The power ballad that anchors “Vox Lux” might stick with you for some time — if not for its almost mechanical catchiness, then for the circumstances surrounding its creation. In real life, “Wrapped Up” was co-written by Sia, the Australian multi-hyphenate known for her pop earworms. In the movie, it’s co-written by Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a Staten Island eighth-grader who narrowly survives a school shooting in 1999.
Celeste and her older sister perform “Wrapped Up” in front of their community as a means to heal. But after a record label takes notice and encourages Celeste to change a lyric from “I” to “we,” the song leaps from the memorial service to the radio waves. Suddenly, her trauma belongs to the world.
“A lot of the songs that are early on in this movie . . . they weren’t designed for the masses. They just came from the heart,” director Brady Corbet told The Washington Post. “As the film progresses, the songs sort of change. The lyrics, at least in the context of the film, speak to generalities and platitudes that are a little bit like an audience having their tarot read.”
That could apply to many forms of mainstream art, but “Vox Lux” posits that it is especially true of pop music. Corbet’s film highlights the sincere but fixates on what he calls the “rather disturbing aspects” of pop stardom, both of which 31-year-old Celeste (a melodramatic Natalie Portman) captures when she explains the reasoning behind her shallow lyrics: “I don’t want people to think too hard,” she says about halfway through the film. “I just want them to feel good.”
But are those experiences mutually exclusive? What is “Vox Lux,” a movie sympathetic to its troubled artist, trying to say about pop music?
If the questions sound familiar, that’s because similar ones came up about two months ago with “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper’s movie featuring enamored protagonists who famously sing about being “far from the shallow now.” (Jude Law, who plays Celeste’s manager, once referred to “Vox Lux” as the other film’s “wicked sister.”) As country rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) struggles with addiction and witnesses his career fall apart, aspiring songwriter-turned-pop star Ally (Lady Gaga) goes from writing songs Jackson considers meaningful to performing a catchy song with lyrics that praise his, ahem, assets on “Saturday Night Live.”
Jackson doesn’t take the compliment well and instead laments the direction Ally’s career has taken — basically, the selling-out story line that we’ve seen many times before. But this conversation is layered. The songwriters, including Diane Warren, didn’t intend for “Why Did You Do That?” to be considered a bad song. And while Gaga told Variety the song is “relatively shallow,” Cooper said he didn’t “necessarily view [Ally’s] music as superficial. I think she’s performing with all her heart.”
The song signifies Ally selling out, yes, but is that from Jackson’s point of view or the filmmaker’s? Are we, as audience members, supposed to side with him? Or is he, as some have cleverly mused online, an “unreliable narrator whose world view the film critiques throughout”?
When asked whether he thinks his film and “A Star Is Born” portray pop music in a negative light, Corbet laughed at the implied notion that, as he put it, “something which is very popular is under attack."
“The idea that anybody needs to come to the defense of one of the most lucrative industries in America is totally ridiculous,” he continued.
The songs in “Vox Lux” aren’t supposed to be bad, per se. Corbet recruited Sia to co-write the music and described the results as “affected and intoxicating,” which is especially true of “Wrapped Up.” Songs like “Private Girl,” in which Celeste declares that she is “a private girl in a public world,” and “Firecracker,” in which she claims to have “a sixth sense on where the party is headed,” are a bit more grating.
“Natalie’s character serves as an avatar to talk about the . . . patterns that mark our contemporary values in this country,” Corbet explained. “It’s not about pop music, it’s about pop culture. The pop songs are avatars to describe the pros and cons of pop culture.”
So it isn’t necessarily Celeste’s music at which “Vox Lux” takes aim, but the detriments of the culture surrounding it. Her tragedy is “exploited by the pop music industry,” according to Corbet, and she is encouraged to produce music that often speaks more to generic experiences than her own. Without a proper emotional outlet, and haunted by childhood trauma, she acts out. She uses drugs. She yells at her manager. She yells at her sister. She yells at complete strangers.
Celeste ends up a cog in a machine, but at the same time, she sort of is the machine. The first half of the film is about how the culture shaped her, Corbet said, and the second is about how she, in turn, shapes the culture. Celeste not only sings but also speaks to her fans in those “generalities and platitudes.” During the concert sequence that closes out the film, she asks her audience: Have you ever had a boy break your heart? Has anyone ever called you ugly? Has anyone ever called you fat? If so, this one’s for you.
“There’s something so pathetic about this moment and yet, of course, what she’s saying is so commonplace — it’s totally ordinary, but it’s delivered as if it’s vital and important and unique,” Corbet said. “There’s something about that I find really interesting, the idea of exploiting the insecurities that, of course, people have.”
But pop stars no longer shape culture with generic messages — at least, not to the same extent. While Taylor Swift sells out stadiums and speaks to the masses about issues they all face, like online bullying, she has also started to speak out on topics that in another era could have ended her career, like politics. Ariana Grande’s “Thank u, next” preaches self-acceptance in a way that few breakup songs have. On top of it all, a recent Vanity Fair piece argues that the definition of “pop star” has been so in flux throughout 2018 that traditional pop stars like Ally and Celeste are “no longer the de-facto agenda-setters” for mass audiences. The New York Times adds that the power has been transferred to pop subgenres: “K-pop, Latin trap, melodic hip-hop and more."
Perhaps “Vox Lux” presents an image of pop stardom that will soon feel dated. Regardless, unlike Celeste’s lyrics, it makes you think — and that’s all Corbet wants.
“I really appreciate the debate that ensues when the film is finished,” he said. “I think that it’s important, and it’s welcome. The film was designed to stir these kinds of conversations.”