6 life lessons from Empire Records (advice for teens who didn’t get to live through the 90’s)

I was involved in a long Empire Records ‘quote-off’ with Brooke of Blonde Ambition last night (you know, where you riff back and forward with quotes from – usually – a cult movie), and it got me thinking that 1995, when Empire Records was released, was a pretty intense year for me.

I was 14, and in my second year of high school at one of the more exclusive private schools on the Sunshine Coast. My father had just left my mum, brother and I, to live a jaunty life of new women and weekday yacht sailing. I wore a back brace all day every day (thanks scoliosis), had a very small group of friends, wasn’t invited to many parties, and whilst I had discovered boys… they had not yet discovered me.

I struggled to express myself verbally, so when Empire Records hit the screen, with all the angst that only the 90’s could offer, I felt like I’d found characters who were as messed up as I was. (Disclaimer: in hindsight, I had a pretty good life. Thanks Mum.)

Working in a high school now, watching teenage girls struggle with all the same kinds of dramas that my friends and I went through – but with the added stresses of technology and early sexualisation – I wonder how teens these days manage to express themselves without such killer lines as ‘We mustn’t dwell… no, not today. We CAN’T. Not on Rex Manning Day.’

Here are my top life lessons for teens, as taught by the indie kids of Empire Records.

AJ: I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.

Sometimes we just need to do something that other people don’t get. Whether it’s creative or enterprenerial, teens these days have so many avenues open to them, and I know that a lot of adults in their lives will question some crazy decisions. I can pretty much guarantee that this generation of youngsters will all own businesses and be creating cool stuff WAY before we ever got around to that!
Gina: Well, Sinead O’Rebellion. Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behaviour.
We’ve all been there. But I REALLY want to impart one of my most important life lessons with young girls… do NOT cut your hair after a break-up or massive change in life circumstances. Just don’t. Take a month, then go crazy. There’s nothing worse than missing a boy and missing your locks and not looking like yourself, at the same time.
Joe: Gina, you’d better go home.
Gina: Am I fired?
Joe: Have I fired anyone today? No. Why would I start with you?
Kids, remember this – sometimes you’ll mess up. Sometimes you’ll mess up real bad, and it’ll hurt the people who care about you the most. The thing about being a teenager is that usually, those people who you hurt, won’t make snap decisions about the rest of your future. They’ll still love and accept you, and want to help you through this awful hormonal time.

Corey: So this how your life’s gonna be now, hey? You’re just gonna screw every ‘has-been’ until your tits fall down and they don’t want you anymore?

For me, the dynamic between good-girl Corey and fun-loving free spirit Gina is my favourite part of Empire Records. They secretly love each other in a weird ‘I wanna be you’ kind of way, and the movie ends with both girls understanding and appreciating some of those differences.

Also, safe-sex lessons. There are plenty of safe-sex cautionary tales in this sarcasm-fuelled relationship.

Lucas: Warren, look what you took. (flicks through the CD’s that Warren stole from the store) Rap, metal, rap, metal… and Whitney Houston.

The recalcitrant shoplifter Warren is a kooky kid with some eclectic taste in CDs, and I guess his message to the youth of the 90’s is that you should love what you love. If you like weird ukelele music from Eastern Europe, like it hard. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t like it. Same goes for fashion and style, do your own thing, try something that your friends aren’t trying. We’re not all meant to be clones… even as teenagers searching for our clique.

A.J.: …you know, I got to tell her that I, uh, well, you know, that I uh…
Joe: love her.
A.J.: Yeah, now how do I do that?
Joe: You say I love you. What do you want, written instructions?
Here you go, the love story we all wanted to be a part of. The shy from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks artist boy loves sweet super-smart rich girl Corey, but doesn’t know how to tell her.

His tough-love boss Joe is here to tell him that it doesn’t need to be hard. It really doesn’t. Sometimes we (and I clearly mean ME) overthink things to the point that they can’t be said, and unless we have written instructions, the words never come out.

Be your own tough-love boss, and make yourself say the things you feel. Even if they come out awkward (and they 99% will come out awkward, move on).

Which 90’s movie coaxed you through the awkwardness and pain of your teen years? Any of your fave Empire Records quotes that I missed?

4 thoughts on “6 life lessons from Empire Records (advice for teens who didn’t get to live through the 90’s)

  1. YASSSSSS, we watched Empire Records and The Craft back-to-back many a time. Lucas provides many of my favourite quotes including; "What's with today today?" and "In the immortal words of The Doors, 'the time to hesitate is through'".

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