Mapping the Music and Style in 'Empire Records'
Remember when working in a record store was the coolest job in the world ever?
In the days before the internet, before streaming and Spotify and Soundcloud, the coolest place in the world was the independent record shop. Rows and rows of shiny LPs, sparkling crystal CD cases, plus members of staff to big style crush on. Saturdays were spent shuffling slowly around the linoleum, thumbing through album after album, the slender wad of bills growing increasingly damp in your sweaty hand. If you were in a band you would go to the record shop to listen to other bands for free, sharing headphones with the rest of the teenagers in your area. If you weren't in a band you'd go there to dream about what it would be like to be in a band, or just peacock your carefully put together outfit which indicated whatever musical tribe you belonged to.
But back to the staff. You had to be a very special kind of person to work in a record store. Maybe you were the guy who knew everything about every band ever, key example—Jack Black in High Fidelity. You would find it a personal insult if someone didn't own Blonde On Blonde, you relished the opportunity to correct someone when they quoted a lyric wrong or messed up release dates for the third EP by Your Favorite Band. Possibly you were just someone who loved music. You couldn't get enough, your enthusiasm knew no bounds. Everything about it excited you, you wanted to be a part of it in any way—even just standing next to a Gin Blossoms vinyl made you feel alive and purposeful. Or perhaps you were like Gina and Corey in Empire Records. Yes, you're really into bands, yeah you like being in that world, but mostly you're just there because you know it's seriously fun to work in a place where you can listen to music all day and there are loads of angsty babes strolling around.
When Empire Records was released in 1995 it gave suburban lame-os like me the chance to see what it would actually be like to work in a record shop (I gave my resumé to loads of places when I was a teen but they never gave me a job. Boohoo). It was pure grunge glamor, there was misunderstandings and miscommunications, but also kilts and hash brownies. And the soundtrack—woah boy—the soundtrack. I was introduced to so many bands thanks to Empire Records. Bands whose albums I bought, but then probably only listened to the one song I knew from movie. I'm happy to say it's a film that stands up to repeat viewing almost twenty years later, especially since—did you get the memo?—90s style in music and fashion is back. Still. Majorly. Anyway, let's jump in. Mandatory listening while reading below.
While Cher and Dionne were making over a clueless New Yorker with Botticelli curls, Corey (that's the babelicious Liv Tyler) and her best friend Gina (Renée Zellweger) were driving to their day job at a downtown record shop.
Dionne ran from her pristine fairytale mansion in a kilt and PVC hat… while Corey ran from her white mini-mansion in a kilt and bare feet.
Clueless vs Empire Records.
Only to be picked up by her blonde best friend in her wagon/jeep type car. But that's where the similarities end. For where Dionne was a confident, self-assured teenage girl drowning in affluence, Corey is a sweet, but highly-strung genius. She is also tragically obsessed with the Worst Pop Star Of All Time, Rex Manning.
Luckily she has her best friend Gina to bring her crashing down to the sidewalk, which she does by licking Corey's Rex Manning vinyl. #Realfriendship
Both Corey and Gina have wells of darkness deep within their souls. Corey is a pill-popping speed freak—her trembling ingestion scored perfectly by Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You"—who desperately wants to control everything. Meanwhile Gina is terrified of turning into her mother, an aging, miserable beauty who never did anything with her life.
So Gina acts out by dancing in nothing but an apron as "Thorn In My Side" by Quicksand reverberates through the work speakers.
Style-wise, though (other than the apron), both these girls have it sorted. Their fashion rules are:
1. Kilts and/or A-Line skirts.
2. A cropped knit on top. Fluffy jumper for Corey, cardigan for Gina.
3. A simple necklace.
4. Matte lipstick.
5. Black loosely laced DM boots or clogs.
Sadly, over the course of this incredibly eventful day, things go slightly awry for this best-friends-forever pair. The first terrible thing to happen is when Corey announces this to Rex:
Groan. NO COREY. And then, after making sure she's the one who gets to prepare the office for his arrival, she throws herself at the awful purple crooner. By the way, Corey's “I'm finally going to get to seduce that smarmy bouffant-ed creep I've been in love with since a kid” song of choice is "Snakeface" by Throwing Muses. A big fat recommended read is Kristin Hersh's autobiography Rat Girl. It's tremendous.
Anyway, finally, the moment Corey has been waiting for arrives .(I remember being outraged by these panties when I was a kid watching this for the first time, but now I think they're pretty cool).
