Music Review: The Juno Soundtrack

It’s no big surprise around here that whenever I’m working on another writing assignment, the blog all but goes dark. I can’t post everything I’m working on, but thought I’d post my Juno paper. I have to cut 3/4 of a page to get it within the limit, but here it is pre-cut. Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and intend to, stop right here. If you have seen it (and/or listened to the soundtrack), please tell me your thoughts as well.
I tend to like movie soundtracks. It could be the mix of songs, and artists all coming together to tell a story that is altogether different from what usually gets told on individual artists’ albums, or it could be that with soundtracks I’m simply exposed to new groups than to whom I’ve been previously exposed. While I’ve found in the past I could listen to a movie soundtrack before seeing the movie and remain appreciative of both as individual pieces of art that compliment each other, with the soundtrack for Juno, I was not able to do that.

I listened to Juno. Then I listened again. And again. And finally I realized I would have to see the movie to really understand the music. I went the next week to see it, and was blown away by the vulnerability portrayed on the screen. Juno told an amazing story of pain and hope in a way that many Christians miss in their tendencies to stamp a Jesus label on everything. The movie helped the music make sense.

The story of Juno, as told by both the movie and the music, is of a girl who hovers on the line of self-confidence; she’s “out to prove she’s got nothing to prove.” It is heart-wrenching to watch as her world that had been so hard to live—that she worked so hard to make livable for herself—crush in on her soul because of her own semi over-confident choices. Barry Louis Polisar’s All I Want Is You makes for an interesting opening song in both the movie and on the album because it helps us understand that while Juno has given voice to not really caring for Paulie in the way a real lover would—that she has just had sex with him out of novelty—something else is communicated by the music. The song has an early-Americana sound with the folksy singing, harmonica, and banjo playing and gives these deep heart needs a very casual voice with words so casually presented: If I was a flower growing wild and free/All I’d want is you to be is my sweet honey bee / And if I was a tree growing tall and green / All I’d want is you to shade me and be my leaves. Each verse is similarly light hearted, leading up to the chorus of: All I want is you, will you be my bride? / Take me by the hand and stand by my side / All I want is you, will you stay with me? / Hold me in your arms and sway me like the sea.

Why would an opening song about a teenager who finds herself pregnant and tells her friends and family it was just a goofy mistake be one that, at its heart, longs for a committed love? Juno’s family models commitment to her, but it hasn’t always been that way. It seems she still reels from the rejection of her mother leaving her when she was young. And, as these themes come out in the movie, she questions whether people can make it work. While she sees her dad in a committed relationship, it is with his second wife. The family who plans to adopt her baby falls apart right in front of her. Juno experiences for us the fear of “what if it happens to me?” I think it is so easy for Christians to get married, follow the commands that have been drilled into their heads, save sex for after the wedding, and expect life to cooperate with the rules they have been keeping. I wonder if it ever does? That longing to be loved—to be told someone wants you for their whole life—exists in everyone. And yet, committed love is hard and none of us are immune to selfishness, pain, and past hard experiences that heavily influence future relating. When one is newly in love, those things are easy to overlook, but fast forward a few years and one gets this, “Oh crap. Is this happening to me? To me?” And it is a scary place to be. Juno names that fear for us and forces us to see it as the possibility that really exists in everyone. Eventually we all get to that place and have to figure out what to do with it, where to go, and what our commitments really mean.

The songs by The Moldy Peaches, and Kimya Dawson (also of The Moldy Peaches) were the ones I struggled the most to appreciate, mostly due to styling. The songs are simply written and simply sung, and the performance of them makes them seem like just anyone can record their journal entries, whether they can actually sing or not. This seems to be part of that “emo” trend these days that I’ve struggled to appreciate. It helped to read some of the ravings of their fan-base. The people who love Kimya and The Moldy Peaches are not necessarily looking for great music, but authenticity in the music writers (though the fact that they’ve found that authenticity in Kimya and The Moldy Peaches seems to mean they now consider authenticity to be really great music). She writes from her heart and lays it all out there which makes for the kind of stimulating fear that comes from emotional exposure.

In the song Tire Swing, Kimya sings, “I took the Polaroid down in my room / I’m pretty sure you have a new girlfriend / It’s not as if I don’t like you / It just makes me sad whenever I see it.” She puts her finger on the very pulse of self-protection and names both the lie and the truth. I’ve been in that same spot – didn’t think “he” liked me, so I “didn’t” like him either, yet I did—and while I wanted to prove I didn’t, my heart was sick at the thought of him with anyone else. It made me sad whenever I saw it. Who names this kind of vulnerability? The singing is so raw, so hard to listen to, you almost want to run away, but the truth she sings of is so alluring you can’t help but listen and see yourself in what she says.

The song Anyone Else But You, is kind of the capstone song for the movie. It is played in its entirety by The Moldy Peaches, but is also sung by the two main characters, Juno and Paulie, at the end and captures the essence of their almost naïve maturity.

When the song is played by Juno and Paulie during the movie, you are kind of just coming up for air; all of the hard stuff is done. The baby has been born and handed over to the new mother. Paulie recognizes his role in the relationship. Juno’s parents have rallied around her. Whew. It’s done. And yet, there is still this unvoiced need for assurance of their place with and for each other. All the lines in this song have these little truths they are trying to figure out, followed by one big truth they are becoming more and more confident in, the fact that, to them, they think there is no one better than the other, “I don’t see what anyone can see, in anyone else / But you.”
I loved the line, “Here is the church and here is the steeple / We sure are cute for two ugly people,” almost as if she is saying, look – here’s organized religion – everything we’ve been taught in a really rigid box. We don’t fit that box. In fact, we’re pretty screwed up. But we can live with that, as long as we can live with that together. As a Christian who continues to struggle with sin, and continues to see myself as one screwed up being, I can listen to this and say, “yes!” We may be screwed up, but there is hope for us.

I hear in Kimya a bit of what her raving fans are talking about. She understands life and isn’t afraid to voice it. It is sometimes brash and never polished, but that’s the way she sees life, so it makes sense that it comes out that way in her music.

The Juno soundtrack was the selection I chose for the CD I would probably like. In truth, I didn’t really like it that much in the beginning, but after writing about it and thinking more deeply about the words and the intent behind them, the soundtrack has grown on me, in particular, Kimya Dawson and The Moldy Peaches. I’m not sure I will go out and buy any individual albums from them, but I won’t be so quick to dismiss their style in the future either.