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“I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl,” Cher Horowitz declares in the opening moments of Clueless. In the teen comedy’s first four minutes, four memorable songs help to introduce us to Cher, Dionne, and the rest of their spoiled clique: a “Kids In America” cover by The Muffs, David Bowie’s “Fashion,” No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop.”
Because they are — as the film’s title suggests — so clueless, Cher and co. see themselves living the quintessential high school existence, despite the movie’s opening shots including shopping on Rodeo, sunbathing in a Playboy Mansion-esque grotto, and picking out outfits via computer software (a reality that still hasn’t come to fruition, sadly). But the music cements the message: social class aside, this could be any teen girl whose biggest concerns are wearing cool clothes, dating cute boys, and rolling with the homies (OK, maybe that part comes later).
No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” more than the rest, “was the embodiment of Clueless,” according to Karyn Rachtman, the music supervisor behind quintessentially ’90s favorites including Reality Bites, Romeo + Juliet, The Basketball Diaries, and Clueless (among other big films like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights). But if Rachtman and Heckerling would have had their way, “Just a Girl” would have been the lead single off the Clueless soundtrack, despite “nobody knowing who No Doubt was at the time,” just months before their third album (and mainstream breakthrough) Tragic Kingdom was released. It was so obvious to Rachtman and Heckerling that the song would not only be a hit, but would come to capture that same moment in time as the film.
However, because movie soundtracks at the time were even bigger business than they are now — teen movie franchises still get that kind of treatment but not every run-of-the-mill studio flick is seen as a big soundtrack opportunity now — the industry politics kept Rachtman from getting her way.
“Maybe Gary Gersh [head of Capitol Records, which released the Clueless soundtrack and where Rachtman had just been hired as the VP of soundtracks] wanted to sign No Doubt and didn’t get them [Interscope did], but there was a real attitude like, ‘No, we’re not going to release that as a single from the Clueless soundtrack,'” Rachtman says. “I pleading, ‘This is a hit! You have to, this makes so much sense.’ Capitol was like, ‘No, take it off the soundtrack.'”
And so “Just a Girl” appeared briefly in the film, but would not be released as a single for another two months when Interscope began promoting Tragic Kingdom. The song kicked off an unstoppable string of hits for the Orange County rockers.
Though frustrating to Rachtman, “Just a Girl” wasn’t the only instance of industry meddling on the Clueless soundtrack. Such behavior was common in those days.
“At the time, even though soundtracks were such a big deal, there some many people doing records to market their movies, or get money to pay for the music,” Rachtman says. “It really wasn’t about the music. All they cared about was a video on MTV — marketing, marketing, marketing, and money. Soundtracks were not a true souvenir [from the film]. The one area where I really stuck to my morals was only working on movies where the music was really important to the film, where it felt organic. There were so many ‘inspired by’ records at the time, or they would shove into the end titles just to be able to say they’re from the movie even though they weren’t.”
Labels would request that some of the old hits that filmmakers wanted in their movies be replaced by covers from acts more “relevant” to young viewers and listeners. Though Rachtman would inadvertently help Big Mountain, a “fake reggae band,” break the Top 10 on the Hot 100 with a cover she hated of Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” from the Reality Bites soundtrack, she was in full support of Clueless‘ updates to timeless songs like Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” (via The Muffs and World Party, respectively).
“Amy [Heckerling] really is a music fan, but all the music she wanted to use was ’80s! And ’70s and ’60s too,” Rachtman says. “The film had this timeless feel, even though it’s so ’90s.”
One example of Rachtman’s knack for staying cutting edge: Radiohead’s involvement with Clueless. Cher alludes to Radiohead being “complaint rock” in the film, which is exactly how Rachtman herself felt about the band who “were blowing up at the time.”
“I looked at them as ‘the whiny band,’ and I was very, ‘Whatever’ on them,” she says. “I became a Radiohead fan later on, but I remember hearing at the time that they were assholes. I had to go to England to show them Clueless, and Thom Yorke was such a great guy. I may have really played up how shallow Cher was, like, ‘Of course she’s going to call you whiny, it’s a compliment, get it?’ They were fine with it.”
Again a sign of the times, the soundtrack didn’t get “My Iron Lung,” “the song Amy wanted to associate with Josh listening to whiny music.” An acoustic B-side version of “Fake Plastic Trees,” also a single off Radiohead’s 1995 album The Bends, played while Cher drives around with Josh (as does Counting Crows’ “The Ghost In You”).
In addition to strong covers and future ’90s stars, the Clueless soundtrack also featured a few original songs specifically tailored to the film. One —Jill Sobule singing the David Baerwald-penned “Supermodel” — was among Rachtman’s favorites on the soundtrack; the other — Coolio’s “Rollin’ With the Homies” — was not Rachtman’s favorite, despite it inspiring a major catchphrase from the film.
“It sounded too much like his other big song [“Fantastic Voyage”], but it was on the soundtrack before I came on the movie,” Rachtman says.
“Supermodel,” however, was a conscious effort to capture a bit of Cher’s world through song. Frequent Rachtman collaborator Baerwald, who worked with the movie’s composer David Kitay (among others) on “Supermodel,” took his research duties seriously.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh I don’t know how teenage girls think,'” Baerwald says now. “So I got an issue of Sassy Magazine and I read the letters to the editor. I think even got lyrics from the letters page. Every demographic has its way of talking, and I wanted to capture a sense of the rhythm and the kinds of things girls were talking about. I thought Sassy was really cool!”
Though “Supermodel” perfectly soundtracked Cher and Di’s makeover montage with Tai, Rachtman remains unsure of the song’s affect on the folk-tinged singer-songwriter who made it come to life (and added in a spoken-word bridge sarcastically praising anorexic eating habits).
“I really love Jill Sobule, but I think ‘Supermodel’ might have been the death of her career,” Rachtman says, “Her first song, ‘I Kissed a Girl,’ was a novelty song, and then this song kind of had a novelty feel to it.”
Ultimately, the Clueless soundtrack wouldn’t “sell as much as it should have, not as much as [the soundtrack for Baz Luhrman’s] Romeo + Juliet.” But Clueless‘ use of music remains as memorable for Rachtman’s timely curation as it is Heckerling willingness to make music “its own character in the movie.”