The Weird and Wonderful Soundtrack to 1998’s ‘Godzilla’

By  · Published on May 13th, 2014

Sony Music

The ’90s were a special time for the Hollywood movie soundtrack. From Prince’s “Batdance” for 1989’s Batman to LL Cool J’s shark dance for 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, pop soundtracks became no longer a direct record of the songs featured in a film, but an eclectic hit parade of contemporary popular artists whose relationship of the film in question was often tenuous at best. Movie soundtracks, especially those for summer tentpole entertainment, served a function similar to the ’90s NOW! series: as a means of assembling tested and would-be radio and MTV hits in one accessible package. Except this package was meant also to promote a movie.

Such promotion followed a routine formula.

  1. Turn the music video into a four-minute commercial for the film.
  2. Turn the film into a promotional device for the soundtrack by placing the big single over the end credits like an earworm.
  3. None of the other songs on the soundtrack needed to be in the film.

But the 1998 soundtrack to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was different. Like its title character, the soundtrack was big, brash, noisy, not-at-all subtle, and lucrative, yet it destroyed everything in its path. There are several reasons why Hollywood movies don’t produce pop soundtracks like this anymore, but the Godzilla soundtrack (if not the movie itself) deserves appreciation for its dumb, audacious weirdness.

The 21st century decline of the CD and the rise of song-based music distribution has, by association, resulted in the decline of the film soundtrack as we recognized it during the late 1990s, a time when soundtracks could play a serious role in the cultural proliferation of pop music.

Take Brad Silberling’s 1998 City of Angels, for example. The soundtrack helped launch multiplatinum albums by The Goo Goo Dolls and Alanis Morissette based upon the singles “Iris” and “Uninvited,” respectively, each of which enjoyed exhaustive video and airplay throughout the spring and summer. While the soundtrack likely had some immeasurable effect on the film’s performance, the success of City of Angels paled in comparison with its soundtrack. The film was the 25th highest grosser of 1998, while its soundtrack was the 7th top selling album of the year, and went five times platinum. Even today’s most successful soundtracks – like Twilight: New Moon – see only a fraction of this cultural reach.

The Godzilla soundtrack, meanwhile, transparently displayed a most unabashed market-oriented approach to pop tie-ins. Many of its contributing artists were newly popular, but when assembled together, they’re a downright motley bunch. It’s highly unlikely you will you find Days of the New, Michael Penn, Fuzzbubble, Ben Folds Five, Jamiroquai, and Puff Daddy assembled together anywhere else. But eclecticism was par for the course in movie soundtracks for ostensible box office titans 16 years ago. What’s different about Godzilla is its brazen and inelegant attempt to promote the film through such music.

The soundtrack’s central and most curious issue is that a number of its songs feature audible cameos by the star of the film.

Godzilla roars at regular intervals throughout Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me.” Like the film, Puff Daddy’s song is loud, overlong, and all-too-obvious. Puff Daddy was well known for his less-than-inventive yet astonishingly hook-effective approach to sampling, but in “Come With Me,” he (with the credited support of Jimmy Page) turns Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir” into an exhausting display of cyclical grandiosity that runs out of momentum after a bridge less than two minutes into the song.

Befitting the film, Puff Daddy’s philosophy of creative derivation in “Come With Me” is apparently “bigger is better.” If you’re loud enough, people have to pay attention. The roars of a big green monster thus hardly feel out of place. But where Puff Daddy’s song is well-tuned to such a big and blundering film, the soundtrack’s other singles (few of which are present in the film) are tethered with more reaching associations to Godzilla.

In The Wallflowers’ hit music video for “Heroes,” Godzilla attacks New York while Jakob Dylan gazes laconically out the window after his possible roommate/love interest decided she’s rather risk her life against a giant mutant lizard creature than stay in the apartment during band practice.

Of course, David Bowie and Brian Eno’s version of the song was sorely lacking in helicopters and the capstone roar of a supernatural beast. With “Heroes,” the promotional vehicle for Godzilla turns Jakob Dylan’s otherwise smooth, intimate, and sexy cover into a disjointed spectacle of Hollywood destruction. Perhaps this confusing approach to Bowie’s work was the first step in stripping the song of any of its initial irony.

