Sonic unions and personal soundtracks: An analysis of popular music in Skins

A paper I’ve submitted for publication in The Soundtrack

To delineate the functions of music as a cinematic-acoustic tool is clearly a complex task. In this particular investigation, we must examine how the states of consciousness of teenagers unfold in accordance to personal and individual soundtracks, enveloping a critical area as wide in scope as human emotion itself. Rather than viewing the use of the popular soundtrack as either a way to sell singles or a certain “MTV aesthetic,” the British drama television series Skins pulls together various kinds of popular music to create very significant points of personal and social revelation in several different ways. Through the use of punk, trip hop and lo-fi montages, the pop soundscape functions to illustrate moments of confidence, sexual promiscuity and social nihilism, in accordance to several characters’ mental states and social circumstances during critical times. As this paper explores, the popular soundtrack evolves alongside the characters’ points of view, through dismebodiment, mental disturbance and a David Lynch-inspired diegetic strangeness.

Skins is a popular television series that explores the lives of college students in Bristol. The central characters range from various socio-economic backgrounds, but the series delves into topics such as drug use, sexual relationships, family hardships, infidelity, mental illness and even death. Narratively, each episode is based around the life situation of an individual character, or a relationship between two. In this way, each episode acts as a mise-en-scene for the season as a whole, and as all the relationships are intertwined, the finale weaves a narrative symphony for their social circle as a collective.

For the purposes of this investigation, two episodes will be examined for their use of popular music to emphasize the mental states of three standout characters. The fundamental thesis is that the pop soundtrack to each of the characters creates the auditory diegesis for those characters and their associated mental states, pervading the emotional and intellectual space of their individual psyches and delving deeper into the diegetic reality of the image. Rather than viewing the use of pop music as an aesthetic accompaniment to the lifestyles of the hip and restless, these songs act to formulate notions of identity, social belonging and personal epiphanies.

Like Kay Dickinson argues, music in film can act in more ways than simply reinforcing the film’s image, more than semi-consciously reiteraterating the narrative or visual themes. In Skins, the pop song embedded in the diegesis of the character’s soundtrack is indeed “distinctly more pertinent to their identity formulation than the unobtrusive seduction that a classical score often so relentlessly strives for in an idiom alien to their particular language”(Dickinson 2003: 146). Like Dickinson argues, and this article defends, “to a teenage audience they often play a vital role in both self-definition and micro-cultural stratification” (Ibid., 146). It might simply seem like the typical case of teenagers  trying to fit in, forming their individual identities based on the popular cultural pressures around them, but this investigation is more complex than that superficial observation. If anything, the individual soundtracks they play through offer a more salient explanation of who they are, particuarly in relation to the images we see.

Like many teenage dramas, Skins offers a further dimension of reality in its visual treatment of the issues it explores. Narratively, the events follow sequentially as the characters live out their two-year college experience, and as a a result, unfolds in real time. After the first two series, the cast was changed to and transformed into different diegetic realites. In this way, the generational soundtracks never coincide. For the purposes of this article, we will examine the mental states of three separate characters across four seasons.

Tony: punk, silence, raw ambience and trip hop

Tony Stonem (Nicholas Hoult) is the adonis of Roundhouse College. With a razor sharp wit, a brilliant mind and a smile that melts the hearts of every girl who has lusted after him, Tony is the most popular and intellectually promising character in the Skins social circle. His girlfriend, Michelle, is just as you would expect―beautiful, determined, sharp―and they are falling in love despite their previous inability to commit.

At the tail end of the first season of Skins, Tony is hit by a bus and suffers extensive brain damage, leaving him mentally and physically debilitated due to a subdural hematoma. After some time in a coma, he wakes up to discover that he remembers nothing of his life before. Through the second season, Tony must redefine and remember himself as he was before the accident, having to learn things like who his family is, how to hold a pencil, walk and how to resume his relationship with a girlfriend he does not remember.

