The incredibly catchy punk track, its role in 20th Century Women, and the joys of discovering music through movies.
As a teenager, I had a self-important habit of thinking the only valid method of musical discovery was going straight to the source. You had to seek out an album or artist’s catalog and listen to it directly. Finding out about songs through movies or TV shows or video games wasn’t “legit.” “Oh, you only know that song because of the Elizabethtown soundtrack?” Or, “I can’t believe the only reason you know ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ is because of Guitar Hero.”
This was a stupid and reductive way for me to think. Movies are a perfect conduit for hearing new music — the visuals and backstory give even more life to a good song. What better way to discover “Bohemian Rhapsody” than Wayne’s World? Or “Tiny Dancer” from Almost Famous? Or “The Sound of Silence” from the freaking Graduate? Besides, the road you happen to take to discover excellent music does not matter in the slightest.
I watched 20th Century Women on a recent plane ride. The movie, set in late-1970s Santa Barbara, follows a teenage boy named Jamie and the women that play crucial roles in raising him. Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig (the mastermind behind last year’s critically acclaimed Lady Bird), is one of the women, a twenty-something photographer who lives with Jamie and his single mom. Punk music plays a significant role in the movie, as Abbie introduces Jamie to the genre, making him mixtapes and taking him to punk rock clubs.
The whole soundtrack is excellent, but I am eternally grateful for one inclusion in particular. As the end credits rolled, one of the catchiest songs I had ever heard started to play. “What is this?” I thought. It had a sense of swagger that I hadn’t really encountered in punk music before.
Punk comes in all shapes and sizes — the movie itself addresses how “art punk” kids who liked Talking Heads were at odds with the more aggressive punks who were into Black Flag — but the punk music I had previously come across, no matter how disparate, always had a certain neurosis to it. Whether it was the ominous underbelly of the Clash, the overflowing wound-up energy of Gang of Four, or the ugly brashness of Dead Kennedys, classic punk (and all punk, really) was usually restless, fidgety, sweaty.
But this song was different. It was self-assured, comfortable in its skin. The bass line — oh man, that bass line — is the song’s anchor, joining forces with the funky drums to settle into an unshakable groove. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that restless quality that binds all punk together, especially with those ringing stabs of guitar. But the underlying groove gives the song a sense of laid-back coolness and poise. It’s a perfect song for strutting.
Turns out that song I was hearing was “Why Can’t I Touch It?”, a 1978 single by power pop/punk pioneers the Buzzcocks. I enjoy classic punk quite a bit, but I’m far from an expert, and the Buzzcocks had eluded me until hearing that glorious groove. “Oh, you only know that Buzzcocks song because of 20th Century Women?” Yes. And thank goodness for that.