Review of Rugrats Movie Soundtrack Album
Salon, 1998-11-09
- Joyce Millman
[ J O Y C E_.M I L L M A N__O N_.T E L E V I S I O N ]
Dancing With The Television On

Forget MTV -- Beck, Elvis Costello, Sugar Ray and the Dylans find their place on TV soundtracks.

In 1984, "Miami Vice" used hit songs instead of aural wallpaper as its mood music and a new TV genre -- the MTV drama -- was born. To this day, I can't hear Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" without remembering Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas giving each other suspicious glances as they fly down the causeway in their muscle car. (I'm considering electroshock therapy.)

"Miami Vice" forged the most lucrative partnership between pop music and TV since "The Monkees." Musicians begged for acting roles on the show. Getting your new song on "Vice" was the big promo enchilada (just as getting your new song on "Dawson's Creek" is today). And the release of the "Miami Vice" album in 1986 overhauled the TV soundtrack's image as the movie soundtrack's goofy little brother. TV soundtracks weren't just about novelty theme songs and lite-jazz instrumentals anymore.

And the list of soundtrack releases -- from "The X-Files" and "Xena" to "The Drew Carey Show" and the forthcoming "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" -- doesn't even include the stray tunes that turn up on shows every now and then. Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" was used on "ER" last season in a couple of episodes about a dying boy and, suddenly, middle-aged women were descending on Wal-Mart looking for "Nimrod." The ever consumer-conscious WB makes it oh-so-easy for viewers to find the music played on "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity"; an announcer comes on at the end of the show, plays a snippet of the (Warner Bros. affiliated) tracks that appeared on the night's episode and tells you what CDs they're from. Hey, wasn't this the original dream of television's inventors -- to make radio with pictures?

Yeah, I know, it's all corporate synergy. But I can't be totally cynical about this soundtrack boom, because if you watch a lot of TV, you know that there's nothing like a really bad soundtrack to make you appreciate a good one. There have been times when I've muted "NYPD Blue" rather than be assaulted by Mike Post's clumsy faux hip-hop and heavy metal instrumentals. And you know that overwrought blue-eyed soul diva who's supposed to be Ally McBeal's inner voice? She's all wrong. Ally McBeal's inner voice is Lisa Loeb.

Oddly, though, the show with the best music on TV, NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," has yet to release a soundtrack album. Unlike most shows, "Homicide" uses its pop, rock and blues songs (everything from Los Lobos to the Shirelles to Tom Waits) in a truly meaningful way -- the music advances the story, sets the tone, shows you what's inside the characters' heads. While there's no official "Homicide" soundtrack, you can still make your own with the aid of the song, artist and album lists for each episode that are archived on the show's official Web site -- complete with buy buttons.

The latest TV soundtrack releases, "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Touched by an Angel" and "The Rugrats Movie," which features the theme music from the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series, all pretty much capture the spirit of their shows -- or, in the case of "Touched by an Angel," the spirituality.

The middle-of-the-road millennialism of CBS's highest-rated drama comes through in a gauzy collection of songs "inspired" by the adventures of the beautiful angel Monica (Roma Downey) and her no-nonsense handler (Della Reese), who go from town to town uplifting troubled souls. The artists on "Touched by an Angel: The Album" include Wynonna, Celine Dion, Keb' Mo', Shawn Colvin, Bob Dylan (nostalgic, perhaps, for his "Gotta Serve Somebody" days), Amy Grant, Martina McBride, The Kinleys, Faith Hill and Deana Carter. With a few idiosyncratic exceptions (Dylan's alternative take of "Dignity," Wynonna's thundering Aretha moves on "You Were Loved"), the soundtrack floats by in a haze of insipid country-pop and generic spiritual imagery. Some words that appear in nearly every song: dreams, night, light, believe, road, peace, help, hope, hand, sky, mountain, sun, weight, colors, river, heart, eyes and, last but not least, God.

The Dylan name also pops up on the "Rugrats" soundtrack -- that's Jakob, goo-gooing as a newborn in a hospital nursery on "This World is Something New to Me," along with fellow babies Beck, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, Lisa Loeb, B Real, Gordon Gano and the B-52's. If you've never seen "Rugrats," you may wonder what these rockers are doing on a soundtrack album for a kids' movie. But if you're a fan of the subversive 'toon about a bunch of malaprop-prone talking babies (they only talk to each other, though) and their endearing struggle to figure out their yuppie parents' world, the soundtrack's musical lineup makes perfect sense. The Rugrats are clever naifs; Beck, Gano, Anderson, the B-52's and Devo, who perform the old novelty song "Witch Doctor" here, can certainly relate.

