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Rock, Role Models and '10 Things I Hate About You'

How the cult 1999 teen movie formed the basis of my musical awakening.

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Aug 23 2017, 9:18am

Image via YouTube

This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along when necessary, thanks.

In 1979, Cheap Trick released the single "I Want You To Want Me." It is objective fact, though, that the song did not reach its full potential until 20 years later, when a band called Letters to Cleo played it on the roof of a school in Tacoma, Washington. This performance, filmed aerially, provided the backdrop to the final credits of 10 Things I Hate About You, the 1999 teen movie now beloved as a cult classic.

Though they're not the song's originators, Letters to Cleo do "I Want You to Want Me" right. When I listen back, Cheap Trick's version seems lacklustre by comparison, its form never quite matching the exuberance of the emotion expressed by its lyrics. Letters to Cleo, on the other hand, tap into the song's core feeling – namely a burning desire for your crush to like you back – adding a bright, pop-punky feel to the riffs and a faster tempo, with frontwoman Kay Hanley's voice commanding the action, alternately a cat's purr and an urgent wail.

Letters to Cleo's "I Want You To Want Me" was probably the first rock song that I really loved (perhaps in conjunction with "Sk8r Boi," which definitely counts, thanks). After I first watched 10 Things I Hate About You aged eight or nine – suck it, '12' age rating – it stuck in my head for weeks. When I was a little older, it was one of the first songs I downloaded to return to later on my iPod mini. I think films are really powerful channels for music, and the song has stayed with me throughout my life for the same reasons it first caught my attention: it's essentially a traditionally structured pop song with a fire under its arse, and it features a woman rocking out as if her very being depended on it.

But Kay Hanley, on the roof of that Tacoma school, isn't the only reason that 10 Things I Hate About You seems to have directed my growth as a music fan: it teems with positive girl role models, both musical and otherwise. I remember first seeing Kat Stratford – the smart, sardonic, Sylvia Plath-loving riot grrrl immortalised by Julia Stiles – and feeling like I was setting eyes on everything I hoped I'd be when I got older. From the very beginning of the film, Kat is marked out via her music choices: as she drives into her first shot, her car's speakers vibrate with the distinctly feminine rage of Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," drowning out the neighbouring vehicle's Barenaked Ladies dance party.

I mean, yeah, for much of the film Kat's vibe is distinctly "I'm not like other girls!!!". Specifically, she's framed that way in comparison to her more stereotypically "girly" sister Bianca – though in its defence, 10 Things does actually subvert that good girl/bad girl binary by showing the cutesy, bratty Bianca as a dickhead-punching badass in the end. But seeing the heroine of a movie defined by her love of "angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion" was kind of incendiary for my tiny self, checked Claire's Accessories sweatband clinging to my wrist. In fact, probably one of the reasons I grew up loving rock music is because 10 Things (and, to be really real, Avril Lavigne) opened it up to me.

On a number of occasions throughout the film, Kat is seen at a concert – a Letters to Cleo show, obviously – listening to, or playing music in the way that I always imagined I might, too, when I grew up to be the hallowed, holy age of 18, and could also dance sweatily with my cool friends at gigs while wearing a weird choker (years later, the reality turned out to be more of a 'getting punched in the nose by men at hardcore shows' vibe). And then there's Hanley herself, who actually appears in the film on a couple more occasions. The most memorable is the prom scene (!!), where she pops up to perform "Cruel to Be Kind" with the ska band (??) playing at the function especially for Kat, at the behest of Heath Ledger's Patrick. The track is pop-rock in a similar vein to their version of "I Want You To Want Me," and it's another one that has always stayed with me (in fact, I heard it in between bands at a show recently and enjoyed hearing it far more than anything else that night).

This performance of "Cruel to Be Kind" was also kind of a formative moment for me because as the real life Kay sings the song to the fictional Kat, a transaction happens: rock music is being given by one woman to another. Seeing that in action made the idea that music is something that can just exist between women – that actually doesn't have to involve men at all – click for me, and I think that's always why I've had a special affinity for female pop and rock stars. It feels like they're speaking directly to me, in the same way that Kay sings to Kat, holding her hand.

It's probably quite strange to think of a film as one of the most important musical experiences of your life, but when I think about 10 Things I Hate About You, that's basically what it is. I didn't know when I sat down in front of the TV to watch the DVD copy that my mom had brought home that what I was about to see would change my life – how could I have? – but it did, and it's a big part of why I am who I am, and for me at least, that's a cool thing to be able to pinpoint. Thanks Kat, thanks Kay. And, I guess, thanks to Cheap Trick, too – four dudes from Rockford, Illinois who, bizarrely, formed the basis of the musical odyssey made by a little girl from Birmingham, England.

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