So You're Still Thinking About Promising Young Woman's Soundtrack? This Might Be Why
Straight from its intro blasting Charli XCX's "Boys," its clear that Promising Young Woman's director, Emerald Fennell, intended to use the film's music to amplify the twisted plot — and use the songs as a source of unadulterated irony. The bubblegum soundtrack acts as a mask for the movie's very serious themes, similarly to how Cassie paints on her red lipstick every night and makes men believe she's wasted, counting down the minutes to when they'll try something without consent. There is so much more lurking beneath the surface, symbolized by Cassie's own juxtaposition of sweet and harmless on the outside, ice-cold revenge on the inside (although not nearly as ice cold as the men).
Although the film's composer, Anthony Willis, told Billboard, "there were so many songs in the movie that are used really ironically in the settings they're used in," Fennell was quick to point out she is a true fan of each song to Vanity Fair. "I wanted it to be a highly female soundtrack," she said. "I wanted to use pop music, particularly pop music by people like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton that isn't generally taken seriously. I think in general, that's a nasty, undermining thing of our culture to designate what's good and what's not."
Read on for an analysis of each of the movie's song choices and why they're so effective.
"Boys" (Droeloe Remix) by Charli XCX
From the opening credits, I was immediately struck by Charli XCX's lyrics: "I need that bad boy to do me right on a Friday / And I need that good one to wake me up on a Sunday / That one from work can come over on Monday night / I want 'em all." This song plays over a montage of sweaty men dancing in the club, or what Fennell referred to as "slo-mo crotch thrusts of a thousand nightclubs" to Vanity Fair.
The song is ironic, mostly because it paints a bubblegum facade over a menacing situation, just like Cassie is moonlighting as an unconscious woman to teach would-be rapists a serious lesson. The song is also significant because Cassie quite literally wants all the boys — to pay for what one did to her best friend, Nina.
"2 Become 1" by Spice Girls
"2 Become 1" by the Spice Girls plays in the cab as supposedly half-unconscious Cassie leaves the club with Jerry to be taken to his home. Although Cassie acts severely intoxicated, almost throws up in the cab, and can't even stand straight, Jerry seems to be excited about a possible nonconsensual encounter at his place. The Spice Girls' 1996 track plays on — a romantic song that describes the first night of intimacy while being in love, a clear shot at the horrid situation.
"It's Raining Men" by DeathbyRomy
A remake of the classic "It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls, this version by DeathbyRomy is a rock-tinged, electronic banger, delivered with full power and even a bit of a snarl. The song plays as Cassie leaves Jerry's apartment after hitting a bakery, blood-like raspberry jelly running down her arms to her elbows. The sarcasm is clear in lines like "It's gonna start raining men" and "God bless Mother Nature . . . she did what she had to do," hinting that Cassie's mission to teach men a lesson is far from over. As the song plays, our heroine walks with strength, resilience, and the feeling of terrifying a man who absolutely deserved it.
Fennell told Billboard the inclusion was also meant to be "wickedly funny," describing the song as "very much karaoke, 2 a.m. at your [bachelorette] party," but if taken literally, "it would just be bodies hitting the floor . . . a bloodbath."
"Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby" by Donna Missal
The lyrics of "Nothing's Gonna Hurt You Baby," originally by Cigarettes After Sex, are meant to convey that Ryan might be "one of the good ones," a man who will make Cassie smile with (albeit perverted) sweet nothings and who won't hurt her. However, just like the rest of the music in this movie, the track is working with an ironic lens — Ryan isn't too sweet after all, and he is using a sugary-sweet mask of his own.
"Can't Help the Way I Feel" by Lily & Madeleine
The flowery, romantic bop of "Can't Help the Way I Feel" by Lily & Madeleine is meant to depict the fluttery feeling of new love, playing in the back of the coffee shop as Cassie hums along to it. Manager Gail catches Cassie looking much giddier than usual and asks if she's stills seeing Ryan — prompting a "good for you." We're meant to be happy for Cassie, maybe finally abandoning her revenge mission for Nina, as we hear the lyrics "Can't help the way I feel / You got me reelin' and I'm feelin' like it must be worth it / If you just call it how you want it, it'll all be perfect / Sitting pretty but I'm all alone."
It seems purposeful that the lyrics don't just end with "perfect," instead wrapping up at "sitting pretty but I'm all alone," depicting how there is a certain "prettiness" to the outside of the relationship between Cassie and Ryan, hiding a secret kind of solitude. Ryan does not know what Cassie is going through internally, dealing with Nina's rape and her eventual death, plus with her own need for revenge — in reality, these secrets create impenetrable distance between them.
"Uh-Oh" by Cyn
Made just for the soundtrack, Cyn's lyrics belt out, "Uh-oh, I did it again (yeah) / I got a bad habit and I can't pretend / Uh-oh, if it happened to you (yeah)/ Mmh, what would you do?"
