50 STATES 50 MOVIES: DELAWARE
Youths Of A Forgotten Generation Struggle To Find Meaning In A Forgotten State
I once had a short relationship with a guy from Delaware.
Jeff once described his home state as “a county masquerading as a state.” Living in Delaware, he said, was like living in a suburban-collar county of Philadelphia or a forgotten backwater of Maryland or New Jersey. Because it doesn’t serve any major city in the megalopolis, or directly borders them as New Jersey does, Delaware does feel like an afterthought in an economically and socially influential region.
The home state of actress and comedienne Aubrey Plaza, journalist Dave Weigel, or the most powerful man in the world himself, President Joe Biden, Delaware natives may crack some self-deprecating jokes about Delaware, but ensure in its role in American history and culture is not understated. It’s called “The First State” for a reason.
The very first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1787, a point of pride for all Delawareans, its small size and location nestled on the Delmarva Peninsula makes it what we Northeasterners call “a drive-through” state, sort of an East Coast version of “flyover state.” Until recently, Delaware was the only one of the 50 States without any commercial airline service. Most only visit it for the short drive or train ride between New York and Washington D.C., not enough time to appreciate its history – Delaware was the site of New Sweden, a short-lived Swedish colony in the 17th Century – its fabulous beaches and its importance to our national spirit. At Dover Air Base, Delaware is where American soldiers and other citizens who die in combat are returned home in emotional final welcomes.
Since Delaware is so small and isn’t anchored by a major center of commerce, It has avoided the overcommercization and banality of urban and suburban life – an irony considering Delaware has become infamous for being an onshore corporate haven and its economy is dominated by chemical giant DuPont, which is the state’s largest employer. Members of the DuPont family served in elected office in Delaware. Still, this is a small-town state, one that fought an inevitable losing battle against big names like Walmart and Home Depot that dominated the strip malls in the surrounding states, and threatened to put Delaware’s mom-and-pop stores out of business.
And that’s where our movie comes in. Empire Records is set in the same-named independent record store in an unnamed Delaware town. The film gives us a “day in the life” storyline that almost feels like it wanted to be a musical. Empire Records was not a particularly good movie, but it introduced the world to mock funerals, Renee Zellweger and the Gin Blossoms. I think the movie aged well and has become an accurate representation of Generation X in their early adult years, struggling to formulate a personal identity in an increasingly cold, money-centric world.
The cast is led by the reckless but principled Lucas (Rory Cochrane), who set the plot into motion when he discovers Empire Records is to be sold to a major record store chain and decides to take the store’s day earnings of $9,000 to Atlantic City to try to make enough money to stop the sale, only to lose it all. The rest of the cast includes A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), an intelligent and empathetic artist who acts almost like the de-facto leader of this 1990s version of the Brat Pack; pretty and popular Harvard-bound princess Corey (Liv Tyler) and her promiscuous and carefree friend Gina (Renee Zellweger); the goofy stoner Mark (Ethan Embry); the depressed loner Deb (Robin Tunney); her sometimes-boyfriend, the intimidating grunge rocker Benko (Coyote Shivers) and their dedicated manager, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), who comes across as almost a father-figure symbol to the group.
After Lucas loses the $9,000 in Atlantic City – the fact that a Delawarean lost this money in one of the state’s larger, more influential neighbors isn’t lost on me – he meets A.J. and Mark, who have come to open the store, tells them what he did, and drives off on his motorcycle. When Joe comes to work and finds out the money is gone, he is frantically trying to find out what happened while fielding concerned calls from the bank and the store’s owner Mitchell Beck (Ben Bode). Lucas eventually returns, and Joe commands him to stay in the office as the rest of the staff comes to work. Lucas tries to turn the incident back on Joe, explaining that he found out about the store’s impending sale to Music Town and attempts to spin his action as a moralistic one, but Joe admits the money was being saved for him to buy the store and prevent Music Town from taking over, a move that makes Lucas, and the others, feel stupid. The moment feels very representative of some real-world experiences I’ve heard from Gen Xers over the years, where they take on moral causes and thoughtlessly take dramatic, often illegal actions to promote them, but end up making situations worse and over time, grow cynical about moral causes because of those experiences. The staff respond negatively to the Music Town news and stage their own unique protests. Gina at one point decides to make a statement by going in the bathroom and changing, coming out wearing nothing but the required Music Town staff apron.
