If you live long enough, eventually everything that was uncool will swing around and be considered genius. Hall & Oates are suddenly hip. The Bee Gees didn’t get a ton of respect back in the day, but today disco is embraced. And now it looks like Phil Collins will be the latest once-derided artist to be reappraised. Early last week, social media started taking up the case for his forgotten soundtrack to the equally forgotten 1999 Disney animated film Tarzan. Can’t recall anything off that album? Well, the internet wants you to know that you’re missing out on a masterpiece:
This isn’t the first time Twitter has gone nuts for Tarzan. It appears that the origin of the Collins love was last November…
…and regardless of whether you interpret that initial tweet as sincere or sarcastic, it’s resulted in a groundswell of support for Collins’ contribution to that blockbuster kids’ movie. This is especially jarring for anyone who was around when Tarzan came out more than 20 years ago. At the time, nobody was singing Collins’ praises. Back then, the world didn’t think much of the soundtrack or the man who composed it.
Collins has always had a reputation for being a pop lightweight. Starting off in the art-rock 1970s group Genesis, he piloted the band toward a more mainstream direction once original frontman Peter Gabriel left. Then as a solo artist, he enjoyed superstar success with a string of hit albums and Top 10 singles, culminating in his crowd-pleasing 1985 disc No Jacket Required winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. (Patton Oswalt used to do a bit about how lame he was as a kid because the first record he ever bought was No Jacket Required: “And I would get in people’s faces. I was like, ‘Man, this guy fuckin’ rocks! He’s pretty dark. He’s pretty fuckin’ dark. He’s totally punk rock: He’s got on sneakers with a suit! He’s crazy!’”) Collins then went back to Genesis, who immediately had their biggest smash with the following year’s Invisible Touch. Everything the guy touched in the 1980s turned to gold.
But even though Collins had a knack for catchy, earnest tunes, he was never exactly a critics’ darling. True, at the height of his popularity the New York Times ran a glowing piece about Collins calling him “Pop Music’s Answer to Alfred Hitchcock” — it’s because his lyrics were so menacing, you see — but the consensus was closer to J.D. Considine’s backhanded compliment in the 2004 edition of The New Rolling Stone Record Guide that No Jacket Required was “aggressively likable.” Collins could sell millions of records, but he couldn’t escape the impression that he was hopelessly vanilla. In 1985, Rolling Stone dubbed him “Mr. Nice Guy,” which is the sort of thing that will never get you confused with artists like Prince or Madonna. Six years later on SNL, during a sketch imagining “The Sinead O’Connor Awards,” Mike Myers played a pathetically needy Phil Collins who’s excited to win the Most Empty Song of the Year prize. He was kind of the Ed Sheeran of his time.
When Collins was approached by Disney in the mid-1990s to write songs for Tarzan (composer Mark Mancina would handle the score), it wasn’t as if his critical reputation was any more glowing. If anything, he was in the midst of a commercial decline after the heady heights of the 1980s and early 1990s. (That said, he was still a touring juggernaut.) “I was very nervous about being capable of writing songs like that,” Collins said in 2003, and the film took several years to get together. But when Tarzan finally opened in June 1999, it featured a series of Collins’ patented go-for-the-throat songs. If you were familiar with his solo albums or Genesis work, you recognized the adult-contemporary vibes of “Son of Man,” the heart-tugging sentiment of “Two Worlds” and the unsubtle balladry of “You’ll Be in My Heart.” As always, Collins’ songs were aggressively likable — a little cheesy, not very deep, but also hard to resist, even if they made you want to roll your eyes at how manipulative they were.
At the time, both the Tarzan film and soundtrack had to contend with the long shadow of The Lion King, the 1994 colossus that featured a wealth of memorable Elton John-Tim Rice songs and Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score. When Tarzan came out five years later, Disney was struggling to produce a hit as mighty, with films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules and Mulan failing to capture the zeitgeist. Tarzan was actually the studio’s biggest hit since The Lion King, but audiences and critics alike generally felt that the movie (and Collins’ songs) paled in comparison to what came before.
The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote that the film sometimes struggled to “escap[e] the stock characters and increasingly ironclad formulas of recent Disney animation. Tarzan initially looks and sounds like more of the same, to the point where Phil Collins is singing the words ‘trust your heart’ by the third line of his opening song.” And in a retrospective review of the soundtrack, AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine spoke to the nagging limitation of Collins’ music: “Undoubtedly inspired by Elton John and Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Lion King, the soundtrack for Tarzan … has little of the freshness that makes the film a visual treat. It follows the same formula that’s informed every Disney soundtrack since The Lion King. … As recently as Aladdin, Disney’s animated films had rich soundtracks filled with robust songs and surging, dramatic scores. Tarzan is symptomatic of this decline.” (Here’s all the proof you need of how un-edgy and market-tested the Tarzan soundtrack is: NSYNC show up on it.)
Still, Tarzan was Collins’ highest-charting album in 10 years, and “You’ll Be in My Heart” was his biggest hit in that same span of time. (He also won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album.) Plus, “You’ll Be in My Heart” was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. This was the third time he’d been nominated — he’d lost for the teary “Against All Odds” and the uptempo “Two Hearts” — but his song was hardly the standout. In fact, around that year’s Oscars, most observers figured Collins would win and weren’t very happy about it. After all, it was a pretty sterling crop of nominees.
Putting aside Diane Warren’s by-the-numbers “Music of My Heart” (from Music of My Heart), they included Randy Newman’s terrific “When She Loved Me” (sung by Sarah McLachlan), which might be the emotional high point of the entire Toy Story series, as well as Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” (from Magnolia) and “Blame Canada,” the hysterical (and controversial) song from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut that was performed during the ceremony by Robin Williams. Mann was considered a hip indie singer-songwriter, and South Park was probably at the height of its cultural influence at the time. By comparison, Collins’ love song just seemed predictable and lame. So, of course he won.
It’s not like Tarzan grew in people’s estimation afterwards. When the movie got adapted for Broadway in 2006, it failed to be the juggernaut that Lion King was there, either, with the Times’ Ben Brantley singling out “Collins’ soda-pop songs (expanded from those he wrote for the film) [which] surface and evaporate more or less at random, like bubbles on a pond.” While other beloved animated Disney films of the era, like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, are hailed as classics, Tarzan has mostly faded from memory. Likewise, it’s basically been decided for a couple decades that Collins’ Tarzan songs are fine but not worth defending.
Suddenly, however, that’s no longer the case.
In some ways, the Collins renaissance isn’t surprising. His daughter Lily stars in one of quarantine’s top love-to-hate-it Netflix binges, Emily in Paris. Last summer, teen twins Tim and Fred Williams’ “First Time Hearing” YouTube video for “In the Air Tonight” became a wholesome viral sensation as people couldn’t get enough of the twins absolutely losing their mind once the drums kick in. And even if Phil Collins has never been particularly cool, his middle-of-the-road music is still incredibly popular, with his biggest hits clocking more than 300 million listens on Spotify. (“You’ll Be in My Heart” is currently over 205 million listens.)
The brashness that’s always been part of Phil Collins’ M.O. — his ruthless focus on sweeping emotional moments and monstrously hummable melodies — is all over his Tarzan songs. As someone who’s always enjoyed Collins, almost despite myself — what kind of fool would deny himself the gooey, shameless pleasure of “Take Me Home” or “In Too Deep”? — I find this sudden rush to defend Tarzan almost endearing. Hey, folks, if you like that, there’s a whole treasure trove of cheesy Collins chestnuts just waiting for you.