Movies

Why 'Teen Spirit' Is a Pop Purist's Dream

The world of Teen Spirit is a quiet one: Characters speak softly, and background noise rarely rises above a low din. But when the music arrives -- in a crowded dance club, at a dingy bar and especially onstage at the titular musical competition -- the volume spikes, and the film comes to life.

Seen through the eyes of 17-year-old aspiring pop singer Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), this world isn’t totally recognizable as our own -- not just because of its far-flung setting, on England’s Isle of Wight, but also because it portrays pulsating pop, typically sung by women, as the dominant force in music. In Teen Spirit’s universe, synth hooks and diva vocals rule, rock isn’t that big of a deal, hip-hop might not even exist and reality singing competitions are even more of a monocultural unifier than they were in 2003.

But just because it’s not a dead ringer for the current reality doesn’t mean it isn’t still recognizable as someone’s. From the first time we see Violet, singing Tegan & Sara’s “I Was a Fool” in a mostly empty bar, her connection with pop is intimate, personal and all-consuming. When she thrashes around her bedroom to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” it says far more about her character than her sparse dialogue does. Even the most recognizable songs she performs in the film (Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”) sound more like internal monologues than communal singalongs.

Teen Spirit’s boldest assertion may be that pop music is best understood and performed by the introverted. Violet connects immediately with her music but not her TV audience; the show’s producers and her manager must coach her to engage more, make eye contact, play the game. Her interest in stardom is purely as a channel for performance. She has no posters in her bedroom, shows no taste for fashion or social media and only dances because she’s told to. When a pushy record executive trying to sell her the world asks why she joined the competition, she simply answers, “I like to sing.” Any more elaboration would feel insincere.

For Teen Spirit, that’s good enough. Violet’s voice (Fanning’s own) isn’t a technical marvel, but it has character: It doesn’t sound like any artist she’s covering, yet it’s clearly identifiable. Her performances feel like revelations even to Violet herself: Every time she sings, she seems to be discovering the song anew, truly inhabiting it for the first time.

In the offscreen world, Violet might not get far on a competition like Teen Spirit; reality contests almost always reward big voices and big personalities. But the movie makes the case for left-of-center, defiantly individual artists -- the Robyns, the Tegan & Saras, the kind of unconventional stars that real pop obsessives adore -- as the gold standard for what pop could and should be: music that connects with the young girl singing along at home, expressing all the feelings she wished she was bold enough to vocalize herself.

This article originally appeared in the March 9 issue of Billboard.