Listen to America: The 2010s and 2020s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

68) “Cups,” from Pitch Perfect (2012)

When this movie was released, we were still four years away from TikTok. It’s a rare case where the movies feel like they’re running ahead of the zeitgeist rather than trailing behind it by several years, because Anna Kendrick’s rendition of “Cups” is just a TikTok trend waiting to happen. The final performance the Bellas do is just pure Glee, an obsessive mash-up of songs that date the film to the moment of its conception; in that way the film is streets behind, taking its cues from television in the way that was fashionable in the early teens. But that final performance isn’t the reason they typecast Anna Kendrick into every musical they could find for a few years. It’s “Cups,” which brought the summer camp/kid’s birthday party which now dominates Internet attention-grabbing into the movies long before anyone knew that the meme was what mattered most.

69) “Let It Go,” from Frozen (2013)

Parents: I am so sorry.

Idina Menzel is in two of the movies I selected from last decade. She’s a charismatic but ultimately minor figure in Rent, and of course they don’t even let her sing in Enchanted. Times change, obviously. There’s a good case to be made that this is the most commercially successful Disney song of all time, the earworm that was as great a phenomenon in real life as “Hakuna Matata” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” as ubiquitous online as “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” How do I know this one really made it? Because I’ve heard stories from friends who told me that they heard it condemned in sermons. “Let It Go” happened at a time when I think most of us believed that Disney was on something of a permanent downswing and Pixar was on a permanent upswing. Neither of those have been justified by history, and Pixar hasn’t created a film moment that permeates the many cultures of America the way that “Let It Go” exists in all of us like musical PFOA.

70) “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” from 12 Years a Slave (2013)

If this is an overexaggeration I hope you’ll tell me so, but I really struggle to think of a song in an American movie that’s used purely for dramatic purposes after this one. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is sung at a funeral service, and Solomon, a musician, is reticent to join the other slaves in the spiritual. (Why shouldn’t he be, after all his troubles?) But he’s overcome with the community, the honesty, the earnestness, and he contributes his voice to the chorus. It’s a powerful, deeply sad moment in this movie, an echo of “Go Down, Moses” in Sullivan’s Travels or “Old Man River” in Show Boat or “It Don’t Worry Me” in Nashville or, if we were extending to British films, virtually anything that happens in Distant Voices, Still Lives. Music is the link to empathy, to feeling like one is not the only person on the face of the earth. Other people have tried to help Solomon feel that even if he’s been cast out of God’s mercy, he’s still a treasured part of their own community. It’s not until this song that Solomon can feel some sliver of truth in the generosity of others who are, in their own way, even worse off than him.

71) “Super Trouper,” from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

The “Another one of those, please” principle is the ultimate in fanservice these days, and the Mamma Mia sequel gives literally everyone a curtain call. I don’t mind all of them. Cher is criminally underused in this movie, I’d watch Lily James do anything, and for some reason Emily Blunt has the career that Amanda Seyfried should have had. But why Meryl Streep, who they keep allowing to sing in movies even though she isn’t that much better at singing than Pierce Brosnan, has at least a third of this final piece of this number and who is not actually a character in this movie, is bewildering. The answer is that there is a real anxiety about the potential stardom of a new generation of performers. Meryl Streep is bankable. Cher is bankable. Lily James, despite being everywhere but the MCU in the past few years, is not for some reason. (The movie gets a little scared of making its emotional moments about her, which is too bad, because Here We Go Again is actually enjoyable when she’s onscreen.) There’s a lot of anxiety in Hollywood, on movie podcasts, etc., about whether or not there are actually movie stars anymore, but what a movie like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again tells us is that if studio executives in the 1950s were as scared of introducing a new generation of faces as studio executives now, then they would have found a way to miss out on Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Monty Clift.

72) “Jaja Ding Dong,” from Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

I’ve seen this movie once. It was on June 26, 2020. It’s not an overstatement to say that I listened to “Jaja Ding Dong” at least one time each day until October of that year. Has there been a more perfect novelty song than this one in the past decade, the “When I’m Cleanin’ Windows” or “Afternoon Delight” of the covid years? It’s not just that guy (Olaf Yohansson, my future husband) demanding “Jaja Ding Dong” with every fiber of his being, knowing as I do that there will never be enough renditions of it. The phrase “jaja ding dong,” which is to Iceland as “Padre Nostro, che sei nei cieli” is to Vatican City, is funny enough that it doesn’t have to be nearly as catchy as it is. The accordion gives it the pub bona fides that made people wonder if this was actually some kind of Icelandic drinking song back when this movie came out. But it’s the rhythm section that makes this song murderous, with a bassline that skips merrily for ninety seconds and made my brain swell and burst for months after hearing it for the first time. Eurovision Song Contest has a number of genuinely wonderful performances in it, some of which we’re actually supposed to believe in a little bit. But that “Jaja Ding Dong” rather than “Husavik” or even “Double Trouble” is the song from this film that I think most people remember best is proof that the way into our hearts in the 2020s is through disbelieving chortles.

