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Back when self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau claimed to listen to every album he got—an impossible proposition today—his stated procedure was to stack the new records on a spindle and whittle while he worked. The ones that caught his attention were the ones that merited further investigation.

That, of course, was during the relatively irony-free period when to call something Muzak was still an insult. These days, making music that’s sappy, cheesy, or simpering is quite hip, as long as it’s done with exquisite self-knowledge. Yanni will never be rehabilitated, but the catalogues of labels like Emperor Norton are—for a tiny audience of connoisseurs—exalted.

This L.A. label deals in such unmarketable oddities as

J-pop—including the estimable Zoobombs—and Señor Coconut’s Latin arrangements of Kraftwerk favorites. (Trust me, the idea is funnier than the execution.) One of its kinkiest specialities is the fake soundtrack: The label’s recent releases include Arling & Cameron’s Music for Imaginary Films and Logan’s Sanctuary, the score to a fictional sequel to the 1976 sci-fi flick Logan’s Run, composed by Brian Reitzel (once of Redd Kross) and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (a former member of Jellyfish, one of the bands I most enjoyed walking out on). Arling & Cameron manufacture sham spy-movie funk, ersatz easy-listening pop, and even phony Bollywood music—as if last year’s Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars, & Sitars didn’t satisfy any reasonable appetite for cumin-scented Shaft knockoffs.

Who exactly needs film soundtracks? Admittedly, as a film critic, I’m overexposed to movie music, but most of it’s memorable only for how hackneyed and hectoring it is. If you see more than one Hollywood drama a month—or even a year—you’re unlikely to bark or salivate the way you’re meant to when the strings swell.

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Fake scores aren’t even all that novel. Experts will remember that back in 1995, U2, Eno, and some pals—including Luciano Pavarotti, one of the kings of middlebrow crossover schlock—released Original Soundtracks 1 (credited to Passengers, an apparent tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger). And a lot of that album’s vaporous soundscapes descended from Eno’s ambient music, which borrowed from Steve Reich and Philip Glass to create “soundtracks” for everyday life. By now, this is such a familiar gambit that I was a bit surprised that the Radiohead guys—those bold innovators—titled one of the tracks on their latest album “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” (By the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to say that not all of Kid A sounds like R.E.M. Some of it sounds like Happy Go Licky.)

Now that rock is dead, rummaging around in any archive is permitted. So if performers like Portishead, Stereolab, Thievery Corporation, Saint Etienne, and Björk—whose new Selmasongs is actually a real soundtrack album, complete with an appearance by that Radiohead guy—can take inspiration from Italian soft-porn scores and old hacks like John Barry, that’s fine. And if a Euro-retro combo like Air can get work composing an almost-real score for Sofia Coppola’s almost-real movie The Virgin Suicides, that’s OK, too.

Air isn’t the only act to blur the line between fake and real soundtracks. Moby’s I Like to Score collected both phony and actual movie compositions, and if you hadn’t seen the flick in question you probably couldn’t tell the difference. With his latest album, Moby has taken the Warholian position that creation, promotion, and exploitation are all the same thing, licensing every track for TV commercials and other background-music uses. You can be in my movie if I can write the soundtrack for yours.

Purists can argue that this is sellout, but what’s the point of making pop products but not entering the contemporary musical bazaar? In practical terms, TV commercials have made hits of tunes as diverse as Clannad’s “Theme From Harry’s Game” and Sting’s “Desert Rose” (both in the United States), the Clash’s “Train in Vain” (in Britain), and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Energy Flow” (in Japan). More abstractly, everything has its score, from TV commercials to walking down the street. Put on your Walkman or just listen to the ambient noise—an idea that goes back much further than “ambient” music. (As Eno and Jean-Luc Godard know, but Hollywood doesn’t, this noise can even include silence—a strange but potentially liberating concept.)

That contemporary music is a boisterous multiculti street market is the theory behind the found poetry Karl Hyde cuts and pastes for Underworld and the way machine noise mingles with a string section for Selmasongs’ “Cvalda.” Not to mention the polymorphous pop of the Shibuya scene, whose leader took his stage name from The Planet of the Apes. Cornelius presides over a world where all styles are extrinsic—except traditional Japanese music, which he would never touch—and thus interchangeable. For the Japanese mixmaster, everything is beyond cool or corny.

Arling & Cameron—or Reitzel and Manning—should be so lucky. They’ve made the fundamental error of pop-cult trash collectors: assuming that a cultural artifact that’s diverting in its original context will keep its appeal any place, any time, anywhere. But real film scores evoke images and eras, whereas Music for Imaginary Films conveys only stale riffs and timbres. Besides, I heard the imaginary book was better. —Mark Jenkins

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