

“Just think Christina Aguliera times three except one of them is incredibly tan...” he explains to his boss Fiona (Parker Posey! This movie, man!). “Or else T.L.C. with two white chicks... or, um, Hole!”

Wyatt has no fucking clue what The Pussycats sound like. What he does know is that they’re young, and hot, and play perfectly into his record label’s campaign to fill their music with subliminal messaging to trick their fans into buying crap. (This movie…. this movie is basically Spice World meets Fight Club and I love it.)

“They're selling stuff through our music,” Josie gasps when she realises the scam. “They're selling US through our music! I knew there was a reason we were so popular!”

There’s something strangely invigorating to me about a music movie that presents a band who are extremely good, and yet how good they are is besides the point. Because a huge part of the creative profession is constantly wondering whether the thing your publisher or editor has paid for is not actually the thing they want. That they don’t want you, they want your Twitter following; they don’t want you, they want the high-profile publication you work for; they don’t want you, they want the timely, presentable, soft-mouthed white feminism angle they think you represent.

It is possible that this is a woman thing. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Josie and the Pussycats is the only “oh, we don’t want you, we want…” music movie I can think of, and is also a movie about a girl band. I think women spend a lot of time clicking the abacus beads of their own worth back and forth, back and forth, reassuring themselves that they are good, but also wondering whether anyone cares.

My other favourite music movie, That Thing You Do!, does a good line in this. It’s about a band called The OneDers (the oh-needers!) and later The Wonders, who record a one-hit wonder and then promptly fizzle out after their first hit dies and their lead singer walks out on them. It’s a good movie about how you should never let the record label take you out to lunch, but an even better movie about how all musicians are just losers. Also, Steve Zahn is really funny in it.

Anyway, in sum: music movies are better when the movies goes out of its way to tell you how unimportant the music is. Because then, the soundtrack becomes background noise, and only then, can you as an audience member have the freedom to think “hey, actually, I really like this”. Y’know, the way people actually enjoy music.

Anyway, that’s just what I think. If this theory had any weight I would be able to say “that’s why everyone remembers the lyrics to That Thing You Do and no one remembers the words to Shallow!” But that’s just not true. I still don’t like A Star is Born.