Spring Breakers is the best music video I’ve ever seen. It’s nearly two hours long and has 20 songs in it. You want Skrillex? You’ve got him. Wacka Flocka Flame? Him too. Britney Spears? Sure, we’ll bring her in for a hot second. After all, this is America — we get what we want. We’ve got beautiful tits, beautiful asses, and beautiful crotch shots. We’ve got enough coke to coat the Swiss Alps, kegs exploding like Mount Vesuvius all over the place, and giant curls of smoke wafting above a smoldering forest of redwood-high bongs.
The thing has an awesome soundtrack. “Young N****z” by Gucci Mane featuring Wacka Flocka Flame is downright inspiring, its repetitive phrases building to a rhythmic climax in the same way that the film’s repetitive dialogue never does. Furthermore, I completely believe that the young folks to whom Gucci Mane is speaking in such an encouraging way are real, whereas Korine’s audience seems to be some kind of generic New York Times trend-piece category of “kids these days.” On the other end of the musical spectrum, there’s a chilling beauty to Cliff Martinez’s electronic montages, just like that eerie opening shot of the dark and cavernous college lecture hall filled with hundreds of identical, glowing laptop screens. Too bad Korine kills that mood of anomie with a shot of one of his protagonists sucking a paper penis.
Anyway, “Lights” is Ellie Goulding’s best song, and it sounds pretty and feminine and powerful. So could we just put this soundtrack on and go have our own dance party, forgetting the weird, vapid fembots who populate Spring Break land, which seems to be governed by an aging perv?
Some have argued that Spring Breakers draws its values and style from rap videos, so let’s compare this movie to a rap video and see what happens. First of all, Spring Breakers is not a rap video, although it’s masquerading as one. It’s like a bunch of white people watched a Lil Wayne video and then took all the metaphors literally, removed them from their cultural context, and then decided to emulate everything they saw in the rap video, except that these white people completely lacked Lil Wayne’s signature wit, passion, pride, storytelling ability, and sense of identity. So, ultimately, these white people ended up stealing aspects of Lil Wayne’s story, and then doing a pretty lousy job of trying to retell it as if it were theirs. You can’t help but shake your head when our white protagonists refer to the cops as the “PO-lice,” and then escape drug possession charges with little more than a slap on the wrist.
I think this is why Korine lets the music do the talking, and lets music overwhelm the fantasy and the dream: In a movie where everyone’s a stereotype, music is the only thing that’s actually alive. Music functions as a kind of deus ex machina, taking the place of the largely absent plot and the characters’ largely absent motives. Music drives characters to do things and pushes them forward into the next scene. In the end, it’s the only thing that makes the audience feel anything about the action on screen. Music has breath in it. It has a beat, a rhythm, and a pulse. Be it EDM or rap or pop, music brings back to us something of our knowledge of who we are, and despite all the Autotune, and sometimes even because of it, music gestures towards a wide variety of human experiences, be they funny or sad, black or white, reality or fantasy.
Even though you don’t really understand how it works when you’re writing the song, there’s something about a good beat and a strong melody that communicates feelings other people can relate to. So you can listen to Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and laugh when the song turns on a dime from kiddie carnival to post-hardcore show where everyone’s on downers, and you can even dislike what you just heard, but you cannot deny that Skrillex has just created in you two distinct moods as well as a connection between them.
When the dialogue in the film does work, it’s almost always because it’s set to music. It’s amazing how James Franco’s absentminded plinking away on a single piano note transforms a straightforward line of text that is pretty darn devoid of nuance — “I’m gonna kill my best friend” — into a song about dread, regret, aggression, cruelty, and apathy. Each time Franco plunks the piano and sings the line, the weight of the sentence changes. It’s like he’s giving us the repeated statement in a blues where the words shift in emphasis and stress and meaning each time they’re sung. Suddenly, “I’m gonna kill my best friend,” starts sounding indefinite and ominous and revealing. But when Franco says those words to himself without singing them, they just sound dull.
Spring Breakers reminds me of a really well produced album with no emotional core, which is everything that I’ve learned to dislike as a musician working with the ethics of punk and DIY. Production is what works to get the job done, and something that’s beautiful on the outside and empty on the inside isn’t art; it’s just affectation. If you haven’t got something to say, you’re just wasting a lot of people’s money. I don’t buy this idea that Spring Breakers is good art simply because it holds a mirror up to the world we live in, because the first question in my mind is whose mirror? And this mirror is very clearly a white man’s mirror reflecting female bodies being exploited and black people being shot. That’s not art. It’s retrogressive fantasy.
To me, Spring Breakers seems like a giant excuse for Korine to play music, and to play visually with the ideas contained in contemporary popular music without any kind of limitation on his freedom of speech. Korine has been quoted as saying that this film was his attempt to reach the “hyper-real,” to get somewhere transcendent, to make something of a musical poem out of the stuff of real life, and so perhaps Korine himself is the ultimate Spring Breaker. He wants freedom from society, its morals and responsibilities. He wants to be an individual without any obligation to anyone else. He wants to shoot and kill reality dead just like those murderous blondes. He’s got his camera and he just wants to — click — stop the world and keep safe the little artifact he’s just saved. In a way, he’s just like all of us isolated, yearning, naïve young people who think we can just put on our headphones and escape.
Perhaps Korine has escaped, for the moment — from morality, from society’s rules and regulations, from aging, from the histories of race and gender relations with which he does not wish to concern himself—but it’s clear that he’s struggling out there beyond us all. “Pretend it’s a video game,” the characters in Spring Breakers keep saying to one another, whenever they want to banish fear, or a sense of responsibility, or a moral compass. Perhaps Korine has told himself, of this very difficult, imperfect, interesting, human world, “Pretend it’s a movie.” But sooner or later he’ll have to come back from that vacation. After all, sometimes you just have to shut off the computer and go outside. Hyperreality is a pretty lonely place to be.