When I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, my only disappointment was that the music wasn’t integral enough. 10cc’s opening number is vital to setting the tone for the film, and the mood shift over to Redbone’s “Come Get Your Love” is equally important. But other than that? The only reason these songs are important is because they’re talismans of Peter Quill’s mom. He loves them because she gave them to him, but if he’d lived a regular life on Earth these would not be the songs he found meaning in. My hope in going into Captain Marvel was that we were about to see a kid who grew up in the ’90s and got dropped back on Earth at some unspecified time, with her angst and her flannel and her anger. And I dearly hoped that she had a riot grrrl past that would fuel her superheroic triumph.
But Carol Danvers isn’t a ’90s kid. She’s a ’90s adult. And the songs on the soundtrack aren’t particularly important to her—she loves Heart and Lita Ford. The one band shirt of her own that she wears? Guns N’ Roses. The one concert stub that we see in Maria Rambeau’s Carol Collection? Also Guns N’ Roses.
She was a metal kid, not a riot grrrl.
Now let me make this absolutely clear: I HEART CAPTAIN MARVEL. I love Carol Danvers the person and I love Captain Marvel the movie but I was a little let down by the soundtrack, because all that ’90s music isn’t there for Carol, it’s there for us, the women and women-adjacent people watching the film. The kids can get a nice hit of retro nostalgia from it (my colleague Molly Templeton has called it “this generation’s Stand by Me soundtrack”) while the adults in the audience can use the music almost as a metatext, commenting on the action and providing emotional cues that we’ll understand, even if the eleven-year-olds in the audience do not. But given that, I think some of the choices were a little too on-the-nose, a little too pop-radio-hit… basically, they weren’t alternative enough.
So I’ve assembled my own. Like a spoilery superteam of songs that will avenge me after I’ve died from mediocre radio hits.
The Captain Marvel soundtrack as it stands is a stellar example of highlighting different female voices. Nearly all of the songs are by women, from a diverse range of genres and styles. Often, when a male voice does show up, it means that something nefarious is afoot. (Or it’s Michael Stipe.) There are a few moments when the songs are a little anachronistic (Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” for instance, although that one plays over the end credits and as such could be unstuck in time). But again, most of the songs are there for the audience, not for Carol. So I’ve tied to provide a soundtrack that’s a bit weirder and more personal, while also adding some songs that will actually mean something to our Captain.
The first song we hear is “Whatta Man”, a classic team-up between Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue, two female supergroups, one more hip-hop and one more neo-soul. This moment is perfect and I don’t want to change a thing. It stays.
Next we need to add a song. The train fight, while cool, was a little generic, no? So let’s add some Breeders and spend a few moments imagining how much better that scene would be.
Next up on the official soundtrack is Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When it Rains”, which is great, but not really related to Carol’s situation at all. So here are my two thoughts for the badass motorcycle-stealing scene. First up, Fiona Apple’s “Sleep To Dream”:
Where Garbage’s hit is a snarky rejoinder to the male-dominated grunge movement (something Carol has no connection to) “Sleep To Dream” is a much more specific kiss-off to a guy. More generally it’s a nice, moody song being belted out by a young female artist who refused to be defined by victimhood—a perfect fit for Carol, who has been gaslit by Yon-Rogg, and whose dreams help reveal the truth of her past.
My other choice for this moment is even more of a sleeper hit. (Sorry.) Give it up for Throwing Muses’ “Your Ghost”:
Again, an extraordinary female singer tells a story of being haunted by the past, searching for the truth in dreams. Plus is there anything more ’90s than a cameo from Michael Stipe, when he was in his full “I wanna sound like Patsy Cline and Patsy Cline only” phase?
The official movie soundtrack next features “Connection” by Elastica, a great moment of female-led Britpop:
Is it a somewhat on-the-nose underlining of Carol’s immediate friendship with Fury? Yes. But am I helpless before Justine Frischman’s snarl? Also yes. Plus, I mean, that bass riff—even if they did kinda lift it from Wire. (Thanks, Elastica, for introducing me to Wire.)
Having established a rapport with Fury, Carol is introduced to TLC’s gargantuan hit “Waterfalls” via his car radio.
Being more careful and sticking to the rivers and the lakes that she knows is good advice for Carol, who’s about to learn a whole bunch of stuff that will hurt her and up-end her life. But sometimes we have to chase waterfalls to learn the truth about ourselves, so sometimes it’s OK to ignore T-Boz, Chilli, and Left-Eye.
The film then offers a slight mood shift with “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree:
The hit hippie soul song is especially suited for a single mom who had to rebuild her life while the government forced her to pretend her best friend never existed. Plus Des’ree also has a cameo in another icon of the ’90s, when she sings “Kissing You” in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. It’s perfect, it stays in the movie.
Now at last we come to the first of two giant battles, the first one taking place in Carol’s mind as she fights the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree. This scene uses Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.”
This is not an iconic song to Carol. And yes, again the lyrics are underlining the fact that she’s fine as she is, and can fight the Supreme Intelligence just as she is, but it’s also a song that would have no significance for her—she left in 1989, Nirvana’s entire career happened while she was on Hala, and Kurt Cobain had been dead for about a year by the time Carol lands back on Earth in 1995. It’s worth noting that Nirvana was a feminist band fronted by a very queer-friendly man, who spent all of his fame trying to subvert traditional interpretations of masculinity, and actively championing female rock bands—but why are they the soundtrack to her battle for freedom?
I want to inspire the women in the audience with something that would have been relevant to Carol. Something she would’ve grown up with.
