Baby Driver and beyond: how headphones changed music on screen

From American Psycho to Garden State.

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We’ve all been there. It’s an average day, you’re walking down the road, and you play a new favourite song at an irresponsibly loud volume. It comes buzzing through your headphones and, suddenly, your life is basically that scene from 500 Days of Summer after Joseph Gordon-Levitt had some nice missionary sex. The sun is shining! Fountains squirt water in time to the beat! You wiggle your butt (almost imperceptibly, you’re not a freak) as you walk! A cartoon bird warbles along with the vocals! Life, it is good.

Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver builds on that experience and takes it to its ridiculous conclusion. An early scene sees Baby (Ansel Elgort) go to get coffee while Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” blasts through his earbuds. Immediately, the whole world moves with its rhythms. Footsteps, dog barks and ATM bleeps sync up with the song as its lyrics seamlessly appear in street signs and graffiti on walls in the background. Baby himself subtly choreographs his own interactions with the world, not-quite-dancing but swaying, turning in the street, flipping sunglasses on and off, even saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah” along with the track.

It’s not the only current work that uses the isolating, cinematic experience of listening to music with headphones as a jumping-off point. Last week, Haim’s video for “Want You Back” was released. It sees the Haim sisters walking together down an empty street, lip-syncing and moving along with the song – subtly at first, getting more enthusiastic as the video progresses. The video’s top comment on YouTube reads, “Accurate representation of me when I walk with music in my ears.” It’s had more than 3,000 likes.

The world mysteriously turning in time to music obviously goes back to the musical tradition, where everyone can suddenly hear the same song at the same time. But action films with this kind of choreography are nothing new either – think of “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now. In Blade: Trinity, Abigail, like Baby in Baby Driver, insists on wearing Apple brand headphones so she can personally soundtrack all her action scenes. Wright is a particular fan of this trope (see also Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). But in the decades since Walkmen became a thing, our headphone habits have changed the way music functions in film, television and music videos.

In the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, the first dream sequence explores how falling asleep with headphones on can make the music seep into your subconscious, while A Serious Man opens by demonstrating the isolating effects of even just one earbud. When I think of headphones on screen, I think of “What came first, the music or the misery” in High Fidelity, “Lady in Red” fading and cutting out in American Psycho, Rae feeling sorry for herself listening to “Beetlebum” in My Mad Fat Diary, or About A Boy’s “Shake Ya Ass” scene. The list is endless – headphones on screen can even be divided into a variety of different tropes.

Take, for example, the headphone meet-cute. In Baby Driver, Baby and Deborah bond over their love of music – Deborah first catches Baby’s eye when he sees her shamelessly singing and dancing along to the music in her headphones, just like he does. In Garden State, Sam (Natalie Portman) and Andrew (Zach Braff) first meet in a hospital waiting room. “What are you listening to?” Andrew asks. “The Shins,” Sam replies. “You know em?” When Andrew admits he doesn’t, she says, “You have to hear this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear.” Andrew does. Romance ensues. Life: changed.

In 500 Days of Summer, the fantasy is taken even further – a beautiful woman (Zooey Deschanel) leans towards an average guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when she hears the sounds of The Smiths echoing from his leaky headphones. “I said, ‘I love The Smiths,’” she repeats, when he lifts a headphone from his ear. He balks, frowning. “You like The Smiths?!” She leaves the lift, but he stands rooted to the spot, physically shaken by the revelation that a human woman could enjoy this intellectually stimulating music.

Then there’s the Oblivious Headphone Wearer. What’s that? High-octane action-packed drama happening on screen? Bet your bottom dollar there’s someone lurking round the corner. In Kick Ass, Hit Girl murders several people to the cheery sounds of the Banana Splits theme – which seems to be coming from a guy in the hallway’s headphones – he misses the whole fight as a result, and the music stops when he finally removes them. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, a magical shoot-out is happening just out of sight of a waitress, who happily washes up in the kitchen with her earbuds in. In The Amazing Spider-Man, creator Stan Lee’s cameo is in the role of Oblivious Headphone-Wearing Librarian. Breen misses dramatic violence in Super 8 thanks to his Walkman. Ghost Rider, Devil, and The Day After Tomorrow all have Oblivious Headphone-Wearing Janitors.

But headphones on screen are not just used to explore boyish fantasies of synchronised car chases and bumping into beautiful women. Alongside Haim’s “Want You Back”, Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen have also both released music videos this year that celebrate that feeling of walking down an empty street with your favourite song ringing in your ears. In the lyric video for Jepsen's “Cut to the Feeling”, we follow a girl putting up posters around town from behind, and her vague wiggles eventually turn into full-on dancing.

In “Green Light”, Lorde dances increasingly frantically on the street, with no embarrassment of her trademark “bad dance moves”. As her head flicks from side to side, her headphone cord ends up wrapped around her face. This is the kind of overly intense but perfectly relatable solo-music listening that I live for. In the immortal words of the internet: it me.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.