The Garden State Soundtrack Will Change Your Life

“Indie music never belonged to anyone, but at least in the early ’00s, it was easier to pretend it did.”

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Jesse David Fox nails it in his retrospective defense of Garden State:

[S]omewhere between its soundtrack winning a Grammy and Zach Braff raising more than $2 million on Kickstarter to film a tonal sequel, we started hating Garden State. The movie didn’t change — we did… It’s become a symbol for its blend of quirky, twee, morose, earnest, precious, hipsterness, and it’s resented for it. We’ve confused its influence for cliché.

But perhaps a more enduring backlash than the one against the film was the soundtrack. In 2004, Garden State represented the popularization of indie music. Suddenly underrated acts like the Shins, Iron and Wine, and Zero 7 were playing in Starbucks, and being conflated with pseudo-indie bands like the Killers or the Bravery. Zach Braff didn’t cause it — indie rock was always bound to go mainstream (see: world wide web) — so much as Garden State became the face of a trend. The reaction from already entrenched indie music fans could be best summed up in an old sketch video about a hip record store called Other Music where a pre-fame Aziz Ansari murders a customer for asking about the Garden State soundtrack (“It’s supposed to be indie-tastic!”).

I was into the Shins before Garden State (feel free to roll your eyes). But when Garden State popularized the Shins, I didn’t feel like the band had sold out. I was just psyched that now other people I knew also liked the Shins.

In high school, I fell in with the kids who liked Nine Inch Nails and Tool — both of which I enjoyed at the time, but to a much lesser degree. It didn’t really speak to me in the way a high schooler’s favorite band is supposed to speak to him/her. (Although part of me suspects that when a bunch of suburban, prep school virgins talk about how “Closer” would make a great song to fuck to, maybe it doesn’t actually speak to them either?) But my sophomore year, I discovered the Shins on a music site called Epitonic (now long defunct). Their melodies were sunny; James Mercer’s sweetly maudlin lyrics were the sentimental antidote to the angst-ridden dirge of Trent Reznor and James Maynard Keenan.

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Whereas music elitists had seen Garden State as an appropriation of something that belonged to them, for me it felt like a form of acceptance. I lived just outside of Boston, and when the Shins came to town, I couldn’t convince any of my friends to come with me (even the friend who had purchased a Nine Inch Nails ticket for me without asking, made me pay for it, and then forced me to driver her to the concert). A year later, after Garden State came out, I was able to convince a friend to drive with me all the way down to Providence, Rhode Island to see the Shins.

Since Garden State, the Shins have released two lesser albums. I’ve seen them on each supporting tour, every time at a bigger and bigger venue. It’s hard to complain, because really, this is the natural trajectory of any band that a lot of people like.

One of my favorite blogs used to be called The Shins Will Change Your Life, its title taken from the moment in the film when Natalie Portman’s character introduces Zach Braff to the Shins’ most famous ballad, “New Slang.” The site highlighted the most pretentious, self-serious passages from Pitchfork album reviews without comment. It still exists today, but functions as a fairly ordinary music blog, talking about bands that most people who read Pitchfork have heard of.

Indie music never belonged to anyone, but at least in the early ’00s, it was easier to pretend it did. Garden State captured a perfect adolescent dream: that a cute stranger might tell you to listen to a song, and that song might actually change your life.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.