Well, there’s always “Gloria,” from Patti Smith’s first album Horses:
Sure it opens with an explicit rejection of Christian dogma, but… just as Patti Smith needed to reject the rules and regulations of her traditional past in order to BECOME ONE OF THE FOUNDING MEMBERS OF THE PUNK MOVEMENT, so must Carol throw off the shackles of the Supreme Intelligence to begin her career as a superhero. Brainwashed to believe she’s a Kree, the Supreme Intelligence and Yon-Rogg have both been restricting Carol’s powers, telling her to behave, holding her down, threatening to take her power away from her. But they didn’t give her that power, and realizing this is what finally allows Carol to come into her own.
And then we get to watch Carol win her first big fight to the repeated triumphant chorus of “Gloria.” G-L-O-R-I-A.
Or hell, we know Carol’s a Guns N’ Roses fan—why not “My Michelle”:
Why not an ode to…a coke-addled girl…whose dad works in…porn.
Maybe this is why I don’t work for Marvel.
OK, we’ll try again.
We know Carol went as Janis Joplin for Halloween, so why not a Janis song?
I give you “Kozmic Blues”:
As far as significant lyrics go, the song ends with the words:
Well, there’s a fire inside everyone of us
You’d better need it now
I get to hold it, yeah
I better use it ’til the day I die
This works at least as well as “Come, as you are, as you were, as I waa-ant you to be” with the added benefit of being a song titled KOZMIC BLUES. Come on.
But honestly we should go with something that has genuine meaning to Carol.
Thus: Heart! How powerful would it have been to hear a tiny scrap of “Crazy On You” during a flashback, only to hear the full song while she fights for herself?
It begins with that gorgeous intricate guitar work from Nancy Wilson, which would have sounded so great on the scratchy vinyl, and then the harder rock electric guitar kicks in and the Wilson sisters jump their voices up a couple octaves. Imagine Carol coming into her own when Ann’s voice explodes open on the line “And you kept me alive with your sweet flowing love”….
That’s the opening song on Dreamboat Annie, Heart’s first album, released in 1975. So if Carol was in her mid- to late-20s in 1989, she was around 10-years-old in 1975. Let just say that Little Carol saved her money, bought that record, dropped the needle, and for the first time hears loud brash female voices ripping out of a speaker in the wood-paneled basement of her split-level ranch. Or whatever.
You see my meaning.
This is the first time she’s learned that women can do THAT. Can sound like THAT. And THAT is what pulls her out of the Supreme Intelligence. Not Kurt’s voice (as much as he presumably loved Heart) or any other man’s voice. It’s the Wilson sisters who save her.
So now that we’ve fixed that bit, let’s go back to our metatext for the final battle, which in the film is set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. I have a raging personal distaste for No Doubt, but I know a lot of people like them, and if you gain strength from their songs then I think that’s fantastic. They just don’t do it for me. But even apart from my preferences there is just the fact that this is SO on the nose, and so much Gwen Stefani (in the first song she ever wrote solo), complaining about ordinary microaggressions that Western women deal with every day.
It isn’t epic enough. It isn’t angry enough. So I thought about a few that could work.
Is Courtney Love problematic? You bet your ass. But you know what else? She spent years dealing with allegations that Kurt wrote all the songs on Live Through This, and then that Billy Corgan wrote all the songs on Celebrity Skin. She spent years with people talking more about who she was screwing than how she was singing. I distinctly remember a rock magazine (I can’t remember which one, maybe SPIN?) sniffing that she should take the rumors about Cobain’s authorship as a compliment because they showed how much her songwriting had improved—nevermind that Hole predated Nirvana, or that she’d been in a band prior to Hole.
But OK, you want to go a little more punk? Hole is too mainstream? Well here’s Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”, which is a little bit short but also exactly the epic vibe we want:
And if we want to do a fun sideways reference to another great ’90s comic adaptation, how about Björk’s “Army of Me,” which was featured on the incredible Tank Girl soundtrack?
This one’s a little on the nose, but it’s Björk, who is actually an alien, and thus perfect for Marvel’s cosmic films.
But my real top Number #1 choice for this scene has to go to Miss Polly Jean Harvey, as a Chekhovian nod the that Rid of Me poster we see at the beginning of the film:
And granted, Kevin Feige might not be so enthusiastic about ending a blockbuster superhero movie with the words “Lick my legs, I’m on fire” ringing in the audiences collective ears, but he’s just wrong.
How have I done? I’ve swapped out a lot of radio hits for somewhat more alternative songs, most of them by uncompromising female artists. I’ve infused Carol’s big battle with Kree tradition with a song that will actually mean something to her. And I’ve injected a lot more wholesome female RAGE into the last battle.
R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon”—a song about a man who seems dead, but maybe isn’t (Andy Kaufman) and about whether the U.S. faked the moon landing (they did not)—plays in the film as Maria Rambeau says she’ll build a rocket to go meet Carol in space, foreshadowing her future as Captain Marvel, so that one can stay. And Nick Fury serenading Carol with a Marvellettes song may be the greatest moment in the entire MCU, so clearly that stays… so I think my work here is finished?
There’s still that scene, that perfect, wonderful scene, when Carol easily defeats Yon-Rogg in battle, and after all his years of negging and shittiness she simply drags him through the desert before sending him home in disgrace. That scene cries out to be set to Liz Phair’s “Soap Star Joe”:
Now I’m done. Have a playlist.
How about you? What are your picks for an alterna-soundtrack?