Olivia Rodrigo, “Jennifer’s Body” and the Joy of Rage: NPR
John Shearer / MTV VMA 2021 / Getty Images for MTV / ViacomCBS
“Hell is a teenage girl.” These are the first words spoken by Anita “Needy” Lesnicky, played by Amanda Seyfried, in the 2009 horror comedy Jennifer’s body. As Needy relates, titular cheerleader Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) is lying in bed, staring out the window with blood-stained eyes. Somewhere, beyond the windows and the pink paper-covered walls of Jennifer’s bedroom, Needy waits, a cutter in hand, veiled by a starless Minnesota night. Just a few months ago, she and Jennifer were normal students – lifelong best friends – at Devil’s Kettle High School. Now their love of the sandbox is dead. Needy is “cracked”, “loose around the edges” and she needs to express her feelings.
Although many would call this iconic opening scene today, when it was first released, Jennifer’s body has been heavily criticized and financially underperformed. Those who ignored it may not have quite known what they were rejecting: As director Karen Kusama and screenwriter Diablo Cody have since argued, the film they made was warped by a campaign. of marketing that responded to the straight male fantasy. Corn Jennifer’s body is really a story of anger – the anger of young women. And in recent years, he’s been reassessed through a feminist lens and has gradually become a cult favorite. Online, her portrayals of teenage characters facing extremes of friendship, exploitation and revenge have become powerful pop culture references. More than a decade after its premiere (the film celebrates its 12th anniversary on September 18), young fans continue to share and find out through GIFs, YouTube clips and – aptly enough for a film named after. a song, in which rock is not just the soundtrack but a plot point – music videos.
At Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo exhibited her own female rage. Rodrigo had been an actress on two Disney original series for years when she appeared on the pop scene in early 2021 with the viral hit “drivers license”, whose billions of streams broke records even before her debut album, Sour, was released in May. But at VMAs, her flagship moment was a performance of “good 4 u” – a rock anthem about the struggle to overcome a lover who’s moved on, and a sign of Kusama and Cody’s continued relevance to the film.
The music video for “good 4 u”, directed by Petra Collins, is not a direct recreation of Jennifer’s body (and he has other obvious influences, like the 1999 Japanese horror film Hearing), but its themes and visuals are reminiscent of the movie in many ways. It starts with Rodrigo in the character of a seemingly normal high school student, selflessly practicing dance moves with his team of cheerleaders to the song’s funk bass, distorted guitar, and screaming vocals. Over time, the audience sees something more sinister beneath the surface. She decorates the inside of her locker with a photo of a boy with a sagging face, casually hits a classmate without stopping, puts on shiny black gloves, and buys a gallon of gasoline at a gas station. Behind her smile, the anger seemed to rise and rise until she could no longer hold it back. At the last chorus, she stands in her ex’s bedroom as her sheer curtains are engulfed in flames. After her room softens to ashes, she retreats to a wooded lake, where she swims in the blue-black water. Her eyes are red and she is smiling with all her teeth.
“good 4 u” is one of two pop-punk tracks on the otherwise heavy ballad Sour, and Rodrigo said it created a space for her to express emotions that she couldn’t in the other pop styles the album explores. âThe song contains a lot of unbridled anger and spite. I struggled for a very long time to learn how to write an upbeat song that people could move on and not cry on, I guess,â she said. Nylon this spring. âFor a while, I thought you had to be in love and happy to write a dance song. I’m proud that I figured out how to write a song full of energy, without sacrificing how I felt.â
In Jennifer’s body, the transition from a normal girl to a vengeful supernatural being has a darker origin. The plot is triggered when the rock band Low Shoulder – a quintet of boys wearing eyeliners and interested in the occult – plays a show in Devil’s Kettle and brings Jennifer in their tour van afterwards. The group plans to offer their life to Satan as a virgin sacrifice, in return for money and glory. But because Jennifer is not a virgin, she does not die in the ritual and instead transforms into a demon, who kills and feeds on boys to support herself. As a result of Jennifer’s transformation, Needy is forced to consider what her best friend has become, what Low Shoulder has transformed her into. And she’s full of anger, something she keeps inside her until it overflows.
Horror films have often focused on the emotional lives of their adolescent characters, using scary stories as studies of trauma, vulnerability, and complicated feelings. But instead of the usual formula of a masked figure stalking babysitters, set to an orchestral score, the monster in Jennifer’s body is a traumatized girl, and the music is closer to what a sensitive teenager of the time might have really heard: the film opens with a song by dance-rock group Black Kids and ends with the iconic band grunge 90s Hole, and artists like Paramore and Panic! At The Disco original soundtrack of the banalities of school life. There are also visual nods to the alternative culture of the 2000s: posters of the groups Fueled By Ramen line the rooms of the young characters, and the resident goth of the class Colin Gray (Kyle Gallner, adorned with facial piercings and of black nail polish) is among those swept aside in Jennifer’s Rampage.
“I think that [we were trying] to sort of find music that made the complexity of teenagers, and that wasn’t flattering, but had great energy and wit, âsaid music supervisor Randall Poster Billboard in a 2019 anniversary play. Through its thematic, stylistic and musical choices, the film accomplished just that – allowing its young female characters to unabashedly feel the full gamut of human emotions, anger included. It can be a rare privilege, even in real life, argued writer Soraya Chemaly in a recent Guardian chronicle: “Girls and women (…) are subtly encouraged to put aside anger and other ‘negative’ emotions”, the author of Rage becomes her: the power of women’s anger wrote. “Studies show that girls are often discouraged from even acknowledging their own anger, talking about negative feelings or being demanding in order to focus on their own needs.”
Through the music video for âgood 4 uâ and its conscious connection to the film, Olivia Rodrigo also advocates for anger as a legitimate form of artistic expression and gives other young women permission to feel. âPetra and I really love expressing female rage. And we think that’s not always very common in the media,â Rodrigo said in a behind-the-scenes video. In the same way that Needy and Jennifer’s emotions are validated by a punk soundtrack, âgood 4 uâ feels like an energetic celebration of all the feelings that girls usually learn to hold back and quietly put out.
I saw for the first time Jennifer’s body when I was close to my teenage years. It was a typical Saturday night at my childhood best friend, Allie, where we watched movie after movie in the dark until the TV light tired our eyes. I liked the movie, but I was at an age where the tastes of my brother and my friends exceeded mine. I wore Heelys without the wheels, listened to Flobots, played multiplayer video games on cheap controllers, because that’s what everyone around me loved. For a long time, I didn’t listen to girl’s punk bands, watch cheerleader movies, or do art on my own feelings, because I was afraid that I would be laughed at.
“To be a teenager is to be the punching bag, the cash cow and the ultimate guardian of pop culture all at the same time,” Constance Grady wrote in a Vox essay this summer. And even at a young age, I felt it. So, everything I loved, I loved quietly. I forgot Jennifer’s body, and it wasn’t until I saw the music video for “good 4 u” that I finally thought about it. It’s different now, and part of that is because Olivia Rodrigo is not alone. She and her peers, artists like Willow and Billie Eilish, are enjoying mainstream success making music where they’re nostalgic, sad, bored, jealous, resentful, angry – music that says everything I felt. as a sheepish preteen.