Sight & Sound, May 2013
by Simon Reynolds
An American tradition that dates back to shortly after World War 2, Spring Break today involves hordes of college students descending on Florida beach towns for week-long bacchanals of binge drinking and bare flesh. Taking place in the gap between the second and third terms of the academic year, Spring Break is essentially an amplified version of what goes on every weekend at frat houses across America, especially at those “party schools” where higher learning is not necessarily a priority for the students. The only difference is the duration of the debauch, and the fact that the revelers wear bikinis and thongs and trunks.
“Break” echoes the idea of break time in the school day, when the children dash out of the classroom and play free. Confusingly Americans use the word “school” where the British refer to university. But that does effectively capture the way that college, for most American middle class kids, is merely an extension of high school – marginally more autonomous, but still a time of grafting for grades and extra credit, all of which are entered into a ledger whose final tally determines what kind of career you’ll have.
The first scenes in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers had me flashing on Chuck Berry’s single “School Days”. This 1957 rock’n’roll classic juxtaposes the dragging time of the classroom with the ecstatic release of the jukebox joint: “Soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down... All day long you been wanting to dance”. In the lecture hall, a professor drones earnestly on about Jim Crow laws and the black struggle for civil rights. Bored and restless, two female students--Brit and Candy, played by Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens—amuse themselves by drawing an erection plus the slogan “I Love Penis” on a sheet of paper and miming fellatio.
The salacious duo and their marginally less wicked friend Cotty (Rachel Korine) are desperate to escape the college grind and get away to Spring Break. So is their new friend Faith (Selena Gomez), a virginal, goody-two-shoes type who’s in a Christian youth group (“are you jacked up on Jesus?” asks the pastor) but who’s being seduced off the path of righteousness by the charismatic Candy and Brit. Only hitch is that, after pooling all their cash, the four girls discover they don’t have nearly enough to get to Florida.
Desire confronts a limit. But in the first sign that Spring Breakers is set to ascend through stages of implausibility into sheer fantasy, desire wills itself through. The girls blindly grope their way past the impasse, almost seeming to stumble on the solution: crime. The script, here and at other critical moments, has an incantatory quality, phrases repeat and accumulate, like a magic spell. . Bitching about their plight (“so tired of seeing the same things every single day....”) the girls seemingly hypnotize themselves into a volitional state (“I’m not going to sit in the same classroom.. . we’ve been stuck here... we’re getting out of here”). Stealing their poor old professor’s car, Britt and Candy and Cotty rob a fast food diner and its working class customers. Given their slight physiques and girlish voices, pulling this stunt off requires whipping themselves into a thuggish frenzy. “We can do this... just fucking pretend like it’s a videogame ... act like you’re in a movie or something.” The girls need to believe their own make-believe. To make it to Spring Break, they break the law but also break with Reality.
Because I’ve more in common with the professor than with these tearaways, watching Spring Breakers I immediately thought of the Situationists: their slogan “take your desires for reality,” the pamphlet diatribe On the Poverty of Student Life, the notion of “the politics of boredom”. Above all, I thought of that widely daubed graffiti of Paris 1968: “under the pavement lies the beach”. “Pavement” (flat functional surfaces guiding the citizen-consumer to the workplace or to the shops) representing mundanity, business as usual, “the poverty of everyday life”. “Beach” (a sandy, sunkissed playpen for kids and adults temporarily reverting to childhood) representing the utopia of life as permanent vacation. Paradise regained.
I’m afraid I also thought of Bakhtin: the notion of the carnival, which has been defined as “an event in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions and regulations which determine the course of everyday life are suspended”. A Medieval ritual in which the world is turned upside down in a potlatch of pleasure, profanity and insubordination.
As it happens, “carnival” is a word that has new currency in American pop culture through the massive success of Electric Daisy Carnival, the brand-leader of the new breed of festivals for EDM (electronic dance music). These massive weekend-long dance parties combine the drugginess of Nineties raves with the non-hipster appeal of Spring Break. But they also weave in aspects of fancy dress and fantasia derived from Mardi Gras and Cirque Du Soleil. The clothing worn by devotees of Electric Daisy Carnival and similar festivals mixes super-sexed-up (many of the girl-ravers are clad in lingerie, are barely more dressed than the female cast of Spring Breakers) with kitschy-surreal accoutrements like fairy wings.
