'Clueless' at 20: Revisiting the Soundtrack With a Classic Track-by-Track Review
When historians look back at ‘90s films for insights into life during the Clinton years, they won’t find many clues in Clueless. Released on July 19 1995, director Amy Heckerling’s kinda-sorta retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma shares little in common with topical, hard-hitting films like Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Kids (1995). While it offers a few lessons about friendship, drugs, sex, and romance between stepsiblings, Clueless is mostly a love letter to adolescence—one of the few teen movies that actually make you want to be a teenager.
Ditto the Clueless soundtrack, released 20 years ago, on July 18, 1995. Curated by Heckerling and music supervisor Karyn Rachtman—who also worked on the Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights soundtracks, among others—the 14-song collection is overwhelmingly sunny and upbeat, much like the portrait of Southern California presented in the film. It leans heavy on poppy alt-rock, but there’s also punky ska and West Coast rap—essential sounds for any era-defining mixtape.
Interestingly, while the Clueless soundtrack now plays into pop culture’s love of all things ‘90s, the song selection reveals the ‘70s and ‘80s nostalgia that Heckerling and her cohorts must have been feeling. Four of the best tunes are remakes of alternative classics from those decades, and even the new songs—especially the ones by Supergrass and Lightning Seeds—have a decidedly retro feel.
Read on for our track-by-track take on this, a perennial party album best enjoyed via CD—preferably while playing “suck and blow” with the booklet.
The Muffs, “Kids In America”: Asked by their label to contribute a song and given a choice of three covers, Cali pop-punkers the Muffs picked this New Wave youth rallying cry purely because it was the catchiest of the bunch. By their own admission, they felt no real connection to the tune—a hit for Kim Wilde in 1981—and yet they bring the bratty bubblegum rage, like they know they’re getting away with something. With her scratchy-sweet voice, singer Kim Shattuck steals the show. If she’s faking teen rebellion, she does it like a champ.
Cracker, “Shake Some Action”: Here’s hoping Cracker’s reverent reading of this Flamin’ Groovies chestnut led some young listeners to seek out the 1976 original. That one’s superior, but singer David Lowery and the gang do right by the jangle-punk gem—about as timeless a rock ‘n’ roll song as anyone’s ever written.
Counting Crows, “The Ghost In You”: The Psychedelic Furs specialized in achingly romantic, gorgeously gloomy New Wave, so shaggy alt-Americana dudes Counting Crows weren’t the most obvious candidates to cover this 1984 single. And yet this stripped-down version—Adam Duritz doing his drama-king thing over a stark acoustic backing—sounds sufficiently haunting.
Luscious Jackson, “Here”: No, that’s not Letters to Cleo and Deee-lite teaming up for a cover of Madonna’s “Holiday.” In 1995, Luscious Jackson was signed to Grand Royal, and “Here” marries alternative rock and cool NYC dance sounds in a way that surely made label bosses the Beastie Boys proud.
World Party, “All the Young Dudes”: Written by David Bowie and made famous by Mott the Hoople, “Dudes,” like “Kids In America,” is a generational anthem from a time gone by. What was good for ‘70s glamsters proves good for the GenXers, as World Party keeps the freaky faith with a faithful rendition.
Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees (acoustic version)”: The version of “Fake Plastic Trees” from Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, is a grand orch-rock statement about searching for identity in a phony world. This live acoustic take gives the tune an organic feel that underscores Thom Yorke’s lyrics.
Lightning Seeds, “Change”: With lines like, “Put your foot down and drive / oh you’re such a pretty thing,” this swirly Britpop bumper could’ve been written especially for the Clueless soundtrack. Alas, it doesn’t score the scene where Dionne has her near-fatal driving lesson on the freeway, but the carefree feel makes it a perfect tune for a set of characters basically joyriding through life.
Smoking Popes, “Need You Around”: Chicago crooner-punks Smoking Popes imagine the song Morrissey would have sung had he played the Copa with the Rat Pack in 1963. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?
Beastie Boys, “Mullet Head”: Just for giggles, the Beasties steer things back to the East Coast with this stellar B-side, a silly punk-rock takedown of bridge-and-tunnel bros and their ridiculous haircuts. Thanks to the Beasties, the words “Joey Buttafuoco” will live on forever.
Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “Where’d You Go?”: Prior to Clueless, there was some precedent for genre-pushing ska groups turning up in teen flicks. Oingo Boingo plays a party scene in Back to School, and Molly Ringwald dances to the Specials in Sixteen Candles. Still, if Beantown’s baddest, plaid-est brass band was worried about tarnishing its punk cred by appearing on the Clueless soundtrack and in the film, the fears were unnecessary. The Bosstones fared well onscreen, and with its peppy verses, crunchy choruses, and growling Dicky Barrett vocals, “Where’d You Go?” is a fantastic early single that listeners might otherwise have missed.
Coolio, “Rollin’ With My Homies”: As the crow flies, Beverly Hills is about 25 miles form Compton, the hard-knock ‘hood Coolio reps on this track. But it might as well be another planet. “Homies” is all about taking a break from gangbanging (check those Crips references), hitting up a house party, and getting your swerve on. It’s a G-funk anthem not unlike Coolio’s better-known “Fantastic Voyage,” and in the classic “Val’ party” scene, its universal charms help a concussed Brittany Murphy get her groove back.
Supergrass, “Alright”: When you’re a teenager, if you’re doing things right, your heart beats in time with the plinking piano chords in this exuberant Britpop jam. Also, you approach each new experience with the wonder and joy that singer Gaz Coombes brings to his performance. It’s “Shake Some Action” for the Alicia Silverstone age.
Velocity Girl, “My Forgotten Favorite”: On this terrific piece of bittersweet ‘90s fuzz-pop, singer Sarah Shannon tries to wriggle out of romantic malaise that fits her like a snug cardigan. She just can’t shake her ex, but luckily, she’s got a wall of glorious guitar noise to prop herself up on.
Jill Sobule, “Supermodel”: Ostensibly a send-up of celebrity culture and superficial notions of beauty, this brisk rocker—like Clueless itself—winks as it sneers. Sobule didn’t write the track, but she did pen the “I didn’t eat yesterday…” part—the most scathing series of lines in an alt-rock novelty whose sarcasm doesn’t spoil the party.