© 2021 All Rights reserved WUSF
News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hell Is A Teenage Girl: Olivia Rodrigo, 'Jennifer's Body' And The Joy Of Rage

Olivia Rodrigo performs "good 4 u" during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 12, 2021.
Olivia Rodrigo performs "good 4 u" during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 12, 2021.

"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 narrates, the titular cheerleader Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) lies in bed, staring blankly out her window with blood-tinged eyes. Somewhere, beyond the panes of glass and pink-papered walls of Jennifer's bedroom, Needy waits, box cutter knife in hand, veiled by a starless Minnesota night. Just months ago, she and Jennifer were normal students — lifelong best friends — at Devil's Kettle High School. Now, their sandbox love is dead. Needy is "cracked," "loose around the edges," and she needs to let her feelings out.

Although many would call that opening scene iconic today, when it was first released, Jennifer's Body was heavily criticized and underperformed financially. Those who skipped it may not have fully known what they were dismissing: As director Karen Kusama and screenwriter Diablo Cody have since argued, the movie they made was misrepresented by a marketing campaign that catered to straight male fantasy. But Jennifer's Body is really a story about anger — young women's anger. And in recent years, it's been reevaluated through a feminist lens, and steadily grown into a cult favorite. Online, its depictions of teenage girl characters experiencing the extremes of friendship, exploitation and revenge have become potent pop culture references. More than a decade after it premiered (the film celebrates its 12th anniversary on Sept. 18), young fans continue to share and discover it through GIFs, YouTube clips and — appropriately 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 put her own feminine rage on display. Rodrigo had been an actress on two Disney original series for years when she emerged onto the pop scene at the start of 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 the VMAs, her spotlight moment was a performance of "good 4 u" — a rock anthem about struggling to get over a lover who has moved on, and a sign of the continued relevance of Kusama and Cody's film.

The music video for "good 4 u," directed by Petra Collins, isn't a direct recreation of Jennifer's Body (and it has other clear influences, such as the 1999 Japanese horror movie Audition), but its themes and visuals nod to the film in many ways. It begins with Rodrigo in character as a seemingly normal high school student, disinterestedly practicing dance moves with her cheer squad over the song's funk bass, distorted guitar and shouted vocals. Over time, the audience catches glimpses of something more sinister under the surface. She decorates the inside of her locker with a picture of a boy with his face x'd out, casually knocks into a classmate without stopping, dons shiny black gloves and buys a gallon of gasoline from a filling station. Behind her smile, anger seems to build and build until she can't hold it in any longer. By the last chorus, she's standing in her ex's bedroom as his sheer curtains are swallowed by flames. After his room has softened into ash, she retreats to a wooded lake, where she swims through the blue-black water. Her eyes glint red, and she smiles with all her teeth.

"good 4 u" is one of two pop-punk tracks on the otherwise ballad-heavy Sour, and Rodrigo has said it created a space for her to express emotions she couldn't in the other pop styles the album explores. "The song has a lot of unbridled anger and spite in it. I struggled for a really long time in learning how to write an upbeat song that people could move to and just not cry to, I suppose," she told Nylon this spring. "For a while I thought you have to be in love, and happy, to write a dancey song. I'm proud that I figured out how to write a song that was high energy, without sacrificing what I was feeling."

In Jennifer's Body, the transition from normal girl to vengeful, supernatural being has a darker origin. The plot is set in motion when the rock band Low Shoulder — a quintet of eyeliner-wearing boys with an interest in the occult — plays a show in Devil's Kettle and coaxes Jennifer into its tour van afterwards. The band plans to offer her life to Satan as a virgin sacrifice, in exchange for money and fame. But because Jennifer isn't a virgin, she doesn't die in the ritual and instead turns into a demon, who kills and feeds on boys to sustain herself. In the wake of Jennifer's transformation, Needy is forced to reckon with what her best friend has become, what Low Shoulder turned her into. And she is full of anger, something she holds inside herself until it overflows.

Horror films have often taken an interest in the emotional lives of their teenage characters, using scary stories as studies in 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 at the time might really have been listening to: The movie opens with a song by the dance-rock band Black Kids and closes with the iconic '90s grunge group Hole, and artists such as Paramore and Panic! At The Disco soundtrack the mundanities of school life. There are visual nods to 2000s alternative culture, too: Posters of Fueled By Ramen bands line the young characters' bedrooms, and the class's resident goth Colin Gray (Kyle Gallner, adorned with facial piercings and black nail polish) is among those swept up in Jennifer's rampage.

"I think that [we were trying] to kind of find some music that rendered teen complexity, and wasn't pandering, but had some great energy and spirit to it," music supervisor Randall Poster told Billboard in a 2019 anniversary piece. Through its thematic, stylistic and musical choices, the movie accomplished that — allowing its young female characters to unabashedly feel the full range of human emotions, anger included. That can be a rare privilege even in real life, writer Soraya Chemaly argued in a recent Guardian column: "Girls and women ... are subtly encouraged to put anger and other 'negative' emotions aside," the author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger wrote. "Studies show that girls are frequently discouraged from even recognizing their own anger, from talking about negative feelings, or being demanding in ways that focus on their own needs."

Through the "good 4 u" music video and its conscious connection to the movie, Olivia Rodrigo is also making a case for anger as a legitimate form of artistic expression, and giving other young women permission to feel. "Petra and I really love expressing feminine rage. And we think that's something that isn't always super commonplace in media," Rodrigo said in a behind-the-scenes video. The same way Needy and Jennifer's emotions are validated by a punky soundtrack, "good 4 u" feels like an energetic celebration of all the feelings that girls are usually taught to hold in and quietly extinguish.

I first saw Jennifer's Body when I was verging on adolescence. It was a typical Saturday night at my childhood best friend Allie's house, where we watched movie after movie in the dark until the light from the TV strained our eyes. I liked the film, but I was at an age where my brother's and my friends' tastes superseded my own. I wore Heelys without the wheels, listened to Flobots, played multiplayer video games on cheap controllers, because that's what everyone around me liked. For a long time, I didn't listen to women-fronted punk bands, or watch movies about cheerleaders, or make art about my own feelings, because I was afraid of being made fun of.

"To be a teenage girl is to simultaneously be pop culture's ultimate punching bag, cash cow, and gatekeeper," Constance Grady wrote in a Vox essay this summer. And even at a young age, I felt that. So, everything I liked, I liked quietly. I forgot about Jennifer's Body, and it wasn't until I saw the "good 4 u" music video that I finally thought about it again. It feels different now, and that's partly because Olivia Rodrigo isn't alone. She and her peers, artists like Willow and Billie Eilish, are finding mainstream success making music where they're wistful, sad, bored, jealous, resentful, angry — music that says everything I was feeling as a sheepish preteen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.