It’s a looong weekend ladies and gentlemen so let’s pop in a good mix, consider what our music says about us, and appreciate some tunes! Yes, the music in James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy films create an unbelievably fun, catchy soundtrack we all want to play on repeat forever BUT it’s ALSO as unique and important to the plot as the crew of the Milano. More than most films, the Awesome Mixes give Guardians Of The Galaxy its soul. It makes sense! Our music is an intimate part of who we are and, as a result, an honest, heartfelt mix tape is a gift where we share something deeply personal with another. In the films, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 and 2 are gifts to Peter from his mother, Meredith Quill. In sharing the music she loved with him she also gave him a beautiful part of herself. So, in the Awesome Mixes, we aren’t treated simply to a fun soundtrack. Rather, we see a picture of who Meredith Quill was and we find an important part of what shaped Peter Quill into the man he became.
To understate the point, music is important. In his book The Origins Of Music, Nils Lennart Wallin outlines how music has always been a part of our lives for almost as long as we’ve been considered “human.” He outlines how music is found in every known culture, past and present, varying wildly between times and places. Since all people of the world, including the most isolated of tribal groups, have a form of music, it may be concluded that music is likely to have been present in the ancestral population prior to the dispersal of humans around the world. Consequently music may have been in existence for at least 50,000 years. The first music most likely was invented in Africa and evolved from there to become a fundamental constituent of human life. So, historically and anthropologically, music is important. However, a history lesson may explain how music’s stayed with us, but it lacks the passion and intimacy to speak to why specific music fills our lives.
To wildly understate another point, music is important to us. While there are small groups of people (I’m friends with a few) to whom music has no real, tangible meaning outside of background noise, to the rest of us music is something vital. It provides meaning, solace, structure. It helps us smile, cry, dance, and sing. It often helps us learn too, expressing what we can’t express or helping us feel what we’ve yet to fully understand. Regardless of the genres that comprise “our music,” music helps us make sense of our lives and create meaning. I’d argue there are few things more personal, few things which we hold a more intimate connection to than our music. It’s all subjective so it’s all personal too. The artist can never control the meaning of their art once they put it out there and we can never get back to the artist’s original moment of consciousness in artistic creation either. Because of that, it is our meaning that’s important. An artist always has a meaning in mind when they create, but that can’t ever be fully shared. Rather we take from a song what is says to us.
When we create a mix tape then, we are building something very personal because we are making a thoughtful and intentional move to share our music with another. Granted, we live in an age where making a mix tape is a lost art. (In fact, I had a recent comment section conversation with Rob at My Side Of The Laundry Room about this not too long ago.) With iTunes and Spotify we can create playlists with dozens of songs, hundreds of songs, thousands of songs. We can have songs that can be randomly shuffled and reordered at whim, playlists so long they’ll never be experienced in one sitting. But with an actual mix tape (cassette or CD) you have a finite amount of space. So each song becomes important. What do you cut? What do you keep? What order do you want the songs to go in? What sort of emotional story are you telling? What opens? What closes? An authentic mix tape is a labor of love, something that seeks to reflect both the person making it (you’re choosing songs you love) and the person you’re giving it to (you want them to love it too). It takes time, thoughtfulness, and authentic emotional investment.
A mix tape then is, in part, a musical conversation affecting both the creator and the listener – opening the world of the one for the other and asking them to come in and experience it too, leaving their mark on the music as well. We see this clearly in the Guardians Of The Galaxy films. Look at the character of Peter Quill. In my opinion he’s easily the happiest of all the MCU heroes we’ve met yet. He’s certainly the most laidback. He’s goofy, funny, a little self-involved at times, confident, and has great capacity for emotional depth and openness. This is remarkable considering his origin story. Abducted by Yondu Udonta and his Ravagers moments after seeing his mother die from cancer, Peter grows up roaming the seediest, most dangerous parts of space with no knowledge of his father and no connection to the family he left behind. This is every bit as tragic as Batman or Spider-Man’s origin stories…if not more so! Yet Peter doesn’t become an angry, emotionally stunted man nor does he glumly carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s quite the contrary in fact. When we first meet the grown-up version of Peter Quill in Guardians Of The Galaxy he’s on this dark, desolate world, alone and looking for a score while literally dancing his way through life in one of the MCU’s funniest and most memorable scenes.
Why? I’d argue, in large part, it’s because of the music. His Walkman and his mother’s Awesome Mix Vol. 1 become treasured possessions that not only keep him connected to her and give him moments of escape from his life but help form who he becomes. If we think about it, this is only natural. How could a boy, ripped from the only life he’s ever known moments after losing his mother, not live in and through the music she’s given him?
So what then can we learn about Meredith Quill from Awesome Mix Vol. 1 and (ultimately) it’s sibling Awesome Mix Vol. 2? Who was the woman who gave birth to Peter, raised him for the first part of his life, and left part of her heart and soul with him in the form of these mixes? Granted, these can only be inferences – we see very little of Meredith in the films. But if we believe our music is as important to us as I’ve outlined above (and I think it is!) we can see great meaning in the nearly two dozen songs she’s given Peter.
First, she’s a fun girl! Just as Peter will later in life, Meredith likes to sing along and dance. How couldn’t she with songs like “Hooked On A Feeling,” “I Want You Back,” “Come And Get Your Love,” “Southern Nights,” and “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang“?!? And, if you’re spending your days singing and dancing, you’re experiencing joy. I defy you to let yourself loose in the moment, fully wrapped in the music, dancing freely and singing at the top of your lungs and not FEEL GREAT. And, you don’t love songs like the songs listed above if you don’t love to sing and dance. I’ve gotten many a stare rocking out to those songs at red lights with my windows open. So Meredith was a happy girl who loved to sing, loved to dance, and loved to enjoy life!
