Some things are best appreciated by the very young: Clove cigarettes. Wine coolers. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Others are emblematic of a certain time or place, and regardless of their quality, will always have a faint stink of that era on them, like somebody who showers but only wears that weird crystal deodorant from the health food store. The soundtrack to 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio as Shakespeare’s most tragic horny teens, is both of these things. It was also, appropriately enough, nearly ubiquitous during my seventh-grade year, a puberty that happened to coincide with similar growing pains in popular music.
In the year that alt-rock died and the Spice Girls were born, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack represented a shift in thinking, away from the heroin-addled authenticity of grunge and toward the ecstasy-fueled celebration of artificiality that would encase the remainder of the decade like a goldfish in a pair of clear acrylic platform shoes. In the film, director Baz Luhrmann expresses this change in dazzling quick cuts and garish visuals alongside angst-ridden monologuing from the young leads. Sonically, that juxtaposition plays out in a mixture of bands riding the alt-rock wave back to the shore and glossy pop and disco, all underlaid with a trip-top beat.
Unlike many movie soundtracks of the era, several of the songs on Romeo + Juliet (and one song that appears in the movie, but not on the soundtrack, but we’ll get to that later) were commissioned specially for the film, which could be why this seemingly awkward mix of musical styles, by and large, works. Or maybe it’s just that teenagers, especially teenagers in love, are perpetually being flung around inside the Tilt-A-Whirl of their own emotions, and only a similarly herky-jerky mix of songs can capture that feeling. Either way, Butthole Surfers and Kym Mazelle shouldn’t work together, but they do. As a mixtape, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack was phenomenally successful, ultimately going triple platinum.
The No. 1 Billboard Top 40 hit “Lovefool” by Swedish band The Cardigans—who have since switched from subtly devastating bubblegum pop to a more conventionally devastating country sound—helped sell a big chunk of those CDs. In the film, “Lovefool” is excerpted for purely romantic ends. But when you listen to the song as a whole, Nina Persson’s pathetic plea of “Love me, love me / Pretend that you love me” in the chorus subverts the bouncy optimism of the beat. (Similarly, Kym Mazelle’s seemingly triumphant disco number “Young Hearts Run Free,” which features prominently in the film’s ballroom scene, is actually about being saddled with a man who cheats, but who you can’t dump because you have kids together.)
Anyway, aside from “Lovefool,” the key to the movie’s (and, by extension, the album’s) appeal among my peer group was DiCaprio, already claiming his place on bedroom walls and in faintly Country Apple-scented lockers the year before Titanic made him king of the teen heartthrobs. Leo wasn’t really my thing—at the time I was more into John Henson, then host of what was then called Talk Soup, because he had a skunk stripe in his hair and was funny. Leo was definitely not funny, but he had floppy hair, so he would do. But I didn’t really feel toward either of them the way Garbage singer Shirley Manson feels in the soundtrack album opener, the aggressively sexual “#1 Crush.”
To my 12-year-old ears, the moaning at the beginning of the song was as embarrassing as it was intriguing; it was only the year before that I was so embarrassed I left the room during the (very tame) sex scene in Forrest Gump. This sounded like a song from a movie I would furtively linger on while surfing channels late at night. A movie where people wore high heels and masks and behaved in ways that directly violated my junior high school’s conduct policy. Like “Lovefool,” the lyrics of “#1 Crush” reveal that the song is more sinister than it initially lets on—Manson’s explicitly stated that it’s about stalking—but in 1996, all I knew was that she sure sounded hungry for something. This one was played on repeat on a Discman.
Compared to that, the second track, Everclear’s “Local God,” made sense. Calling a pop culture figure (okay, “Romeo,” close enough) “stupid” over radio-ready modern-rock guitars? I had been taping songs off of alternative radio for, like, two years at this point, so I was well aware of the Gen X tendency toward sneering irony, even in a blatantly commercial effort like this one. You might think that this was one of the songs written specifically for Luhrmann’s film, but that was just a lucky coincidence—the song was pulled from the Australian version of the band’s album So Much For The Afterglow, also host to such perfectly okay hits as “I Will Buy You A New Life” and “Father Of Mine.”