Meanwhile, Corey, who isn’t scheduled to work, comes with her best friend Gina anyway because she is desperate to meet her idol, Rex Manning (Maxwell Caufield). Manning is an arrogant pop crooner whose best career years are behind him, coming to Empire Records to sign records and meet fans ahead of the release of his new album. The rest of the staff finds Manning’s style of music lame and outdated.
Deb also shows up for her shift, and without uttering a word, storms into the bathroom where she inexplicably shaves her head, shocking the rest of the staff and concerning A.J., who also notices her wrist is bandaged from a suicide attempt. His attempts to offer her help are rebuffed and Deb proceeds to isolate herself.
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Throughout the film, the staff plays a variety of 1990s-style rock and grunge music over the store’s audio system and we see them “rock out” in ways that seem to relieve the anxiety of the moment. Lucas, nonchalant about the potential consequences of the felony he just committed, offers up some of the film’s more cynical moments but undergoes a character rehabilitation when he thwarts a shoplifter, Warren (Brendan Sexton), who, as a fellow problem kid, he clearly relates to.
Meanwhile, a crowd of mostly middle-aged white women forms to meet Manning, who shows up with his less-than-enthused publicist, Jane (Debi Mazer). Eventually, she quits and leaves. but returns later in the film to serve as a love interest for Joe, a pointless plot twist that felt more like an excuse to justify Mazar’s casting.
Gina encourages Corey to seduce Manning and live out her teenage girl fantasy, but when the opportunity arises, she feels humiliated and flees to the roof of the store – where there is a giant non-functioning neon sign A.J. is trying to fix, representative of the dysfunction in the store and among the characters, and A.J.’s desire to help. In a cringeworthy moment, A.J. confesses his love for Corey, who responds…well as any spoiled rich girl would, by making it about her. Meanwhile, Gina goes into “bad friend” mode and after a fight with Corey, decides to seduce Manning herself. The two have sex and when the staff finds out, tensions explode. Corey is upset with Gina, who twists the knife by revealing her drug addiction. A.J. gets physical with Manning and punches are thrown. Corey has a Gen X angst moment, snaps and trashes the store.
In the bathroom after, Deb helps Corey calm down, and the two bond – where weirdly Deb weirdly drops her pants and urinates in the toilet in front of Corey. Do teenage girls really pee in front of each other? These two girls, who have completely different styles and personalities, find a tender moment together. Later, Corey arranges a creepy mock funeral for Deb, where the staff offers friendly eulogies, helping boost Deb’s self-confidence and make her feel welcomed.
I hadn’t seen the movie since probably 1996, so the plot twist when Warren returns to the store with a gun feels triggering in the current climate. It reminded me of how many mass shooting news stories we’ve heard over the years where a disgruntled employee or mentally-ill person previously removed from the premises, returns with a gun and kills. Warren’s gun only has blanks though and he is disarmed by a fearless Deb, whose friendly interaction with Corey shifts her mood. The entire Warren storyline is bizarre to me and doesn’t really fit into the cynical mood of the story. Despite getting arrested for basically threatening to kill everyone, Warren is given an employee tag, honoring his desire to work in the store. My immediate reaction was “this is not how the world works.” Maybe this is how Gen Xers thought the world should work in 1995.
In an attempt to clean up the mess Lucas caused, and to get back at the villainous Mitchell, the staff puts together a fundraiser aiming to recoup the lost money and allow Joe to buy the store and stop it from becoming a Music Town. We finally meet Michell, who unlike the rest of the staff is dressed in a suit and is arrogant and dismissive. He brags about how Empire Records started as his grandfather’s bath supply store until it became a record store and now he was going to sell this family heirloom to a big corporation, get rich and walk away. This feels like a nod to that time period when late-stage Capitalism ate up small towns and independent businesses and replaced them with a sterile corporate culture while the Boomers who oversaw this economic change got rich in the process. It wasn’t lost on me that Gen Xers also mostly grew up to become Mitchell Becks.
Anyway, after a successful fundraiser and some more good 90s music, the staff successfully raises enough money to buy the store, and they have an impromptu dance party on the roof. There, A.J. and Corey admit their love for each other and plan to continue their romance in Boston, where Corey will attend Harvard and A.J. art school. I think we can all agree that probably didn’t work out.
Empire Records is probably one of the better movies to watch if you want to understand the cultural dynamic of Generation X, and perhaps Delaware is the best place to set it. In this small, forgotten, under appreciated, underrated state that feels more like a doormat for its larger neighbors, a generation that bridges a past seen with affinity to an uncertain, but transformative future struggles with what it can and cannot control in that changing world.