Is there a better avatar for the impossible scrutiny women face than the female pop star? Is there a character archetype more uniquely suited for channeling the depths of the female psyche than — you guessed it — the female pop star?
In recent films like A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, and as of this weekend, Teen Spirit, the stories of young women rising to pop superstardom in a world dominated by social media, reality television shows, news feeds, and even pop feminism are being told with nuance and depth. Why do films keep returning to the world of pop music? Why do films keep exploring female identity in a world populated by these things through the eyes of a female pop star?
Because a female pop star, real or dreamed up, understands you. She sees you. She’s ready to give a voice to everything you’re feeling, everything the world is putting on you. She knows you better than you know yourself. And she’s ready to take the stage to sing about it.
There are days when I think about all of the hours I spent in my room as a preteen or teenager, listening to Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, Katy Perry, or Ke$ha. I think about all of the songs sung in the key of “I understand what you’re going through right now” that made me feel validated. I think of all the times in my younger, more inexperienced days, when I wished I could just play you this song because it says how I feel better than I ever will. Do you wanna hear it? I sometimes catch myself remembering about the daydreams I had about a having a bigger life than I ever thought possible and how Robyn’s “Hang With Me” was playing on my iPod and I felt invincible.
With all this in mind, it makes perfect sense to me that Teen Spirit, which stars Elle Fanning as Violet, a 17-year-old Brit plucked from obscurity (the Isle of Wight, to be exact) and chosen to compete on the fictional reality singing competition series Teen Spirit, actually exists. One of the earliest scenes of Violet shows her listening to “Genesis” by Grimes. The song is ethereal, bright, otherworldly — a completely different version of reality than Violet’s, which includes working a dead-end job and singing in local bars and feeling resigned to her stagnant lot in life. But “Genesis” lets her float outside herself, even if it is for a few minutes, and dream.
Making it as a contestant on Teen Spirit offers Violet the chance to escape her small bubble and gives root to her feelings that life could be so much more. She chooses to perform pop songs that mirror these possibilities, that lift her up as much as they lift the audience watching her and cheering her on. Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” and Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe” let Violet find her identity as a pop star and as a young woman. They give her the voice she needs to express herself and demand to be seen and, even though she is in the rare position of becoming a nationally-recognized pop star, as you watch her you feel like she, in all her pop star glory, uniquely understands you, too.
Sure, Teen Spirit is just a movie and Violet is just a character. She lives inside the 92-minute runtime and won’t be found on magazine covers in a month’s time. Violet won’t be releasing a greatest hits album in 20 years. Her VH1 Unplugged special will never make it to the air. But that doesn’t mean that experience of watching her explore and shape her identity through the power of pop music within this film isn’t as real or valid.
For women, the desire to been seen, validated, to feel comfortable enough to express our fears or our joys is simmering right there beneath the surface (can you see it?). If films are a window to the human psyche and spirit, then films focusing on female pop stars — a special group of women that our culture is always ready to either shame or valorize at the drop of a hat — reflect to us our worst cultural tendencies to pick women apart, to think we understand who they are even though they are telling us how they want to be seen through their songs. The safe space of a pop song lets a woman pour out her heart. She can be as messy as she wants, as silly, as angry, as upset as she dares. When that is amplified through the medium of film, it somehow hits harder, rings even truer. Much in the way that women’s film of the 1930s and 1940s gave a voice and vision to the interior lives of women of that time (and were subject to be written off because they catered to female stories), I would argue today’s films centered on female pop stars or women occupying similarly superficial fictional careers function in the same way, allowing us to explore contemporary concerns facing women.
Think of the way Vox Lux uses its protagonist, avant-garde pop star Celeste (played by Natalie Portman) to explore how we, as a culture, process national trauma like gun violence or the way we make amends with the problematic, overly sexualized depictions of young women in the media because it sells. Or how about A Star Is Born’s subtextual discussion of the validity of music when it focuses less on “deep” matters of the heart and instead sees Ally (played by Lady Gaga) sing about ravenous, valid female desire after seeing a hot guy in jeans.
It’s easy to dismiss pop music in real life. You can label it as shallow and change the station any time you want. But in those movies where pop music and, more often than not, the women singing it are front and center demanding that you see them and hear them, you shouldn’t brush it off. You should watch, you should listen. It doesn’t matter if it’s all made of fiction; it’s still true.
Get your tickets for Teen Spirit here and watch it when it arrives in theaters on April 12.