The Score: Mapping the Music and Style of 'Reality Bites'
Welcome to the winter of our discontent.
Welcome to the winter of our discontent.
And I say that seriously. Everything is Reality Bites’ fault. Our obsession with the 90s is Reality Bites’ fault, our over-romanticization of 90s music is Reality Bites’ fault, our crushes on dark and brooding Ethan Hawke-like characters is Reality Bites fault. But let’s just hold hands and admit this to ourselves right now: if that’s what it takes to love Reality Bites, then fine. We’re in it.
The first time I saw Reality Bites I was 25 and it was 2010, and I was on a Lelaina-like quest for happiness and/or a career. So when Troy told her that the only thing she had to be was herself, I believed his message was aimed at me specifically. (Despite, of course, it being delivered by a character that hated himself as much as he hated women. For real, people: watch the way Troy talks to Lelaina and there will be no doubt in your mind that he is an MRA waiting to blossom.)
Well, the message wasn’t meant for me (because I’m not a movie character, so I had to decide to work hard), but I finally got why everyone gives so many fucks about Reality Bites. These characters are flawed, they’re forced to live up to unrealistic economic expectations, and they mirror our current professional landscape, where the jobs our parents have don’t necessarily exist anymore.
Also: the clothes and the soundtrack are the actual shit. The 90s “comeback” (it never left and we all know it) is now a permanent go-to on the fashion landscape (see: F/W collections by the Gap, Calvin Klein’s denim campaign, and even the velvet this season via Jason Wu), while younger generations are tapping into the brilliance of Hole (whose Live Through This turned 20 this year) and Sleater-Kinney (whose discography is being reissued by Sub Pop on Tuesday), which prove just how influential the decade is.
So we’re going to get rightfully enthusiastic about Reality Bites—provided you’re ready to accept some harsh truths. First, Troy is the worst. Second, it’s okay to dislike Lelaina. (Lelaina is all of us at our most naval-gazing. We weren’t easy to hang out with either.) Third, Vickie and Sammy are the real heroes. If we could be blessed with a movie about Vickie and Sammy as adults, my work would be done.
But we haven’t been, so it never will be. So we must embark on the ups and downs about four characters surviving a very frustrating time. (Both in decade, and in age.) Grab your Big Gulps, Evian, and 7-11 cuisine: there’s no fucking around in the Maxi Pad.
As mentioned, I have a theory that we’re not supposed to root for anyone in Reality Bites aside from Vickie and Sammy. But in terms of her being the “official protagonist,” Lelaina Pierce is... okay. She’s fine. She’s trying! She’s 23 and confused about where life is supposed to lead her, and if you’re past 23 and you watch this, you will inevitably think, “Ugh, I remember those years” and then kindly apologize to anyone you antagonized, once thinking you were better.
See? Just hanging out. We don’t even meet her through her own anthem or instrumentals – she makes her speech following the Graduation Song (played in front of hundreds), and then we hear Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” which is played for everybody. Dare I say it? Lelaina is kind of – pauses for dramatic effect – beige. But not nearly as beige as...
This fucking guy. Look at him! What an asshole! LOOK AT HIM HOLDING THAT ACOUSTIC GUITAR. Guys, we would hate Troy if we met him in real life. Holy shit, can you imagine being stuck talking to him at a party? “Literature!” he would say, his mouth full of soy cutlets. “I’m interesting!”
Dude deserves a generic song and a generic shirt and a generic favourite instrument. I love how he can’t wait to dismiss everybody else’s graduation successes because he went down a different path. (JK we would be enemies if our paths were to meet.) Be more like these guys, son:
VICKIE AND SAMMY
My best friends. Also, the only two characters in this movie—minus Michael, who we will meet soon, I promise—with a distinct sense of style. I mean, Vickie totally looks like a demon here (thank you, 1994 VHS quality), but at least we can all appreciate her choice to wear florals with yellow tights and platform shoes.
Anyway, after the most uncomfortable dinner scene in the world (ESTABLISHED: Lelaina’s parents are divorced), we swoop in on what 20-something life was like in 1994. Lelaina (in more neutrals) has to make coffee filters out of toilet paper.
