Why the Elevator Scene in '(500 Days) of Summer' Still Pisses People Off 10 Years Later

Is it cute, or cringe? Fans of The Smiths tell us why that iconic scene made them swoon or scream.

by Alex Zaragoza
Jul 17 2019, 8:29pm

Fox Searchlight Pictures

"I love The Smiths," the dream girl says coyly, speaking in a soft singsong. "You have good taste in music."

The boy, stunned by her prowess at identifying the very song playing in his headphones as they share an elevator, stares in silent amazement. Stupefied, he asks, "You like The Smiths?" She sings a few lyrics from the song, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” then walks out, leaving him smitten. "Holy shit," he says aloud to himself. He's a goner.

This scene from the 2009 indie romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, which turns ten this week, has lived on in infamy, especially with fans of British sadboy indie rock pioneers The Smiths. Released in 2009, (500) Days was at the very tail end of the first wave of films capturing and capitalizing off of the essence of early-aughts hipster culture, following Garden State, The Royal Tenenbaums, Juno, Lost in Translation, Ghost World, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It not-so-secretly tried to emulate the aesthetic, tone, and soundtracks of these movies—arguably to its detriment. While (500) Days has its merits, it was hard not to feel as though it was concocted in a laboratory that gathered all the twee-est, most consumer-friendly markers of hipsterdom and shoved them into an hour and a half of storytelling. The elevator scene encompasses all the film aspired to be, and—depending on their views and level of cynicism—is the point where viewers decide whether it fails or succeeds.

The film revolves around the story of the toxically lovelorn Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the object of his infatuation, Summer (played by the queen of indie romance, Zooey Dechanel). Tom falls hard for Summer when they meet at work; is elated when she reciprocates enough interest to kiss him, sleep with him, and engage in couple-like activities, such as exploring IKEA and arguing about records; then spirals when she inevitably breaks up with him after months of refusing to define their relationship, even though she warned him from the get-go that she wasn’t interested in anything serious.

At the time of its release, while a few critics pointed out Tom’s delusion and Summer’s thinly developed character, audiences overwhelmingly perceived Summer as the cruel heartbreaker and Tom as the nice guy done wrong. As Georgie Wright pointed out last year in i-D, (500) Days highlights the double standard in rom-coms (and society at large) where women's needs and interests are secondary to those of their male partners. This normalizes stalker-ish behavior for male characters, portrays their projections as realities, and encourages internalized sexism toward their female counterparts. Tom’s surprise over Summer’s taste in music, as seen in that elevator, has come to exemplify this debate over the filmmakers’ intentions, making it one of the most polarizing moments in film “meet cute” history.

Related Post

So, what makes that encounter so memorable, and so controversial? For starters, the choice of song that unites the fated pseudo-couple. The Smiths' impact on alternative music has been well-covered; their fandom transcend lines across genre, race, and subculture. The band’s popularity extends far beyond the U.K., and is massive in the rest of Europe, the U.S., Mexico, and many other places around the globe. By no means are they obscure, but they are closely associated with what we call the “hipster,” a term attached to disparate groups of alternative-leaning people based on their clothes, haircuts, or disaffected stares.

If there's one thing a hipster hates, it's being called a hipster—or having their tastes and interests written off as predictable—but there should be absolutely nothing surprising about a girl like Summer liking the Smiths. This is a major reason why Tom’s shock reads as so puzzling. Tom recognizes a counterpart in Summer because of, as his sister says, their shared love of "bizarro crap." Anyone who's ever been in love can relate to going ga-ga over a prospective partner’s shared sensibilities and tastes, but The Smiths have sold literally millions of records, and enjoy widespread recognition. ( The Queen Is Dead, the album on which “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out” appears, is certified Gold in the U.S. and Brazil and Platinum in the U.K.)

Regardless, Morrissey’s melancholic love song is what sets the emotionally charged story into motion: Doesn't it feel like fate to meet someone who loves the same “weird” band as you—a hopeless, misunderstood romantic? Tom certainly thought so; Summer, at the time of meeting him, almost certainly did not. (We never find out how she interpreted that moment, anyway.) But a decade later, Smiths fans remain divided on whether this scene is cute (they like the same song!) or cringeworthy (tone-deaf and contrived).

"If you're deeply emotional about a band, like a lot of people are about The Smiths, it's kind of important that you do end up with someone who as into it as you are," said Jose Maldonado, frontman for the Smiths/Morrissey cover band Sweet & Tender Hooligans, who is known as "The Mexican Morrissey." Liking a band like The Smiths, he says, signals an intrinsic part of someone's character, since the band has "a specific sense of humor" and are somewhat "romantic" and "fatalistic."

