Miley Cyrus knows how to perform pop stardom; she's been doing it her whole life. Her dramatic evolution started with Disney Channel's Hannah Montana, spanned everything from twerking on Robin Thicke to romping makeup-free by waterfalls, and made its way to her current club-pop incarnation, with the only consistency being her prominent status in the limelight. Her newest act is starring in an episode in Black Mirror's fifth season, where she critiques modern-day celebrity by tackling the straitjacket of personal brand and public image.
In the episode, titled “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” Cyrus plays pop queen Ashley O, a bubblegum icon clad in bodycon two-pieces and a signature magenta wig. She's an on-the-nose mishmash of Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry and early 2010s Ariana Grande, performing lyrics like "So full of ambition and verve / I'm gonna get what I deserve" in an (admittedly catchy) music video that looks just like that of Grande's abandoned single “Focus.” Miley Cyrus is also, obviously, playing an early era of herself; the wig alone is a potent callback to Hannah Montana that fans immediately glommed onto after seeing her in the season trailer. Like Cyrus, Ashley O rises to fame as a kid-friendly role model that you might find on the cover of Tiger Beat.
The episode follows her attempts to shift gears and create her own material, against the will of an abusive manager who—besides being her aunt and adoptive parent—insists on keeping her on an inoffensive track of optimistic bops even as her mental health suffers. It's a familiar arc of so many films about pop celebrity—reminiscent of Ally's SNL moment in A Star is Born, and seen in similar themes in Vox Lux. But there are also more serious shades of real-life managerial abuse and exploitative legal bindings, calling to mind rising stars like JoJo, who was locked in a ten-year battle with her label after signing a contract at just 12 years old, and, of course, Kesha, who was unable to successfully release herself from a recording contract with producer Dr. Luke despite filing a civil lawsuit against him for sexual assault.
As all non-conforming parts of Ashley O's personality are shoved to the wayside, her public image must be continually maintained and distributed through merchandising and album releases. The notion of a celebrity herself becoming disposable while her image lives on through commodities is hardly a new one, but Black Mirror uses technology to bring this story to its most heightened state. Under pressure from her aunt, Ashley O releases an AI-powered doll named "Ashley Too" that's crafted from her own brain scan. In a signature Black Mirror twist, her manager then literally disposes of her (I won't share how, to avoid spoilers), but continues to create Ashley O’s music with the help of more technology. Later, her aunt unveils a hologram of Ashley O named "Ashley Eternal" that can go on tour indefinitely or even be projected into anyone's living room at their convenience.
The essential format of Black Mirror, and its signature heavy-handed ominousness about the future, focuses on the ethics of commodification but shies away from digging deeper into the exploitation of pop stars. The annoying, robotic Ashley Too—with her sleek, white, almost Apple-like design, topped by that bright magenta wig—places a focus on a fan relationship that steals about half the episode, and isn't at all suspenseful. And while the Ashley Eternal hologram makes sense as a lucrative live-tour substitute (and the optics of replacing a flesh-and-blood human with a CG image is an effective kind of body horror), it fundamentally misses the mark on what actually makes a pop star "eternal," and detracts from a bigger discussion about the humanity—or lack thereof—of celebrity culture.
Though image control is certainly essential for stars, it's not pandering to fans—or constantly seeking new revenue streams, with or without these kinds of technology—that give stars their staying power these days. Longevity in the spotlight actually depends on new "phases" and "transformations," leaving pop queens to constantly vie for power and relevancy via the rebirth of their art and image as they age. Lady Gaga ascended as Mother Monster before shifting to her more natural look in A Star is Born; Ariana Grande transformed from sweet innocence in a sundress to a "dangerous woman"; Britney Spears went from 90s babydoll to rock bottom to Vegas residency; Beyoncé evolved countless times from Destiny's Child to Beychella; and Madonna created her entire brand around high-drama metamorphosis. While each of these artists clung to certain evergreen elements of their brand—Grande with her Mariah-esque vocal stylings and high ponytail, Gaga and Madonna with their theatricality—they were able to meet demand as our hunger evolved.
What the episode fails to consider is that if stars don't change, or change in a way that doesn’t garner attention, someone will swoop in to take their place. And worse yet, a successful rebrand in music isn't the only way to maintain publicity and relevance, in a world where any form of drama makes headlines. Fame is fed by bad decisions as much as good ones. At moments when pop stars flounder under the spotlight, their poor mental health still grabs eyeballs: Spears' fame was sustained by her post-divorce shaved head; Grande's successful album Sweetener is informed by the atrocities of the Manchester bombing, a broken engagement with Pete Davidson, and Mac Miller taking his life. And the narratives of Kesha and JoJo's comebacks have also been fueled by their mismanagement and alleged abuse.
Cyrus herself made a career off of a rambunctious rebrand from Disney’s golden child to a naked, wrecking-ball-riding iconoclast. There was outrage from her old audience, but the self-assuredness and utter audacity of her behavior—and all that publicity, both positive and negative—helped her shake off her kid-friendly image and embrace a new, larger fanbase.
In Black Mirror, while Ashley O's manager understands the marketability of the pop star's fall from grace, the episode doesn't seem to acknowledge that a toy or a hologram isn't the answer. (Nevermind the fact that holographic performers already exist, and in practice, they make people feel weird.) Pop stars are already commodities. We'd rather see drama and consequences play out in their real lives than see them continue on a predictable trajectory, because we already see them as entertainment rather than fully formed people.
For an episode that purports to focus on the nature and exploitations of pop stardom, it raises some interesting points about how celebrity image is a game of puppetry. But ultimately, like a concert that’s just a hologram, it can't quite capture the nature of pop stardom at all.
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