'Almost Famous' Taught Me Music Boys Are Full of Shit

Penny Lane is chaotic and also right.

almost famous anniversary
Photo: InStyle.com; Alamy

The first time I watched Almost Famous, I was sprawled out on my parents’ living room floor eating takeout soup. I was sick and my parents were working nights. I had recently bought a box of VHS tapes from a garage sale and one of them had that iconic picture of curly-haired Kate Hudson on the sleeve.

I was the tender age of 15, filled with emotions that bubbled up to the surface every time I put on a song that reminded me of one of my many crushes. At that point, the movie, which turns 20 years old on Sept. 14, had been out for a few years, but I really didn’t know much about it other than that it was about a rock band made up of men with long hair — my biggest interest at the time.

I popped the tape in a dusty player. Immediately, I was hit with the familiar sounds of a pencil scratching words into a notebook. I was a closed-off teen, full of feelings of sadness and loneliness that only came out in the journal that I religiously kept. I wrote pages upon pages detailing the sunken feeling I would get after an interaction with a boy from an embarrassing local pop-punk band — 2005 was a time. My friends and I were uninterested in (AKA not invited to) regular high school rites of passage like keg parties, and, admittedly, we were assholes about it. I wanted to be around boys who played instruments because they were cooler than the popped collar drunks in my English class.

The music guys were older by a few years; they wore tight pants and they sang about their feelings. Their other common trait was that they knew girls wanted to be around them, and so they treated us terribly. Most of the time they’d ask my friends and me to hang out with them, and then act like it was a nuisance that we were there. They barely gave us attention, but when they did, we felt special. I couldn’t get enough.

As the movie began, I was immediately taken by the soundtrack. It took me on an adventure through my own mind. Brenton Wood croons about the confident woman I wanted to be in "The Oogum Boogum Song.” “When you wear those big earrings, long hair, and things/ You got style, girl, that sure is wild,” Wood sings. Then Paul Simon apparently read my diary and pulled out the teen angst with “America.” Jethro Tull’s “The Teacher” laid out my feelings of wanting to belong to something. I was locked in.

(Fun fact: I later found out that the film’s director Cameron Crowe actually lost money on the movie in part due to the $3.5 million music budget.)

In the first 30 minutes, I thought that my connection to the movie would be through William (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old aspiring writer who is obsessed with rockstar opulence. But then I was introduced to Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a petite yet larger-than-life woman who strolls into a scene set outside of the backstage door of a Black Sabbath concert. William is writing about the opening band and sees her and her friends as he’s trying to get backstage. She’s wearing a fur-lined suede jacket, paired over a lacy crop top and bell-bottom jeans. She’s soft but powerful as she explains that she’s not a “groupie,” but in fact is there to “inspire the music.” He was a jerk for assuming otherwise.

“Sure,” I thought to myself, thinking of my own motivations for the time I spent backstage at shows. I wasn’t sleeping with anyone either, and though I loved the music, I couldn’t separate the feeling of importance I received from the proximity to coolness. And I imagined, neither could this character.

But then something shifted.

As I finished my now-cold soup, eyes glued to the screen, it became clear that she was telling the truth. Though she was with one of the band members named Russell (Billy Crudup) – a problematic plot point because she was 16 and he was an undisclosed older age – she wasn’t just an ingenue, she was the sun that all of the people that came in her orbit circled. She had a maturity and magnetism that softly flowed out of her like the Joni Mitchell song that played as she giggled on the couch.

Though Penny Lane was not immune from being hurt when the rockstars treated her like an accessory, at the end of the day, her priority was her own adventure. She was not like me. Often I couldn't tell the difference between my love of a band and my love of a song. I would wear outfits that I thought the boys in the band would think was cool, and I spent hours looking at photos of girls who fit that bill on MySpace. I don’t know if I was there “for the music.” I certainly didn’t have the confidence to make my own.

In one of the most iconic scenes, Penny is driving in her car with William, who is beginning to learn about the pull of famous rockstars. “I always tell the girls never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends,” she says, her voice bouncing with each line.

When I heard her say that, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Hudson delivered it like a song, one that was about to stick in my head for the next 15 years.

These men are hopped up on their own popularity, (or the “fucking buzz” as they call it in the movie), and it’s ridiculous. Of course, a pompous attitude toward someone whose tastes are still developing will sting in a way that “hurts so good,” and sure, it makes for a good story but, at the end of the day, it wasn’t about any guy in a band. The music was hers. And, as I could now see, the music was mine.

At the apex of the movie, in the only moment that we see Penny Lane truly impacted by the way these men treat her, they find out that they will be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine via William’s story. Penny is cast aside because the member’s wives are now with them. When they find out the news, the lead singer of the band, says “damn it, I’m going to enjoy this,” before breaking out into Dr. Hook and the Medicine Cabinet’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” a song that makes fun of rockstars who think they’re better than they are.“Well, we're big rock singers/ We got golden fingers/ and we're loved everywhere we go,” Dr. Hook sings in a goofy voice. The band is now repeating those same lyrics seriously.

It’s at that moment these men prove they are full of shit. Like the music boys I hung around, they were the stars of their own show. No matter how intelligent or confident others around them were, at the end of the day, it was always about them. But Penny Lane knew that the music wasn’t about some dude in cool clothing who got a rise out of rejecting her. It was about discovering herself.

When it comes to dating, it may have taken me a few years (read: a decade) to finally act on this new found knowledge that music boys are full of shit. At least, though, from that moment on I understood that the soundtrack to my life wasn't about what upstate New York posers thought was cool — it about my experience, and mine only.

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