Grand Theft Auto's Music Sets The Tone

Sep 20, 2013
Originally published on September 21, 2013 6:13 pm

The latest entrant into the Grand Theft Auto franchise dropped this week, raking in an obscene $800 million in sales in just its first day. That's a whole lot of money and ignored spouses.

The GTA series has become a shorthand for all the putative social ills associated with video games, and it's come in for a lot of justified criticism for its portrayals of women (you get money for killing prostitutes) and people of color (Haitian and Cuban groups protested the way they were portrayed in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City). There was also the smarmy Jewish lawyer, Ken Rosenberg, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And the gay jokes. Lots and lots of gay jokes.

Oh, but the music! The music is so good and so much fun, clearly curated by people who are deeply familiar with the various genres that play on the fictional radio stations that blare out of the games' many stolen cars. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, set in a fictional analog for 1980s Miami, the Spanish-language radio station would play the Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria and the post-disco station would play Teena Marie and Earth Wind and Fire. It's Latin music and black music from a time when the parameters for those things were much more rigidly defined — and the stations played not just the obvious hits from that genre but the kind of dope music that might have bookended those megahits on a real-life radio station.

It's that kind of detail that makes GTA's fake worlds feel almost real and playing it so much fun — you can imagine their digital inhabitants banging some Fela Kuti on their commutes to work on the other side of the city, far away from all the mayhem you're causing. (There are even fake public radio stations, as in GTA: San Andreas: "Lulling you to sleep with liberal soft-pedaling," the announcer says during the station ID.)

GTA isn't a game like BioShock, which is trying to make a political statement about the world, but it says something that the developers felt that this was an area where they want to dive deep. The soundtracks have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of evoking the feel of a time and place. (Could anything feel more like 1993 in Southern California than driving a lowrider down the street in fictional San Andreas while listening to The Chronic?) The newest GTA has a contemporary setting, and the music that adorns it seems less tethered to a particular era — from Aaron Neville and the Doobie Brothers to N.W.A. and Fergie and Black Flag, for example. This is sneakily on point: This kind of eclecticism and sonic mishmashing is a pretty accurate representation of The Way We Listen Now, flitting between genres and eras on Spotify or Pandora or iTunes. (You can listen to the latest soundtrack on Spotify here.)

If the mega-selling franchise wasn't packed with little thrills like stumbling on an old soul song you forgot you loved, its often ugly treatment of people of color and women might be harder to stomach. Grand Theft Auto is filled with gleeful lampooning of everything, but its music is one of the places in the game marked by real, obvious appreciation for some of those same cultures it so often skewers.

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