The internet was recently taken by surprise when Post Malone released his cover of Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You” for Pokémon’s 25th anniversary and later performed a virtual concert in uncanny-valley-level CGI surrounded by everyone’s Pokémon favorites.
The latest act to cover an early ’00s adult alternative hit (the last, of course, was Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rodgers’s cover of “Iris” by the the Goo Goo Dolls), the release triggered a wave of nostalgia for Pokémon fans alike, but it also raised the question: Was this pairing created by a random pop culture generator? What was Post Malone’s attachment to this particular Hootie & the Blowfish hit, and why didn’t he change the lyrics to “I only wanna be with ‘Chu”? Who knows! But it’s now etched in an iconic history of Pokémon-related soundtracks.
Enter the most nostalgic compilation of Pokémon and (dare I say) ’90s teen pop history: the soundtrack for Pokémon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back. For those who don’t remember, the movie centers around the Mewtwo, the result of a botched genetic experiment where scientists tried to create the most powerful Pokémon in the world from the fossilized genetic material of the legendary Pokémon Mew. Things of course go very badly, and Mewtwo escapes to a private island to essentially run their own series of genetic experiments — cloning every Pokémon to create more powerful versions of each.
To do this, he invites (using a very Star Wars–esque hologram of a brainwashed Nurse Jackie) the best Pokémon trainers in the Pokémon world to compete in a mysterious competition. If you don’t count the disobedient Charizard, Ash, Misty, and Brock still only have mostly first-evolution Pokémon that are weak AF and naturally succumb to another one of Team Rocket’s classic grifts. The journey is mostly unimportant — unless you’re also from Minnesota, in which case you need to watch this Vikings joke. The competition itself almost ends in tragedy, but more on that later.
Released on Atlantic Records in 1999 ahead of the first Pokémon movie and its accompanying short Pikachu’s Vacation, the soundtrack captured an iconic era of bubblegum pop. For those who don’t regularly think about this masterpiece of an album, it’s a weird and sometimes messy ’90s fever dream that features B-sides from just about every up-and-coming act at the time, including 98°, Aaron Carter, B*Witched, Billie Piper, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Emma Bunton (of the Spice Girls), ’N Sync, Vitamin C, M2M, and Willa Ford (who then went by the stage name Mandah.)
Similar to listening to Hootie & the Blowfish in the year 2021, revisiting the soundtrack is a reminder of a kid-friendly pop that once was. They just don’t create happy, carefree tracks like this anymore. An Entertainment Weekly review from 1999 called it a “sticky-sweet grade-school party disc,” that is “chockful of top 10 faves (sound-alikes ’N Sync and 98°) and top 10 wannabes.” Given the movie and soundtrack was marketed to 9 and 10-year-olds on the cusp of the new millennium, this makes sense.
The bubblegum, happy-go-lucky pop sound went on to define an entire era of what can only be described as Radio Disney tween pop. Revisiting the album in 2021 is as fun and nostalgic and you might think — it definitely took me back to summers riding in the backseat of my parents’ car — but EW wasn’t wrong about the soundtrack being sticky sweet.
On a production level, the album generally screams “record company promotional material,” as many of the artists featured on the album were only just getting their big break that year. This timing got me thinking — was the Pokémon: The First Movie soundtrack just a ploy from records companies to convince Pokémon-crazed millennial children to listen to the artists that would later define our generation? Let’s investigate.
Of the 16 acts featured on the compilation, 4 were actually signed by Atlantic Records at the time: Ashley Ballard, Mandah, Angela Via, and M2M. All four singers had just or were just about to release their debut singles, but the only ones to make a cultural impact of the group were M2M and, I guess, Willa Ford f.k.a. Mandah.
The lead single for the soundtrack and the best song on the album, M2M’s “Don’t Say You Love Me,” actually had two different versions. The original changed the opening verse from “You start kissing me” to “You said you loved me.” When asked about the lyric change in a 2000 interview with allpop.com, M2M explained, “The Pokémon people didn’t find it appropriate to have kissing in the lyrics, because it was for younger kids. We think it was stupid.”
