Music as an Escape From the Gaze: Soundtracking Gender in ‘The Virgin Suicides’

    Jack Warner once said, “Films are fantasy – and fantasy needs music.” In telling the tragic story of the Lisbon sisters through the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys who are obsessed with them, The Virgin Suicides peers into the world of voyeuristic fantasy that casts the teenage girls less as active subjects than mythical spectacles conjured from the narrators’ adolescent imagination. Though discussions of both Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel and Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film adaptation often revolve around the ways in which they disrupt the male gaze, less focus has been given to the role of music in rupturing the boys’ solipsistic, romanticized view of the sisters – despite the fact that, both as a literary and a filmic text, The Virgin Suicides offers a unique opportunity for an interdisciplinary study of music in the context of adaptation; not only does Sofia Coppola’s version feature original music from French electronic duo Air as well as pre-existing songs, but Eugenides’ novel, too, is rife with musical references, cultural allusions, and lyrical excerpts that not feature but also help contextualize the story.

    The central question that arises here is this: Does music offer an alternative view of the Lisbon girls, serving as a conduit to their subjective world? Or are they ‘heard’ through the same veil that clouds the narrators’ perception? From its inception in feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey’s pioneering essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), to the countless reinterpretations that have surfaced since, the concept of the male gaze has been linked to perspective, memory, desire, and of course, gender – all of which permeate the boys’ narrative, and which are inextricably tied to music. In contesting Mulvey’s focus on the image, critical theorists such as Kaja Silverman have argued that the traditional coding of music as feminine also works to devalue her subjectivity and representation in similar ways. Others, including Julie Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, have embraced the assumed relationship between music and the feminine, suggesting that its unique, ineffable qualities may bring to the surface an otherwise silent subjectivity. Warning against the symbolic feminization of music, Caryn Flinn wrote in her 1992 book Strains of Utopia: “If music is woman, she works primarily to cloak and adorn the male artist who remains the primary force beneath her.”

    Whichever approach best applies to The Virgin Suicides, what’s certain is that the role of music is more than just affective or nostalgic; it inhabits a complex and often gendered perspective that may either reinforce or offer an alternative to and an escape from the gaze. By “music”, I’m referring to more than just the diagetic or non-diegetic use of sound in film – obviously, a novel usually only has words to play with, but a writer can still harness its allusive power to evoke character, mood, theme, and indeed, gender. In The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides relies primarily on pre-existing music as well as one made-up song, whereas the film has the added layer of Air’s original score to complement Coppola’s choice of songs, most of which are either based on the era in which the story takes place – 1970s suburban Detroit – or draw directly from the musical references present in the book.

    From Heart to Air: Music as Gendered Expression

    Perhaps the most memorable use of pre-existing music in the film occurs when Heart’s ‘Magic Man’ introduces us to Trip Fontaine (Josh Harnett), the film’s heartthrob character. Not too unlike the male narrators, singer Ann Wilson recalls being young and helplessly in love, but everything else seems to align with the girls’ perspective: “I was […] existing in this very staid, suburban state of being,” Wilson told Rolling Stone, and her mother, expecting the worst, didn’t think it was such a good idea to go out into the world chasing her “magic man.” (Unlike the Lisbon sisters, who lead a forcibly sheltered existence, she ended up winning that battle.) Coppola doesn’t necessarily call attention to that narrative, but just as she playfully subverts the scene to turn Trip into the object of visual pleasure, the song also frames him as the spectacle not only for his audience of high school girls in the diegetic world, but also for the film’s audience. Rather than an unironic expression of romantic infatuation, the song could also be seen as a sort of tongue-in-cheek parody of Trip, poking fun at the lover-man persona who entranced the song’s narrator with his gaze (“Seemed like he knew me, he looked right through me”). Either way, it becomes obvious that he – and by extension, the Lisbon sisters – is more of an archetypal construction than a fully-formed character.

