Why ’10 Things I Hate About You’ Is Still The Perfect Teen Movie Soundtrack
Punky, sarcastic, joyful, anxious: '10 Things I Hate About You' captured it all.
When 10 Things I Hate About You was released in 1999, it gave millennials two indisputably important pieces of enduring pop culture phenomena: Heath Ledger as a heartthrob (before he became a Serious Actor) and a feminist icon in Kat Stratford.
In 2019, these two figures are still frequent topics of reflection and sources of nostalgia.
But — the soundtrack is often overlooked. It isn’t packed with ’90s rock legends like other teen films of the day (except for a very welcome appearance by The Cardigans with their underrated ‘War’).
A lot of the bands on the 10 Things soundtrack were one-hit wonders that simply aren’t on our radar anymore, like Save Ferris, Semisonic, and Letters to Cleo. While none of these bands achieved superstar status, their songs on the soundtrack created an indelible impression — one which now packs a gut punch of nostalgia.
The best part of rewatching 10 Things I Hate About You as an adult (besides that subplot in which Allison Janney is writing a romance novel, which we really don’t talk about enough) is the chance to recapture how you felt the first time you saw it: The excitement of a new (albeit surface level) encounter with women’s empowerment and liberation, and the shock of seeing a smart and pissed off outsider as the story’s heroine.
Empowerment, Illusion, Anger, And Love
The soundtrack suits these themes perfectly: Its songs toe the line between angsty alt-rock head-bangers and bouncy, flippant pop tunes. Listening to it recalls a scene from an equally treasured teen dramedy, Bring It On, when Torrance Shipman dances on her bed to a mix made by her crush.
It’s the type of music that makes you want to do just that. Go ahead, put it on right now: You’ll suddenly feel the irrepressible urge to look at pictures of your ex on Instagram and jump on the bed while using your pillow to hit the walls.
The soundtrack’s songs toe the line between angsty alt-rock head-bangers and bouncy pop tunes.
These conflicting feelings are probably best captured in ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ by Letters to Cleo, a song about a guy who is mean to his girlfriend but promises that means he loves her (in 2019, we call that ‘gaslighting’).
‘I Know’ by Save Ferris (the band that plays in the movie’s prom scene) has a similar vibe, which copies the pop-ska sound that No Doubt championed. Both songs are about relationships that the singers wish they didn’t care about so much, but they do care. They care a lot. And it hurts to care so much. Sounds familiar?
Femininity And Rock
Kay Hanley and Monique Powell led Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris, respectively. It’s no mistake that a movie about two standout young women has a soundtrack packed with female vocalists who chose to break away from the Britney Spears mould (whose debut album also came out in 1999).
In 1999, this wasn’t exactly new territory — Hole released Live Through This in 1994 while The Cranberries had released Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We a year earlier.
Courtney Love and Dolores O’Riordan pioneered the sound that Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris would pursue, as well as the look that accompanied it: Lace and silk mini dresses paired with torn tights and combat boots, red lipstick, and floral print, alongside an expression that non-verbally communicates to any approaching strangers “Please go away.”
Along with this look, these singers embraced a version of femininity that would become a hallmark of the ’90s: They had a tough outer shell but a fragile inner world, they were both sarcastic and sad, rebellious and yet felt a yearning to be loved. In 1999 they were the epitome of cool (and the first taste girls my age got of a complex female role model), much like Kat Stratford.
Kat is snarky, intimidating, unattainable — not to mention intelligent. And this genre of music is integral to understanding her: As Cameron points out to Patrick Verona as they concoct a scheme to get the Stratford sisters to start dating, Kat likes “angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion.”
Later Patrick is forced to create a clandestine meeting with Kat at Club Skunk, where Letters to Cleo (who he favourably compares to Bikini Kill) is playing a show.
Rock Jams And Pop Sentiments
Despite not featuring bands that may have been at the top of the charts, the 10 Things soundtrack still managed to bottle the prevailing sound and spirit of the time. Back then, most bands were trying to do two things at once: Play rock jams that still held light-hearted pop sentiments at their core.
A good example of this is in the song ‘F.N.T’ by Semisonic (famous for, of course, ‘Closing Time’). It couples grungy, rock-adjacent guitar riffs with saccharine pop lyrics that perhaps you didn’t necessarily want to like as a teenager — but they’re so relentlessly charming you soon find them lodged, not unpleasantly, in your brain.
The success of this soundtrack hinges on the fact that you, the listener, will get swept away by songs that some part of you thinks aren’t even that good. I suspect (though I can’t say for sure) that when it first came out, this soundtrack might have sounded average, even generic, compared to others of the time.
Take the American Pie soundtrack, for instance, which features Third Eye Blind, Sugar Ray, Tonic, and Blink-182. With all those big names, you’d think it’d have the longer shelf life, but it doesn’t even come close to the quality of the 10 Things soundtrack.
For one thing, the 10 Things maintains a consistent tone throughout. It’s anonymous pop music that vaguely, but satisfactorily, reminds listeners of how the ’90s felt. 10 Things is actually better off for having so few big names on the soundtrack.
There are a few iconic tracks that you’ll recognise, though: The movie opens with ‘One Week,’ by the Barenaked Ladies, a grating song that is blessedly almost immediately drowned out by Kat blasting ‘Bad Reputation’ by Joan Jett in her beat up, rusty muscle car. When, moments later, she rips down a poster promoting her high school’s prom, you might feel a familiar rush of teenage angst and fearlessness. It’s a moment to cheer for, punctuated spectacularly by Jett’s angry wail.
The crown jewel of the soundtrack, though, is another cover by Letters to Cleo (this time of Cheap Trick), ‘I Want You to Want Me’, which is transformed into a bubbly heartache anthem, perfectly distilling adolescent frustrations with the thrill of adult independence.
Suddenly, our teen anger at the world felt not just manageable, but fun, a source not of shame but pleasure. And guess what? That anger has never gone away. All that’s really changed is that we try to manage it better now.
We’ll always need movies (and soundtracks) like 10 Things I Hate About You: They turn life’s inevitable misery into something joyful.
Elisabeth Sherman is a food and culture writer living in Jersey City. You can find her on Twitter at @shermanelis.
All this week, Junkee is heading back in time to relive the greatest moments in pop culture from 1999. For more 1999 content, head here.