The teen movie genre, over time, becomes a collection of period pieces. The fashion, jokes, and music in each teen movie become symbolic of their era, despite being lovingly rediscovered by new generations and rewatched year after year. In their soundtracks, one featured song occasionally rises up as being forever associated with the film. Whether they were the perfect openers, chart-topping hits after the movie’s release, or the perfect accompaniment to one of the film’s most crucial scenes, here, in no particular order, are our picks for 10 of the best songs featured in teen movies.
1. Elton John: “Tiny Dancer,” Almost Famous
Nostalgic for a time its target audience never experienced, Almost Famous follows the journey of 15-year-old William facing the harsh realities of his dream career as he tours with an up-and-coming band on an assignment with Rolling Stone. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, the Stillwater crew is briefly reunited after beginning to fall apart with a moment of tour bus karaoke. And what better song exists for this moment than Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”? Heartfelt, jammable and perfect for the pacing as each character joins in, it’s hard to believe the 1971 single flopped on the charts before being featured in the movie—now, it’s become one of John’s most beloved songs.
2. The Muffs: “Kids in America,” Clueless
The punk-meets-bubblegum pop of The Muffs’ “Kids in America” cover that opens Clueless immaculately sets the tone for the feel-good romantic comedy. We sit with the jovial, upbeat song as we catch glimpses of Cher’s life for almost a full minute before we hear Alicia Silverstone’s lovable valley girl accent invite us in with “Okay, so you’re probably going, “Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?”” “Kids in America” and Clueless is the perfect pairing, a song that feels hyper-commercialized like Cher’s rich Californian persona while still being infectiously joyful.
3. Lustra: “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” Eurotrip
“Scotty Doesn’t Know” has gotten a bit of a second life on TikTok recently, but fans of Eurotrip know the track is specifically crafted to be insanely catchy as poor Scotty tries to escape the song during his post-graduation vacation. With delightfully awful lyrics and an infectious guitar riff, “Scotty Doesn’t Know” works just fine as a standalone song—but paired with an out-of-the-blue Matt Damon cameo, a listen back to the Lustra track is bound to bring back memories of Scotty’s mopey face as he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him via song.
4. Christina Vidal: “Take Me Away,” Freaky Friday
Yet another song treated to a TikTok revival in 2020 (Lindsay Lohan’s Anna looks to be the e-girl blueprint), few things spark joy as much as seeing Jamie Lee Curtis shred on guitar. It helps that the fictional band Pink Slip’s song is an absolute banger, and a fun throwback to the style of early-2000s pop-punk.
5. The All-American Rejects: “Dirty Little Secret,” John Tucker Must Die
The All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secret” is a teen movie song so good, we once wrote an entire article about it. We still feel that, out of all the great cinematic uses, John Tucker Must Die takes the cake. The song is lyrically perfect for a movie centered around cheating and lies, as four girls form a friendship after discovering three of them were dating the same man and plot their revenge. Something about hearing this song over a wide shot of a high school just feels right.
6. Hoku: “Perfect Day,” Legally Blonde
Similarly to the introduction of Clueless, Hoku’s “Perfect Day” feels sonically and lyrically perfect for introducing us to the world of Legally Blonde. Ultra-girly and unabashedly optimistic, the chorus (“Nothing’s standing in my way / On this perfect day / Where nothing can go wrong”) primes us for the eternal sunshine of Elle Woods’ mind, and gives us a glimpse of the unwavering determination that is to come.
7. Jamiroquai: “Canned Heat,” Napoleon Dynamite
There’s no way around it: The opening notes of Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” will forevermore evoke images of an afro, glasses and a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt. Napoleon’s delightfully awkward dance moves are a signature part of the cult classic, and the beginning melody of “Canned Heat” is the best song imaginable to see him shuffle his moon boots to.
8. David Bowie: “Heroes,” The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Logan Lerman’s closing monologue in The Perks of Being a Wallflower leading into “Heroes” is the ultimate teen movie tearjerker. While it’s hard to believe that it took the group of hipsters that are Charlie, Sam and Patrick several months to rediscover one of David Bowie’s greatest songs, the tunnel scene is the magnum opus of coming-of-age movie moments. “Heroes” captures those fleeting euphoric moments that Perks glorifies, where the highs are made even higher by the fact that they won’t last.
9. Sixpence None The Richer: “Kiss Me,” She’s All That
Parodied to perfection by Not Another Teen Movie, She’s All That checks all the teen movie/rom-com boxes: The nerdy girl is revealed as beautiful once she gets rid of her glasses, ponytail, or—god forbid—art student getup, and elegantly descends the stairs under the adoring gaze of the people who just realized she’s not ugly after all! She’s All That seems to teeter on the edge of self-aware by using an overtly cheesy Sixpence None The Richer track, and by having Laney wipe out as the song cuts off.
10. Iron & Wine: “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” The Twilight Saga
Whether you’re an advocate for the Twilight renaissance or hold fast to the opinion that these movies suck, it’s hard to deny that the soundtracks rule. The song by Iron & Wine was actually chosen by Kristen Stewart for the first film’s prom scene, and became a standout song for all of 2008’s Twihards. It grew to be the saga’s signature love song despite its strange, enigmatic lyrics, receiving a violin-accented rearrangement for Breaking Dawn — Part 1’s wedding scene.
Carli Scolforo is a New England journalist and intern for Paste Magazine. She loves late-night TV and reading celebrity memoirs, and never truly left her emo phase. You can follow her on Twitter @carli_sco.