An Emotional and Cultural History of the First Two 'American Pie' Soundtracks
For all its faults, the franchise assembled the optimum musical accompaniment to being young, dumb, and horny.
This article was originally published on Noisey UK.
In 2002, I had my first proper snog. I remember being sat atop a collapsable table in a youth center around the corner from my parents’ house. I remember there had been some sort of live music event with bands, one of which my snoggee had played guitar in (obviously). I remember we were wearing accidentally matching Nirvana hoodies—or if I don’t remember it I know that’s what we wearing thanks to someone capturing the moment, unsolicited, on a disposable camera—and I remember a Blink-182 song playing in the background. Alright, I might have made that last bit up—my memory isn't that lucid—but it may as well be true since the whole experience and my subsequent recollection of it is inextricably twinned with the teen movie franchise-cum-cultural-phenomenon, American Pie.
Now one of the highest grossing franchises of all time, the first two instalments of American Pie—released in 1999 and 2001 respectively—concerned themselves with the life and times of the ubiquitous, hormonally frenzied 18 year old high school boy and his potholed quest for third base. Kind of like Fast and Furious, had it been about shagging instead of drag racing. They announced the arrival of a new generation of American youth, who were defined by the mainstreaming of online pornography, skate culture, and concert tees with rhinestones. But American Pie isn’t just about boys and their boners, it’s also about turning point in music culture where alternative music (which was, incidentally, mostly about boys and their boners) transcended the garages it was birthed in and went global. American Pie is essentially a time capsule for the rise of pop punk, which toppled boy/girl bands as the dominant musical force de jour, soundtracking not only the first two films, but also the teenage lives of anyone coming of age around their release.
Featuring choice selections of songs you drank WKD [terrible bright blue alco-pop only sold in the UK] and heavy-petted to in your formative years—including but not limited to Blink-182, Sum 41, Sugar Ray, Goldfinger, Fenix TX, Green Day, Lit, and Weezer—the first two films were soundtracked largely by bands who had made their name selling punk’s anti-establishment stance back to itself. It worked, too. Blink-182 even make a cameo appearance in the first film as three of the many, many people watching the webcast of Jim literally blowing his first chance with Nadia by prematurely ejaculating. The turn of the century has a lot to answer for, but presenting Tom Delonge as anything more than a potty-mouthed Nick Carter with a Dickies sponsor and a lip piercing is one of its biggest tricks of confidence. By the early 00s, pop punk had welcomed every social stereotype into Loserville. The only thing that separated the hard-bodied sports kids from those who bought metal mag Kerrang! and wore a tie outside of school was the branding on their cargo shorts. American Pie is arguably the ultimate representation of the apex of that culture clash. It’s theme song: “Laid.”
If Judd Apatow’s seminal and short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks cornered the market on teen angst in '99, then American Pie was its loud, overbearing cousin whose version of an emotional outburst was humping the couch for bants. The characters of American Pie existed after the jump of a societal tipping point where sex became so readily viewable it was no longer taboo to talk about openly (but only in terms of masturbation, paranoid heterosexuality offset by lesbian fetishism, and MILF jokes). Having said that, people weren't quite ready for its original screenplay title: Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love.
The recreational beauty of American Pie is that each character (the men, mostly) were realistically inept. For every quietly experienced "This one time, in band camp..." story from Michelle there was a fumbling Jim moment, or Oz dropping some knowledge about women (“All you have to do is ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and stuff”), that seemed to more accurately reflect the plight of the millennial teen, scrambling clumsily with their sexuality in an insensitive climate of dick jokes and boob jobs. The same can be said of the soundtrack, most of which was at once emotionally relatable and regrettably churlish. But while the film’s politics and punchlines become more unwatchable with each passing anniversary, the music has crystalized itself as era-defining. Type “American Pie Soundtrack” into Twitter search and you’ll find daily declarations of love for it since the dawn of social media. There is even a slogan tee in existence that reads “the American Pie films have a quality soundtrack,” if that’s something you would ever want to drop $20 on.
The soundtrack, it has to be said, was equally butterfingered with its gender politics. From the mental undressing of The Offspring’s “Want You Bad,” to American Hi-Fi’s “Flavor of the Weak” lamenting the short-sightedness of a girl who can’t work out that her stoner-ass boyfriend is cheating on her, to Alien Ant Farm’s “Good (For A Woman),” which you don’t even need to look past the title of: the soundtrack was littered with bros who felt hard done by in spite of the world being built precisely around their needs and desires, performing what was essentially the musical version of Jason Biggs desperately jamming his dick in a hot pastry. So if anything, pop punk and the hetero-dude lens of American Pie made ideal bedfellows—but that’s not why the music continues to burn in the cultural consciousness.
From Sum 41’s anthemic “Fat Lip” to Blink-182’s lesser-celebrated “Every Time I Look For You,” the music for American Pie was carefully selected to mirror the trials and tribulations of being a teenager and learning to navigate relationships—both emotional and sexual, with both yourself and others—for the first time. The theme song may have been “Laid” by Mancunian alt-rock band James, but the track most people associate with it is Big Runga’s “Sway”—a sweet and unequivocal love song about infatuation that puts all of itself into one person, which everyone between the ages of 14 and 18 has made the innocent mistake of doing. The apex of the plot hung so much on the track it re-appeared on 2012’s American Reunion.
For the most part though, immaturity abounds - whether in the form of breakup anthems (Jettingham’s “Cheating”), post-sex rumor spreading (The Exit’s “Susan”), or doe-eyed Dawson’s Creek moments (Dishwalla’s “Find Your Way Back Home” and Angela Ammons’ “Always Getting Over You”). But there was also some relative realism there—sugarcoated by “Sway,” lamented on Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere,” slammed on Green Day’s “Scumbag,” and reeled off matter-of-factly through Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” (which, along with many other, appeared in the film but not on the official soundtrack, for whatever reason). It’s arguably in all it those earnest moments of confusion and naive optimism that its real strengths lie, but we remember American Pie’s 1 and 2 and all the bands who soundtracked them for simply being around and vocalizing what it felt like to struggle with being young, dumb, and horny—which, perhaps with the exception of the former, most of us still are.
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