This post contains some pretty major spoilers for Spring Breakers. Read at your own risk. I’m not joking, I give away the ending.
Harmony Korine‘s Spring Breakers is an assault. It is an explosion of neon and Skrillex, of sex and drugs, of young women and Aliens. But, most importantly, it is a metaphor for Britney Spears‘ total breakdown.
As the film’s four heroines’ fun and fancy free seaside romp descends into a black hole of corruption and filth, as skipping down their dorm’s hallway gives way to drive-by shootings and drunken three-ways, you can’t look away. And as your eyes stay glued to the caustic images of coed debauchery (and far, far beyond), tabloid headlines of Spears’ unraveling float to the forefront of your memory. The parallels between Faith, Candy, Brit, and Cotty’s (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, respectively) journey to complete corruption and the doomed paths pop superstars — most notably Spears —travel can’t be overlooked.
There are two explicit references to Britney Spears in the film — first, when the four girls sing “… Baby One More Time” in the parking lot of a seedy Florida convenience store and second, when Alien (James Franco) serenades the spring breakers with Spears’ “Everytime” — but the entire film is a dark homage to the star. Most obviously, Bible study-loving Faith acts a stand-in for the young, innocent Spears. She’s the Britney who grew up in Louisiana, who celebrated her Baptist faith, and who appeared on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club.
But the Spring Breakers as Britney metaphor doesn’t work as a simple one-to-one transaction. Faith is only a part of Spears’ persona, and all four of the young women combined — with their varying levels of hedonism — stand in for Britney, a woman who has always been equal parts naiveté and promiscuity. And their seduction by Alien and Florida’s criminal underbelly is representative of Spears becoming swallowed by the fame machine. Indeed, with its cyclical, repeated lines of dialogue — “Spring break forever” and “I want to be better” among them — the film itself acts like the mesmerizing hum of one of Spears’ earworms.
We first hear one of Spears’ songs in Spring Breakers from the lips of the four girls themselves. They have successfully made it to Florida, a trip funded by the fruits of a successful heist of a local diner, and burst into the chorus of “… Baby One More Time” in a dark drugstore parking lot. As the singing draws to a close, Brit, Candy, and Cotty recount their misadventures to Faith, who wasn’t present for the robbery. “My loneliness is killing me” hangs in your ears as the true violence and horror of the event is revealed to both the audience and Faith, who is realizing for the first time that her spring break might not be quite the “spiritual” revelation she intended.
The song’s placement at the beginning of the girls’ spiral into chaos corresponds perfectly with Spears’ timeline. “… Baby One More Time” was Spears’ first single, catapulting her from near-obscurity to superstardom when she was just 17 years old. The media loved Spears’ innocent, girl-next-door look — and indeed, her label packaged her as a sugary sweet, wholesome all-American girl — yet the song (and its schoolgirl-themed video) are shockingly sexualized. Spears wouldn’t sing “I’m not so innocent” for another two years, but the idea was already there, bubbling to the surface. Similarly, by the time that they sang Spears’ lyrics, our spring breakers had gotten their first taste of corruption and (Faith excepted) were hooked. There was no turning back.
If Florida and spring break act as stand-ins for the wilds of the music industry and showbiz, then Franco’s Alien is the fan and media frenzy that unrelentingly followed Spears. “I like you so much. I like you so much. I really do,” Alien says to Faith, stroking her face as tears roll down her cheeks. His adoration of her is shallow (“You’re so pretty,” he says) yet unwavering, and Faith is terrified — just as Spears was overwhelmed by the intense scrutiny of the public eye. As the girls get more deeply embroiled with Alien’s gang, Faith becomes rattled. You can imagine Spears using Faith’s words, “I thought if we came here we could just be free and have fun,” to describe her own disillusionment of the fame machine.