As middle-of-the-road as it is, though, “Local God” is far less skippable than Irish singer-songwriter Mundy’s “To You I Bestow,” which further down the track list, has the unfortunate honor of coming before Radiohead’s slinky, intriguing “Talk Show Host.” As The A.V. Club’s Josh Modell has pointed out, at this point in their career Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and the gang had yet to establish themselves as the genre-bending geniuses fawning rock critics would hail them as by the end of the decade. It was Romeo + Juliet that ended up launching them to those new creative heights: Initially, the band recorded the teen-death dirge “Exit Music (For A Film)” for the movie, but the song—which Yorke credits as the beginning of a new creative era for Radiohead—proved so inspirational that it fit in perfectly on the band’s next album, OK Computer.
For that reason, “Exit Music (For A Film)” appears over the end credits, but isn’t on the soundtrack CD. The arrangement worked out well for all parties, though, as Radiohead got to keep “Exit Music” for its (first) magnum opus, and Romeo + Juliet—both the soundtrack and the film—got “Talk Show Host,” a B side from the “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” single whose spare opening guitar line became the entrance music for DiCaprio’s Romeo. “Talk Show Host” rides a trip-hop inspired drum-machine groove, acknowledging that the future of music was going to be electronic, not least for Radiohead. Also presaging the band’s future, “Talk Show Host” is an early example of the belligerent narrator who would recur in songs like Amnesiac’s “You And Whose Army?” and Hail To The Thief’s “Punchup At A Wedding,” challenging anyone within hitting distance to a fight.
Speaking of belligerent narrators: Radiohead may have still been proving itself, but by 1996, Butthole Surfers had been around for a while. It was the first time I had heard of them, but I was a 12-year-old girl in Ohio, and 12 is probably the minimum age at which sheltered Midwestern preteens should be made aware of the existence of Gibby Haynes. Those cooler and older than me, however, had known about the band for more than a decade before they wrote and recorded “Whatever (I Had a Dream)” for Romeo + Juliet.
Coming the same year as the left-field success of “Pepper,” the blatantly commercial “Whatever (I Had a Dream)” expresses contempt for the music-industry machine while simultaneously milking it for cash. Opening with a snippet of dialogue from Juliet’s hot-headed cousin Tybalt, “Whatever” finds Haynes amusing himself with goofy wordplay, shout-outs to John Wayne and Bette Davis, and of course references to pills and shaking your ass over those oh-so-trendy languid drum-machine beats. And if you didn’t know the Surfers were being sarcastic by the end of the song, Haynes makes it obvious by signing off with, “That’s it, that’s my rhyme, take it to the streets, beeyotch.” Hopefully he smiles every time a residual check comes in.
Butthole Surfers were cool enough to pull something like that off, but the look is way less flattering on one-hit wonders One Inch Punch—named not for the Bruce Lee move, but from band member Justin Warfield wandering the aisles at his local Staples. (Get it? Like a hole punch?) The band’s contribution, the industrial-ish “Pretty Piece Of Flesh,” doesn’t fully commit to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult-style darkness, hedging its bets with a Beastie Boys-style rap breakdown and generally coming off as very much of its time. Perhaps not coincidentally, One Inch Punch broke up after the release of its one and only album, Tao Of The One Inch Punch, in 1996. Warfield went on to join the also very-of-its-time darkwave group She Wants Revenge, which scored a chart hit in the early ’00s with “Tear You Apart.” Now One Inch Punch lives on mainly through Luhrmann’s movie, where Romeo’s Montague clique blurts out an a capella rendition of the chorus every once in a while as they joyride around Verona Beach.
Immediately following that bitter medicine is the pure light of Des’ree’s “Kissing You,” one of the few untainted love songs on the album. If you weren’t super into the ’90s British R&B scene, you’d be forgiven for confusing Des’ree with her more famous counterpart, Sade, though her sound is less quiet storm and more piano ballad. “Kissing You” was the last big single of Des’ree’s relatively short—she also did “You Gotta Be”—musical career; she hasn’t released any new music since 2003 and has rarely appeared in public since then, emerging only to sue Beyoncé for an unauthorized cover of “Kissing You” in 2007. Des’ree actually appears in Romeo + Juliet, singing for a crowd of partygoers as the doomed lovers meet at a ball for the first time. (You know, the fish tank bit?) Compared to the alluring-yet-terrifying sexuality of some of the other songs, “Kissing You” sounded a lot more like what my 12-year-old idea of love actually was—a kiss as an end unto itself, and not the gateway to something deeper and scarier.
