When “Reservoir Dogs” hit theaters in 1992, no other movie looked or felt like it. At a time when multiplexes were overrun with cornball comedies, action franchises, and the painfully earnest first wave of American indie cinema, Quentin Tarantino delivered a gang of postmodern gangsters who dressed like refugees from the “Rat Pack” era and spent their free time engaging in long, wordy dissections of pop cultural detritus.
“Reservoir Dogs” didn’t sound like anything else in theaters either. In the early 90s, movie soundtracks began developing an increased cultural cache that would make the decade a golden age for the soundtrack format. Boomer nostalgia–still bankable nearly a decade after 1983’s megasmash soundtrack to the Big Chill–reigned in the Hollywood mainstream, but a growing number of indie and genre movies were relying on music to help them carve out new cinematic identities. 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood” and “New Jack City” brought gangsta rap to the big screen. The same year, Wim Wenders commissioned a who’s who of alternative music heroes to compose original music for “Until the End of the World”–possibly the first original soundtrack to become more popular than the movie that inspired it.
But even in the middle of a wave of influential, idiosyncratic soundtracks, “Reservoir Dogs” stood apart. While films like “Until the End of the World” and “New Jack City” surveyed the cutting edge of sonic cool (and helped catalyze the hip-hop and alternative rock explosions that were about to reshape the face of popular music), “Reservoir Dogs” was a gleeful romp through pop’s tackiest era: the age of soft rock.
In the early ‘90s, nearly every style of music across the pop spectrum was becoming harder and edgier. Gangsta rap, grunge, industrial, and metal were all bubbling up from the underground, and even mainstream pop stars like Janet Jackson were starting to dabble in heavier sounds. Considering where music seemed headed at the time, Quentin Tarantino’s embrace of gooey AM radio cheese seems almost fantastically contrary. Using edge-free tunes like Blue Swede’s “Hooked On a Feeling,” Sandy Rogers’ “Fool For Love,” and, most notably, Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck In the Middle With You” seemed to not only run counter to prevailing trends, but raised middle fingers at popular notions of what constituted cool.
Tarantino’s cheese-drenched picks managed to resonate with the zeitgeist, though. After all, this was the dawning of the Age of Irony, and winkingly embracing soft 70s styles was becoming a thing among heavy-music-loving hipsters. Nirvana, on their way to global megastardom at the time, loved to confuse interviewers by calling out ABBA as one of their main influences. Avant-metallers Faith No More were just about to release a perversely accurate reproduction of the Commodores’ smooth-soul classic “Easy.” Further underground, bands like Combustible Edison and the Cocktails delved into lounge music with varying levels of irony.
Tarantino’s soundtrack picks, on the other hand, seemed absolutely sincere. While he gets some comedic mileage playing off the smooth, gentle vibe of K-BILLY’s Super Sounds of the 70s against his protagonists’ acts of ultraviolence, it never feels like their inclusion seems motivated by any kind of “so bad it’s good” irony. Tarantino genuinely loves the treasures he turns up digging through the junk shop of discarded pop culture, whether it’s low-budget martial arts flicks, the tail end of an overextended Charles Bronson franchise, or something like “Stuck In the Middle With You,” which before he used it to soundtrack one of the most iconic scenes in American independent cinema was best known–to those who even knew it–simply as a shameless Bob Dylan knock-off, as Steven Wright’s nameless K-Billy DJ notes. (Although really, Gerry Rafferty’s blatantly Dylanesque vocals aside the rest of the song actually sounds a lot more like they were trying to copy the Beatles’ White Album.)
Tarantino’s infectious enthusiasm is part of what made the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack such a phenomenon. The other part is his impeccable taste in retro cool. While the album’s best remembered for its soft rock selections, it also boasts a couple of legitimately heavy cuts. George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” is far funkier than anything a white Dutch soul band should conceivably be capable of producing. And Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha” is, well, a Joe Tex song–as hard and nasty as classic soul gets.
It could be a coincidence that the soul revival still flourishing today kicked into gear just a couple years after Tarantino gave legions of white teenagers their first taste of soul music deeper than golden oldies standards, and it probably would have happened if he hadn’t. (After all, the golden age of hip-hop inspired a lot of suburban rap fanatics to chase down the source material that their favorite producers were sampling.) But it’s hard to imagine that it would have happened as fast, or spread so wide, if Tarantino hadn’t primed the pump.
Same with the soft rock revival that went down at the turn of the century, when indie rockers started to emulate AOR rock acts like Fleetwood Mac that previous generations of underground rockers considered the enemy. When it came to celebrating everything perversely smooth and 70s, Tarantino beat Yacht Rock to the punch by over a decade.
The “Reservoir Dogs” soundtrack didn’t just revolutionize the entire soundtrack format, or inspire filmmakers to start considering their work’s musical identity as important as its narrative, or to elevate music supervisors to a lofty new position in the Hollywood hierarchy. It made being a music geek–the kind of crate-digging obsessive who’ll drag home a pile of soft rock records to sift through to find that one sparklingly smooth gem, or spend entire days scouring thrift shops for stashes of old funk records–cool in a way that it had never been before. It gave obsessive listening actual cultural cache, turning a geeky affliction into something to brag about at parties. It taught an entire generation what they could find if they investigate music beyond what they heard on the radio, even on the college radio stations that had so much influence on the subculture at the time. It didn’t just change our tastes–it changed the entire way we listened.