Thirty-five years ago, Americans believed a man could fly. Today, they believe a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphic tree can save the universe, and they can accomplish this while listening to songs that ruled the airwaves when Superman was in production.
Guardians of the Galaxy has already become one of 2014’s biggest blockbusters despite being based on Marvel characters almost no one was familiar with except hardcore comics fans. (FYI, a combination of terrific actors, a few stirring emotional moments, and a brilliantly funny script go a long way.) In my opinion, what is even more unexpected than the film’s success is that of its soundtrack. Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the mixtape Peter Quill/Star-Lord constantly listens to as he flies through space, is now in its second week at number one on the Billboard charts. It’s worth exploring both why this success is unusual and why this soundtrack in particular has struck such a chord with people.
K-Tel on Acid
Awesome Mix Vol. 1 consists of twelve songs recorded between 1967 (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) and 1979 (Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”). The result is an album that almost feels like a representative compilation of a decade in music, similar to the albums K-Tel and Time-Life plug on television. I use the term “almost” because Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is so stylistically diverse as to be mind-bending, especially when one considers how the songs are used in the film. It runs the gamut from Motown to power-pop to blues-rock to punk to the uncategorizable art rock of 10cc.
What the tracks have in common is that most were major hit singles that remain in heavy rotation on oldies stations, with two exceptions, David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” from the Ziggy Stardust album and the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” that are now considered classic rock records. These are not obscurities Quentin Tarantino found in the special bins of vinyl shops. These are perennial pop songs one could have easily assembled into a mixtape of one’s own. The A.V. Club made this point in their story on the album, further adding that in light of the continued, consistent success of the Now series, “most CD sales are made to people who don’t know how to use iTunes.”
The difference between this soundtrack album and Now, however, is that Now CDs represent their title, collecting the biggest pop hits of the past few months. People flock to them because the tracks are immediately familiar to them thanks to current pop culture saturation. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 strikes into comparatively unknown territory: mention the Raspberries, Blue Swede, and Redbone to the average teenager and odds are you’ll be met with confusion.
A hypothesis that people in their fifties or sixties, who have more purchasing power and probably would NOT search iTunes for new bands, are buying the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy as part sounds plausible at first, yet falls apart when one considers that barely any of them could tell you what the movie is, let alone who’s in it, and this would probably not result in them rushing to acquire the soundtrack.
However, they may be part of the reason our generation is buying it.
Living in the Past
My mother and father raised me on a steady diet of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Carole King, and other icons of their formative years. They were more into albums than AM radio: the only song on Awesome Mix Vol. 1 in their record collections is “Moonage Daydream” because my teenage dad loved glam-era Bowie. But they were familiar with these songs—my mom will always get up and dance to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and I distinctly remember my dad singing along to Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” on car trips.
Similarly, in the movie, the Awesome Mix is a gift given to Peter by his dying mother. When the Guardians pull off a prison break, Peter risks their success to retrieve the tape from a guard; as he explains to Gamora, this music is his one remaining connection to his mother. The theme of losing families and building new ones is highly prevalent in Guardians, culminating right before the climactic battle as they formulate their plan to defeat the villainous Ronan the Accuser. Initially comedic, the mood changes swiftly as Peter tells his new friends that they have all lost much but now have a chance to gain more.
In our lives, we lose much. We move away, change jobs, go through break-ups, and see everyone from pets to family pass away. We also lose time: the time of childhood and innocence and a different way of seeing the world. When I hear Awesome Mix Vol. 1, the music takes me back to a more wondrous age when my parents first shared these songs with me, and when the youthful fantasy of Guardians of the Galaxy seemed all the more potent.
Awesome Mix Vol. 1 helps me regain memories of days gone by as much as it does for Peter, and I suspect it does for so many others, making its success completely understandable.