Tony’s pop soundtrack prior to the accident very explicitly makes it clear to the audiovisual participant that he is at the very top of the social ladder. With punk bands such as The Hives and The Archie Bronson Outfit lingering in his scenes, Tony Stonem’s swagger and womanizing tendencies are rendered more salient against his edgy, confident diegetic soundtrack.

Understandably, and like Dickinson points at, Tony’s music is playing a pivotal role in his development of self. Initially, we are introduced to the social tomcat, and the music follows suit. When Tony’s body, brain and sense of self are effaced by the accident, his soundtrack devolves into greater lapses of silence, and the occasional cacophony of ambient, raw noise.

Episode Six is pivotal for Tony, where his sense of identity is restored, and the soundtrack evolves alongside this personal epiphany. Previously, Tony has began to feel something for his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who has thrown herself into the arms of Sid, Tony’s best friend, to fill the void. Although he is still not fully cognitient of his emotions for Michelle, Tony lashes out at Sid for taking his girlfriend, although Sid has loved her all long.

During these scenes, popular music is rendered mute against the sounds of dialogue between the characters during this fraught, confused time. In Torben Grodal‘s analysis of perception and cognition in film, he assesses the importance of the dialogue as an auditory signifier in a way that meshes immaculately with this investigation. Grodal’s thesis is that while language, as an audiovisual sequence is integral to the displacement of cognitive imagination, there is a distinction between “the iconic-analogue sign, the indexical-synechdocic sign and the arbitrary-symbolic sign”(Grodal 1997: 74). In this way, dialogue and the diegesis of conversation is merely self- referential to the visual signifier. The reason why I bring up this technicality of cognition is because it is central to Tony’s position. In the episodes where he has forgotten himself, but merely feels the traces of the life he once had, his soundtrack is reduced to the synechdocic sign: a lack of pop music as a result of his failing cognitive perceptions. By cognitive, it does not simply reference understanding or self-knowledge, but rather, the distinction of the process of self-knowledge. Narratively, this is something Tony must endure until the middle of the season when the pieces of his life begin to coalesce.

In the sixth episode, Tony is persuaded to go out to a club one night, although he feels not well enough for it. He ends up taking ecstasy and comes up on the dance floor, where the music is boisterous, sexual and dark. Tony’s confidence is falsely restored again, and he dances maniacally to the bass-heavy tunes in the club. Audiovisually, the audience is painfully aware that this sex-crazed, darkly confident dance noise is not his soundtrack, and consciously makes preparations for psychological breakdown. Tony notices Sid talking with Michelle from across the dancefloor, holding her close to his body. Despite the drugs, and false sense of confidence, Tony becomes overwhelmed with a jealousy he does not understand. The feeling is overwhelming, and reduces Tony to a breathless, immobile heap on the bathroom floor. As he vomits and begins to experience a panic attack, the echoed club sounds boom into the tiled, dilapidated lavatory, adding a heavy, unavoidable feeling of terror and confusion.

Amidst the claustrophobic audivisual scene, we then hear the softness of a woman’s voice. A mysterious girl in the  next stall reassures Tony that he’s having a panic attack, probably caused by some deep seated desires. At this point, Michel Chion’s theory of emanation speech (Chion 2009: 68) in relation to the disembodied voice becomes starkly significant, as we hear mystery girl’s voice before seeing her face, like some kind of invisible comfort streaming into him aurally. Tony quickly determines the point of audition in the bathroom after she has spoken to him, rendering the illusion that she may or might now exist, but this isn’t “logical”(Ibid., 334).

Beyond this use of acousmetre, Tony’s exhausted panting reverberating in the bathroom functions much in the same way as Dave’s breathing in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that both of these sounds would have “an internal-objective point of audition”(Ibid., 334); where Dave is struggling against Hal, Tony is struggling against himself. His internal objective point is mute, much like his soundtrack. The disembodied voice of mystery girl emanating from the stall next to him is someone he must struggle against if he wants to remember himself.