Despite being the movie’s and album’s lead single, “Don’t Say You Love Me” is only featured as the last of four closing credits songs (the first three being “We’re a Miracle” by Christina Aguilera, “If Only Tears Could Bring You Back” by Midnight Sons, and “(Hey You) Free Up Your Mind” by Emma Bunton).
The only song featured in the actual movie — not including the Pikachu’s Vacation short — is “Brother My Brother,” a motivational anthem by Blessid Union of Souls that plays during the iconic climax of the movie when the Pokémon battle against their clone counterparts. If you were 9 years old watching the movie event of the year in a theatre with all of your friends, it was extremely emotional. And when Ash throws himself in the middle of a psychic blast caused by Mewtwo and Mew fighting only to be turned to stone — it’s devastating (and, in fact, yet another Star Wars–esque plotline). Eventually the tears of Pikachu and the rest of the Pokémon bring the stone/petrified Ash back to life.
Its impact isn’t surprising. Charly “CP” Roth, Blessid Union of Souls’ producer and keyboardist at the time, told Vulture that the song was written for the movie and its success and impact was a surprise to them. He explained that “when you’re going to be sitting next to all these other platinum/gold-selling artists, you gotta step up, you can’t be a filler track.”
Going by the YouTube comments of the clone fight scene, they succeeded. The song and scene are so memorable that some fans were so upset that the song wasn’t featured in the CGI shot-by-shot remake of the movie released last year that they remade the CGI remake scene with the song.
Apart from the Pokémon theme song, which opens the album, there are only two blatant Pokémon references on the album: Willa Ford’s “Lullaby” opens with a Jigglypuff’s voice and Angela Via’s “Catch Me If You Can,” which is featured in Pikachu’s Vacation, the animated short that opened the film, includes a mid-song rap about catching Pokémon.
The short follows the Pokémon of Ash Ketchum, Misty, and Brock as they are sent to spend a day at a theme park built for Pokémon. There are bullies, hijinks, and fights which eventually leaves Charizard with its head stuck in a pipe. Sounds thrilling, but I’m going to be honest with you — it’s mostly just 20 minutes of Pikachu, Togapi, & Co. shouting their names at each other and is about 15 mins too long. The highlight is the opening credits, which features Vitamin C’s fun made-for-summer bop “Vacation.”
It’s a crime that B*Witched’s “Get Happy” isn’t featured in the short or movie at all. A B-side from their hit single, “C’est La Vie,” this track starts off telling the audience “Now don’t be a Brontosaurus” which is (1) iconic and (2) the perfect inclusion in a pop-Pokémon adjacent song. Like M2M and Vitamin C, B*Witched perfectly appealed to the Radio Disney, bubblegum crowd where they became extremely popular. What’s at loss to me — and possibly other record execs who worked on this album — is why Billie Piper, another U.K. act, didn’t gain the same following. There’s no denying that her track “Makin’ My Way (Any Way That I Can)” — a bop — was included to try and build a U.S. audience, but when included in an album filled with all bubbles and no fizz, it’s easy to pop too soon.
And I haven’t even gotten into the big names yet. Believe it or not, the soundtrack also features Britney Spears’s “Soda Pop,” a forgotten B-side off her debut album …Baby One More Time (which, upon revisiting, definitely needed more radio airplay), Christina Aguilera’s “We’re a Miracle,” ’N Sync’s “Somewhere, Someday,” 98°’s “Fly with Me,” and Aaron Carter’s “(Have Some) Fun With the Funk” for good measure. They’re all fine songs that, despite the big names, are honestly fairly forgettable compared to the addictive M2M, B*Witched, and Vitamin C tracks — the “wannabes” Entertainment Weekly was so quick to critique.
So yes, the soundtrack does feature a lot of top-ten hitmakers and record company plants, but what started out as compilation of Atlantic Records artists and radio-friendly bops resulted in the perfect time capsule of blissful childhood summers, soundtracked by the infectious bubblegum pop that made you feel like you had no other care in the world.
As Charly Roth reflected on the album, the sound didn’t start out as “a particular imprint of that time, but when you listen back, it absolutely is.”