We used to have a nasty word for musicians who made money: sell-outs.
The concept may now seem quaint, but in 2001, with the alt-rock era an increasingly tiny reflection in the music industry’s rear view mirror and studio-manufactured teenpop overhauling how stars were born, “authenticity” was still a vexed term.
And so, ironically and yet perfectly, one of the best albums of that year was the soundtrack to a satire of pop commodification that doubled as a way for some musicians to collect some corporate cash without sacrificing indie cred.
I’m talking about the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, and my praise sounds a lot less over-the-top than when I named the “band” my artist of the year right here in City Pages 19 years ago. Like the movie itself, the soundtrack has since become a cult fave—in 2017 it was reissued on vinyl and celebrated live by the musicians who made it, and now, as of last Friday, it’s finally streaming on Spotify.
Back when cool people and critics were debating the originality of the Strokes, I called Josie “the best pop-rock album of 1996” and meant it as the highest compliment. This compilation gathered a gaggle of talented songwriters whose pop moment seemed to have passed—Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, the Go-Gos’ Jane Wiedlin, that dog.’s Anna Waronker, Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner, Gigolo Aunts' Dave Gibbs, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz—and gave them a sandbox to play in.
The credits for Josie are hilarious: “You Don’t See Me” is credited to nine songwriters; “Come On” was the work of ten. The folks behind Josie were Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, the most distinctive R&B producer of the ’90s, and writer and director Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who’d already helmed a ’70s trash-culture spoof with A Very Brady Sequel and an old-millennial teen comedy with Can’t Hardly Wait. They saw the Pussycats as “an all-woman Blink-182.”
But the defining sound of the Josie soundtrack is the voice of Kay Hanley. With Letters to Cleo, Hanley had made fine indie pop albums during a decade that had plenty of fine indie pop albums. Voicing “Josie” as “Joan Jett’s bratty kid sister” (as I said at the time), she swerves from swagger to sweetness with an impressively inauthentic versatility.
The movie itself is a time capsule of a certain moment, when Rachael Leigh Cook was still the future of Hollywood, when Tara Reid was a promising young comic actress, when Rosario Dawson wasn’t yet dating Cory Booker. But Josie isn’t quite as clever as its soundtrack. Despite some great set pieces and one-liners (“If I could go back in time, I would want to meet Snoopy,” Reid’s sweet airhead Melody deadpans), the script’s conceit—pop music brainwashes teens—was sour and grouchy, in the tradition of Steve Allen forcing Elvis to sing to an actual hound dog, or Andy Rooney complaining about the holes in Kurt Cobain’s jeans.
In the end, Josie and the Pussycats was only an effective message against consumerism in that so few people paid to go see it. But how you saw the movie depended on your perspective: As an adult who appreciated the sonic wallop and vivacity of the earliest Max Martin megapop, I resented how the movie asked me to share its Gen X snideness. But as a teen, you might have welcomed how it invited you to set yourself apart from your shallow peers.
And it’s that younger generation of Josie fans who matter. In its 2017 oral history of the soundtrack, the Fader turned up a few significant fans: Mitski, Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, and Eva Hendricks of Charly Bliss all credit the Josie soundtrack as inspiring them to play music. Hendricks’ band even did a full Halloween set as the Pussycats. And so, a prefab soundtrack for a flop flick, credited to a fake cartoon band, played a role in fostering some of the best contemporary indie music. Pop culture’s funny that way.