Trap Music and Old-School Britney: The Use of Music in ‘Spring Breakers’

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a film that’s easy to get lost in. It’s presented with nonlinear storytelling, montages of seemingly unrelated spring breaking, and repeated lines of dialogue, all in a wash of neon colors and excess. The music helps the audience remain grounded in reality and stabilizes the chaotic world we’re immersed in.

But it’s not just the audience that needs grounding. The film follows four young college students (portrayed by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) on their adventures to St. Petersburg, Florida for spring break. The girls desperately want a break from their monotonous reality and see the vacation as a chance for them to find themselves, let loose, and have fun. Once they arrive, the young girls get involved in some heavy partying, and then, facilitated by their new leader, Alien (James Franco), a fair amount of crime. It is a world of fantasy for them, as it is for us. To them, it is world where their responsibilities disappear and they are free to party. They tell each other to “act like it’s a videogame” before they rob a local eatery to get the money needed for the trip. But given the non-linear editing effects, use of slow motion, and the aggressive soundtrack, complete with loud gunshot noises for scene changes, one begins to question whether the events of the story are meant to be taken as fantasy entirely.

The film makes heavy use of dubstep and trap music as the backdrop for the party scenes. The film opens on slow motion spring breaking. Shots of topless girls and excessive drinking are accompanied by Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”. All of the party scenes in the film use similar dubstep tracks or trap music like Waka Flaka Flame or Gucci Mane. To contrast this, the score, provided by Cliff Martinez (Drive, Contagion, Solaris), is sparse and moody, creating a cold feeling of reality when juxtaposed with the bursting synths of Skrillex. As the story progresses, these two worlds collide. In St. Petersberg, for the four young protagonists, their concept of reality and fiction becomes blurred, and with that, so does the audience’s. The music is used to emphasize this through its quick cutting between genres to match the films dizzying cinematography.

What is most interesting, however, is the way the film uses diegetic sound, or music that the characters can hear or, in this case, create themselves. At three crucial points in the film, the characters sing, and what they choose to sing is very important. In the first scene we hear the girls sing, Candy, Brit, and Cotty (Hudgens, Benson, and Korine, respectively) have just burst in to wake up Faith (Gomez) in the middle of the night. As the foursome walks (and leapfrogs) down the hallway, they sing Nelly’s “Hot In Herre”. This is the first time we see the four girls together and it is an important scene to establish their friendship and group dynamic. We watch them bond through singing the song and playing innocently. The next time the characters sing is once they’re in St. Petersburg. After their first full day of partying, the four girls settle down outside of a convenience store to talk, joke, and sing “…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears. They drunkenly dance through the parking lot, once again bonding, but now in a very different and unfamiliar world. The final time we see characters sing is outside Alien’s mansion. By this point, Faith has left for home, scared and intimidated by Alien and the world he has brought them into. He sits at a poolside piano and begins to play “Everytime”, also by Britney Spears. The remaining girls sing along, wearing pink ski masks, sweatpants that say “DTF” on the ass, and holding rifles as they dance and twirl around. Each of these moments is significant to the characters. They represent moments of unity, bonding, and comfort. Each is a new stage in their character development.

The choice of these songs is particularly interesting. Juxtaposed with the modern sounds of dubstep and trap, these pop songs are all from a decade ago or more. “Hot In Herre” was released in 2002, “…Baby One More Time” in 1998, and “Everytime” in 2004. That means that the characters, who we can assume to be 20 or 21 years old, were pre-teens when these songs came out. They were part of the soundtrack to their childhood, their formative years. It was also a time when they were, presumably, more innocent and sheltered. Not burdened or bothered by the things that drag them down today. The audience too, can be assumed to be mainly 18-24 year olds, who probably have a similar relationship with these songs. These scenes offer the audience and the characters alike a chance to catch their breath, and take comfort in something familiar, before we plunge back into the chaos and debauchery of spring break.

These aren’t the only instances of diegetic music, however. During the fundraising heist in the beginning of the film, Brit and Candy go into a local restaurant with fake guns and a small sledgehammer and rob everyone blind. Meanwhile, Cotty stays in the getaway car and Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” plays on the radio. The choice is interesting in that it mirrors a later monologue by Faith in which she wishes she could pause life and live in St. Petersburg forever. It is also interesting because of how relatively old the song is. It came out at the end of 2010 and became popular in early 2011. Like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, the Black Keys’ “Tighten Up”, and other songs on the soundtrack, this is current, but not very. These songs (as well as Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”, which is used during the closing credits) create a rift in time. The over-the-top drop on “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” sounds passé and cliché to our ears in 2013, and “Lights” was overplayed months ago. In our faced-paced pop culture these tracks might as well be antiques. This disconnect from the present, however minor, creates an interesting effect for the audience. It distances us further from the action. Korine continues to play games with us by not allowing us to fully relate the present action to the present day.

But perhaps the best moment in the score comes at the very end of the film. Brit and Candy, the final remaining spring breakers, slow-motion shoot and kill Arch (Gucci Mane), Alien’s former best friend and current rival, and all of his crew. The scene is set to a beautiful string arrangement of “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”. It’s the ultimate joining together of the “reality: of the score and the “fantasy” of the party music. The haunting track is created with synthetic strings, playing into the reality/fantasy dynamic and leaving the audience confused once more.

Korine’s film plays games with both the audience’s and the character’s perception of reality, fantasy, and familiarity. The various ways the music is employed throughout the film helps confuse, disorient, or ground us, and the play between diegetic and non-diegetic music brings us in and out of the characters’ perspective, all amounting to a wonderfully unsettling, intriguing, and unforgettable experience.