I Was Busy Thinkin' 'bout Boys
Spoilers ahead for Promising Young Woman. Stop now if you haven’t watched it and don’t want key plot points revealed.
If you asked me to, I could deliver a manuscript of prose to you, written by other music critics, on the reasons we should respect the teen girl fans of boy bands. Many of them would be thinly disguised tributes to the bands themselves, their musicianship and the work they would accomplish in the future while relegating their fans to the role of the smoke that comes before a fire burns bright enough for everyone to see.
But I’m hard-pressed to think of much writing asking us to take the teen girl fans of women pop stars seriously. Thousands are instructing us to respect the songwriting, musicianship, production skills, and styling of pop stars and get off our historical worldview shit of taking the feelings of men seriously while trivializing women. It’s another way music, both the industry and the journalism around it, default to the male point of view as universal (and full of potential) while women are a niche.
That thought kept running through my mind as I watched Promising Young Woman. The script, written and directed by Killing Eve season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell, is full of self-aware moments where the music underscores her dark humor. It opens with the DROELOE remix of Charli XCX’s “Boys.” We’re in a club where a bunch of guys, mostly with man bods, wiggle around the dance floor in their khaki pants. The camera focuses on their crotches. This is the kind of nonsense we’re entirely used to seeing in movie montages, but with women as the disembodied and overly sexualized focus — is it fun, is it hot, is it young?
Then get a slew of female extras who fit the beauty ideal, throw them in something hot, and make them dance! The absurdity of this idea is so evident when you see it done to men.
It’s a play on the video XCX directed herself, in which she asked her many, many friends in the music world to star, and their direction was to do the stuff male directors have women in pop music do in videos. Brush your teeth, but sexy. Drink milk but get a mustache and then look directly into the camera. Pillow fight! No one does this crap, and XCX cunningly mocks it with her visuals but is sincere in her lyrics. The song is a real ode to liking men and the feeling of being totally crushed out.
However, the scene people are obsessed with is the one that reclaims Paris Hilton's 2006 pop song, "Stars Are Blind." Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) and Ryan (Bo Burnham) dance to it in a falling in love montage primarily set in the aisles of a corner drugstore. The moment becomes meta when Cassandra says to him, "I'm sorry, are you singing along to a Paris Hilton song?" It was interesting to me that both of them not only knew the song, but she could identify who sang it. Hilton has one song as far as the world is concerned, and that's it. It only went to No. 18 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in the U.S. — it's one of those songs that was a hit but was not a HIT.
Cassandra would have been around 16 when it dropped. Hilton was ubiquitous in pop culture from 2001 to 2007 or so, thanks to non-stop sexy magazine spreads, the reality parody/comedy The Simple Life, and a robust national dialog about her leaked sex tape — which was released without her consent. The media publicly shamed her for something out of her control and off of which she didn't make any money, aside from what she won in a lawsuit from countersuing her ex-boyfriend and co-star Rick Soloman. He had the gall to sue her for defamation when she publicly decried the tape's release. Oh, and the AVN Awards gave it several awards that year because we weren't yet calling things like this revenge porn — even though it was precisely that. So, maybe it's time we all rethink Paris Hilton (and if you haven't yet watched the YouTube documentary on her, perhaps you should).
It's also a moment of reclaiming a guilty pleasure. It honors how these not-so-important songs can end up being the soundtrack to these times in our life that are immersed in feelings that are so strong that they profoundly change us, change our trajectory. Any song could have played there, and the impact on Cassandra of opening herself up to loving and being loved would have imprinted on her.
The song underlines a moment of rebirth in a tale mainly about revenge. It's Casandra's moment of redemption; she's happy. Maybe she can let this plot to avenge her friend, who was raped in medical school and whose attackers were never punished. The song's use is frequently written up as a reclaiming of pop trash, a disposable piece of mid-aughts culture. But it's more than that. It is brilliant in a film about rape culture to invoke a pop culture figure in that same boat, who was not believed and whose voice was minimized amid a crushing wave of mockery about her sex life. Painfully brilliant.
When that creepy string cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” plays as Casandra infiltrates the den of the group of boys who attacked her friend, it is a creative reframing of a pop song. While this song is an earworm that absolutely no one can deny, Spears is not an artist music history takes seriously, and her fanbase takes her entirely seriously. But anyone with even a smidge of music sensibility wouldn’t dare write this song off; there’s something magical about it. Lyrically, it taps into a universal: the urge to succumb to the base desire to do something because it feels good, even if you know it’s bad for you, which is what Cassandra does in that scene.
It was only a matter of time until someone took those screeching synths in the song and turned them into terrifying violins. As soundtrack ideas go, it’s a direct descendent of the Alfred Hitchcock Psycho school of dissonant sound. Bernard Hermann created an unforgettable score with “The Murder,” composed for the infamous shower scene. Anthony Willis, who scored Promising Young Woman and reimagined “Toxic,” gets in that same headspace: you know something wicked this way comes. You’re prepared for a big scare. And the payoff, like Spears’ career, is sadder than you expected.
However, there is a bit of disappointment in the composition being the only song on the soundtrack from a man. Women composers trail behind men in representation in film and television, to the point of almost seeming not to exist. The team who put this soundtrack together went out of their way to find women musicians, producers, and engineers to work on tracks. If they need a nudge, the Alliance for Women Film Composers has a list they can consult.
The film sends a final kiss with a twist ending in which the needle drops on Juice Newton’s incredibly cheesy early ‘80s cover of “Angel of the Morning.” Fennell told Vanity Fair she originally had “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” slotted in, which is peak hilarity. “The thing about that was it was fucking brilliant, but it’s so closely connected to Dirty Dancing that it felt like a cheat,” Fennell said. There are so many versions of “Angel of the Morning” that are more serious and artistic. Newton was a pop-country artist at the height of Urban Cowboy. But it perfectly hits in the wistful and ironic moment.
It’s also a song about a woman taking control of her sexual identity, the relationship she’s in, and her body. Considering where Casandra ends up in the movie, feeling let down by Ryan and deciding to go forward with her revenge scheme, the song is the last word on how she feels about her choice. It makes her scarier in a “fuck love, let's get revenge” way, because that’s not what women are supposed to prioritize.
It’s rare for movies that star a woman to double layer intent like this, typically the soundtrack is something pushing a montage along or telling us how to feel (strings swell = fall in love, quickly followed by a kiss). Fennell doesn’t miss a trick as she underscores how seriously we should take the word of women and, by extension, how seriously we should take women artists.