73) “Edgar’s Prayer,” from Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

This song and “Jaja Ding Dong” were both eligible for the Best Original Song Oscar at the 93rd Academy Awards. Neither was nominated. There is not even the pretense of justice any longer. Anyway, here’s another example of how the best songs in movies anymore are the ones which are there to accomplish some kind of bit. “Edgar’s Prayer” is its own kind of spoof on ’80s and early ’90s power ballads as much as “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II is, but the reason why only the same parents who are now giving me the finger for reminding them Frozen II exists are reacting to “Lost in the Woods” is because that song is merely competent, not memorable. “Edgar’s Prayer,” which created brand new sentences which include the words “seagull” and “prayer,” is meant to stick. Barb and Star is not a cynical movie, and I don’t think that the goal of an “Edgar’s Prayer” was to go viral any more than the goal was to win an Oscar for it. “Edgar’s Prayer” is the evolution of “Jaja Ding Dong,” the Wartortle to its Squirtle, a full-length song with like, a bridge and key changes rather than a song that a lunatic can listen to forty times in an hour. Interestingly, Jamie Dornan is essential to “Edgar’s Prayer” in a way that Will Ferrell is not essential to “Jaja Ding Dong” nor, if we’re being honest, is Anna Kendrick to “Cups.” From one of Anglophone cinema’s more specific performers we get a highly specific performance of this song which requires him to “climb” a “palm tree.”

74) “Pacienza y Fe,” from In the Heights (2021)

Generally given as the highlight of In the Heights, the movie that critics who saw it in theaters went nuts for and the rest of us, who weren’t in a rush to crown the return of summer movie season, rolled our eyes at. (Congratulations to In the Heights for making it here when other musicals from 2021, like Dear Evan Hansen and Tick Tick Boom and West Side Story are nowhere to be seen!) Olga Merediz’s performance is pretty good here, even though the reaction is intended to be for the dream sequence that’s like her life flashing before her eyes rather than her, per se. The lyrics of the song are about a woman from Cuba emigrating to America based on hope, and finding out that patience and faith were going to have to be the anchors of her life not just on her journey there but once she actually made America. When I was younger, I had a moment reading a Baldo comic strip where Gracie makes a comment that “American in black, white, and many shades of brown just doesn’t have the same ring to it.” What that comic strip did in its own small way for me as a kid, “Pacienza y Fe” does in a much broader way for American movie musicals. The original West Side Story is not exactly overflowing with people who can actually claim Puerto Rican ancestry or origins, as Rita Moreno can. Fame definitely prioritizes America in Black and white. Rent has a rainbow cast where no one color of the rainbow ever stands out. “Pacienza y Fe,” for all the faults of this picture, is demanding our attention in a way that songs in our movies so rarely do.

75) “Both Sides Now,” from CODA (2021)

I hate to end this series on such a downer, but we can’t always have our ‘druthers. You know what’s a great song? “Both Sides Now.” It’s great when Joni Mitchell does it, singing with the wisdom of someone three times the age she was when she wrote it. And it’s great when Judy Collins does it, because there’s always going to be a Jeff Buckley covering Bob Dylan. CODA never does establish why it has to be “Both Sides Now” that Emilia Jones sings in this Berklee audition. The answer is not that it matters so much for Ruby to sing this song, but that this is a terrific song and we’re primed to react to it because of our original feelings for it. Maybe you’re reacting to Joni Mitchell, or maybe you’re reacting to the use of this as a needledrop in Love, Actually, for heaven’s sake. But this is what music is in so many movies now. Like “You Are My Lucky Star,” we go back to the same songs we like a whole lot because of their familiarity. Unlike “You Are My Lucky Star,” there is no sense of lineage in the use of “Both Sides Now” in this movie. I suppose we can make the case that Ruby can see both sides, the hearing and the Deaf, but surely the intent can’t be that facile. Surely not.

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