SoundTreks: Paper Towns

Is the soundtrack to 'Paper Towns' an exemplar of the modern age, or forgettable teen pop?

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

It is here that my age will really show. This will be the first edition of SoundTreks that will consist entirely of new music (that is, pop songs produced within the last two of three years) and, as a 36-year-old man, I feel a little out of my element. I read an article recently that declared 33 to be the final year of your life when you actively seek out new music. From then onward, it’s nothing but a careful study of the past; either a constant wallow in the sounds of your own nostalgic youth, or a carefully curated discovery of the classics. 

I find this to be true for myself, and, as such, I am largely unfamiliar with most of the bands on this soundtrack record. And I while I have heard the dominant sound of the current pop music milieu presented hereon, it still feels like something I have yet to unlock or wholly accept. This edition of SoundTreks, then, will be partly an examination of the soundtrack to Paper Towns, and partly a diary of my own discovery. 

Check Out: SoundTreks: The Crow

The current pop milieu, as presented on this record, seems to be the opposite of what I grew up on in the 1990s. The ’90s were a time of sarcasm and self-awareness. Simple, sappy emotions like puppy love were derided as being phony and risible by the grunge-infused mainstream, that talked instead about death and moody introspection. By contrast, the modern youth seems painfully earnest about the intensity of its base emotions. As if every feeling you have should be transformed from a simple feeling into an opera of EDM-infused, dance-ready, emo balladeering. 


Track 1. “Radio” – Santigold

This is a good track to start the record with, as it’s one of the only tracks to have any energy. It’s a blasting track about, well, the radio, I guess. It’s not exactly romantic – Paper Towns is largely about a youthful romance – but it’s a great way to grab your attention. You have to ease listeners into the sappier stuff, so it’s wise to ring this bell up front. 

In the film, this is but an incidental track, and doesn’t at all function as a theme or a master tone. 


Track 2. “To the Top” – Twin Shadow

This track, however, functions perfectly as the tonal declaration of Paper Towns. Paper Towns is about a young man (Nat Wolff) who spends a magical evening with the manic pixie dreamgirl he has always loved, only to have her mysteriously run away the following day. The plot involves his quest to find her again. This entire record, I think you will find, takes place in the mind of the young man, and is meant to encapsulate his romantic longing. 

The romantic longing is, however, only the first act of the film, and the rest of the flick is more about friendship and coming to romantic catharses than it is about the fulfillment of said romance. “To the Top” however is nearly operatic in its demonstrative emotions, and encapsulates young romance perfectly.


Track 3. “Search Party” – Sam Bruno

I think “Search Party”  was intended to be the proper theme song of Paper Towns. It’s a song about getting lost, and being found by your true love. Fits well, right? 

I also hate it. It drones and tweets with a fey, limp simplicity. It doesn’t help that the chorus consists of one note, and the dunderheaded lyrics are annoying. Ghetto choppers in the sky, and they’re flying super high? This is a track that seems to stress the childishness of the movie. It plays when Nat Wolff looks at Cara Delevingne. It fits the moment, but the moment is not a good one. As indicated in the film’s review here in CraveOnline, that girl is not a healthy one. 


Track 4. “Swingin’ Party” – Kindess

This is a cover of a song by The Replacements, and has some echoes of Talking Heads in its beat and vaguely in its vocals. It’s an obvious choice for a party scene, but sometimes the obvious choice can fit fine: this was a track that played at a party. I think only an old man like me would chose to include the original over a cover, as most kids would likely be more comfortable with the calm electronic beats over the rockiness of the original. So a technobeat cover is appropriate.

It’s not bad.  


Track 5. “Great Summer” – Vance Joy

“Great Summer” is, of course, the generic phrase that peers would scrawl in your yearbook before you drifted away for a few months, perhaps to never see them again. The sentiment of “Great Summer” is more in keeping with the true theme of Paper Towns, and there’s more friendship in Vance Joy’s voice than romantic longing. 

Old Man Witney now: Why do so many pop songs on this soundtrack have such a similar drone? Choruses have few notes, baselines are constant, and many of the tracks have some sort of constant noise over the entire song, usually a noisy electronic chord. I suppose this is the modern sound, but I find it to be a bit grating, far too polished, and artificial. Modern pop has no dirt on it. No grit. No toughness. It’s all heart-on-the-sleeve sensitive, and electronic dance beats that are hard to dance to. And, what’s more, they’re often in grim, minor keys, giving them a pessimistic edge that undercuts their joyous lyrics. 

Regular Witney is back: But surely there’s still deep, weepy emotions being joyously experienced by fans. And, since this soundtrack is meant to capture the thoughts of a lovelorn teen, we can being to accept the record as a modern mixtape. Indeed, it may serve the same function as the Say Anything… soundtrack. 


Track 6. “Taxi Cab” – Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend, despite the name, is one of the gentler pop acts operating today. “Taxi Cab” is a lullaby. A salve from the declarative sounds to its left and right.  


Track 7. “Lost it to Trying” (Paper Towns Mix) – Son Lux

EDM noise seems elevated by Son Lux, who is combining the moody pop milieu with dubstep, orchestral flourishes, and a rapid complexity that I admire, even if I don’t necessarily dig the music. This is the one track that seems to be ambivalent about itself. It’s more about loss than fulfillment, and that matches the state of mind of Paper Towns‘ young protagonist. I think this was the one that played over the credits, and, if you’ve seen the film, then you know that some ambivalence is totally appropriate at that moment. 