Troy, the Antichrist, emerges from a one-night stand, then, seconds after he can’t physically see his former sexual partner, he tosses her phone number away ON HER FUCKING LAWN. Who is this person? At what point were we supposed to cheer for Troy? “Fuck you, Tammy!” He thought and/or thinks to himself. “Enjoy feeling shitty the next time you go outside!”
Anyway, we then discover that Vickie is keeping a running tally of all the men she’s hooked up with, and that her room is cooler than anything most of us will ever know.
Later, we will learn she’s gone in for an HIV test like a responsible sexually active person. Seriously, she rules so hard. Go Vicky.
So all of this happens as World Party’s “When You Come Back To Me” plays, which is either indicative of how each and every spurned lover in this movie feels, or that the soundtrack belongs to a movie about Generation X. Either way, I will take it, and I will run with it, and I will attempt to make more theories. Let the record state that there is also not nearly enough Steve Zahn.
Meanwhile, all of these broads look fly as fuck.
I am the one in the middle who is very stoked.
Less stoked, however, is Lelaina who h-a-t-e-s her job, and for good reason because her boss is verbally abusive and upsetting to be around. Maybe this is why Lelaina still doesn’t have a song of her own and is wearing more shades of her favorite color family (neutrals).
Heaven. And I can tell it’s heaven because I am currently wearing freakish amounts of Gap (I am Dressing Normal, and I am fine with it), and also because Crowded House’s “Locked Out” is playing, cementing my theory that this soundtrack is one of the best of the nineties and that Vickie and Steve get all the best songs.
Gap is where Vickie works, by the way, and where Lelaina does some of her best judging.
What the hell, man? Vickie is a total boss (the literal one), and anybody worth knowing has worked retail. Maybe, instead of Lelaina, Vickie is all of us. Because damn it, Lelaina, some of us were associate managers and/or keyholders, too.
Give me that cross earring.
Anyway, the plot thickens: while leaving the Gap (singing to Squeeze’s “Tempted”), Vickie and Lelaina find themselves in an argument with this man, named MICHAEL.
Michael is very nice, but supposed to be very square (as per his Bluetooth head device). However, dude was listening to rap music at the time of his accident, and he is wearing a very identical blazer to Lelaina’s, so how square can he really be. Spoiler alert: pretty square. But the theory thickens! Through Michael, we will learn that Lelaina represents all 20-something lost people—she is like Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. She has no musical taste of her own, no real style of her own, and no real ambitions of her own. She is led, and she does not lead. And we’ve all been there, so we can’t really judge. (Though we will. Because we’ve earned it.)
Also, how dare she be able to so perfectly pull off a vest:
But while the gang hangs back and smokes pot inside of their home (PSA: I think we all know that house smells terrible, you guys), Lelaina gets a phone call from Michael, interrupting “Turnip Farm” by Dinosaur Jr., and inspiring seething jealousy within Troy, who can’t even enjoy dancing to “My Sharona” in a 7-11.
This just in: he is a monster undeserving of his cool friends.
Michael, however, is less of one. Which maybe explains why Lelaina begins wearing colors that can float in and out of either life. With her friends, she’s beige and neutral. With Michael, she’s channeling the businesswoman special, mainly via the colour black.
But she can’t fake it at home. There, in the car parked in her driveway, she sheds her cardigan, chugs a Big Gulp and welcomes the sounds of Big Mountain’s “Baby I Love Your Way.”
Could it be? Does Lelaina only get music if in close proximity to her existing circle? I mean, it makes sense: songs have never played during scenes with just Michael, nor have they played exclusively for Lelaina. In this case, Troy comes home just in time to . . . see them boning in the suburbs? Bizarre. Not to throw stones, but who hooks up in the backseat of a convertible in a suburban driveway? This is a neighborhood, idiots. Nobody signed up to see blazers a-strew and Big Gulps unfinished. (Especially to the sounds of Big Mountain.) Maybe that’s why Troy throws a hissy fit like a baby-bitch and makes Lelaina feel bad for being alive and making choices like a thinking human.
Probably not. (As established: he is the worst.) But I digress. Let’s focus on Vickie’s bold representation of Gap’s Fall 2014 campaign (she, like me, is Dressing Normal), and how Beyoncé’s new bangs were obviously inspired by hers.
Vickie is our queen.