Of course Rex proves himself to be the awful human being we all knew he was, unzipping his fly and quipping, “Rock and roll.” Which, thankfully breaks the spell he holds on Corey, and she is free to run away from him and fall in love with someone far more worthy. Although, not for a while. Before she does that she has to insult her best friend.
BURN! Gina retaliates by doing the one thing she knows she can do, but Corey can't.
Rex Manning. They have sex while perched on a photocopier. And post-coitus, when all the staff have realized what's going on and are waiting outside the door, Rex emerges and nails his coffin of douchebaggery firmly shut:
Corey completely freaks out, screaming and kicking wildly, tipped over the edge when Gina starts throwing her speed on the floor. Her outrage is soundtracked perfectly by "Powershack" by Fitz Of Depression. What's that? You want to know a bit more about Fitz Of Depression? Well, let me oblige. Fitz Of Depression were one of those awesome 90s hardcore/punk bands who mixed in the same circles as Nirvana and Bikini Kill. In fact all three bands played together in 1991 for a benefit to help their lead singer and guitarist Mikey Dees pay off fines for traffic violations. There's a documentary about it called Hype! somewhere in the ether if you're interested.
Anyway, Corey and Gina. Don't worry friends, the ladies find their way back into each other's love. Helped, no doubt, by music (maybe).
Lucas is, like, so deep. He's the lost boy of Empire Records. He tries to help out his boss, mentor and replacement daddy Joe by taking the shop's earnings to Vegas so he can win enough cash to save it from being bought by corporate swine Music Town. He's so full of good feelings as he rides his motorbike to Sin City (of course he has a motorbike) with The Ape Hangers “I Don't Want To Live Today” thundering in his ears. Can you dig?
But of course he loses everything and hence the film is given its main narrative trajectory which all the characters have to work together to fix. Lucas loves his philosophical quotes and is always chatting intense stuff about living without regrets and shit. Please put on “The Honeymoon Is Over” by Cruel Sea and stare intently at the screengrab below for at least three minutes.
Thanks. Hey, remember those yellow-hued sunglasses everyone wore in the 90s? I wish I didn't.
Ugh Lucas that's sooooooo Hackers.
Lucas seems to have based his look on Lou Reed, but also with a twist of French poet—hence the black turtleneck—and he loves his sunglasses so much he wears them in badly-lit rooms at night. Be careful when you stand up, buddy, you might bash your knee on the table.
This look was also appropriated by the Jonathan Fire*Eater's singer Stewart Lupton. Ahh, those guys. They were signed to David Geffen’s DreamWorks label, modeled for Calvin Klein, then completely self-destructed three years later amid whispers of Stew's heroin addiction (three JF*Es went on to form The Walkmen, of course). Big shame, they were great. Still, his look (and Lou's) lived on in many of the bands kicking around NYC in the early 2000s (hello The Strokes, The Realistics, The Mooney Suzuki).
When Joe realizes Lucas's grave gambling gaffe he demands that he stay on the sofa for the rest of the day so he can't get into any more trouble. So Lucas sits there, sunglasses off, like a petulant child who ate too much cake and vomited all over their grandma.
“I WAS ONLY TRYING TO HELP.”
Although he can't resist jumping off the sofa to mime the lyrics to AC/DC's “If You Want Blood,” which Joe likes to drum along to in order to release tension. It's like yoga for hard-bitten, worn-down record store owners.
Joe of course gets seriously pissed when he catches his wayward employee rockin' out to his therapy, but it's okay, they kiss and make up. Or rather weirdly mirror each other's movements as film shorthand to show how close the characters are.
Please put on the “Hey Joe” cover by the Dirt Clods —GREAT NAME GUYS—and let your emotions rise to the surface.
Ah, Mark, he was always my favorite. A sweetheart who's prone to starting moshpits to Suicidal Tendencies when it's far too early, and eating hash brownies while thinking he's being devoured by a giant monster. All as Daniel Johnston warbles beautifully in the background. He's also really good at screaming. If Mark were to make you a mixtape, and he probably would, since his best friend Eddie is always telling him:
It would almost definitely include something from Dark Side Of The Moon.
However the soundtrack would probably also include some of the bands he and Eddie discuss intensely over the end credits of the film, including...
Mark: That guy, whatever his name is. What’s his name? That dude with the shaved head? The liar guy?
Eddie: Henry Rollins?
Mark: Yes, the guy with tattoos all over.
Eddie: I admit, Henry Rollins is sort of a puss.