After crashing from the drugs, Tony goes home early and decides to visit a prospective university the next day, which ultimately leads to his self-discovery, where his soundtrack resumes yet again. K.J. Donnelly’s analysis of sound from David Lynch’s Lost Highway proves useful in this examination as well, as Tony’s stumbling psychological state leads him to conjure up a girl who may or may not exist. Similarly to how Lynch’s film occupies a “nether world”(Donnelly 2001: 20), Tony’s mental cognition undergoes the same kind of uncanny, mysterious diegetic strangeness, through disembodied sound and that girl who keeps appearing only to him. Like Lost Highway, the diegesis in this scene is comparable to what Donnelly says about “the virtual space of mental processes, making film music the unconscious space of the film. We can see it as a repository of reminders, half-memories and outbursts of emotion and the illogical.”(Ibid., 21) At the university open day, Tony keeps getting approached by a mysterious girl―the one he met in the bathroom at the club the night before―although nobody else in his group seems to acknowledge her. After skipping out on the university tour, Tony finds himself in her dormitory room with two other friends, where he smokes hashish. Tony then miraculously regains his sexual ability and makes love to the mysterious girl. In this estranged scene, which is both familiar and foreign to Tony, exotic electronic mash ups by Bonobo are played, a trip-hop musician named after the most promiscuous and human-like monkey in sexual lifestyles. As if this audiovisual scene wasn’t strange enough, the girl then gets tattooed in the dormitory room while the exotic music plays.

All these audiovisual cures reinforce Tony’s slightly perturbed but intrigued mental states. In this way, the music is perfectly lined up by Tony’s sense of self-effacement in the presence of these drug-addled, scholastic bohemians.

During sex, “Green Fields” by The Good, The Bad and the Queen plays, a psychedelic, self-referential song about the passing of time. In fact, we hear this tune several times throughout the episode, such as the time when Tony and the mystery girl jump in the pool together, and also eariler when Tony was lost and wandering the halls of the university.  The song’s presence also varies during these scenes, sometimes merely buzzing in the background like a confused gnat, other times dominating the diegesis of the scene. When Tony is having sex for the first time since his accident, the song operates in the scene much in the same way as some kind of erotic music video, with quick cuts of young skin, tousled hair and nails digging into flesh.

While it could be argued that a classical score, or a sweeping cinematic gesture might be a more suitable way to make a musical nod to Tony’s sexual return, the soundtrack does not work in this way. Rather, it uses the pop soundtrack to garner sympathy from teenage audiences. Like Tony, the show is targeted at principles of self-identity, and this epiphany and self-discovery in the episode can only be justly complemented by a song about a song, a self-referential and self-defining tune.

Stepping slightly beyond the scope of this particular analysis, it is worth noting that in the following episode, Tony’s soundtrack is reduced to a single pervasive song. “Asleep at the Trigger,” by Autolux, a lo-fi dreamy pop group, dominates his scenes repeatedly. While the previous episode showed Tony’s return to himself, through his confused mental statesand even more muddled soundtracks, this song appropriately conveys that Tony is back in full swing, when before, he was literally asleep at the trigger.

Effy and Freddie: fear and resilience

Effy (Kaya Scodelario) is Tony Stonem’s little sister. In the third season, Tony has gone off to Cardiff University, leaving Effy with the big room and even bigger social gap at Roundhouse to fill. Deceitfully beautiful and intelligent, Effy’s confidence and sexual prowess is only the mask to her deep-seated internal conflicts, which is the reality that she is suffering with psychotic depression. She the posterchild of teenage rebellion, wrapped up under a Hamlet-like depression. Her soundtrack is predominantly trip hop themes, such as Portishead, which she listens to in the morning as she gets dressed for school. Trip hop could be described as dirty, exotic and bass-heavy electro-instrumental montages, which suit her inner mental states. Through the appearance of not having any interests beyond her personal satisfaction, Effy does as she pleases. Her soundtrack is dark, foreboding and absoultely irresistible.

