It’s Nick and Norah’s Playlist; We Just Live in It

l boylan2 Its Nick and Norahs Playlist; We Just Live in ItObserved this weekend at a Brooklyn wine bar: a crew of boomy-voiced 30-somethings harassing their waitress.

“This is horrible!” said a long-haired portly guy, thrusting his iPhone at her. “These songs you’re playing are so tired, man! Listen, we’re in the industry. Trust us. Please put on my playlist. I cannot listen to this crap!”

The waitress said she’d have the check with the manager.

(“Aw man, you’re like fucking Sarah Palin or something!” he blustered back, confoundingly.)

The table eventually got its way (the customer who drops $900 is always right), and they’re all smiles, like they’ve just written themselves a fat check, like they’re educating the masses, but nobody starts nodding along or asking the bartender “Dude, what is this?” like that Beta Band scene in High Fidelity.

Observed this weekend at a Brooklyn wine bar: a crew of boomy-voiced 30-somethings harassing their waitress.

“This is horrible!” said a long-haired portly guy, thrusting his iPhone at her. “These songs you’re playing are so tired, man! Listen, We’re in the industry. Trust us. Please put on my playlist. I cannot listen to this crap!”

The waitress said she’d have the check with the manager.

(“Aw man, you’re like fucking Sarah Palin or something!” he blustered back, confoundingly.)

The table eventually got its way (the customer who drops $900 is always right), and they’re all smiles, like they’ve just written themselves a fat check, like they’re educating the masses, but nobody starts nodding along or asking the bartender “Dude, what is this?” like that Beta Band scene in High Fidelity. Nobody leaves in disgust, either. Everyone kind of ignores the playlist. It’s a little loud to hear much anyway.

Yet controlling the playlist to your every move seems to be a central ambition in the music industry today. Forget the Internet, where music is plentiful but also available for free at every turn. Get to someone while they’re trying on jeans, or eating sushi, or ordering a latte, or ordering a beer, or watching a fun teen romantic comedy, and you’ve got them captive to your playlist, subject to your product and, the hope is, susceptible to its charms. Convince them they’re listening to the soundtrack of their lives, and they’ll pay to own a copy.

Observed this weekend in a movie theater: a fun teen romantic comedy where a playlist (what we used to call a soundtrack) fully subsumes both character and narrative. The movie came in at No. 5 in the nation this weekend, while the soundtrack debuted at No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart. Atlantic even put out a limited edition vinyl release of the soundtrack, so the playlist must be doing something right.

Based on a hit young adult novel (which presumably made do without an iPod), Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist concerns a music-obsessed teenage guy, freshly dumped, who is brought together by chance with a music-obsessed girl, who is cute. Over the course of one night in New York they have some adventures, a few scrapes, and they fall in love. There’s some shy dialogue, a couple of cute moments, one or two good jokes (a post-breakup mix CD called “Road to Closure Vol. 12.”). They’re nice kids; it would have been nice to hear more from them and a little less yapping from their costar, the playlist. Sometimes a song sparks dialogue, or provides the mood for an exchange, but mostly, the soundtrack stands in for conflict, consequence, development, all of it. In this scene the music means we’re driving! In this scene, the music means the boy and girl feel something for each other, but are nervous!

When Nick & Norah do get to talk to each other, it’s mostly stilted conversations about music, as had by people who have never thought about music in their lives. There’s a sort of brag-off about which of them is a bigger fan of an elusive band whose secret show they’re trying to find (my favorite! No, mine!), and they both love this one song, and Nick’s iPod proves to Norah that they are musical soul mates. But scripting conversations about music is more awkward than having those conversations. Sharing a favorite song, going through someone’s iPod, even listening to a mix with someone can be flirtatious yet wordless or chatty and convivial. Here it hovers in the middle, afraid to grab hold of music’s power to connect people. These characters never talk about the way music makes them feel, they just sort of play on repeat. “Are you into stuff?” “Oh wow, I totally am!” Cut to making out.

What’s missing here is some connection between what we see and what we hear. We know that our leads are music-obsessed teenagers because they tell us so, yet if the soundtrack were devoid of rock tunes by hip bands (Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, We Are Scientists, Bishop Allen and Devendra Banhart), this would all be theoretical, and thin. While being specific about songs and bands can be awkward (Garden State and Juno proved that), being overly vague while trying to pin the whole movie on pop songs makes it seem hard to latch onto this particular playlist over, say, any other collection of songs. Mark Mothersbaugh (once of Devo), who could be said to have gotten the whole hip-soundtrack-overwhelming-film thing started with his work on Wes Anderson’s films, oversaw this soundtrack. Nick & Norah got some terrific tunes, both by those cool now bands, but also from less known acts, like Big Star’s Chris Bell, with his tender “Speed Of Sound,” as well as the excellent Richard Hawley, with the torchy “Baby You’re My Light.” Still, without any genuine connection to the characters and the action, the tunes just sort of float in space. They’re background with no foreground.

At one point in the film, Norah admits to a Judaic concept she finds really beautiful: that the world is broken and people are there to make it whole. Nick posits that perhaps the people themselves are what need to be brought together. They kiss. It’s really rather sweet, and though the further connection isn’t made explicit, it seems clear that the concept is meant to hold for the notion of the playlist as well, the thing brought together from disparate ends to form a cohesive whole, to tell a story. Trouble is that this playlist doesn’t feel hard won, and neither does Nick and Norah’s union, so that in the end all we’ve got is an hour and a half held hostage to someone’s idea of the perfect playlist, and rather than feeling excited and educated at the end, one just feels like they could have been in a room trying on jeans.