Listening In The Abyss: The Lasting Legacy Of The "Garden State" Soundtrack

    On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, and a long overdue release on vinyl, how one soundtrack kicked off the indie revolution and predicted the way we listen now.

    I remember life before the Garden State soundtrack. In 2004, before the release of Zach Braff's quirky cri de coeur, I spent the first few months of my freshman year hunched in a stodgy dorm-room desk nook, beneath the pouty eyes of an Eva Longoria poster, peering obsessively into the overpriced laptop I'd bought with my high school graduation money. I was cruising Amazon's music section mostly — Windows Media Player if I was desperate — searching for the seven words for which I had developed a borderline unhealthy obsession: "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…"

    I loved those words, written in pumpkin orange text in the middle of every Amazon product page, and the never-ending chain of new music served up by the web store's celebrated recommendation engine. I'd spend hours discovering albums this way, 30-second song preview after 30-second song preview, indebted to the well-documented shopping patterns of what I assumed were better-informed consumers than I.

    It was a magical time for music lovers like me who lacked an offline community to guide them. Back then I was only a couple of years into excited experimentation with genres other than the R&B and hip-hop on which I had been raised, and the internet provided an indispensable lifeline. In the middle of the last decade music blogs were ascendant, online forums flourished, and the algorithms of an emerging class of web services made connecting the dots between anything and everything increasingly effortless.

    When I first found myself listening to indie and alternative music that my friend group didn't care for, when I didn't know where the cool record stores were in town, and before digital streaming services had become ubiquitous, it was early recommendation engines like Amazon's that fed my curiosity.

    But then Garden State came along, released on July 28, with its official soundtrack following on Aug. 10. Featuring the likes of Coldplay, The Shins, and Iron & Wine, the soundtrack infamously distilled the inchoate essence of mid-aughts independent music into a 52-minute mixtape. Braff's hand-picked selections so thoroughly nailed the recurrent tropes of indie at the time — literate, heart-on-sleeve singer/songwriters, vaguely eclectic electronic bands — that the album unwittingly antagonized both critics of the scene and self-identified members, who recoiled at its existence like a person confronted with the sound of her own voice.

    And yet the role of the Garden State soundtrack as the ultimate recommendation engine, for green-eared listeners like myself and something like 1.5 million others, according to Nielsen SoundScan sales figures, cannot be overstated. It made careers for a majority of the featured artists, many of who were exposed to a wide audience for the first time. To an equal or greater extent than the film, the soundtrack became a totem for brooding kids on college and high school campuses around the country. And by pushing the aesthetics and signifiers of indie music closer to the mainstream, it helped catalyze a transition in American music culture in general.

    Before the Garden State soundtrack went platinum and won a 2005 Grammy award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album, "indie music" was still largely a word-of-mouth phenomenon spread via small venues, record stores, and select online communities, with a few noted exceptions (see Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse). After the success of Garden State, however, "indie music" would soon be found regularly in the top slot of the Billboard 200 (Death Cab for Cutie, Vampire Weekend), in ad campaigns for Fortune 50 companies like Apple and UPS, and in blockbuster film franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games. By creating a coherent, replicable template for what constitutes indie music, and by demonstrating its power to connect with young audiences in a hit movie, Braff didn't just help make the genre accessible, he helped make it inescapable.

    The soundtrack for Garden State, a film about going home again with unselfconscious, generation-defining ambitions, was the product of both pragmatic calculation and a specific cultural moment. As a 29-year-old first-time film director in 2003 and 2004, Braff had roots in a group of struggling artists in Los Angeles who were riding out the last spasms of youth.

    Cary Brothers, 30 at the time of Garden State's release, was a college friend of Braff's who moved to L.A. to work in film production before refashioning himself as a singer/songwriter. His sweet, plaintive guitar ballad, "Blue Eyes," plays during a scene in the film where Natalie Portman's quirky, epileptic "Sam" character has a barroom conversation with Braff's rudderless, overmedicated "Andrew" about the importance of not taking life too seriously.

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    "I was playing open mics and he was waiting tables and he was always talking about this movie that he was gonna write and direct one day," Brothers says. "We were both in this crew of people who would hang out at venues and see shows together and I remember going to see [soundtrack contributors] Remy Zero at Viper Room and Colin Hay at Largo. Zach was really smart about putting his feelers out to get as much music for the film as he possibly could."

    Unlike with most films, the music of Garden State was indivisible from the story itself. Braff famously included a rough version of the soundtrack with every copy of the script, and a reference to one band, The Shins, was written directly into the dialogue. Portman's endlessly quoted line in the film about The Shins' song "New Slang" ("It will change your life, I swear") has been a gift and a curse for the band ever since.

    "Nowadays [in film production], a music supervisor will pick a bunch of music and send it to the director," Brothers says. "This was more like a mixtape being made by a group of friends."

    For Brothers, appearing on the Garden State soundtrack led to a lucrative, ongoing career in recording and licensing. Since the film's release, he's had subsequent songs appear in television dramas like Grey's Anatomy and The Vampire Diaries as well as other movies like Easy A.

    "It changed things completely for me within two or three months," he says. "It was this whirlwind where I went from being excited to see my name on a CD to having international attention and starting my own record label."

    Sophie Barker, who was 32 at the time of Garden State's release, is a British singer/songwriter and frequent collaborator with the electronica duo Zero 7. She didn't know Braff when he asked to use one of the band's songs in the film. Languid with a jazzy strut and lyrics about being in crisis, "In the Waiting Line" comes in during a scene where Andrew takes ecstasy at a party shortly after returning to small town New Jersey for his mother's funeral.

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    "I was at a stage, before anything had really taken off with Zero 7, where I was really struggling financially and artistically to get my music out there," Barker says of the original inspiration for the song. "I couldn't tell you what made him choose it for the film, but I'd like to think he picked up on some of that youthful innocence and longing… To this day, I have people write to me all the time saying how much 'Waiting Line' meant to them at a difficult time in their life."

    Indeed, if the Garden State soundtrack represented a turning point in the lives of its creators, that theme was reflected back by its listenership tenfold. The album's convenient collection of breezy, poignant elegies helped make it a touchstone for anyone experiencing twentysomething ennui or middle-class angst. It became a viral phenomenon, spreading to ever-broader and more disparate communities until its popularity made it a punchline.

    Ten years removed from its release, however, the broad appeal of the Garden State soundtrack looks more like a feature than a bug. Much of the criticism around the album focused on the feeling that it was indie-by-numbers, but Braff was prescient to prioritize curation and sensibility in a pre-Tumblr environment. Last month, he released the long-awaited follow-up to Garden State, a film about thirtysomething malaise called Wish I Was Here, which also features a hand-picked soundtrack of emotionally stirring indie rock (including appearances by The Shins and Coldplay). But of course that album, like any other album released in 2014, could never have hoped to have the same kind of cultural impact that the Garden State soundtrack had in 2004. College freshmen today are much more likely to take their cues from YouTube, or Soundcloud, or Twitter, or Spotify, or Songza, or Shazam, all of which are more than eager to determine the next song in your playlist.

    Those services, like my Amazon recommendations of a decade ago, make discovering new bands to obsess over easy, if not automated. The idea of waiting around for someone to make you a mixtape is even more antiquated than a dorm-room poster of a desperate housewife. And yet the proliferation of tools for finding and sharing music today only underscores the widespread acceptance of a notion that the Garden State soundtrack demonstrated so fantastically in the summer of 2004: The right song, played at the right moment, can be a life-changing event.