The 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters has fallen upon us this year and the celebration has been met with a lot of excitement. Whether people are excitedly discussing Paul Feig’s pending reboot of the franchise with an all-women cast (to the chagrin of original 'Buster Ernie Hudson) or rushing to purchase marshmallow-scented vinyl re-issues of the “Ghostbusters” theme song, Ghostbusters is as relevant as ever. In the midst of all of this celebration, many are forgetting that this year is also the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters 2, a worthy enough successor to the original film (though nowhere near its equal). Ghostbusters 2 has been continually thrown under the bus for a quarter of a century, but as with all things unfairly maligned, it is now getting its overdue re-evaluation. Regardless, the worst that should have ever been said about Ghostbusters 2 is that it simply is not as funny as its predecessor and it takes itself a little too seriously (using an infant as a threatened plot device feels a bit contrived). And although it won’t get a specially scented re-issue, the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack was an intriguing cultural statement that deserves re-evaluation within the context of popular music’s evolution over the last 25 years. Seriously.
Of course, any discussion of the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack should begin with at least a brief mention of its antecedent. The original Ghostbusters soundtrack album was essentially centered around one song (Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”), as opposed to the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack, which centers on both one artist and the emerging musical and cultural trends of the time (more on that later). Though a successful artist prior to being featured on the original Ghostbusters soundtrack, Ray Parker, Jr. was by no means a mega star in the music industry. In fact, it could easily be argued that the biggest highlight of his career was the success of the "Ghostbusters" theme song. And apart from that song—a pop culture cornerstone despite the controversy surrounding its melodic “similarity” to Huey Lewis & The News’ “I Want A New Drug”—the soundtrack is basically a hodgepodge of pieces from Elmer Bernstein’s film score and kind-of-danceable B-sides from new wave also-rans (Thompson Twins and Mick Smiley), some creepy dudes (Alessi Brothers), and groan-inducing adult contemporary artists (Air Supply and Laura Branigan). Overall, it was a commercially successful, but impossibly unremarkable, album.
Unlike its predecessor, the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack operates as a showcase for then-mega-pop star Bobby Brown. In 1989, perhaps nobody was as hot as the former New Edition member, who was still too young to (legally) order VIP bottle service at the club. With the help of uber-producers Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Brown introduced new jack swing to the mainstream with his 1988 album Don’t Be Cruel. It featured 5 hit singles—most notably the #1 hit “My Prerogative”—and was the bestselling album of the year in 1989. Brown ruled the world of pop music, but he was still owned by his label, MCA, which was also in charge of compiling the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack.
There’s no doubt that MCA was eager to cash-in on the recent success of Brown: He is featured in two songs on the soundtrack. The first Brown song, “On Our Own,” was the soundtrack’s lead single and, subsequently became a huge hit. Despite that fact, the song is lost somewhere in the new jack swing and movie tie-singles archives—it did not have the lasting impact of the previous film’s hit single, nor any of Brown’s other singles that dominated the pop music landscape between 1988-1990. It’s too bad because the song is actually an interesting thing to behold: It has virtually nothing to do with the film it’s representing, with the exception of the surprisingly detailed plot synopsis Brown provides in his rap during the bridge. The music video itself has aged strangely, if not only for the irony of seeing Christopher Reeve riding his bike sans helmet or the blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from the Ramones:
“On Our Own” opens the album and Brown’s old cohorts in New Edition and their song, “Supernatural,” follow it. This one-two punch of modern black artists establishes a theme to the record, along with Brown's "We're Back" and Kool & The Gang's then-newly solo James "J.T." Taylor's "Promised Land." Unlike the original Ghostbusters soundtrack, which was somewhat out of touch with the emerging trends of 1984, the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack makes a (perhaps unconscious) effort to act as a vehicle to bring a cultural experience to Middle America. Ghostbusters as a film franchise is heavily marketed to a white demographic. Even the most progressive and open-minded fan of the films must be able to admit that the New York City represented in each film is not a true representation of the cultural diversity of the city. This is an issue that has plagued similar quality films and television series that take place in NYC (i.e. most Woody Allen films and Seinfeld). Racial and cultural politics on the screen aside, the soundtrack makes up for that glaring omission with its heavy representation of black artists performing R&B, new jack swing and hip-hop songs.
