Zach Braff's Taste in Music Made Me Feel Cool in High School

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Over the past couple of weeks Zach Braff has been releasing songs off the soundtrack to his new movie Wish I Was Here, and the one thing I cannot begrudge Braff for is his taste in music. Last week NPR premiered a lovely song by Bon Iver called "Heavenly Father;" this week a sweet ballad by Cat Power and Coldplay named for the film. 

Braff, with his specific brand of white, middle class malaise, has become a walking punchline in the 10 years since Garden State premiered, and the fact that his semi-Kickstarter-funded follow-up seems to resemble his first outing in many ways doesn't help. 

Garden State certainly has its problems—though Vulture's Jesse David Fox made a good case in defending the movie last year—and I can argue that I was blind to them when the movie came out. (I desperately wanted to emulate Natalie Portman's manic pixie dream girl, imagining quirk was a substitute for being genuinely interesting.) Still, I'm not going to recant any of my affection for the soundtrack. 

As Fox explained in his essay last year, the soundtrack, "was as taste-defining as any soundtrack since Romeo + Juliet. Garden State, along with The O.C., paved the way for the Grey's Anatomying of indie music and helped develop the hipster middlebrow that is simultaneously too hip for the unhip and too unhip for the hip." 

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I entered high school in 2004, the fall after Garden State came out, and, at the time, my love of Braff's collection of tunes by The Shins, Nick Drake, and Frou Frou felt like cultural cachet to me. Music, even music that we truly love, can have the power to give us superficial confidence when others like the same things. I was proud that I already considered myself a fan of some of the artists Braff used—(I had picked up on The Shins when they appeared on Gilmore Girls earlier that year, and had the entire discography of Simon and Garfunkel at my fingertips thanks to my parents)—and tried to fill in the holes in my knowledge—(I bought Nick Drake's "Pink Moon.") I had something in common with the girls who pinned up pictures of Braff in the school's news magazine room. So, yes, my adoration of the Garden State soundtrack had something to do with 14-year-old insecurity. Any time I listen to it I inevitably recall how "Caring Is Creepy" spoke to my angst or the lovelorn daydreams associated with "Such Great Heights." (I mean what teenage—or adult—romantic hasn't wanted the "freckles in their eyes" to be "mirror images" with someone else's?) 

But the soundtrack, for me at least, doesn't really lose any of its power when I  revisit it. Braff did something that I want to call ingenious, putting together a collection of songs that are immediately evocative of both the movie they are associated with, and a certain period of time. Thanks to Garden State, "New Slang" conjures as many emotions and associations as "Don't You (Forget About Me)" does because of The Breakfast ClubAs Kevin Nguyen at The Bygone Bureau wrote in response to Fox's defense of the movie: "Indie music never belonged to anyone, but at least in the early ’00s, it was easier to pretend it did. Garden State captured a perfect adolescent dream: that a cute stranger might tell you to listen to a song, and that song might actually change your life." 

It's hard to imagine that the soundtrack to Wish I Was Here will be as emotionally resonant for me as the Garden State soundtrack. Time and public perception has worn on Braff who seems perhaps too desperate to recapture some of that zeitgeist he once had. But I'll listen to that Bon Iver track on repeat and hold out just the teensiest bit of hope.  Maybe one of these songs will change my life. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.