    There’s something to be said about the fact that ‘Magic Man’ was written by one of the most commercially successful and influential female-fronted – and indeed, sister-fronted – rock groups of all time, particularly when taking into account the manner in which Eugenides introduces the same character. As Trip gets high in the car, Eugenides writes, “the smoke would churn out as though from a chimney, dispersing and curling to the music – usually Pink Floyd or Yes – which Trip kept playing.” At first glance, the reference to the two wildly popular progressive rock acts might seem to simply emphasize Trip’s intoxicated state of mind, but alongside a sexualized description of Trip, and considering what critic Georgina Gregory has described as “the overbearing and ‘masculine’ pomposity of progressive rock,” Coppola’s use of Heart’s music can be seen as a means of disrupting the male-dominated space that Trip cultivates in his car.

    But progressive rock later comes into contrast with another genre that’s also enmeshed with gender performance: glam rock. In the book, when the Lisbon girls are forced to burn their rock records, Eugenides’ emotionally charged description hints at the importance these records hold for Lux Lisbon (played by Kirsten Dunst), who, “now crying without sound, began to consign her records one by one to the flames.” Coppola faithfully adapts this scene, without any non-diegetic sound or music playing in the background; but while in the book “we never learned which albums were condemned,” in the film we watch Lux pleading, “Not Kiss, not Aerosmith.” If we adopt the popular assumption that glam rock, which both of these bands offered some variation on, came to parody conventional and repressive male sexuality as a reaction to the rock mainstream of the late 1960s, then perhaps that reference could be seen as in some way devaluing traditional masculinity. But given these bands’ massive popularity at the time, as well as the tenuous relationship between their androgynous style and any meaningful acts of gender subversion, it might be more useful to interpret Lux’s attachment to her record collection – not necessarily the bands themselves – as simply an affirmation of her individuality, a small part of herself she isn’t willing to let go even if others assume she already has.

    ‘Magic Man’ is one of two Heart songs that are featured in the film – the other is ‘Crazy On You’, which briefly plays as Lux, also the most sexualized of the five sisters, passionately kisses Trip in the car. In an essay titled ‘Vinyl Communion: The Record as Ritual Object in Girls’ Rites of Passage Films’, Robyn Stilwell suggests that the song is a means for Lux to assert her authority, “becoming the vessel which carries another’s voice, using the records as a medium of transference – a singer with whose strengths and vulnerabilities she identifies.” Not only does the song render Lux as the one in control, but in conveying the misunderstood character’s unbridled passion, also channels her sexuality in ways the novel’s perspective fails to capture. Notably, the fact that we hear the surface noise of the record at the beginning of the scene serves as an indication that the song could have been consciously chosen by Lux, rather than an extraneous attempt to represent her subjectivity.

    Other songs that appear in the soundtrack can be seen as having a similar function – giving a voice to the silenced sisters – such as 10cc’s ‘I’m Not in Love’, which plays as the sisters dance with the boys during the high school prom. While the film’s visuals reconstruct the memory as the boys recall it – the girls lovingly smiling at or flirting with them – the song strips it of any romantic subtext, like a ghostly reminder from the dead sisters that they were never really in love: “And just because I call you up/ Don’t get me wrong, don’t think you’ve got it made,” the lyrics go, directly foreshadowing the film’s somber ending.

    But though some appropriated songs might act as a possible escape from the male gaze, even becoming a vessel for the girls’ silenced perspective, οthers seem to subtly reinforce the dreamlike impression the boys form of the girls. Love as a dream is a motif in a number of these songs, including Todd Rundgren’s ‘A Dream Goes On Forever’ and Jeff Lyne’s ‘Strange Magic’, as is the typical image of the woman as angel (Styx’s ‘Come Sail Away’). More ambiguous is The Hollies’ ‘The Air that I Breathe’, which is featured during the sisters’ home party and initially seems to accommodate the boys’ idealized perspective, again referring to the narrator’s love interest as an angel. But the song’s title and chorus (“All I need is the air that I breathe”) immediately take on a new resonance in the context of the girls’ emotionally stifling lives, bleakly alluding to one of the most important lines from the character of Cecilia – “I can’t breathe” – and her eventual death by asphyxiation. Even a faint echo of that line is enough to shatter the impression that ‘The Air that I Breathe’ is a straightforward love song – and that The Virgin Suicides is essentially a love story – instead supporting feminist scholar Anna Backman Rogers’ suggestion that The Virgin Suicides is really a horror film “from which horror is abjected and erased.”