The remainder of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack is made up of filler, songs excerpted in the film in insignificant ways that don’t become any more significant when you hear them in full. There’s Swedish jazz singer Stina Nordenstam fulfilling the obligatory 1996 Björk quotient with the breathy “Little Star”; former Irish post-punk bandleader and Bono’s BFF Gavin Friday with “Angel,” which doesn’t sound like post-punk or U2 at all; and The Wannadies with “You And Me Song,” whose power-pop chorus was the only part of the song to make it into the film.
Mixed in with these minor contributions is “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” from then 14-year-old Quindon Tarver, who, though his career seemed to be going well—that’s him in the white robe beckoning Madonna in her “Like A Prayer” video—suddenly disappeared from the music scene shortly after Romeo + Juliet. (He later appeared as a contestant on American Idol in the ’00s.) The song itself is a cover of a dance track from Zimbabwean singer Rozalla; Luhrmann would repurpose the sample for his 1999 spoken-word oddity “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” which briefly rivaled Green Day’s “Time Of Your Life” as a commencement song:
What should have appeared on Romeo + Juliet was Tarver’s cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” which appears briefly in the film and eventually became a chart hit in its own right in Australia. That omission was corrected on 1997’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: Music From The Motion Picture, Volume 2, a rare soundtrack sequel album that featured remixes and snippets of dialogue mixed in with the film’s orchestral score. Despite blatantly pandering to starry-eyed teenagers with a close-up and an extreme close-up of Danes and DiCaprio (who, by all accounts, couldn’t stand each other in real life) kissing on the cover, by 1997 the moment had passed, and the Romeo + Juliet sequel album failed to perform as well as its predecessor.
Before long, DiCaprio had moved on to Titanic, Danes had moved on to diminishing returns in a series of indie movies, and paperback copies of Shakespeare’s immortal romantic classic went back to having boring old paintings on the cover. Luhrmann would continue in his splashy, big-budget attempts to make the classics hip, though his hip-hop-driven soundtrack to 2013’s The Great Gatsby failed to latch on in the way either the Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge! soundtracks did.
A lot changed in the music industry in the interim: Moulin Rouge! debuted the same year as the iPod, the device that would render the idea of buying a ready-made mixtape CD obsolete. By the time The Great Gatsby came out, we had Spotify, which allowed budding music lovers to sample new bands without the aid of any professional arbiters of hip. And it’s debatable how successful those studio tastemakers were with Romeo + Juliet, anyway—aside from Radiohead, for whom the experience coincided with a new period of musical exploration, appearing on the soundtrack didn’t seem to affect any of the artists’ careers in any lasting way. The bands that were doing well continued to do so: Garbage remained popular, as it was before Romeo + Juliet, and “Whatever” was just a small part of Butthole Surfers’ unexpected mid-’90s mainstream success. Meanwhile, The Cardigans would never have another hit as big as “Lovefool,” and Des’ree, Quindon Tarver, and One Inch Punch all dropped off the musical map.
In the end, Romeo + Juliet was just a brief moment in time, as short-lived as the romance between its doomed protagonists. In my mind, it’s even shorter than that: It can all be boiled down to a single afternoon, lying on my neighbor’s bed as she went on and on about whatever boy at school she was in love with that week as “Lovefool” bumped away on a crappy CD boombox. It would keep bumping away all afternoon, until her metalhead brother came storming out of his room, yelled at the two of us to “turn that shit off,” and stormed back into his room, slamming the door so hard that his Beavis And Butt-Head poster came loose and Cornholio gently swayed from side to side as the poster hung by one corner. My neighbor and I stared momentarily at each other, shocked, then decided to go upstairs and try to find some kids our age (who, looking back, were probably never actually kids our age) to chat with on AIM. That, for me, was 1996.
Purchase the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack here, which helps support The A.V. Club.