Saturday, 16 October 2010

Will Brooker On The Twilight Saga's Soundtracks


"Well, you built up a world of magic," Hayley Williams taunts, halfway though the Paramore track "Brick By Boring Brick", "because your real life is tragic." If it's a dig at fans of Stephenie Meyer's supernatural romance saga, Twilight, it's a particularly snide one - as Paramore contributed two tracks to the movie soundtrack. But it hits hard and hurts, like a bitchy heel-stamp, because it fits the stereotype.The Twilight fan of popular caricature has graduated from Harry Potter's Hogwarts only to mope around magic college, mooning over pale vampires and buff werewolves.

The Twilight franchise is the cultural equivalent of an emo teenager's bedroom, with all its melancholy self-indulgence and its unattainable pin-ups. More specifically, it's a teenage girl's bedroom. Twilight's protagonist, Bella Swan, is effectively a blank, a screen for the viewer to protect herself onto and into, and be faced with the deliciously difficult choice of choosing between two hot young men, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black. Twilight is, or so opinion has it, a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the kind of adolescent girls who dye their clothes black, doodle skulls in their schoolbooks, and write bad poetry.

Which makes me wonder what I'm doing, as a straight male academic on the wrong side of forty, owning all three Twilight film soundtracks and listening to them way more than I expected.

I could justify it in terms of my official commitment to cinema and my personal passion for photography, which would be true but not the full story; Twilight and its promotional imagery are visually arresting, but they're
not what fully captivates me. I could deny it's because of the hot young men, which would be a complicated half-lie: looking at the 17 year old actor Taylor Lautner's body - his abs and pecs carved from gleaming mahogany - I'm hit with a weird mixture of admiration, resentment and determination to do more sit-ups.

But above all, it's the world that draws me in. Sure, it's a world of magic. But as Morrissey once noted, much of what gets us through our own lives (and yes, they're sometimes tragic) is the knowledge that "there is another world, there is a better world. Well, there must be." There's nothing especially childish about the idea of slightly-shifted alternate universes: science fiction, from Michael Moorcock to Phillip Pullman, depends on the concept. Twilight, like a host of other popular narratives before it, builds a world just a little different to our own, and invites us to cross over.

There's an obvious pleasure, as evidenced by countless fan websites, in mastering the details of that world, its rules, histories and taxonomies. I'm not committed enough to investigate and memorise every member of the
Quileute tribe and Cullen family, or the intricacies of their interlinked backstory. I'm too old, with too much real-life stuff to worry about, to dig deeply into Meyer's mythology. But I can understand in a moment why it would be important to a fifteen year-old, bound by stupid rules and lacking control in her own world, to enter this alternative sphere, to know it intimately, to master it, to gain an expertise in something she owns for herself. It's not about wishing the two hottest boys at school would compete for your attention - or it's not just about that. It's about having something truly your own.

At the margins of Twilight, I can only glimpse those pleasures. But for all the easy criticism levelled at the films, they contain moments of astonishing beauty: most obviously, in their roaming aerial shots over Washington's forests, but also in the way they use visual effects not just for obvious scenes of CGI combat, but to create striking, memorable images.

And those moments are often woven so tightly with a particular song that the soundtrack inevitably brings the image back to mind. The stunning, five-minute tracking shot that simply circles around Bella in her room - we
watch the seasons change, while she, sunk into depression, sees nothing - is carried by Lykke Li's "Possibility", with its painfully resigned lyric "there's a possibility. all that I had is all I'm goin' get." The sequence where red-headed vampire Victoria flees through the forest from Jacob's werewolf clan, an autumnal streak against the green and brown, pounds with the fuzzy bass and telegraph-taut drums of Thom Yorke's "Hearing Damage".

There's a haunted other world in those songs - a world not just of vampires and werewolves, but a world of teenagers, who feel things harder, deeper, stronger than adults. It's a world of intense emotional pain, where a
romantic break-up, even after just a few months, can stop the seasons. But it's also a world of heightened beauty. It's a world we all lived in, and a world we have, for the most part, left behind. As adults, we don't tend to feel those highs or lows anymore. Even music, which used to transform the world and shape our lives, becomes just background.

The magic of the Twilight soundtracks - all three of them - is that they remind me what music used to feel like. Walking by the river, at Kingston, on an autumn evening, as sunset turned to dusk, I had Band of Horses in my headphones from the Twilight: Eclipse album, declaring "Life on Earth / is changing." And it felt true; the world was briefly cast in amber light, and transformed into a music video where everything was precious and doomed.

Sure, Twilight's an adolescent world of magic. But sometimes we need more magic, and sometimes it's good to remind yourself how it feels to be an adolescent.


Dr. Will Brooker (pictured) is Director of Research for Film and TV at Kingston University, UK.  He is the author of the BFI film classics Star Wars, and books on Alice in Wonderland and Blade Runner, among others, and is an expert on fan fiction.  He is a contributor to Eyewear, as photographer and cultural ruminator.
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