    Air’s original soundtrack, on the other hand, which has since become a cult favourite, can more directly be seen as eliciting the male gaze. As Stephanie McKnight argues in a 2011 essay, the score is used to evoke the boys’ subjective point of view rather than an objective reality, maintaining “a narrative focus on the girls as seen through male eyes.” Unlike appropriated music, composed music has no extra-filmic associations, and is thus capable of evoking a perspective that is specific to the male narrators. Through a combination of musical elements reminiscent of the popular musical landscape of the 1970s – reverb-drenched guitars, psychedelic solos, hazy strings, soft horns – and more contemporary production techniques, the past and present collide much like it does in the boys’ elegiac narration.

    Though its instrumental components may leave too much up to interpretation, the lyrics to the only track that features vocals, ‘Playground Love’, seem to confirm the idea that the music heightens the boys’ collective imagination: “You’re the piece of gold/ That flashes on my soul,” Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars (now Coppola’s husband) sings softly. It’s no coincidence that the track first plays when Cecilia is rushed by paramedics from her house after slitting her wrists, as if the score’s alignment with the male gaze only verifies the boys’ implicit culpability. In an interview with Dazed, Air’s Nicolas Godin said his intention was to express his personal experience of not being loved enough as a teenager, hintint at a male viewpoint not too far removed from that of the narrators.

    In another 2015 interview with Stereogum, the duo’s other half, Jean-Benoît Dunckel, offered an explanation less poignant than the music itself, recalling that they “began by making very moody stuff” after reading the book, but wrote ‘Playground Love’ after Coppola increasingly turned it into “a love story — a teenager-style movie.” (He also told CMJ New Music Monthly that the soundtrack was directly influenced by Pink Floyd, which tempts me to revisit an earlier point, but how much of their discography isn’t?) Artistic intentions aside, ‘Playground Love’, and the soundtrack as a whole, evades such simple, reductionist genre descriptors. There’s an obvious ambiguity in that “moodiness” – as much as it might projects the boys’ darker feelings for the girls, the looming feeling of dread that haunts their shared infatuation, it also doubles as an evocation of the girls’ depressive state. The dark and ominous atmosphere that permeates the score invokes the same underlying horror captured in Coppola and cinematographer Ed Lachman’s dreamy visuals, mirroring the sisters’ sense of oppression and imprisonment.

    “I think the real spirit of the soundtrack is this fascination with death and the fascination with having your spirit floating when you die and how you may suddenly feel free and liberated from earth, from all you are and the adult’s world that you actually hate,” Dunckel told Dazed, a statement that seems to underline the girls’ disaffection with the outside world even if it ignores the gendered aspects of their experience. But the key word here isn’t death but floating – characters both male and female float in bathtubs, pools, dreams, and memories; film scholar Masafumi Monden even uses that word to argue that Coppola’s portrayal of the adolescent girls “floats” between dichotomous notions of feminity, and Air’s ethereal soundtrack amplifies that elusive space; the blurring of perspectives, of romance and horror.

