A high school cafeteria: teens with different markers of belonging gather together with their sandwiches and half-eaten bananas. There are hoodies, a letterman jacket, an industrial ear piercing across an ear lobe. By contrast, Rachel in plain clothes, undyed hair and no make-up – the storyboard equivalent of a cinematic blank slate – is sat alone. She has earbuds in and watches her favourite pop star, Ashley O’s music video. After getting into a car where a dysfunctional family unit waits and looking dramatically out the window, she plugs her ears again with the inspiring lyrics of Ashley O and the volume blares out louder than ever.
By series three (likely earlier) the thrilling and successful Black Mirror franchise met criticisms of being predictably negative about technology, so much so that anything dystopian – books, films, real life scenarios – began to be described as “so Black Mirror”. In December 2018, choose-your-own-adventure story “Bandersnatch” dropped on Netflix, a concept that promised so much and delivered little (a weakly conceived plot, a tedious experience). “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is, like “Bandersnatch”, in that it’s unlike anything previous. It’s a film starring a huge real life popstar – Miley Cyrus – which turns into an entertaining romp halfway through. The story follows the career of Ashley O (Cyrus), who is controlled in a Britney Spears-type conceit by her aunt, and the fans that save her with the help of Ashley’s AI product, Ashley Too, that later becomes animate, having her a direct-copy of her personality inside. At this point, Black Mirror’s legacy needed another well-conceived story. To some extent it delivered – at least, for what it shows about the insular world of a teenage girl and pop fan.
Rachel is perfectly placed to immerse herself in fan culture. Anyone can be a fan, of course, but she’s particularly isolated. Her mother is dead, her father is work-absorbed, she has no immediate IRL circle. Her bedroom is a shrine to Ashley O, something Ashley Too herself will later comment on. It’s clear throughout that the musician is a replacement mother figure: a popstar to teach you to be them before you can be yourself, a popstar whom to meet would be a religious experience.
Ashley O seems placed to stand in for many of our current mainstream woman musicians who espouse pop-feminist ideals. She appears on a chat show with a presenter who hilariously tells her, “there are a lot of messages in your work, kind of an empowerment vibe!” At various points throughout the film, one of her bangers plays out. The lyrics are “Hey, I’m a ho / I’m on a roll / riding so high / achieving my goals”, a nonsensical piece of inspiration for a teen of an Instagram generation urged to market themselves as products, just like the celebrities they love. The melody, with permission, was ripped and warped from Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole”. Their song, a dark synth-led bop about the control that money has over people, asks you to throw money at the “cause” while hinting as those in positions of power (religious or political). In both versions, you’re promised that if you bow down to your master, “you’re going to get what you deserve”.
A loyal fan in a capitalist system, Rachel immediately asks her dad for an Ashley AI doll, Ashley Too. The doll soon begins handing Rachel inspirational prompts, even, in one laugh-out-loud moment, offering to read “motivating quotes from some inspiring women?” to her before bed. When Ashley Too helps teach her the dance routine to one of Ashley’s songs, the AI bot convinces her to take part in the school talent contest (“You can do anything if you set your mind to it” and “You’re a special person”). Finally the empowerment she needed all along, from a pop star! Rachel’s albeit shortlived career does not go well: “I let Ashley Too down”, she says, crying in the car.
The world of Ashley O is not what it seems, however. When Ashley pushes back against her shiny persona – and controlling aunt – events spiral for her. She is punished. It’s a story we’ve seen in played out countless times in pop culture. Bubblegum star scooped up, shaped and prodded, and sent out singing and dancing to the tunes of others to pull in a great price (and later at great cost to the artist). With this, the showrunners seem to be probing the question: what does it mean when our female popstars go on about empowerment and positivity, but similarly hopeful ideals aren’t upholding their own lives?
In a change of tact that proves both fun and slightly disappointing, Brooker doesn’t lead us where he’s set us up to go: probing the dark side of fandom, fans financially taken advantage of by the music industry (“You’re going to get what you deserve,” begs a downfall), or even a glimpse into a future when popstars inevitably bring out their own AI as merch. “Often people expect Black Mirror to be somebody frowning at a transparent phone until their life falls apart basically, and so it’s quite nice to upend that and not do it,” Brooker said of this episode in a recent London press screening. Actually, it drops any trace of Black Mirror-esque tone, and goes full PG-13 Olsen movie film (literally ending with the baddie looking to camera and saying “oh, fuck it!”).
There are still some well-pointed out observations about fandom in this second half. When Ashley Too becomes sentient, she frustratedly says: “Fans are always the same – ‘ughh we love you so much’ – until you actually want them to do anything for you. Well forget it, I can do it on my own.” Then, at her few inches’ height, she can’t open Rachel’s bedroom door. Actually, she can’t do anything by her own – that’s the two way relationship, the artist as capitalist product to be bought into and sold. Then later as Rachel is confronted by the body of Ashley O in a coma she excitedly goes “It’s really her!” and Ashley Too goes “Quit fangirling and put me down”, a light laugh with fans, and at the expense of them.
If you can relax into Miley Cyrus’ very good acting, what you get is a surprisingly sweet film, about the manipulation of the music industry, but also about devoted fangirls. They are, after all the ones who save Ashley O and see her triumph at the film’s close: they give her freedom from being her perfect pop avatar.
It’s never that simple when it comes to fandom though. In the postscript as the titles run, pop-loving teen girl fans of old Ashley see the newly invented ‘Ashley Fuckn O’, who plays the real Nine Inch Nails songs, and run out of the venue saying it was horrible, awful! Fandom will go so far, but whether it’s Ashley O or Black Mirror, if fans have been sold one playable product, change is met with resistance, and nothing can beat the original.
Hannah's written a book on fandom and music, called ‘Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture’. It's out on Thursday the 25th of July and you can pre-order it here.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.