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Song And Vision No. 6: "New Slang" and Garden State

Why do movies and pop songs work so well together, and how does the union of sound and vision affect how you see the image in the moment and hear the song for years afterward? These are some of the pretentiously worded questions A.V. Club writer Steven Hyden will be trying to answer in the semi-regular column "Song And Vision," where he'll be writing about famous (and maybe not-so famous) movie scenes set to pop songs and all the weird and wonderful things that happen when directors and singers collide. Find the first five "Song And Vision" columns here.

As anyone with a passing familiarity with Behind The Music will tell you, the message of every rags to riches story is the same: Fame never makes you happy, and will in fact 1) kill you, 2) nearly kill you, or 3) get you addicted to drugs, which leads to hitting rock bottom, rehab, and a reunion album that no one will believe is as good as you disingenuously insist that it is. In Nickelback’s 2007 hit “Rock Star,” Chad Kroeger warns that when you become famous, you go from hangin’ out at the Playboy Mansion and dressin’ your ass in the latest fashion one minute to having a drug dealer on speed dial the next. You know a truth must be self-evident when even fucking Nickelback knows it to be true.

But sometimes it’s not that dramatic. Sometimes the harsh light of fame reveals fractures in relationships that weren’t previously apparent. Jealousies are stoked, insecurities fanned. Playing in a band becomes a job instead of a passion, and your little group of buddies is all of a sudden a corporation, making the guy who writes the songs and has the most on-stage charisma the de-facto CEO. You end up with tons of money and no friends. In the words of Little Richard, you got what you wanted and lost what you had. 

This, in a nutshell, is what Garden State did to The Shins.

Being included on the Garden State soundtrack is arguably the single most important thing ever to happen to The Shins. (It’s not really that much of an argument.) When Natalie Portman handed her headphones to Zach Braff in a doctor’s waiting room, and promised that the softly jangling “New Slang” will “change your life,” the life that was changed belonged to Shins singer-songwriter James Mercer, who previously was famous only among fans of charmingly twee indie-pop. Garden State came out in 2004, the year after The Shins released its second and most universally acclaimed record, Chutes Too Narrow. But it would take the band another three years to drop its first post-Garden State album, Wincing The Night Away, in part because its tour commitments skyrocketed after the movie’s soundtrack became a dorm-room staple. Wincing The Night Away went on to debut at No. 2 on Billboard’s albums chart, the band’s highest chart position ever, and was later nominated for a Grammy. Reviews of the album in major publications like Entertainment Weekly, Village Voice, and the Los Angeles Times inevitably referred to The Shins as The Band Natalie Portman Said Would Change Your Life.

Even now, The Shins-Garden State connection is as strong as any famous song-movie pairing. They’re as tied together as Simon & Garfunkel and The Graduate, Celine Dion and Titanic, and Vanilla Ice and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze. When Pitchfork made its list of the top 500 songs of the 2000s, ranking “New Slang” No. 62 (between The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations” and Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”), writer Jayson Greene couldn’t resist mentioning Garden State five years after the movie came out (though he could restrain himself from mentioning it by name). “‘New Slang’ was the eerie, indelible little tune that nonchalantly breezed its way into 2000s-era indie rock's version of Reality Bites,” he wrote. “An agoraphobic bedroom-pop gem that shuffled its way onto a stage larger than anyone imagined possible, ‘New Slang’ paved the way for Norah, Nick, Juno, and the many lovely, odd, and grating mainstream/indie pairings to come.” I’m going out on a limb and assuming that Greene wasn’t complimenting Garden State when he compared it to Juno and Reality fucking Bites.

Speaking on a purely selfish, solipsistic level, my relationship with The Shins changed for the worse because of Garden State, and judging by Greene’s comments, I’m not alone on that. (Even if admitting this kind of makes you sound like a dick.) Now I can’t play “New Slang” without thinking of three scenes from Garden State that conjure a seething hatred in my belly normally reserved for improv comedy troupes and people who insist that Bob Dylan covered Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” They are:

  1. The scene where Natalie Portman says, “You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal? I make a noise or do something no one has ever done before, and then I can feel completely unique again.” Then she makes a noise and does something with her arms. Surprisingly, a sniper’s bullet doesn’t pierce her brain immediately afterward.
  2. The scene where Zach Braff is finally able to cry over mistakenly causing his mother’s paralysis as a child, and Portman saves his tear in a little jar. Inexplicably, a two-ton anvil doesn’t immediately fall from the sky and crush them into oblivion.
  3. The scene where Braff, Portman, and Peter Sarsgaard yell into a big gorge while standing in the rain like a bunch of catharsis-seeking fucking imbeciles.

