This article was originally written for the Sonic Cinema series on the MES Film Club website.
I’m going to begin this article with a confession: I love the music of the 1980s. It probably makes me really square to admit that I think that “Sussudio” by Phil Collins and “I Died in Your Arms Tonight” by Cutting Crew aren’t actually half-bad, but if there’s one thing I learned from Huey Lewis (actually, I first learned it from the Sesame Street’s geometric parody, but I digress), it’s hip to be square. This isn’t necessarily something I’m completely proud of, and it’s something that has taken a long time to come to terms with, but I feel like a rant on the music of the most patriotic American film ever made by a non-American is an appropriate place to discuss it. I’m a firm believer in what I guess you could call Gonzo criticism: criticism that discusses the relationship between art and the critic, and I’m actually not going to talk very much at all about Top Gun. I’ll be talking more about the role that music similar to that on the soundtrack of Top Gun has played in my life.
Growing up as a wee child, I didn’t know much about music. Nothing sonically really existed for me outside of Johnny Cougar Mellencamp, Camille Saint-Saëns, and The Big Chill soundtrack, which is probably a weird combination, but I was a weird kid. I remember being deeply concerned for my older sister when she began listening to Coldplay and Kelly Clarkson on the local “lite” FM radio station, but I soon had a little cultural awakening of my own. In the 6th grade, one of my good friends invited me over to his house, and I expected to participate in the typical video-gaming and time-wasting suburban kids engaged in. However, what I found was a revelation, a thrashing jolt of ten thousand volts to my head, a moment of simultaneous Nirvana and apocalypse delivered in the guise of a whimpy plastic guitar with five technicolor buttons and a whammy bar that came unattached easily yet still slew its opponents with choked lightening. Yes, comrades, what changed my life was Guitar Hero II. I spent the next three hours, my eyes peeled back to the jelled insides of my rock-and-rolled skull, in a state of near-coma, drool escaping down my chin to participate in the magnificent awe. My friend had owned the game for a few weeks, so he wasn’t as nearly enthused as I was, but this was truly the kind of thing that changes the contents of a man’s soul. I’d never really heard “rock and roll” this way before, let alone participated in it through a virtual proxy.
For the next three years of my life, before I began high school and had a similar life-changing encounter with The Beatles, I was a slave to the likes Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Sure, it often got dull after awhile, but this was something I couldn’t easily step away from. It became the soundtrack to my life. The playlist running through my head was an endless looping and/or shuffling mix of Poison, The Stone Temple Pilots, Bon Jovi, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, AC/DC, Joan Jett, Danzig, and whatever other meager scraps were thrown to me from the gods of what I later grew to thought was really awful, well, cock-rock. Sure, I still mixed it up with, Motown, “indie” music that wasn’t as “indie” as I actually thought, and anything else I could get my hands on but this was what ruled my mind.I became a prototypical nerd on the highway to hell, or rather the highway to action-figure collecting, with Led Zeppelin in my head and a Timothy Zahn novel in my hand. I was one of those kids who insisted that 80s hair metal was the only real form of music; forget rap and hip-hop, which was just noise to me then. I experienced what Chuck Klosterman talks about in his book Killing Yourself to Live as the Led Zeppelin phase that every straight male born after 1970 will experience at least once in their life. No matter how short or long, every guy is destined to have a point at which they are perfectly content to listen to nothing but this elephant-thunder elixir-for-the-ears ever again.
However, something soon changed. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was disillusionment with the friends I played these games with, or the music figures I idolized, but my tastes soon radically shifted. I started listening to bands like Modest Mouse and Muse my 8th grade and discovered Tom Waits and actually really began listening to the music of the Beatles as freshman in high school, causing everything to go a totally different way. I became someone with actual social skills and radically different friends. But I think what happened most was that I became afraid of who I was in middle school; I laughed at people who took Bret Michaels seriously, at people who called Led Zeppelin just “Zeppelin.” I became, in essence, a hipster. Pretentious, obnoxious, the whole gig. Sure, I still wore cargo shorts and essentially the same nerd-chic uniform I had in middle school, but I tried hard to hide my old self.
However, everything eventually changed again. I don’t know what it was specifically. A lot of it probably had to do with the fact that I moved half-way across the country before my junior started and met new people, but I soon realized that I didn’t have to hate who I was in middle school. I could be both Nathans- I could geek out over both Bela Tarr and Beastmaster, listen to REO Speedwagon and Reggie Watts.
This is where Top Gun comes in. Watching Top Gun again a few months ago, I realized how much I loved the film, particularly the music. It’s so much fun, and I don’t think anyone can argue with that. There are four songs the movie is known best for, two originals, two oldies. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers is, in my opinion, one of the most haunting songs ever recorded, with that Phil Spector Sound getting deep inside the cavities of your bones. “Great Balls of Fire” is also rollicking and fantastic, one of the finest rock-and-roll compositions in pop music history. However, I think the two songs in the film that are most important to this piece and my life are the originals- “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins and “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin. The first is undoubtedly a fun 80s artifact and probably the only song by Loggins I actually like. “Take My Breath Away,” however, is my favorite song in the film other than “You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” It’s beautiful in a strange synthetic Tupperware-esque way, like the whole film itself, but also has a haunting quality like the Righteous Brothers song, but maybe more in the manner of the theme to Twin Peaks. If I had to pick any song to have an asthma attack to, it would probably be this one.
Top Gun is a movie I really enjoy, but it and its soundtrack also play an important role in my quest for cultural self-acceptance. I don’t have to hate the things I liked in middle school, and I don’t have to hide the fact that I earnestly enjoy things that are, quite frankly, pretty awful. Our society is bound down by too much irony, and I’m trying to wean myself off of that. Maybe if you watched Top Gun and tried to enjoy it you could get off that dangerous hipster drug too.