    Despite the obvious lack of any sort of composed soundtrack, Eugenides makes the interesting choice of inventing a fictional song – ‘Virgin Suicide’ by Cruel Crux – to similar effect. In the novel, a journalist stumbles upon the song after asking Lux’s schoolmates what records they listen to, and the narrators provide the following excerpt:

    Virgin suicide
    What was that she cried?
    No use in stayin’
    On this holocaust ride
    She gave me her cherry
    She’s my virgin suicide

    They then posit that “the song certainly ties in nicely with the notion that a dark force beset the girl, some monolithic evil we weren’t responsible for,” thus asserting their innocence and reinforcing a narrative that erases the Lisbon girls’ agency – something Eugenides alludes to in the title by changing the line into the plural. On the written page, stripped of any musical properties, the song appears as another objective artifact. But while Air’s soundtrack is much more omnipresent, evocative, and ambiguous as it oscillates between different perspectives, Eugenides’s single use of a constructed song directly problematizes the objectivity of the boys’ account by exposing their own bias.

    “Reaching Out for the Other Side”: Communication Through Vinyl

    In a crucial scene towards the end of The Virgin Suicides, the boys collectively telephone the girls and converse by playing songs on their respective turntables. Notably, this exchange occurs after Lux has been forced to burn her rock records, leaving the girls only with singer-songwriters who reinforce what Stilwell calls “the stifling suburban femininity against which the girls rebel.” Even so, it is the Lisbon sisters’ last chance to construct their own narrative through music; their final attempt, as a line from Bread’s ‘Make it with You’ quoted in the book puts it, of “really reaching out for the other side.”

    In the film, Coppola provides us with a shorter musical exchange of only four songs, two by each group of teenagers: Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ (boys), Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Alone Again, Naturally’ (girls), Bee Gees’ ‘Run to Me’ (boys), Carole King’s ‘So Far Away’ (girls). The first and last of these songs are also featured in the book, while the other two are Coppola’s additions. In the book, the narrators attach a list of only “a portion of that contrapuntal exchange” which was recorded in pencil, but still consists of nine songs (two more are mentioned later). The narrators then interpret and reflect on this exchange as adults, whereas the film lacks any voice-over narration.

    “Our songs, for the most part, were love songs,” the narrators conclude. “Each selection tried to turn the conversation in a more intimate direction. But the Lisbon girls kept to impersonal topics.” A closer look at their respective song choices, however, reveals that the girls’ songs are anything but impersonal; their significance is simply lost on the narrators due to a perceived lack of any romantic connotations. The signs are there in the lyrics: “Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?” Cat Stevens sings on ‘Where Do the Children Play?’, pointing not just to the pressures of a patriarchal society but also the boys’ narrative control over their story. Another one of the girls’ songs, Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, was written about the death of Marilyn Monroe – a sexualized star idolized by male fans all over the globe while silently suffering from mental illness. Janice Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’, meanwhile, is sung from the point of view of a young female protagonist who “desperately remained at home” while “their small-town eyes will gape at you.”

    Despite raising them in the height of deities, the boys outright ignore these signs, instead choosing to decode only the first song the girls play, ‘Alone Again, Naturally’. “Gilbert O’Sullivan’s elfin voice sounded high enough to be a girl’s,” they note. “The lyrics might have been diary entries the girls whispered into our ears. Though it wasn’t their voices we heard, the song conjured their images more vividly than ever.” While the narrators acknowledge that the song is about loneliness, describing it as “a ballad which charts the misfortunes of a young man’s life (his parents die, his fiance stands him up at the altar), each verse leaving him more and more alone,” and that the singer’s voice resembles that of a girl, they fail, even as adults, to recognize it as the girls’ last grasp at self-expression – even neglecting to mention the song’s direct reference to suicide. “Song after song throbbed with secret pain,” they surmise, not realizing how much of that pain was right in front of them.