Freddie (Luke Pasqualino), on the other hand, is less intelligent, but happy in his intellectual circle. He smokes weed, is a skateboarder and listens to old school hip-hop, suggesting deep loyalties and sensitivity to oppression. His best friend, Cook (Jack O’Connell), is a nihilist and an alcoholic who has little regard for anything else but satisfying his sexual desires. He takes a lot of drugs and has little respect for authority. When we first meet them together, Cook is walking to school with a pint in hand, screaming the lyrics to “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead, a song about living life to its fullest, despite the consequences and likelihood of sudden death. Like the pairing of soundtracks suggests, Cook and Effy would be meant for each other, because of their mental instabilities and epicurean lifestyles. While they have a brief but torrid sexual affair, Freddie’s caring disposition and true love for Effy place her in his soundtrack, and in his control in the later episodes.

In the episode entitled “Freddie,” his relationship with Effy has reached new heights, where it proves to be too much for her. The episode begins with a musical montage of their night together. While at the house, with the lights off, Effy and Freddie take drugs together, smoke weed buckets out of the sink then wreak havoc on the neighbourhood. At the house, the soundtrack does not complete engulf the sonic diegesis of the scene, as we can hear the two exhaling smoke, in addition to the crackling of Freddie lighting up a joint. When they get back to the house, the music lets off a little so we can hear the diegesis of the room. Freddie tells Effy “I really fucking love you,” prompting Effy ‘s reply “You aren’t getting lazy, are you?” before initiating sex on the stairs. “Warrior Queen”  by Poison Dart, a massive, thudding club song of African mythical proportions plays the entire time during this montage.

While the party anthem of Poison Dart renders the bohemian lifestyle and deep sensuality of Freddie and Effy’s relationship more salient to the audience, it also performs two other functions: to foreshadow a dark psychological conflict, and to impart notions of high and middle art to the audience, which is predominantly teenagers. The use of these cultural repertoires, according to Lisa A. Barnett and Michael Patrick Allen, the music in the film “is a medium whose content can span the spectrum from introspective art to escapist entertainment”(Barnett and Allen 2000: 149). Indeed, while Freddie and Effy’s hedonistic night prompts immediate notions of escapism from reality through drug abuse, nonconformist behaviour and the safety of a lover’s arms, the soundtrack proves to be a communication medium for these visual signifiers.

The next morning, Effy wakes Freddie up as he lies face down on her bed, naked. The sonic space then allows a breather for dialogue, where Freddie discovers that Effy has been crying. While she claims the tears are from “happiness,” the sobering diegesis of the room suggests she is not. When Freddie leaves for a disciplinary meeting at school, Effy turns her stereo on to a Dangermouse remix of “Fear and Resilience,” a song originally by Pedro. Freddie laughs, and leaves, and the audience is left with Effy’s solitude as she listens to the remix and imbibes more vodka, the swilling noise of her rising depression.

Cinematically jolting, we are quickly removed from her bedroom to Freddie on his bike riding through a park, breaking up the narrative plot but maintaining narrative “flow” at the same time. Sun radiating through the leaves, the song from Effy’s room is now engulfing Freddie’s world through his headphones. What was the song of Effy’s solitude is now the anthem of his euphoric exuberance. We can hear Freddie laugh as he thinks about the night he just had, and the whirring of his bike spokes as he pedals furiously.

In her analysis of Madonna’s music video to “Cherish,” Carol Vernallis makes an argument about the use of the musical soundtrack to induce narrative flow by the “pull” of it. The use of “Fear and Resilience” first in Effy’s room then in Freddie’s headphones “parallels the way that the propulsive elements in the music―the bass line, the rolling drum tracks, the harmonic motion―create and maintain the song’s momentum”(Vernallis 2004: 155). In this way, the soundtrack complements both mental states of each of the characters, as diametrically opposed as they may be. It would be remiss not to analyse how the title of the song so aptly highlights Effy and Freddie’s associative mental states, with Effy being on the verge of a psychological meltdown, where Freddie will need to practice his resilience.

