How Grand Theft Auto Turned Video Game Soundtracks Into An Art Form

On Monday, the most anticipated video game of the year, Grand Theft Auto 5, hits shelves. The GTA series has attracted some rather dim-witted media attention over the years, mostly written by pundits who appear to think the point of the game is killing prostitutes, rather than that being one rather pointless and quickly tiresome cul-de-sac in the glittering universe of possibilities available to you in what is surely the most famous open-world game franchise of all time.

That said, it’s true that the Grand Theft Auto series, for all its mature certification, is not a terribly mature game – this, after all, is the title that built an Area 51-style military base deep in the desert and called it Area 69 (um… geddit?). But the way the series uses music has been nothing short of a milestone in video game sonics. Music in GTA isn’t just background noise, but one vivid and colourful part of a living, breathing world. Smash the window of a car, jump-start the engine, and a radio station sparks into life, revealing something about the owner of the vehicle you’re half-inching, and a whole lot about the city around you.

Flick through the channels as you navigate the city, and you hear spoof commercials, hammy radio jocks (voiced by the likes of Iggy Pop, Juliette Lewis, Karl Lagerfeld and Axl Rose) and songs from a dizzying variety of genres that colour the action in amusing and surprising ways. Quentin Tarantino would struggle to script moments of drama as sublime as pulling off a drive-by shooting to the lonesome country lament of Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’ or tearing along the Vice City strip, pursued by screaming sirens, as the backcombed electro-pomp of A Flock Of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran (So Far Away)’ blasts from the speakers.

GTA’s publishers, Rockstar Games, take pride in their close proximity to the zeitgeist. Rockstar’s co-founders, brothers Dan and Sam Houser, worked at a major record label, Sony BMG, before making the leap to games, and their pop-culture sensibility shines through every title in the series. 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was set in a sleazy Florida fantasy town, a lurid bit of ‘80s revivalism soundtracked by yacht rock and power ballads, Mötley Crüe and Hall & Oates. 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a west-coast ghetto fable, soundtracked by 2Pac, Boyz II Men and Eric B & Rakim. There’s the sense these stations are pieced together by real crate diggers. You get a musical education reeling through the dial of Grand Theft Auto 4: from the raging hardcore punk of LCHC, with tracks from the Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front and Bad Brains, to The Journey, a channel packed with ambient and electro sounds from Aphex Twin and Phillip Glass.

What can we expect from Grand Theft Auto 5’s soundtrack? Early reports are encouraging: 15 music stations, 240 licensed songs and “20 movies worth” of score, composed by Eminem affiliate The Alchemist, StonesThrow producer Oh No, and Tangerine Dream, the electronic Krautrock group known for their evocative ‘80s movie soundtracks. Brainfeeder boss Flying Lotus hosts his own FlyLo FM, which includes Hudson Mohawke, Outkast and an exclusive Tyler, The Creator track, ‘Garbage’. And the list of guests presenters include Pam Grier, Bootsy Collins, and Stephen and Nate of Wavves, who’ll reportedly play bratty rock jocks on a station called Vinewood Boulevard Radio.

As for the game? Hard to say. Beneath the grit and grime, I actually felt GTA4 was a little disappointing, lacking some of the joy and humour of earlier installments. I’ll be buying it anyway, though, and one thing’s for sure: it’s bound to sound brilliant.