“Perfect. Well, not quite perfect.”
On the false rooftop of a bar in Wilmington, North Carolina, the young cast of 1995 teen romp Empire Records played out the film’s final scene. The script called on one of the characters to speak the above aside to camera before the movie’s straggling ends were tied: the boy was going to art college, was getting the girl. Preceding this, a suicidal character found some comfort and a promiscuous character some direction in the guise of singing in a band on the same false first-storey rooftop, which had been built to stand in for the roof of the film’s eponymous (and fictional) record store. The store had its own happy ending: a fund-raising party saved it from the threat of takeover by a major chain, the likes of which had in reality been swallowing ma-and-pa record stores all over America for a decade. Empire Records would live another day. All that was left to do was dance.
Fade in: the metallic wheeze of an accordion; a sparky snare beat grows stronger. A song that could produce the sentimental pang caused by Simple Minds and The Psychedelic Furs in John Hughes’ 1980s box office hits. A song that would confirm the claim soon made by Warner Bros., the distributor of Empire Records, that the film was a cross between The Breakfast Club and the previous year’s moderate “Gen X” success, Reality Bites. Fade in: The The’s ‘This Is the Day,’ taken from the group’s 1983 album Soul Mining.
It was an uncomfortable match. Though the song’s chorus looks hopefully onwards with the assurance that “this is the day your life will surely change,” the rest of the song portrays the forgotten dreams of an ageing you, a sleepless you trapped in a domestic cage, perhaps a wealthy you who has forsaken younger hopes for money. “But the side of you they’ll never see is when you’re left alone with the memories that hold your life together like glue,” sings Matt Johnson, hinting at a buried sadness, a hidden loss. The “surely” in the chorus, then, becomes the kicker that also accidentally added prescience to Empire Records in divining the future of music retail. You want to change your fate but you’re powerless to do so.
What the film did speak to in its final scene, accidentally or not, is the connection Johnson, with The The and in particular with Soul Mining, makes between the personal and the political. Just as the inner lives of the film’s teens were bound to the life of the store and were therefore at odds with aggressive free-market capitalism, so too were the inner lives Johnson investigated deeply at odds with Margaret Thatcher’s burgeoning vision of Britain. By travelling inwards in an attempt to uncover some personal truth—about himself and about a universal “you”—Johnson both draws the fate of the emotional self to the power of the institution and pits the soul’s vulnerabilities against savage political doggedness.
The full essay can be read in the May 2013 issue of The Lifted Brow.
A PDF of the full essay is here: TLB17 Adam Curley (high res)