Equally odd is the tone-deaf video for Jamiroquai’s “Deeper Underground,” the soundtrack’s UK hit. An audience watches Emmerich’s Godzilla (in 3D glasses no less, though the return of 3D had yet to retake Hollywood by this point), and Godzilla’s foot enters the theater, bringing a deluge of water with it. As the patrons struggle not to drown or be crushed by falling debris amidst the wreckage, frontman Jay Kay dances atop the seats in a carefree Roberto Benigni style.

In an oddly honest admission of the absence of stakes for Hollywood’s arbitrary spectacles of large-scale destruction, we are not meant to mind the danger of the moviegoers, but simply admire Kay’s dancing in the cross-promotional space of the theater as if this were simply a product-integrated version of “Virtual Insanity.” Imagine if Celine Dion’s music for Titanic envisioned a similar relationship between her song and the movie’s imagery.

The ties that the Godzilla soundtrack attempts to create between film and music are as reaching as they are disingenuous. The songs are never meant to provide any substantive or thematic correspondence with the film, yet they’re also not allowed an autonomous separation from it. Instead, a connection is made in the most obvious and invasive way possible: by the presence of Godzilla himself, no matter how he affects the music.

This applies also to pre-existing music on the soundtrack. Green Day’s 1996 single “Brain Stew” is transformed into a “Godzilla remix” with roars serving as tempo breaks (and an orchestral accompaniment just because). Unlike other remixes, this track isn’t credited to a particular artist, but to Godzilla – or, by extension, the similarly mammoth promotional mechanisms of Hollywood.

Yet within this bewildering assemblage is an unexpected gesture of dissent. Rage Against the Machine (who would grow to be no stranger to big movie soundtracks) lend the antiauthoritarian aesthetic to a single titled “No Shelter,” a Frankfurt School-style critique on America’s culture industry – namely, the synergy between military imperialism and desensitizing Hollywood entertainment. Placed in the soundtrack of a film that features paramilitary choppers destroying a giant CGI beast, “No Shelter” is as self-aware as anything Rage has done.

The song critiques the historical revisionism of Spielberg’s Amistad, repeatedly refers to cinema as “simulated life, ill drama” in its chorus, and lumps Godzilla in with Rambo and Coca-Cola as “pure muthafuckin’ filler/to keep your eyes off the real killer” (a line whose profanity made for convenient censorship). While some of the band’s critics and fans found fault in Rage’s participation in such a plain-faced marketing effort, cultural critic Jeffrey A. Hall saw some substantive irony in Rage’s use of a Hollywood soundtrack to critique the very culture industry which produced that Hollywood soundtrack:

“…’No Shelter’ demonstrates that the band acknowledges its role the circular relationship between the text and its commercial context: the song is set forth as a promotion of the film and its soundtrack, and yet it returns as an assault on that very context. Their politically and commercially savvy attack on Godzilla creates the possibility of the very mechanisms that could stifle the impact of their leftist stance to be used to magnify and refract Rage’s message throughout the chain of commercial promotion.”

One key moment in the video for “No Shelter” – which, in a break from the other singles, contains no direct reference to Godzillafeatures a measurement of the distance of the crater in Hiroshima caused by the atomic bomb dropped by the US Air Force in 1945. The character of Godzilla, of course, served as a symbol for a traumatized post-atomic Japan, a cultural tie that became lost in the 1998 Hollywood film’s relocation (and, you know, the story) of the monster.

While Godzilla is aurally and visually present across the Godzilla soundtrack in songs and music videos, “No Shelter” emphasizes the cultural and thematic absence of Godzilla’s legacy in this Hollywood retread. In its handling by TriStar Pictures, Epic Records, and Roland Emmerich, Godzilla became a giant, empty distraction instead of a means for pondering the human cost of destruction and warfare. As such, we have a soundtrack that even distracts us from its music, constantly reminding us to go see the movie.

But, then again, we didn’t need Rage to tell us this. Puff Daddy makes it perfectly evident.