In the opening-credits scene of 2014’s most popular blockbuster film, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the lonely figure of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is seen traversing a rocky, desolate planet. Typical-action-movie-score strings swell in the background as Quill arrives at some abandoned ruins. Entering the dilapidated monument, the camera focuses on Quill’s face, but the clichéd music dies out. Quill fills the silence by putting on a pair of cheap-looking headphones and hitting play on his Walkman.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Redbone’s long-forgotten 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love” is playing, and Quill is dancing among the wreckage. Like an intergalactic Michael Jackson, he struts along his path, spinning around as he sings the song’s gleeful refrain into a microphone that also happens to be a small alien life form. While lesser movies would’ve likely picked your typical heroic instrumental to accompany Quill’s trek to his mystical orb, director James Gunn chose an upbeat ’70s jam and created an unforgettable scene.
Too often when I’m listening to music, I’ll try to pick songs from my iPod or Spotify favorites that perfectly fit my current mood. When I’m angry, I’ll listen to Minor Threat; when I’m fun, Motown; when I need to concentrate on homework, Miles Davis.
For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with this strategy, but sometimes it means I’ll end up in a bad mood and won’t listen to anything but the sorrowful voices of Nick Drake or Elliott Smith. I love those guys, but I’m not always looking for them to prolong my mood — instead, I want something that’ll jumpstart me out of it.
The other day I was listening to melancholy music while walking to a class I was dreading on a gloomy, overcast day. Sprinkles start hitting my glasses and finally I decide that I’m just done with this crap. So, inspired by “Guardians,” I switch off my slow, sad ballad and turn on “Come and Get Your Love.”
It was perfect. The methodical bounciness of the opening bass line, joined quickly by the guitar, was mimicked by the bounce in my step. I was smiling and trying my best to keep my body from noticeably copying Chris Pratt’s moves as I swaggered my way down the rainy streets of Ann Arbor. In the 40 seconds it took to get to the “Come and get your looooo-hove!” chorus, my mood had completely changed. Sometimes, I realized, I don’t need to be stuck in an unpleasant mood, and I can use music to get me out of it.
Naturally, I’ve been trying to find other songs that recreate this feeling — songs that won’t necessarily cure all of my worries, but ones that will at least help reorient my mood on gloomy days.
The first obvious choice was Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” The song’s lyrics are easy to laugh off but impossible to forget. Singer Hoyt Axton screams the first line (“Jeremiah was a bullfrog!”) with such elation and import that he sounds like a scientist who’s discovered the missing piece of his life’s work. The guitars sound much like they do on “Come and Get Your Love,” and the chorus is just as easy to sing along to. Even if you’ve never heard the song before, you’ll be bobbing your head and mouthing “joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea/joy to you and me” by the two-minute mark.
It’s not just your dad’s classic rock hits that have this effect, though. Kendrick Lamar’s “i” is a recent example of life-affirming, impossible-to-deny music that obliterates all sadness. (The assist from The Isley Brothers is certainly the key here — hip-hop producers can almost never go wrong when they sample old-school soul.) UGK and Outkast’s “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)” is another one. André 3000’s verse always hits me like a dive into a pool on a 100-degree day.
Rock songs with an edge can have that “it” factor, too. “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” by The Ramones also soundtracks the beginning of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” one of my favorite opening-credits scenes of all-time. Riff Randell plays the song on her school’s PA and the entire school gets up and dances. The song’s effect on young people is only slightly overstated in the film.
So I’ve been trying to figure out what the common denominator is. What, specifically, do these songs have that make them such great pick-me-ups? It certainly isn’t the case that every popular, catchy song is a perfect antidote to the blues. Britney Spears, for example, is great, but she doesn’t get me moving and smiling the way that “Shake It Off” or MKTO’s “Classic” do. There’s something too stilted about Spears’s early work, and something too grimy about the later work — like she’s more under the control of her producers than the song. “Shake It Off” and “Classic” have ingenious melodies, but they also sound so effortless, like they just came to their creators suddenly one moment in the studio.
While I suppose it’s possible that some people hate Taylor Swift and get out of their chairs for Britney, my experiences with large, diverse group events (like weddings or sporting events) tells me that there’s a specific subset of fun-filled songs that connect generations and improve everyone’s mood. And I think it comes down to relaxation. When we’re stressed out and need to loosen up, or even when we’re not and just want to dance and sing, we want songs that reflect that. We want people who make it look easy. We want The Supremes and Prince. We want “500 Miles” and “Sweet Caroline.” If we’re going to shed our worries and boogie like we’re on an abandoned planet, we need artists who are trying to do the same.
Theisen is using a small alien life form as a microphone. To sing back-up, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org