Speaking of the latter genre, it might come as no surprise to many that perhaps the best track on the soundtrack is “Spirit,” by Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew. Maybe the rhymes about the Ghostbusters seem a bit passé and just as corny as the bridge rap in the aforementioned “On Our Own,” but there’s a certain honesty and rawness to the song—it seems truly authentic, particularly when compared to the rest of the tracks. It also sounds relatively fresh in the current day, which is not something you can say about most of the selections in the album:
Meanwhile, Run DMC were tasked with updating the original Ghostbusters theme song, which was probably a forgone conclusion. They managed to put somewhat of an original spin on it. At the very least, they managed to remove all traces of Huey Lewis & The News-esqueness from the song. Plus, they got Dana (Sigourney Weaver) to appear in the music video, which is a tinge more impressive than Louis Tulley’s appearance in the “On Our Own” music video (apologies to the infinitely wonderful Rick Moranis):
As diverse as that first half of the album is, the latter half of the album—or, Side 2—is loaded with aging white acts that stand incongruous with all of the other featured acts. If Side 1 of the soundtrack was a deliberate attempt on MCA's part to celebrate and cash-in on the recent successes of new jack swing and hip-hop culture, Side 2 functions as audio comfort food for Middle-Americans who were still not comfortable with the idea of black culture dominating the mainstream. Therefore, audiences listening to this record are suddenly subjected to a trio of classic rockers, who are burnt-out, irrelevant, or completely safe. Ladies and gentleman, the bizarre “White Dad Rock Trio” of the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack:
It pains me to categorize Oingo Boingo in the "White Dad Rock" genre, but in the context of this soundtrack it's where they have to reside. Besides, their inclusion on the soundtrack came at the tail-end of their relationship with MCA Records. The label never seemed to know what to do with the band after they signed them in 1984, following 5 years of the band’s inspired and experimental work on the independent I.R.S. label. The 1985 album Dead Man's Party was somewhat of a sales success, primarily based on the fact that it included two songs heavily featured in a motion picture: "Weird Science" from Weird Science, and the titular track was featured in the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back To School, which also features a scene with Oingo Boingo performing the song "live." So, as far as MCA was probably concerned, it was sort of the band's mid-career shtick to perennially appear on every other motion picture soundtrack. By 1989, frontman Danny Elfman was likely more focused on his then-burgeoning career as a film scorer and the band itself was just a little over 3 years away from breaking-up. Their contribution,"Flesh 'N Blood," is the strongest song in the "White Dad Rock Trio” set.* It’s a progression for the band, in that their trademark ska and new wave elements remain in the mix, but they’re also somewhat buried under an alternative rock sheen. The song also has the word “ghost” in the chorus, which MCA probably thought made it appropriate for the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack because…GHOSTS!
Oingo Boingo, however, would have to be considered contemporary and extremely hip in comparison to the remaining two members of the "White Dad Rock Trio": Elton John and Glenn Frey. By 1989, Elton John was submerged in the adult contemporary ocean, just a few years away from fully embracing his blandness with the Lion King soundtrack. His contribution to the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack—“Love Is A Cannibal”—is an awkward fit. It also happened to be a B-side to his 1989 single “Sacrifice,” so it is likely that his label (yes, MCA) simply dumped the song onto the soundtrack because:
- “It’s Elton John! Dads love Elton John and will buy this soundtrack for their kids!”
- “The song has the word ‘cannibal’ in it, which is kind of scary, like the ghosts in Ghostbusters 2!”
The song itself seems like a complete afterthought, complete with a rudimentary guitar solo in the bridge and Bernie Taupin’s throw-away, heteronormative lyrics (Love is a cannibal/Woman is a criminal/She have the hunger/But man is the animallll!!!). Legendary!
Unlike Oingo Boingo and Elton John, Glenn Frey’s ‘80s’ lotion jam “Flip City” at least has the distinction of being prominently featured in the actual film, during a montage of the villainous slime taking over New York City—complete with a haunted fur coat:
The “White Dad Rock Trio” comes off as a bit of a distraction and ruins the flow of the soundtrack. Things only get worse with the closing track, which is a pedestrian cover of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher And Higher” by some guy named Howard Huntsberry, probably included because he (like all acts on the record) was signed to MCA and they didn’t want to pay for the publishing rights to Wilson’s classic original (which is featured in the “haunted dancing toaster scene” of the film).** Then again, maybe soundtracks are not meant to be listened to as whole albums. But still, the first two-thirds of the Ghostbusters 2 soundtrack serve as a seamless mix and an interesting music history lesson to anybody wondering what 1989-90 sounded like. Not nearly the success that its predecessor was, it is still an intriguing time capsule that attempts to transcend cultural gaps between both race and generations. Of course, I might be giving MCA too much credit here, but considering that they are no longer a record label, we can now observe this album with unique historical context, rather than a quick cash grab (which it most certainly was at the time). And at its most basic, the soundtrack is not great by any means, but at least Air Supply is nowhere to be heard and Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” sounds nothing like anything by Huey Lewis & The News.
*-Though it seems more like a nice little B-side compared to the band's best work, the song did turn up on their 1990 LP, Dark At The End Of The Tunnel.**-Apologies to any H2 fans out there, but seriously, who the hell is that guy?