Spring Breakers latches onto the EDM boom with its soundtrack, partly the work of Skrillex, whose audio-visual spectaculars have made him king of the new dance festival circuit in America. His tracks deftly merge dubstep’s blaring bass-blasts with the hands-in-the-air builds and climaxes of trance. But the overall effect betrays his past in the emo-punk band First To Last: an electronic, digital-maximalist update of the moshing catharsis offered by arena rock styles like nu-metal. EDM buzz phrases like “rage hard” and the popular acronym-slogan YOLO ( “you only live once”) express a spirit of embattled hedonism and lets-get-wrecked recklessness. My own term for this carpe diem attitude is NOW!-ism. It has a formal corollary in the music and the videos, which offer a barrage of sensational effects and non-sequential intensities: pop videos involving costume changes and location shifts every five seconds, sampled phrases or rapped lyrics that freeze-frame moments of triumph, glory, excess, disdain, euphoria.
Even more than its EDM tie-in, Spring Breakers references the mainstream radio sounds of dance pop and gangsta rap. There are several overt nods to Britney Spears, including the deliberate echo of Brit’s name and a scene where the girls sing Spears’s breakthrough smash “... Baby One More Time”. The arrival of drug dealer and aspiring rapper Alien (James Franco) shifts the movie away from EDM’s artificial elation and pseudo-communality and into hip hop’s fantasy world of regal splendor and paranoia. Wearing corn-rows and a grill of gold teeth, Alien takes the girls under his wing. Even though he never learns about their foray into armed robbery, this self-described “gangsta with a golden heart” recognizes them instinctively as “motherfuckin’ soul-mates.”
Some of the key scenes involving Alien appear to have been made expressly with the intention of being DVD-rewind favorites, to be endlessly quoted and karaoke-performed by fans, just like the “say goodnight to the bad guy” and “Say hello to my little friend!” scenes in Scarface. One of these sequences has Alien showing off to the girls, repeatedly exulting “look at my shit” as he points to the deluxe bed (“that not a bed, it’s an art piece”) and brandishes a bounteous array of assault weapons.
Even before The Sopranos, it was a cliché that gangsters like to watch gangster movies and are influenced by them: a feedback Moebius loop of simulacrum shaping reality shaping simulacrum shaping... And sure enough, Alien points to his flatscreen TV and says “I got Scarface on repeat!” Close on the heels of this scene comes another would-be-classic candidate: Brit and Candy grab some guns and turn the tables on their host. When they orally “rape” him with the weapons, Alien responds like a true sport and ardently sucks off the barrels. It’s an echo of an earlier scene where one girl fills a water pistol with liquor and ejaculates it into her own mouth.
Franco apparently based his character on a real-life white rapper called Dangeruss. But why Franco even needed a template is unclear, given that the white appropriation of the Staggerlee archetype is one of the longest-running stories in popular culture, from the Rolling Stones to Eminem. Staggerlee is at once a historical legend and a recurring social fact: the fantasy, realised at severe cost both to those who pursue it and to the community they inhabit, of criminality as a life without limits. The gangster is a sovereign individual in a world of peons and bureaucrats, someone whose existence is both regal (swathed in luxury and prestige) and primal (a warrior’s life, shedding blood for territory, vengeance and honor). Alien embroils the girls in his struggle with rival gangster Archie, played by cult rapper Gucci Mane. On the surface, the emnity is explained as a mixture of friendship betrayed and turf war (Alien threatening Archie’s ability to put food on his family’s table). But at a subliminal level the dispute is about symbolic capital: Alien’s appropriation of what belongs to the black gangster, his stylization of rapacity, the lore and lingo he invented.