"You know all those things [about a person] just by knowing if they're a fan of The Smiths," he added. "I didn't feel cringe about it at all. I could've been that person [in an elevator falling in love with a girl who likes The Smiths]."

Melissa Hidalgo, a Smiths/Morrissey scholar and the author of the book Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands, has found that more often than not, the first Smiths song discovered by a person is "with a romantic interest, unrequited or otherwise." "So I liked that about the scene,” she said. “The connection to a 'secret' band not everyone knows, but when someone else does—it's special.”

Dan Sant, creator of the Smiths/Morrissey zine Two Light Ales Please, agrees. "If a girl in an elevator told me she loved The Smiths, my heart would quicken and I would instantly have a crush," he said.

On the other end, there is also a large contingent of Smiths fans who essentially say: Fuck this stupid scene.

Any woman who has had a guy question their music taste (“Oh, you like The Smiths? Name five of their albums), or even been marveled at for knowing a certain artist at all—as though it's impossible for a woman to have taste or access to the same records as men—may feel irked by the scenario. Tom's delusional idea that Summer is his soulmate solely by the virtue that they both like the same seminal band captures not just the level of his projection, but perhaps also why the film came off as (to borrow a very 90s expression) poser-ish to some.

Mitch, 31, is a Los Angeles-based musician who finds the scene to be "the worst." (He asked that his last name be withheld due to the nature of his band.) "This shit is so corny because it's the most basic Smiths song ever," he explained. "The Smiths are like the Beatles of indie rock, and although they're incredible, using them as a cred flex in a feature is insanely [funny]." He also read the scene as disturbingly similar to the oft-mocked Shins headphones scene in Garden State, adding, "This being an homage to Garden State firmly places this in the 'holy shit, this is so basic, how did no one pull anyone's card on this' category."

D. Patrick Rodgers, editor of the alt weekly Nashville Scene and contributor to VICE, says the scene "feels reductive, objectifying, and vaguely sexist." As he sarcastically puts it, “it's like ‘ My god, a woman with the same taste as me?! How can it be!’”

"I was less inclined to cringe at things like that and Garden State at the time [when I first saw it]," he added. "But even then, I recall thinking it felt kinda lazy to have liking one band be a signifier of why someone is an appealing romantic partner. Just two-dimensional."

Even within The Smiths’ canon, the choice in song is hotly debated; "There is a Light that Never Goes Out" is one of their best-known tracks. The issue isn't the quality of the song—it is perhaps one of the best pop songs in modern music history. The lyrics Summer sings (“And if a double-decker bus / crashes into us / to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die) epitomize the darkly romantic sensibilities of a Smiths fan. For Sant, the fact that Summer quotes a line that "cuts right to the core of why we are Smiths believers" is swoon-worthy. But what makes others roll their eyes is that it feels like an obvious choice, as Mitch argues. Hidalgo says hearing the "most typical and predictable choice of Smiths song" felt disingenuous to longtime Smiths enthusiasts.

"A fan or someone who [really] likes The Smiths could be listening to any other song other than 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,' but maybe that's just me," she said. Some of the fans I spoke with agreed that the scene would have been better if Tom been listening to a more obscure Smiths song—perhaps "Half a Person," or even "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"—if they wanted to really show the depth of Summer’s fandom. But, is there any way all Smiths fans, far and wide, would have been happy with the use of any of these tracks? (Happiness is not really a thing we're known for.)

Plus, we already know the doomed fate of Tom and Summer's non-love story: It was never really about what she likes, and always about Tom’s idea of what she was to him rather than who she is at her core.

A decade later, there is also the issue of Morrissey's increasingly offensive public remarks, which include xenophobic and full-on racist socio-political views. Have they ruined the sweetness of that scene, for those who liked it? Most told me no, just as fans of the film appreciate its arc even through the flaws of its protagonists. Like many who have learned to separate the man from his work with The Smiths, they choose to focus on the song’s role in bringing two people together.

When it comes down to it, (500) Days of Summer is a love story that exemplified the music of the Smiths: complicated, emotional, and sometimes dark, but at its core, hopeful. The scene speaks to us, for better or worse, because the songs we cherish hold meaning in our lives, and in the love stories we create for ourselves. May we all choose our partners as thoughtfully as we choose our favorite records.

Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE and only dates Smiths fans. Follow her on Twitter.

The Smiths
(500) Days of Summer