The significance of these lyrics seems to be twofold: for one, it points to Cassie's "bad habit" of dosing revenge again, this time on Dean Walker, who dismissed Nina's rape allegations and has even let the rapist give talks on campus since. Cassie picks up the dean's daughter Amber and steals her phone to make the Dean think she's put her in trouble. In her trademark style of revenge for Nina, Cassie makes the dean fear her own daughter is possibly being raped — putting the situation in perspective and making her realize she should've believed Nina in the first place.
The other part of this song's symbolism is even more straightforward: by asking, "if it happened to you, what would you do?," it shows how many people are wary to believe rape allegations until the victim is someone close to them or themselves.
"Downhill Lullaby" by Sky Ferreira
A trippy, dark rendition that stays true to Sky Ferreira's musical impulses, "Downhill Lullaby" portrays Cassie beginning to lose grasp of control, as Ryan sees her leave the club with her latest victim. Dolled up and acting drunk per usual, she gets the attention of yet another man, stumbling out in his arms to teach him a lesson — only problem is, Ryan bumps into her head-on, and she can't explain what's actually happening. Lyrics of this moody, dream-like track include: "You leave me open when you hit me/ No one can hear me, then you hurt me/ Just say that you're not going down there too/ I can see that you want me going downhill too/ Going downhill into a lullaby" and later feature lines like "the gag and the bind, the perfecting of the ruse." There is a clear sense of violence in these lyrics, and this is one of the first songs that directly points to the nature of sexual violence and rape and the vile severity of the topic at hand.
"Stars Are Blind" by Paris Hilton
Fennell told Marie Claire that "falling in love kind of feels like a movie montage . . . so for me, it was about what song, if somebody knew every single word to it, would it make me fall more in love with them? And that song, for me, was 'Stars Are Blind,' by Paris Hilton."
The inclusion of "Stars Are Blind" also functions to empower women pop artists who, according to Fennell, have been "misrepresented and taken advantage of." She told Billboard, "I think it's important to treat their music in the way that it deserves to be treated and that I think it's brilliant and it's incredibly moving."
"Pearl's Dream" by Walter Schumann
Featured in the scene when Cassie discovers that Ryan is not who he says he is, "Pearl's Dream," taken from the 1955 movie Night of the Hunter, is meant to evoke the end of the fantasy for our heroine — the falling from the dream cloud.
After viewing the video filmed of her best friend Nina's rape, Cassie realizes Ryan was there. Her shock, disbelief, and terror are palpable — when she goes outside in a kind of trance, we hear the haunting lyrics: "Once upon a time there was a pretty fly / He had a pretty wife, this pretty fly / But one day she flew away, flew away / She had two pretty children / But one night these two pretty children / Flew away, flew away / Into the sky, into the moon."
The significance of this is the end of the innocent romance, the teenage-like infatuation with Ryan — the fantasy is over, and revengeful Cassie is very much back. Night of the Hunter's significance is clear, too: it follows a serial-killer preacher who targets women who use their sexuality to their advantage.
"Come and Play With Me" by DeathbyRomy
Playing during the scene where Cassie pays a visit to the bachelor party for Al (Nina's rapist) as a sexy nurse stripper and gives the men shots, the fast-paced, almost-tantric rhythm of the electronic bop is meant to convey nonchalance and a party attitude — exactly what the men think of her. Of course, they're in for a big surprise, because Cassie is actually there for her final dose of revenge, soon handcuffing Al to the bed and meaning to carve Nina's name in his skin (things don't exactly pan out).
While the beat of the song means all play, the lyrics paint another story completely: "I'm ready, come catch me/ Tag, you're it, come on, let's go/ I'm ready, can you catch me?/ Play with me, I don't bite/ Shock me and I ignite/ Push to start, I'm on fire/ Baby, you're my desire" point to a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
"Something Wonderful" by Alfred Newman
One of the most evocative scenes of the movie, Cassie's visit to Al's bachelor party, ends tragically: Al manages to loosen one of his handcuffs, suffocates Cassie, and kills her. "Something Wonderful," from the classic film The King and I, rises up from the heavens as Al and his friend Joe burn Cassie's corpse in a sunlit bonfire reminiscent of something out of Midsommar.
The irony and sarcasm here are obvious: as a society, we constantly forgive the mistakes of men but so often exercise the exact opposite impulse with women. When talking about the classic song's inclusion to Billboard, Fennell said, "that is one of the most romantic songs of all time, but when you listen to it, it's about a man who's incredibly cruel and callous, but once in a while, he does one good thing. He does something wonderful. That's what that song is about!"
"Angel of the Morning" by Juice Newton
According to Fennell's Billboard interview, the final song had originally been "I've Had the Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing, which she said "was funny and it was kind of anthemic and kind of air-punchy, but it also undercut the emotion a little bit." Once she heard "Angel of the Morning," the director had an immediate visceral reaction to it. In essence, the lyrics speak to victimhood and sinners, painting Cassie as the angel up in the sky descending justice upon the men who harmed her and her best friend. Moreover, just like all of the songs in this movie, there is a lighthearted tone to this one that makes the final act darker, more twisted, and even sweeter to watch.