But Meredith isn’t just a party time, group dance kind of girl. No, she likes a slow dance too which means she’s a romantic at heart. Look at “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” “I’m Not In Love,” “Lake Shore Drive,” and “Bring It On Home To Me.” These are songs that make you want to pull someone close and just hold them as you listen. Slow dancing isn’t for everyone. It can be awkward, the close swaying – especially in public. But there’s something beautiful about abandoning yourself and surrendering to that intimacy. There’s a connection forged in the slow, gentle swaying together that isn’t quite found anywhere else. And Meredith was obviously someone who was a romantic at heart, including these songs and even falling in love with a “space man.” This romantic nature is something Peter inherited as well.
In addition to being a romantic, Meredith is a spiritual person at heart. Obviously we have “Spirit In The Sky” as a clear indicator of her contemplation of spiritual things. But, far more important, is the inclusion of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Given her age, of course Meredith would be shaped by and connected to The Beatles! So, with our already discussed finite amount of mix tape space, who does she decide to include for Peter? Is it Paul, the fun Beatle? Is it John, the political activist Beatle? No, it’s George – the spiritual Beatle. Her song choice is important too as “My Sweet Lord” includes an ancient Vedic chant interwoven throughout more traditional Christian spiritual terminology sung in the song. George Harrison remarked that he wanted to get people praying, even if they didn’t realize it. So as a means to that end he by put a prayer into a pop song they’d sing along to.
It’s worth taking a moment to stress the importance of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mount High Enough” in regard to Peter and Meredith’s relationship. While the song is part of the first film’s soundtrack, in the context of the story of the film, it’s actually the very first track on Awesome Mix Vol. 2. As we see in the final scene of Guardians Of The Galaxy, after defeating Ronan and saving the day, Peter finally opens the present his mother gave him right before she died. It’s a beautifully rendered scene where Peter, with tears in his eyes, puts this new mix into his tape deck. Knowing she’s dying and knowing this is the final gift she’ll give her son, Meredith’s first move is to assure Peter, “some way, some how” she’ll always be there for him. Decades after losing his mother, Peter hears her final promise, “I told you you could always count on me darling / From that day on, I made a vow / I’ll be there when you want me / Some way, some how / Oh baby there ain’t no mountain high enough / Ain’t no valley low enough / Ain’t no river wide enough / To keep me from getting to you babe.” Honestly, I get a little teary eyed too each time I watch it. What a tender, moving, powerful example of a mother’s love – shared forever with her son through her music.
Fitting with this promise she gives Peter and illustrated in the other songs she shares, we see the idea of hope and happiness being central to her character as well. Clearly Meredith’s fond of/attracted to/intrigued by complicated relationships (something else Peter gets from his mother). We find “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” and “Come A Little Bit Closer,” all looking at and embracing less…traditional approaches to love :). But, despite the trials love may give, we see hope and optimism anchoring it all. Those songs are all happy, fun, and hopeful in and of themselves. But it doesn’t stop there. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is an ICONIC tribute to hope! “Mr. Blue Sky” is too. Perhaps most of all though we have “O-o-h Child.” This song radiates positivity and the clear certainty that it’s all going to be better. When you listen to The Five Stairsteps sing this song, it’s not the tragedy that grounds the song that you hear but the assurance that “things are gonna get easier” that consistently fills and elevates you.
Lastly, she’s a bit of an outsider. Yes, her choices are all mainstream pop hits. She’s using singles, not album deep cuts. But she’s got David Bowie on here. Bowie, while a MEGA star and a genre definer, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. So the fact that she has “Moonage Daydream” on here speaks to the fact that Meredith understood, appreciated, enjoyed, and felt at home on the margins.
We see all of this reflected, directly and some more indirectly, in Peter Quill. If not for what he learned from his mother, through her music, it’s questionable whether or not “Star Lord” would have ever become the hero he did or whether or not the Guardians of the Galaxy would have ever been pulled together. But he had that music so we have this hero. Iron Man has his snark. Captain America has his nobility. Hulk has his rage. Spidey has his conscience. Thor has his humility. But Peter Quill has his heart and that heart’s filled with joy. That’s what we can find with good music. And what better gift can any parent give their child than a sense of true joy, the idea that life is to be danced through, and the belief that it’s always going to get brighter?
There is much more that can be said about the songs I haven’t mentioned and of course so much more that can be said about the songs I have included. But, at the end of the day, music is really meant to be heard and felt not so much written and read about. As Billy Joel famously told us, “There’s a new band in town / but you can’t get the sound / from a story in a magazine.” So I think it’s time to bring this post to a close. I’ve spent the last two weeks listening to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 and Awesome Mix Vol. 2 on constant repeat in my car to get ready to write this post. Do you know what happened? Somewhat redundantly I can tell you IT WAS AWESOME. I’m not planning on taking those mixes out anytime soon either. They’re just happy music and that’s a gift that can’t be underrated.
So why don’t we all agree to take the weekend, listen to some music that speaks to our souls, and share it with someone we love? I’m not sure there’s a more fulfilling use of our time. As the 20th century’s leading scholar on mythology Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Love is a friendship set to music.” And who couldn’t use a little more love?