A youthful 30-something woman gets a baby-shower announcement via email that throws her entire world off its axis. She dumps clothes in her suitcase and hits the highway, and into the tape deck of her Mini Cooper goes a mix she retrieved from the bottom of her closet. With a screech of feedback comes Teenage Fanclub‘s 1991 college rock hit “The Concept”: “She wears denim wherever she goes/ Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo/ Oh yeah, oh yeah.”
Neither Charlize Theron nor the character she plays in Young Adult, the new film by Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, would ever get some records by Status Quo, the veteran British boogie band who somehow scored more U.K. hits than the Beatles. Yet it’s clear from the way Theron’s character cranks the tune, sings along, and presses rewind over and over again through Young Adult‘s masterful opening credits that this is her song, one she shares with her high school flame Buddy. It ranks high among the many tools she calls upon during this goth-black and painfully true comedy to get married new father Buddy back into her arms.
Theron’s Mavis Gary is one of the most obsessive characters you’ll be lucky never to meet, although chances are you already know her type. A former small-town prom queen now living in Minneapolis and ghost writing bad teen-targeted fiction, Mavis goes through life with the confidence of a woman long accustomed to snagging any guy on whom she’s set her sights. These days, though, she routinely requires mega-doses of liquor to maintain her game. Every night she collapses in her clothes and every morning she wakes up to a breakfast of Diet Coke as if she were still back in school and the 21st century hadn’t happened.
Just as there’s a disconnect between the condescending way she treats people and the love she swears she still feels for Buddy, there’s a split between the glib verses of Teenage Fanclub’s finest moment and its remorseful refrain. “I didn’t want to hurt you, oh yeah,” sings Norman Blake before the song pauses, starts again at a far more languid tempo, and explodes into the kind of piercing and yet meticulously composed guitar heroics that grunge would soon make obsolete. Like most of the Scottish quartet’s 1991 breakthrough Bandwagonesque, “The Concept” draws faithfully on the Byrds, the Beatles, Neil Young and particularly Big Star but with the distortion and detached vocals of then-reigning shoegaze acts like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. It starts out rocking but it ends so sadly.
The album topped the college radio chart in the early weeks of 1992, when it also crowned Spin‘s 1991 best album list — ahead of Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, R.E.M.’s Out of Time, Metallica’s black album, and U2′s Achtung Baby. Unlike those still-revered albums, Bandwagonesque and the band that made it fell out of favor: Teenage Fanclub’s follow-up, 1993′s grungier Thirteen, was savaged by U.K critics, and when Spin published its 1995 Alternative Record Guide book, the band didn’t get a single mention. Released at the height of Britpop, 1995′s Grand Prix and 1997′s Songs from Northern Britain peaked the dark power-pop foursome’s popularity back home by dramatically dialing down the noise, cleaning up the vocals, and muting the snark. Then, as Britpop died off, the group’s following moved on. Although these increasingly reverent traditionalists never lost their songwriting skills, their output grew more crafty, less urgent and inspired. For better and for worse, Teenage Fanclub grew up.
This is something Young Adult‘s Mavis Gary seems incapable of doing. Reitman, Cody and Theron dive deep into Mavis’s damaged psyche just like Reitman’s camera miraculously goes inside her car’s cassette deck as “The Concept” spins. It’s a metaphor that’s likely to make music fans squirm: Mavis keeps playing the same old tapes of her adolescence, and although many of us retreat to the safety of our beloved teenage jams but also face the challenges of maturity, her entire existence is stuck on repeat. At least her so-called life’s got a great soundtrack.