There are dozens of examples where hearing a song in a movie enhanced my love of that song. But hearing “New Slang” in Garden State is the only instance I can think of where a movie irrevocably ruined a piece of music I loved.

It’s not that I don’t like “New Slang” anymore. I just never want to play it, because I can’t hear it now without thinking of something I can’t stand, which has introduced a heaping dose of cognitive dissonance into an experience that previously brought me tremendous pleasure. And it’s not like this is something that’s just in my head that I could force myself to just get over already. Because Garden State was a hit—and, worse, was regarded as a generational touchstone when it came out, though that rep thankfully has since faded—The Shins will be forever linked in the public consciousness to how Natalie Portman made Zach Braff “feel safe” once in a really shitty movie.

I’ve clearly put way too much thought into how a popular rom-com I first saw six years ago affected the sixth track from Oh! Inverted World. But nobody has ever had Garden State and what it did to/for The Shins more on his mind than Mercer, who in interviews promoting Wincing The Night Away appeared to be alternately elated and terrified by the rapidly expanding audience the film had afforded him. He told The Stranger that while he was making the record he “felt there were now more people who might be as interested as I was in... expanding the territory I dwell in.” But he later confessed to the L.A. Times that he had trouble sleeping after Garden State—which is referenced explicitly in the record’s title, though wrapped in a jokey Sam Cooke reference—because he felt "my whole world was moving around.” Mercer’s discomfort was even more apparent on the record itself; Wincing was drenched in flopsweat, the product of a man who had spent too much time in the studio trying to create music that once seemed breezy and effortless. It was as if Mercer could no longer pretend that he was making music just for himself, and was obsessed with living up to the ridiculously lofty claims of an imaginary nitwit invented by the guy from Scrubs. Wincing The Night Away ended up sounding simultaneously over-thought and inconsequential, “a lovely and well-executed album and—for the first time in the band's career—nothing more,” in the words of Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay. (Probably not coincidentally, Wincing The Night Away was easily the worst-rated Shins album by the web’s pre-imminent music taste-maker, ranking far below Oh! Inverted World’s 8.0 and Chutes Too Narrow’s 8.9.)

But the strain put on Mercer and The Shins by Garden State can be measured by more than arbitrary record scores. By 2009 The Shins were a band in name only; Mercer had sacked drummer Jesse Sandoval and keyboardist (and unfairly accused America’s Next Top Model abuser) Marty Crandall and replaced them with hired guns. He was also collaborating with Danger Mouse on the just-released Broken Bells album and acting in movies with the foxy ex-guitar player from Sleater-Kinney. "I started to have production ideas that I wanted to do that basically required some other people," Mercer explained to Pitchfork. "It's mainly about that. It's an aesthetic decision. It's kind of hard to talk about stuff like that, isn't it? Because I don't want to bum anybody out. I'm on good terms with those guys, I hope to maintain that."

Several months later Sandoval granted a truly bizarre interview to the Portland Mercury where he 1) candidly dispelled the notion that Mercer was on good terms with his ex-bandmates and 2) promoted his awesome new food cart. While Sandoval took pains to point out that Mercer wasn’t “a malicious person,” he paradoxically discussed the gory details of his unceremonious firing, which apparently was done over e-mail and with a minimum amount of tact by his clearly uncomfortable friend/soon-to-be-ex boss. “When I think about this, probably if James really had complete say in it, he would have killed the Shins,” Sandoval told the Mercury’s Ezra Ace Careaff. “I definitely believe management's like, ‘You know, you can't start over, you built a name, people recognize you—why would you want to start all over?’ And so, the only thing he had left to do was to really make a drastic change, and I know working in Los Angeles with a bunch of studio people, he was able to find himself in a position where he didn't have to do 15 takes. Even himself, he could have someone play his parts, and that's a romantic idea. I don't blame him for that.

“It definitely got more complicated,” Sandoval said, reflecting on how fame impacted the band. “That's the hard thing. A complex web of relationships form when you start working with your closest friends. We are all terrible communicators with each other. It's hard when your boss is one of your best friends. I'm pretty sure it's even harder to be the boss of your best friends.”

Reading Sandoval’s interview, I actually feel more sympathy for Mercer, who had obviously reached a point in his life where he either had to move on with his career or be a good friend. It was an impossible decision, because either way Mercer was going to lose. Where he is headed now seems all too clear—he’ll continue to work with “better” musicians and write “better” songs, but he’ll never again make records as beloved as the first two Shins albums. He’s well on his way to becoming just another dude who wrote that song from that movie people used to like. That’s the downside of a song changing your life—everything that comes afterward is sort of an anticlimax. Still, in the grand scheme of natural disasters, mass genocide, and socioeconomic injustice, this is ultimately meaningless. I won’t shed any tears for The Shins, and I sure as shit won’t be saving them in a little jar.