MTV, GTA and Britney: Nightmares of Popular Culture in Spring Breakers (2012)

DO you remember a time when MTV was the edgiest – if not the coolest – channel on television?

Well those days are long gone now. Turn on MTV and you will likely be watching re-runs of Catfish or some show about teenage pregnancy.

No longer at the cutting-edge of youth culture, the channel seems content churning out relatively safe and formulaic reality shows.

But there was a time when MTV, as blogger Amanda Marcotte put it, had the power to open up ‘a whole new world of possibilities’ – particularly for those living in secluded areas where conservative values are fiercely guarded.

MTV could expose small town religious folk to cosmopolitan, inner-city progressive thinking in a fresh, youthful and vibrant manner. It pitted old against young. Teachers against television. Bible against Britney.

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This, of course, was every strict conservative parent’s worst nightmare and many fought back to censor such vulgarities.

Harmony Korine’s film, Spring Breakers, envisages a realm where these parental guidance fears and insecurities have been actualised in the most outrageous fashion. A culture of young people raised on the morals of Britney Spears, educated by the laws of Grand Theft Auto and pacified by MTV music videos.

Spring Break is all about kids in bathing suits’ – Bob Kusbit, MTV Senior Vice President of Production (1999)

The overt sexualisation of celebrities, especially in music videos, continues to be a fiercely debated subject.

Figures such Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj have come under fire for setting poor examples to their younger audiences. In Spring Breakers, Korine parades former Disney stars in bikinis as they tote guns, toke bongs and lustfully lick phallic objects.

Korine sets this tone from the opening sequence, confronting the viewer with a barrage of naked and out-of-control bodies to the equally abrasive sound of Skrillex. This sexualised imagery immediately becomes part of the aesthetic, which includes black and white camcorder shots that evoke thoughts of MTV Spring Break specials and Girls Gone Wild.

Our bikini-clad protagonists (played by Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Rachel Korine) are clearly influenced by the music videos they grew up with.

Early on in the film, they sing Nelly’s It’s Getting Hot in Here as they mess around in their underwear. The focus of Korine’s camera switches between voyeuristically distant shots and, momentary, hyper-sexual close-ups.

This connection with the music they grew up with also seeps through in more subtle ways, such as the repetitive voiceovers which keep returning, hypnotically, like the hook of a pop song. Moreover, Korine uses iconography that we might expect to see in music videos, like the lifting garage, the mopeds through the streets or the silhouetted girls standing in the pouring rain.

My loneliness is killing me (and I) I must confess, I still believe (still believe)
When I’m not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me, baby, one more time – Britney Spears, 1998

Later on, music from the young women’s youth is more closely linked to their moral decay. They sing Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time and dance around a parking lot, at one point trying to mimic the dance moves from the music video.

Their fun peters out and they begin to recreate the earlier robbery scene. This time they make Faith (Gomez) – who was not there and represents the must innocent figure in the film – the victim.

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Korine interjects with images from the robbery, this time showing perspectives from inside the diner. The effect second time around is strikingly different and deeply unsettling. The women show an intense raw aggression – and perverse enjoyment – which clearly upsets Faith.

This detachment from their violent actions is established as the girls hype themselves up for the robbery by saying: ‘just pretend like it’s a video game.’ Certainly, the ease of at which they commit violence acts, especially in the closing scene, mirrors video games such a Grand Theft Auto.

As highlighted by the gun sound transitions Korine uses, this violence lingers unapologetically around every corner of Spring Breakers.

This one’s by a little known pop singer by the name of miss Britney Spears. One of the greatest singers of all-time, and an angel if there ever was one on this earth.” – Alien, Spring Breakers

It is no surprise that the most memorable scene of the film provides the most direct and disturbing link between their popular culture upbringings and their corrupted behaviour.

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The young women (minus Faith, who has returned home in terror) sit around a piano to hear Alien sing a cover of Britney Spears´ hit Everytime. More unnervingly, they are clutching guns and donning fluorescent balaclavas reminiscent of punk feminist protest group Pussy Riot.

Once again, Korine interjects, this time with a montage of violent robberies. It as though they are sitting around the church organ, worshipping their perverse and chilling hedonism to the sounds of their ‘angel’ Britney.

Yet when all is said and done, they return home largely unscathed and ready to sink back into the routine and conformity of their lives. The violence and the partying have all just been part of the fun – an escape from boredom so as to indulge in a culture of taboo and chaos.

Korine simply observes, sometimes too close for comfort. He does it in a way that is provocative and layered, mindless and pleasure-filled, repulsive and exploitative. It all depends on the viewer’s disposition.

Regardless, this is one hallucinogenic, stylish, neon-lit thrill-ride I recommend that you take a chance on.

Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!

Also read:

The Shepherd (Film Review)

THE LEVELLING – FAMILY TURMOIL AMID THE FLOODS (FILM REVIEW)

More In-Focus:

Falling in Love with La La Land

Kaufman’s Puppet Show: Alienation in Anomalisa

Cinematic Poetry: An In-Depth Reading of Jim Jarmusch’s Film Paterson (2016)

Subversive casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

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