Mark: Yeah, he’s a total puss. His lyrics suck.
Eddie: But you can’t go and put down the Misfits. They had everything it took to be a great punk band. They had good bass lines and strong guitar chords… even though they were only three.
Mark: They didn’t even compare to Primus. They were that old school stuff.
Eddie: Why get into Primus? Primus sucks.
Mark: Primus is the new stuff. Out with the old, in with the new.
So weird to think of Primus being “the new stuff.”
Mark's style tips seem to be:
1. Dyed orange hair with a short fringe.
2. Worn out band t-shirt.
3. Silver skater chain.
4. Baggy grey cord trousers.
5. Topped off with an expression that says I'm stoned and/or completely clueless.
6. And a love of dancing to "Money" by Flying Lizards with your best friend.
When I was younger this was my favorite scene in the movie, I had a huge crush on Ethan Embry, and thought he was the sweetest thing ever. I listened to this song over and over again, dreaming of him. Sigh. He's very funny on Twitter by the way.
On the day the spotlight is thrown onto Empire Records, Debra isn't very happy. In fact the first thing Debra does when she arrives at work is shave her head, which is a brave move by anyone's standards.
This is obviously a huge cry for help, but sadly not everyone at the shop is understanding of Deb's new look. Gina especially is confused by this follicle re-think.
Don't worry, Deb has the perfect retort, “Well you get smarter the shorter your skirts get.” ZING.
Then Deb pulls back her sleeves to show this:
Oh crap, now you guys feel really bad. The poster girl for inner turmoil and non-conformity, Debra is a live action Daria. Her style is pretty functional. She shrugs on a hoodie, cropped grey vest, big flares. But it's all pulled together with her sassy flair and love of outrageous statements delivered in a flat monotone.
(This is when the gang give Debra a funeral to show her they would miss her if she died. It's a long story).
Musically Debra is everything that was awesome about American 90s alt rock. When she shaves her head "Free" by The Matinis is on the stereo. It suits her perfectly with its sweet female vocals, gutsy roughed-up guitars, and the overwhelming feeling of melancholy Oh, and mystical elements in the lyrics. BTW, The Matinis comprises Joey "Pixies" Santiago and his wife Linda Mallari, and they're still going.
She's also totally in tune (sorry) with "Sorry" by Sybil Vane, one of those Liz Fraser-esque singers who's happy to really mine those emotional depths. The chorus of “I'm sorry” repeated over and over again in a progressively strained voice totally matches the angst Debra displays. Also, cool name Sybs *nods smugly at The Picture of Dorian Grey'reference.* Don't worry though, Debs is going to be fine. She finds a new friend in Corey, the pair bonding over their mutual cries for help.
Then Debra pees in front of her.
Ah, A.J.: the epitome of the 90s grunge heartthrob. He has floppy hair, the huge brown eyes, unrequited desire, and the love of art. Yep, A.J. has it all. Stylistically he goes for a white vest, dog-eared flannel (or is that burlap?), old cardigan combo. An all-time classic look. Ooh, nice pinky ring friend. You steal that from your Mom?
He also uses this rather lovely pocket watch to keep track of the time, which is very important as he's planning on telling Corey he loves her at a very specific time. He's so quirky!
Then he draws a picture of Corey and glues some dimes to the floor. I told you he was arty!
A.J.'s soundtrack would HAVE to be "Romeo and Juliet" by Dire Straits. He IS a love struck Romeo and, man, he's about to crap it up by making a huge romantic declaration to a girl who has no idea how he feels. And he almost does it by saying she makes him feel like when he has a really hot bath. Face, meet my palm, you two live together now. Understandably, his love confession is not well received, especially since Corey has her own things to admit.
Oh goodness, that grimace says it all. But no worries, it all works out in the end. The most aesthetically perfect couple of 90s grunge are finally together. Well, after Corey pushes A.J. over, of course.
They kiss in the moonlight as Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson croons in the background.
Then all the beautiful people at Empire Records dance on the roof to "This Is The Day" by The The. Represent for London! (The lead singer of The The, Matt Johnson is very active in trying to keep Shoreditch, east London, protected from the sprawl of the banking area close by). The The have had 18 members in 34 years, with Matt being the only constant. He's worked with members of Wire, is signed to 4AD, owns a book publishing company and seems like a pretty awesome human. A superb way to end the film.
Wait, should we talk about Rex Manning's hair and style?
Jesus, let's not.
The Score: Clueless