Ever since Al Jolson broke into “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” the marriage between the moving image and popular music has been resolute. From Sam daring to play “As Time Goes By” despite his boss’ explicit instructions to everyone in Garth’s car banging their heads along to the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” music has intertwined itself with cinema history. But it isn’t always a perfect match. For every Quentin Tarantino laboring away on every music choice just as much as every image choice, there are (at least) ten directors who are more than happy to go along with whatever the marketing department recommends.
There are some songs that will just always be in movies. For the most part, their lyrics and message are probably being abused and misrepresented the way Ronald Reagan used “Born In The USA,” but probably no one will notice. The lyrics are just too on the nose to pass up. If you’ve made a movie with bunch of dogs in it, you might try your best not to cue up “Who Let The Dogs Out?”, but there will come a time when it will be the convenient and easy choice and your will to resist will seem like you are being contrarian just for the sake of it. Like an ex-lover you swore you were done with. Because you can’t stand them. But they’re right there and you don’t have to do any work and maybe they will never be done with you and who are you to turn them down?
That library of music is long and sort of depressing. Because “Respect” and “Back In Black” and “Spirit In The Sky” are great songs. They should never make us wince or sigh or wish no one ever made a trailer ever again. But just as hearing the latest radio hit every hour on the hour can lead to you questioning the undying love you professed for it just yesterday, hearing “London Calling” every time a character lands in England can make you curse one of the greatest bands to ever walk the Earth.
Like Christopher Walken in the late 90’s, some songs have simply become parodies of themselves. No one uses “Stayin’ Alive” earnestly anymore. It’s usually a weak attempt to make a joke out of something that wasn’t working on its own (or maybe wasn’t there at all.) In Ted, it’s part and parcel of a bizarre remake of a parody of the scene for which it is famous, which is uncategorically inexcuseable, but maybe serves as a sort of wifi repeater through time, establishing it anew for a generation who has no idea nothing Seth MacFarlane has ever done is in any way original.
And then there is the zeitgeist-driven assault of a certain song through a short window of time. It can be something that also just happens to be incredibly popular through the normal musical channels, though because the soundtrack album isn’t the income-engine it once was, that relationship has become at least slightly less symbiotic.
In 2000 it was the Lo Fidelity All Stars remix of “Battle Flag.” In 2002, Crystal Method’s “The Name Of The Game.” “Cobrastyle” was featured in at least eight movies and fifteen TV shows between 2004 and 2007, transforming it into a shorthand for “don’t take the following chase scene too seriously.” It is still used to this day despite everyone’s unanimous disbelief.
Since its release, M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” seems to be contractually obligated to play over any slow motion shot of more than one female. Which, of course, thanks to Bridesmaids is something there is an inordinate amount of right now. In fact, “Bad Girls” was not only used to bookend Melissa McCarthy’s first starring role in Identity Thief, but was also used in the trailer for her second, The Heat.
This kind of coincidence isn’t terribly surprising, even if it is unavoidably curious. Someone had to notice before The Heat trailer went up that other movies had used it extensively to promote other very different movies (The Bling Ring, For A Good Time Call….) But I guess by that time you’ve convinced yourself there just isn’t any other song that can work better than this one that just happened to be all over the radio when you put it together. Like the soul mates who just happened to meet in their hometown of 500 people.
Much more interesting is 2013’s revival of 2002’s megahit “Hot In Herre.”
In Spring Breakers, the girls sing it together in their dorm’s empty hallway before getting on the bus that will take them away from their monotonous lives forever.
In Austenland, Jane (Keri Russell) plays it when she is forced to perform for everyone, committing the unforgivable sin of anachronistic irony.
With Spring Breakers’ twisted narrative and its twisted manner of presenting it and Austenland’s perfectly linear and (non-punny) austerity, you wouldn’t imagine these movies having much of anything in common. Never mind sharing diegetic performances of an eleven year old misogynistic hip hop song by a black man with a vestigal Band-Aid on his face. But in truth, they share a bit more than just an unlikely musical choice. Though said musical choice is an integral part of that similarity.
Both Austenland and Spring Breakers are stories about females escaping to a fantasy land where everything will be better than the boring life they are mired in now, even if we just have to take everyone’s word for that because no one wants to sit and watch those boring bits just for confirmation’s sake. And of course both fantasies turn out to be quite different than originally hoped.
To the girls in Spring Breakers, singing Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” is the equivalent to the girls in Bridesmaids singing Wilson-Phillips’ “Hold On.” It harkens back to a time in their lives when they didn’t have the responsibilities and “problems” that plague them now. It binds them together right before they embark on this journey that represents a shedding of that skin. But they’ll always have Nelly. They aren’t going to abandon each other. As Spring Breakers progresses, the girls continue this tradition, now with Britney Spears songs, but the effect isn’t quite the same. Things have already started to unravel. Nelly does not show up at the end to play anyone’s wedding either. Sorry.
While “Hot In Herre” serves as the perfect nonsense sing along for a bunch of college girls who long for the lifestyle it wallows in, it is supposed to be the only song Jane knows how to play on the piano in Austenland. This doesn’t make sense in any scenario. Jane is too old to have this constitute a touchstone of her youth, and the song is too recent to be a relic of mostly forgotten childhood piano lessons. Under what circumstances did she learn this on the piano at all, never mind forget everything else she might have been taught alongside it? No, this music choice was entirely motivated by a desire to maximize audience response as they realize what she is playing for a roomful of Regency era historical interpreters. It makes so little sense, you have to assume from the opening notes that Jane is going to play “Bustin’ Loose,” the number #1 hit Pharrell Williams “borrowed” as the spine of “Hot In Herre.” That wouldn’t have made much sense either, but at least it wouldn’t have been completely out of character. And any song would have garnered the same reaction from Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), it just wouldn’t have been incongruous enough for us dummies in the audience who need someone to say they want to take their clothes off in order to sense the inherent comedy in the juxtaposition.
To make matters worse, Austenland is not content with the truncated version from that scene. It must revisit it during the end credits with a full cast music video treatment. Like “Who Let The Dogs Out,” something you probably thought you’d never experience again.
So while both movies do competent jobs of displaying the disillusionment of their respective characters’ fantasy worlds, they vary widely on their oddly coincidental use of the same song. Therefore…
Better diegetic performance of “Hot In Herre” in 2013: Spring Breakers