The show's gentle, tinkly instrumental theme song, composed by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, appears on the movie soundtrack as the tape-looped foundation for "Take Me There," a sweet Teddy Riley/Blackstreet rap about the desire to return to the "wonders and wishes" of childhood. The rest of the tracks are original numbers written and sung from the perspective of the show's characters, from head Rugrat Tommy Pickles (Loeb's "All Day") to the babies' TV hero, the Godzilla-like Reptar (Busta Rhymes' "On Your Marks! Get Set! Go!"). By far, the soundtrack's weirdest marriage of songwriter and character is "I Throw My Toys Around," Elvis Costello and wife Cait O'Riordan's song for the babies' cruel, selfish, 3-year-old nemesis, Angelica. Sung by No Doubt's Gwen Stefani in a slinky lower register, "I Throw My Toys Around" absolutely nails Angelica's calculating bad-girl persona. With Costello's unsentimental backing vocals and a creepy fun-house organ evoking the dark side of childhood, "I Throw My Toys Around" could be the lost track from Costello's "Brutal Youth."

The actresses who provide the Rugrats' sometimes painfully squeaky voices all get to sing on the soundtrack, too, and -- trust me -- you don't want to be wearing headphones for Cheryl Chase (Angelica) and Cree Summer's (Susie) "A Baby is a Gift From a Bob," or E.G. Daily's (Tommy) "Dil-a-Bye."

Here's a strange coincidence: Blondie's 1978 hit "One Way or Another" appears on both the "Rugrats" soundtrack (sung by Chase as Angelica) and the "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" soundtrack (sung by Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina). What does it all mean -- besides the fact that Debbie Harry is getting some hard-earned royalties? Well, it means that the producers of both albums are in their 40s and have a fondness for late '70s-early '80s new wave and rock icons. The "Sabrina" soundtrack also features covers of the Waitresses' "I Know What Boys Like" (by Pure Sugar), the Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra" (by Sugar Ray) and Walter Egan's awesome, all-but-forgotten 1978 single "Magnet and Steel" (by Matthew Sweet with Lindsey Buckingham). Since nobody over the age of 12 watches ABC's "Sabrina," I don't know who this soundtrack is aimed at, but if it inspires kids to raid their parents' album collection, it can't be all bad.

Some of the songs were obviously chosen for their references to sorcery (hence, "Abracadabra" and Ben Folds Five's trippy "Kate"). Some were obviously chosen for their magical ability to part a schoolgirl from her allowance (the Spice Girls' previously unreleased "Walk of Life," the Backstreet Boys' remixed "Hey, Mr. DJ"). Most of the tracks, though, are sugar and spice, girl-positive numbers with roots in both the girl group sound of the '60s and the new wavers who revered and subverted it. Chirpy, fizzy alternapop like Robyn's "Show Me Love," the Murmurs' "Smash" (produced by Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go's), Aqua's "Doctor Jones," Britney Spears' "Soda Pop" and the Cardigans' previously unreleased "Blah, Blah, Blah" couldn't be more appropriate for a show about the heady transforming power of female adolescence.

There's one problem, though. "Sabrina" star Melissa Joan Hart sounds way too wholesome on "One Way or Another"; when she shouts, "I'll trick ya!" she's more sitcom witch than Bowery punkette. On the other hand, Chase's Angelica is all brassy snarl and desire on her version of the song. She will not be denied. Even with rewritten lyrics about trying to retrieve her beloved Cynthia doll from the babies who stole her, this tough-as-nails, pig-tailed blonde does Debbie Harry proud.
SALON | Nov. 9, 1998

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M U S I C__I N F O R M A T I O N

Various Artists: "Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Album" (Geffen)
Various Artists: "Touched by an Angel: The Album" (550 Music/Sony Soundtracks)
Various Artists: "The Rugrats Movie: Music from the Motion Picture" (Interscope)

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S H O W__I N F O R M A T I O N

"Rugrats" (7:30 p.m. weeknights, Nickelodeon)
"Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (9 p.m. Fridays, ABC)
"Touched by an Angel" (8 p.m. Sundays, CBS)
"Homicide: Life on the Street" (10 p.m. Fridays, NBC)