    The boys, in turn, choose songs about men trying to save women, from James Taylor’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ and ultimately Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, which, in their words, “expressed more than any other how we felt about the girls, how we wanted to help them.” This leads to the Lisbon girls’ final song, the only one whose chorus Eugenides quotes, ‘Make it With You’ by Bread. But the narrators are more drawn to the expression of desire that’s revealed in the final line of the chorus rather than the one the verse opens with, which makes an active distinction between fantasy and reality: “Dreams, they’re for those who sleep/ Life, it’s for us to keep.” They even refer to the gaze when interpreting this musical choice, writing, “Our surveillance had been so focused we missed nothing but a simple returned gaze.” This musical conversation, then, can be seen as a sort of exchange of gazes, in which the girls use the power of “a simple returned gaze” to highlight the boys’ blatant but unsurprising naivety. “We had never known her,” the boys later admit as they stand looking at Bonnie’s body. “They had brought us here to find that out.”

    Coppola stays true to the spirit of the scene – her own musical additions might as well have been songs the narrators have forgotten in time. Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’, beyond simply a conversation starter, is also a love song that hints at the idea of gaining ownership through the gaze: “Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine/ Seeing you, or seeing anything as much as I do you.” Bee Gees’ ‘Run to Me’ is another example of a male saviour narrative. As for the songs that Coppola keeps in her adaptation, it’s worth considering whether actually hearing the music alters their impact in any meaningful way; one could argue that while the meaning of the songs remains unchanged, the sound elicits an emotional and sensory response that moves the listener beyond its symbolic connotations, thus bringing those subjective viewpoints closer to life. No longer reduced to a title on a list, a song like Carole King’s ‘So Far Away’ is marked by presence rather than absence, foregrounding King’s unmistakable voice; the lack of voice-over narration, as well as the visual contrast between the boys’ dreamy and the girls’ mostly despondent facial expressions, makes the realities the boys continuously suppress all too apparent.

    Coppola may not be able to offer a gateway into the hidden corners of the sisters’ minds, but she does evoke their plight as they stare idly at a world that continues to suffocate them. Like the novel, the film arguably exposes more than it subverts the male gaze, but does so in complex and poignant ways. More than two decades after its release, Coppola’s adaptation continues to resonate, not just because it established a visual aesthetic that went on to define the entire Tumblr platform and the teenagers who populated it, but also thanks to the endurance of its soundtrack. Countless artists have since taken inspiration from and expanded Coppola’s approach, removing it even further from the context of adaptation and the trappings of fantasy to tell a different, more personal story. Just last month, Brooklyn four-piece Pom Pom Squad released a song called ‘LUX’ along with a video that recreates several shots from the movie. “It’s about the fear of intimacy I felt as a teen that stemmed from negative early experiences of male attention,” frontwoman Mia Berrin wrote in a statement, adding that she saw that fear reflected in Coppola’s film. Unleashing her frustration over a fiery instrumental, she howls, “In here I’m suffocating/ But out there I feel so small/ What a wonder to be anything at all.” She should be walking away, she thinks, but puts it in more fitting terms: “When I hear your pretty words/ I should be listening to the sound/ Of my feet against the ground/ In the opposite direction.”


    References:

    Backman Rogers, A. (2018). ‘Imaging Absence as Abjection: The Female Body in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides‘, Screening the Past, 48.

    Flinn, C. (1992). Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music. Princeton University Press.

    Gregory, G. (2002). ‘Masculinity, Sexuality and the Visual Culture of Glam Rock’, Culture and communication, 5(2), pp. 35­60.

    McKnight, S. (2011). ‘Happier with Dreams: Constructing the Lisbon Girls Through Nondiegetic Sound in The Virgin Suicides’. In MacCabe, C. (ed) True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (pp. 115-130). USA: Oxford University Press.

    Monden, M. (2013). ‘Contemplating in a dream-like room: The Virgin Suicides and the aesthetic imagination of girlhood’, Film, Fashion and Consumption, 2(2), pp. 139-158.

    Stilwell, R. (2006). ‘Vinyl Communion: The Record as Ritual Object in Girls’ Rites of Passage Films’. In Powrie, P. and Stilwell, R. (eds), The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film (pp. 152-66). Hants, England: Ashgate.

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