Finally, Faith has had enough. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she says, “Come home with me.” But the other girls are having fun. They are enchanted with Alien — who, with his cornrowed hair and burly physique, looks remarkably like Spears’ ex-husband Kevin Federline — and aren’t ready to leave spring break behind. So Faith (Spears’ innocent superego) hops a bus back to Nowheresville, U.S.A., while the others (Spears’ ego and id) remain firmly in Alien’s and Florida’s grasp. The foursome, much like Britney, has lost it’s moral compass, and will therefore never be quite the same again.
“Play us something sweet. Something uplifting, Something f**king inspiring,” the remaining girls beg Alien, seated at his shiny white baby grand piano. Alien’s choice of a sweet, uplifting, inspiring song is none other than Spears’ “Everytime.” “One of the greatest singers of all time, and an angel if there ever was one on this earth,” Alien says by way of introduction before launching into his serenade. Cotty, Brit, and Candy, clad in pink My Little Pony ski masks and sweatpants emblazoned with “DTF” (Down to F**k, for those of you unfamiliar with the young persons’ lexicon), begin a shotgun gun waltz to the tune. As the song transitions from Alien’s vocals to Spears’ we are shown a montage of the three girls and Alien robbing other spring breakers at gunpoint.
Spears’ 2004 music video for “Everytime” is similarly violent. After being chased through a convenience store (ring any bells?) by the paparazzi, Spears suffers a head wound, drowns in her bathtub, and is taken to a hospital where she fails to be resuscitated. Her fame has literally killed her – and we can’t help but feel that our three spring breakers are headed for the same fate.
The next time we see Alien at his piano he is speak-singing the haunting words, “One little chicky went back to the farm. One little chicky got shot in the arm.” Cotty, during a drive-by altercation with Alien’s rival gang, was indeed shot in the arm, signaling the first time one of the girls has suffered a physical wound. And this moment, therefore, correlates with Britney Spears’ huge, head-shaving breakdown of 2007. Cotty’s gunshot wound – caused in no small part by Alien, our motif for fame — and Spears’ shorn head are both outward symbols of their interior pain; they both broadcast to the world the dangers the women have faced and the harm they have endured. Cotty soon finds herself on the same bus back to oblivion Faith rode days earlier, just as another small part of Britney has disappeared forever.
Ultimately, we are left with just Brit (who even shares a variation on Britney’s name) and Candy, the most daring, adventurous, and open to Alien’s corrupting influence of the four. And they, teamed with Alien, head out to seek revenge on Alien’s nemesis Archie (Gucci Mane). Earlier in the film, Archie says to Alien, “Just like I made you, I’m going to break you.” The music industry speaks through Archie’s mouth in this moment, threatening to destroy the very celebrity it created… and the life that goes along with it. Eerily, Spears’ mother used those very terms to describe her daughter’s breakdown. Lynn Spears writes in her memoir Through the Storm, “Clearly something inside of her had broken and needed to be healed.” But will the girls be able to heal and rise again as Spears has seemed to in recent years?
In the final moments of Spring Breakers, the girls leave Alien for dead and go on a killing spree of their own, shooting up Archie and his gang. The bloodbath is intercut with shots of Candy and Brit after the attack, on the phone with their mothers, mimicking the same words Faith used at the beginning to speak with her grandmother. They’re meeting so many sweet people, they say, and spring break has really changed them. But, most importantly, they are filled with a renewed wish to “be better.”
In these final moments, as the neon lights give way to a sunrise over the ocean, the girls seem poised to rise from the ashes. But the question remains: In killing Archie’s gang (the personification of show business), have they triumphed over the corruption, or have they themselves become the corrupters? The ending of the film is a question mark. Just as we don’t know where Britney will go from here, the fate of Candy and Brit remains hazy.
“Spring break forever,” Alien croons repeatedly. But of course, spring break — like fame, success, and all good things — must come to an end. And when it does, what will remain?
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[Photo Credit: A24; R Vera Jr /Splash News; Hot Shots Worldwide / Splash News]