But then: silence. As Lelaina overhears her boss talking shit about her, we see her wearing the official colors of Teams Troy and of Michael, and we wonder why she chose to linger and listen when any of us would’ve assumed said boss had been talking shit for way longer than just an afternoon. Maybe, since she has to use toilet paper for coffee filters, she should just be grateful to have a job? Maybe she should be looking for another job if she’s so unhappy? Maybe it’s hard for me not to reach into that movie and say, “The world owes you nothing! Just work really hard and be kind and don’t be lazy!” Or more specifically, “Take the fucking job Vickie offered you, loser!”
Or maybe it’s really obvious that I’m that older lady in the morning show audience. Either way, I am correct.
Interesting, though: Sammy and Vickie are dressed in similar tones and in similar lighting, while Troy and Lelaina are dressed in similar tones and standing in similar shadows. Also, “How dare I bring you down to my level” is one of my favorite movie quotes to have ever been said or written because it is exactly what Lelaina needed to hear.
UGH. Even the music doesn’t want to be around them because no song is playing. WE GET IT, TROY. You’re tortured and cultured and everything a guy who carries an acoustic guitar around wants to be. Also, no music has happened since Vickie angrily blared “Burn Baby Burn” post Lelania’s Gap rejection, and not even Lelaina’s perfectly mid-nineties neutrals can help.
Anyway, this is my favorite show in the world:
And what I’ve been asking Noisey to rebrand their site as for years.
So as Lelaina’s jobless (by choice) life begins spiraling out of control, she begins dressing bleaker, darker, and in direct contrast to Vickie and Steve who are trying to live like actual citizens in apartments that don’t have outstanding rent.
However, a day or so later, and Lelaina finds herself at various gas stations, committing credit card fraud. Clad in red (color!), she’s accompanied by a song (not listed on the soundtrack), which marks the very first time she acts for herself. Are her actions illegal? Incredibly. But at least it’s something other than calling telephone psychics, the 1994 equivalent to spending too much money on the Kim Kardashian Hollywood app (not that I’m admitting to anything).
Let’s also please bow our heads for three wonderful outfits, and whatever Troy’s wearing. You just know he was the guy behind the #NotAllMen hashtag. I sleep well knowing he and I would never be friends. (Troy, that is. I’m sure Ethan Hawke is quite lovely.)
Here’s the opposite of lovely. What is your damage, Troy?
And Lelaina, for the record, does not look like a doily.
She’s dressed in her best, ready for Lenny Kravitz’s “Spinning Around Over You” to play at the debut of her reality series (which it does – though I think we all know that’s for effect versus having a concrete meaning), and wearing neutrals in a style Troy does not approve of.
Well, fuck Troy. Also, fuck Michael for using her work without her permission. And fuck both their boring outfits. Also, fuck the fact that Lelaina and Troy have sex without any type of pop culture-approved soundtrack. (Remember Cruel Intentions, you guys? Remember “Colorblind”?) And fuck Troy’s shitty band and their shitty song (“I’m Nuthin’”) sung by Ethan Hawke himself.
Jesus. Trumped only by his “screw you” performance directed at Lelaina when Michael shows up in a leather jacket like a cool.
And in that moment, I swear, we were all Michael.
Unfortunately, we never see Michael again. And we almost never see Troy again, because he fucks off when his Dad dies, and we’re left with Lelaina and U2’s “All I Want Is You” (a song you are allowed to like, I promise, because it is perfect for this scene it is perfect goddamn it) (I am crying) and this wonderful shot.
And that’s it. Troy comes back, and I think they’re going to move in together? We don’t even get to say goodbye to Vickie. We barely see Sammy. We know that Michael based a show around Lelaina’s life, and that it all ends with Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” which is the only thing more beautiful than the brachiosaurus scene in Jurassic Park. We know that Lelaina is taking more risks with color, but still abides by Troy’s dress code. We also know she never got her own fuckin song.
Honestly. What the hell is this?
How is that a way to end the movie? Like, I get it, but what about... everything else? Are we just going to assume that after Troy verbally and emotionally abused Lelaina, that they have a wonderful and perfect relationship is? (They won’t. If they got married, they are 100% divorced.) But I’ll tell you what it is: art imitating life. (We all know relationships like this, and it’s hard for us all.)
Ultimatley, I guess you could say, reality...(puts on sunglasses) bites. (YEAAAAAAAH)
Anne T. Donahue is a comedic expert on all things 90s. Follow her on Twitter - @annetdonahue.