The Spider-Man soundtracks are perhaps the most indicative products of this era, with their relentless reliance on whatever was sort of popular in the bleak wasteland of early and mid ’00s alterna-rock. When you think of Spider-Man do you think of Train, the Hives, Alien Ant Farm, Snow Patrol, Jet and Hoobastank? Probably not. Sam Raimi’s uneven, but occasionally brilliant, Spider-Man films were known for their bright, eye-popping visuals and a winking, mischievous sense of humor, but the soundtracks were heavy on dire anthems and bland ballads. Occasionally the soundtrack producers stumbled on a bit of serendipitous alchemy, like Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated” or Taking Back Sunday’s “This Photograph Is Proof (I Know You Know),” which are by no means great songs, but at least they feel like tracks the mopey, slightly emo Peter Parker would listen to.
Then there are the curious outliers of this era, but even those show a lack of vision. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen soundtrack reeked of self-importance and delusions of grandeur, grabbing a mish-mash of songs practically exploding with cultural baggage (“The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Hallelujah,” “The Sound Of Silence”) and trying to get an aesthetic contact high. The most striking moment on the soundtrack comes from glam mall-punk band My Chemical Romance with its sneering take on Bob Dylan’s already pretty sneering “Desolation Row.” Of course, not everyone agreed. A recent YouTube comment from user stealth0101 said, “fucking shitty cover. do yourself a favor and listen to the ACTUAL desolation row by my man bob dylan.” stealth0101′s man Bob Dylan has yet to leave a YouTube comment on the cover. At least the band took a chance.
The current state of the superhero soundtrack is inextricably linked with the state of the film soundtrack and the general decline of album sales. While there are still the occasional runaway success stories that create a false sense that the blockbuster soundtrack is still an economic force to be reckoned with—the success of the Twilight soundtracks, the current chart-topping albums for The Hunger Games and Think Like A Man—for the most part, looking at the current Billboard Soundtrack charts is like staring at an elephant graveyard filled with used O Brother, Where Art Thou? jewel cases. And that’s not a joke: O Brother sits pretty at No. 10 this week and has been on the charts for a staggering 402 weeks.
As record sales declined over the course of the decade, artists have increasingly relied on licensing deals as a source of income, but the biggest soundtrack-related success stories of the past few years mostly involve TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Glee providing huge digital download bumps. As noted by the Village Voice’s Chris Molanphy, the chart-ascendancy of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” can be partially attributed to the song’s appearance on SNL and its controversial Glee cover version. However, this type of coverage is a far cry from the inventive and collaborative soundtrack work of the ’90s. The only really interesting trend in soundtrack chart analysis is the rise of the video game soundtrack, and you can see that if you take a look at this week’s Billboard Soundtrack chart: Mass Effect 3 recently debuted at No. 11.
In his review of The Avengers, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott writes, “The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.” The same could be said of the superhero soundtrack, which has ended its great decline and now seems to be settling into a period of steady obsolescence. One might think that collaborative spirit of the Avengers would lead to some inspired or even garish mashup of talents: Why not Nicki Minaj and Sleigh Bells? Why not Death Grips and Skrillex? Or James Blake and G-Side? How about Liturgy and Tiësto?
These collaborations are only personal pipe-dreams. The Avengers movie will surely make enormous amounts of money, and the soundtrack may even prove to be a hit too. But for those of us who like our soundtracks odd, aggressive and eclectic, well, these are dark times. We need a hero, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a long wait.