Hey Joe” by Sparklehorse plays a fundamental soundtrack to Freddie’s realization that his girlfriend is in serious psychological trouble. At school, tight shots of his face and his growing fear is juxtaposed against the lo-fi sweetness of the track laid over the images. Freddie walks into the hallway, completely broken down, as the diegetic noises of careless teenagers around him flood his space. Freddie’s inability to talk, and his reliance on his soundtrack highlights his mental state, and in this way, the soundtrack’s use to deliver meaning through representation of language is paramount.

In Edward Branigan’s essay “Sound, Epistemology, Film,” he argues that the soundtrack, existentially renders the same meaning that language can have on both the characters in the film, and the audio-visual participant. “Sound is built into our perceptual activity and into our use of language,”(Branigan 1997: 96) and in this way, Freddie’s soundtrack accompanies his mental state as well. Similarly, the use of soundtrack overlaying absent or muted dialogue occurs in another scene, when Effy slits her wrist in the bathroom. Freddie kicks the door in, creating sounds of the wood and metal shredding apart, before finding her bleeding on the floor. At this moment, “Charlotte” by Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions begins to take over the auditory soundscape. We hear Freddie scream for help before his cries become overtaken by the tragic, melancholic song overhead. The fading out of the song into sobering silence in the hospital hallway reinforces Effy’s self-destructive mental state and the harbouring of more mental challenges to come.

Another poignant use of the popular soundtrack to highlight mental states is the party scene. Effy, in her unstable mind, has invited people to her house, but the action of the party has left her terrified and hiding under the bed. Freddie finds her there, and closes the door behind him. Talking quietly, the audience can still hear the residual party soundtrack beating at her door. It’s “Tony’s Theme” by the Pixies, a grungey tune alluding to casual sex and heavy drug use. Freddie comforts her, then gets up to remove the people from her party. As he does so, the point of audition rapidly changes, as we hear the music from different vantage points. Like Branigan argues, sound “must always move toward something, or emanate from some (more permanent) object or state of being”(Ibid., 103). Where Freddie is threatening people to leave the house, the soundtrack is loud and boisterous, deafening and overwhelming. The camera focuses on Effy’s face under the bed, where the soundtrack is heavily muted by her closed door. While the loud soundtrack reinforces Freddie’s resolve to “take care” of his girlfriend, Effy hears the same soundtrack, which overwhelms and paralyzes her.

Through the use of punk music, in Tony’s case, to illustrate moments of confidence, sexual promiscuity and social nihilism, the soundtrack evolved alongside the characters’ points of view and associated soundtracks. For Tony, a debilitated brain, and loss of sensory memories permits for a change and experimentation in soundtracks.

From raw noise, sound as chaos through form were appropriately highlighted by club sounds and otherworldly auditory experiences he felt alienated by. In the episode about Freddie and Effy’s relationship, the soundtrack had several functions to perform, particularly in the case of bringing their very opposing states of mind together in the same temporal and emotional space. Regardless of its effect, the use of the popular music soundtrack successfully achieved its function in the identity of self and individualism in the series as a whole, and in particular these two highly emotionally-charged episodes.

References

Barnett, Lisa A. and Allen, Michael Patrick. “Social Class, Cultural

Repertoires, and Popular Culture: The Case of Film.” Sociological

Forum, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Mar., 2000), pp. 145-163.

Branigan, Edward. “Sound, Epistemology, Film.” Film Theory and Philosophy.

Eds. Richard Allen and Murray Smith. New York: Oxford University Press,

1997.

Chion, Michel. Film, A Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York:

Columbia University Press, 2009.

Dickinson, Kay, Ed. Movie Music: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge,

2003.

Donnelly, K.J. Ed. Film Music: Critical Approaches. New York: Continuum,

2001.

Grodal, Torben. Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and

Cognition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Vernallis, Carol.  Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural

Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

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