As Archie, Gucci Mane gets to utter the movie’s most memorable line, when he praises the giver of a blow job with “you’re playing Mozart on my dick, baby.” But for a movie whose function is partly to give an adult edge to the careers of former teen-TV stars like Gomez and Hudgens, there is a surprising deficit of actual carnality. Mostly what Spring Breakers is about is sexual display. So there’s lots of bump ‘n’ grind dancing in the semi-nude, guys and girls sniffing coke off the flat abdomens of girls and guys, and raunchy talk: “the smell of money” makes a girl wet, a coquettish and wasted Cotty taunting a guy that he’ll never get the pussy. But apart from Archie’s blowjob threesome, there’s just one actual sex act. (Gomez, notably, has exited the storyline by this point. Clearly she was only prepared to go so far in an R-Rated direction: she’s not involved in the robbery, is never shown taking drugs or having sex, and doesn’t even swear much).
As depicted in Spring Breakers, the participants in Spring Break act out an idea of unbridled freedom and lascivious irresponsibility that’s as convention-bound and repetitive as the regular, regulated everyday life of which it’s a carnivalesque inversion. Is that the message of Korine’s movie? It’s hard to say: the director steadfastly refrains from anything that might resemble judgement. As with his script-writing debut Kids, you can take Spring Breakers as an indictment of youth today, a comment on how pop culture’s anti-social fantasies contaminate real life. Or you can enjoy it as a (pretty softcore) wank-fantasy.
There’s a smidgeon of a hint of authorial irony in the juxtaposition of squalor (a passed out girl in a vomit-spattered toilet) with voice-overs from the girls phoning their mothers to reassure them that they’re having a great time, they’ve met so many wonderful people, “next year I want to come here with you”. What’s disquieting about these phone calls, which recur at various points and have that same incantatory repetitiousness, is that you’re not sure if the girls are simply spinning a line of bullshit (a thought to give jitters to anyone in the audience who’s actually a parent). Could it be that they actually believe what they’re saying, when waxing lyrical about how “it’s like paradise here... so magical... I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve been... It’s way more than just having a good time”?
One of the voice-over lines crystallises the movie’s theme: “it’s so nice to get a break from reality”. The point of carnival is that it’s temporary. Faith wistfully beseechs “if we could just freeze time, this is the way it’s going be forever, this moment”. But she acquiesces to the school bell call of reality and like everybody else heads back to college. The two really bad girls, Brit and Candy, don’t. They stay with Alien, who boasts “I live at the beach all year around” and whose chanted “Spring Break, forever” is a recurrent refrain. To actually live full time without limits is psychosis. By the movie’s end, the girls finally become videogame characters, indestructible. Toting AK-47s, clad in pink balaclavas and yellow bikinis, they take down a small army of seasoned street warriors.
Unlike with the earlier youth-gone-bad moves in which nonentities take retaliation for the fate of boredom and anonymity that their environment promises them—Bonnie & Clyde, Badlands, even ludicrous ram-raiding exploitation vehicle Shopping—there is no comeuppance for these renegades from reality. The movie, which started out gritty and naturalistic, ends up an oneiric art-movie dilation of the gangsta rap video, a porno tone poem.
While watching Spring Breakers play out to its morally unsatisfactory (in)conclusion, I thought finally of Marcuse’s concept of “repressive desublimation.” Way back in the 1960s, the Frankfurt School associate grasped that capitalism had an interest in creating wanton consumers, insatiable and impulsive. External constraints on our appetites for sex and destruction still exist (police, law, social services, etc), but they are contradicted and undermined by a consumer capitalism that erodes internal restraints like guilt and inhibition, the ability to defer gratification, even the capacity for linear thought. Stimulating desire and narcissism, the economy’s interests collide with those of other political structures like church, education, and family, all of which aim to channel energy into long-term projects (“heaven” being the longest-term of them all). Capitalism, advertising, and their bedfellow, pop culture have harnessed Romanticism not for repressive ends (unrepression is precisely the modus operandi) but for the dissipation of energy and the displacement of anger from any kind of political articulation.
When a pop star as bland as Katy Perry can sing, in her #1 hit “T.G.I.F”, about binge-drinking past oblivion (“it’s a blackout blur, but I’m pretty sure, it ruled”) and ménage-a-trois romps, it seems pretty clear that excess is normative and “breaking loose” just another set of chains. Likewise, of Spring Break and Spring Breakers, I found myself wondering: if this is the beach underneath the pavement, what if anything lies beyond the beach? Pop culture in its present state has exhausted it point: its incitements to poor impulse control and attention-deficit-disorder no longer threaten anything.