Track 8. “My Type” – Saint Motel

Some are calling this the summer jam of 2015. It’s a big hit. It’s an energetic song. You’ve likely heard it on the radio. It’s included here largely as a cashgrab. It would be like including Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” on a romance soundtrack on a soundtrack record from last year. Throw in the big hit of the day, and the kids will buy it. At least “My Type” is a much better song than “Fancy.” Much better. 

Every lead singer looks like Rivers Cuomo these days. 


Track 9. “Runaway (U & I)” (Svidden & Jarly Remix) – Galantis

Ack. Don’t like. Don’t like the distorted voice, the echo. Too much sound for not enough idea.

This is the song on the soundtrack that most heavily applies to the manic pixie dreamgirl in Paper Towns. Fitting, then, that I dislike it, as I disliked the character as well. Manipulative sociopaths should not be indulged. One would think that a young independent woman would be represented by something stronger, punk, loud. Not something squeaky and emotional. Although maybe this is because I like girl punk, Joan Jett, and L7.

Galantis is, I must admit, pretty hip. They’re a Swedish pop act that isn’t really mainstream. Good on the music supervisors for including them. Just because I dislike the song, doesn’t mean you made a bad choice. 


Track 10. “Falling” – Haim

Not so much EDM as proper soft rock, Haim is the most rock ‘n’ roll track on the record. I don’t recall where it popped up in the film, but I’m glad it’s included. There’s still a lot of electro going on, but there’s something strangely timeless about “Falling.” It’s finally a song with a touch of edge. You’ll find that it leads perfectly into the following track, which is also a rock tune, and could have easily come out in 1994. 


Track 11. “No Drama Queen” – Grouplove

Indie rock. Good job.

Okay, so I’m warming to the soundtrack. I’m beginning to appreciate the subtle eclectic movement. “No Drama Queen” stresses the mixtape notion of the Paper Towns soundtrack, showing that this really is an album that could have been assembled by a particularly hit-savvy kid. A true teen would have, perhaps, included a wider variety of sounds, but at least we do have at least some variety. 

Grouplove only formed in 2009, so I can’t speak to their career, but this is the only track on the record that would remotely have me investigating the further works of a featured artist. 


Track 12. “Moments” – De Lux

I love the below music video. It’s weird.

I can make the following statement about modern pop: The modern EDM and trip-hop scene that dominates teens’ playlists is all directly derived from a very certain niche of 1980s pop. I hear a lot of Talking Heads in this one, some Boingo, and the dancier angles from the New Wave. I suppose it’s fine to pay homage to those sounds, but De Lux isn’t better than just listening to Talking Heads. Maybe this soundtrack is missing a few outright classics. 

No. No. That’s not representative of the youths of today. All new music. De Lux will do. 


Track 13. “Be Mine” – Alice Boman

Yawn. 


Track 14. “Used to Haunt” – The Mountain Goats

After so much EDM, overproduction, and complexity, having such a stripped sound is almost jarring. But it’s welcome. I will say this for the record’s producers, they know how an album ought to move. I’m beginning to appreciate it as a whole, rather than just as a collection. “Used to Haunt” is a voice, a drum, and a piano. I’ve always felt that love songs ought to be a little wistful and intimate. Giant love songs swell the head, but don’t touch the heart. This is the sound the entire soundtrack should have, perhaps, gone for.  


Track 15. “Burning” – The War on Drugs

“Burning” is another ’80s-derived EDM soundscape experiment with an echoey vocal, this time lifting off the beat and chords from Modern English’s “I Melt with You.” Only stretched out to nearly six minutes.

I admit, I kind of tuned this one out when listening to the soundtrack, and when I heard it in the movie. It was like background noise. I have a feeling that The War on Drugs may quickly fade into obscurity. They add nothing to the plate. But what do I know? I have jhad notoriously bad luck when it comes to such predictions. 


Track 16. “Look Outside” – Nat & Alex Wolff

Nat and Alex Wolff were once The Naked Brothers Band, a fictional band on a Nickelodeon TV show. Nat has continued his acting in smaller indie films like Pal Alto, and is proving himself to be a soulful performer. His soul is on full display in “Look Outside,” one of my favorite tracks on the record, and the final thing you’ll hear over the credits of the movie. 

While all the other songs are emotionally earnest, I never get the sense that they’re honest. “Look Outside” sounds like an artist really exposing something. Well, a teen trying to grow as a performer at least. It’s a good note to end on. We started big and noisy, and eventually calmed into this. I appreciate the throughline. 


Which Is Better: The Soundtrack or the Film?

Soundtrack listing

I like the film better. 

The soundtrack is a mixed bag of sounds that are not fun to listen to, but, more importantly, only encapsulates a very particular part of the film. And that part was the most insufferable. Paper Towns is about much more than its love story. The romance between Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne becomes secondary over the course of the film, and themes of friendship and joy take over, largely thanks to an ensemble cast. The soundtrack doesn’t reflect that change, and none of the tracks seem devoted to the second and third acts of the movie. 

The first act of the film was all about longing and impossible romance with a free spirit (who was, in actuality, something of a sociopath), given to wandering off. The entire record seems stranded in that romance, unable to get past it. It’s all falling in love, and not living with people. I praised the soundtrack for having a subtle texture and variety, but, at the end of the day, there’s not enough variety to go around. 

See the movie instead. You’ll get a bigger and better picture. 

 


Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.