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Why can't Hollywood get pop stardom right?

The troubles of <em>The Idol</em>'s embattled pop star Jocelyn feel out of step with what's demanded of mainstream music stars in 2023.
HBO
The troubles of The Idol's embattled pop star Jocelyn feel out of step with what's demanded of mainstream music stars in 2023.

These days, according to the parlance of stan armies, you're either a "main pop girl," or you're not. Main pop girl-ism is nebulous, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. She emerges into the spotlight according to album "eras" (what ancient civilizations once referred to as cycles). At some point she has, via red carpet outfit or awards performance or interaction with paparazzi, minorly scandalized a nation. "Authenticity" is not a word that appears in her marketing plan. She can often actually dance. Drag queens impersonate her, and rockists bicker over the number of writers credited to her hits.

She may or may not actually, by pure album sales or streaming numbers or radio plays, be popular. The domination of her type peaked in the late 2000s to early 2010s, when the American charts were crowded with muscled, alpha entertainers like Britney, Christina, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Gaga etc. But there isn't just one main pop girl; rather, it's an energy to embody — fantasy aware it's serving fantasy, Bush-era raunch. Music is just one part of her celebrity to consume, along with relationships cataloged in the press, her breakdowns and traumas (to which many documentaries are likely dedicated).

Jocelyn, the superstar around whom the plot of the contentious new HBO show The Idol swarms, has main pop girl energy. Played by Lily-Rose Depp, the singer is about to release a new single called "World Class Sinner" (the lyrics of which are about being a freak and not much else, and the quality of which wouldn't earn a spot on Ava Max's next record) and is still processing her mothers' death from cancer. We meet her in the middle of a sexy photoshoot, hospital wristband still on her arm. When a compromising photo of Jocelyn leaks and becomes "the number one trending topic on Twitter," her team leaps into damage control, worried about her suffering from another "psychotic break." "I think what Britney and Jocelyn have gone through is really unique, but ultimately universal, you know?" one handler, played by Dan Levy, says. There's a lot for Jocelyn to prove, from her ability to execute perfect choreography to the illusion of mental stamina ("prioritizing wellness," one team member calls it). When a shady club-owner played by The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye comes into her life, she seems attracted to his honesty when so few people exercise it with her. "When you're famous, everyone lies to you," she tells him.

Jocelyn's suffering and alienation under the weight of her surveilled pop career feels all too familiar. She's the young woman ensnared in the music industry machine, coached by handlers, every bit of her body lit flatteringly for the camera, her personality and humanity sanded down for the sake of the brand. You've seen her in film or television before. Take, for instance, Natalie Portman's role as Celeste in 2018's Vox Lux, which follows the character as a teenager after she pens a proto-viral track following her survival of a school shooting in the early '00s. Immediately, she's signed by a team eager to capitalize on her trauma, whisked away to New York City, then Stockholm. Celeste transforms from innocent into self-destructive megastar, battling drug and alcohol abuse, sneering at journalists and riding fame so immense she can't walk down the street without being accosted by fans dressed in her image.

The pressure cooker is similarly distressing for Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the star in 2014's Beyond the Lights, a singer in the image of early Rihanna or Ciara (though if she had it her way, she'd be the next Nina Simone.) Groomed for fame by an overbearing momager, Noni's life is a cycle of producing indecipherable hits, topless photoshoots and a label-orchestrated romance. When she tries to jump off a balcony, she's stopped by a cop (Nate Parker) and the two fall in love. As her handlers try to contain her image, tainted by her near-suicide, Noni ultimately strips down to her true self, the one who wants to write and perform her own music.

We see that careful industry transformation in reverse in 2018's A Star is Born, as Lady Gaga's Ally becomes a lip-syncing, orange-haired pop singer, her husband Jackson (Bradley Cooper) disgusted by the artifice that creeps into her performances. It's never quite clear whether Ally's transformative choices were her own or that of her new handler, but the film positions the character's makeover as an affront and a threat to the artistic and romantic bond between her and Jackson. And despite the fact that Ally's songs, co-written by Gaga, were bangers (they may have sounded intentionally dated but I won't tolerate "Hair Body Face" slander), the new Ally was positioned as a veneer over the "real" artist lurking still underneath.

There's something exhausting about Hollywood's copy-paste of the bubblegum star as the vessel through which all the industry's worst impulses can be articulated or satirized. In Jocelyn's case, her troubles also don't feel in step with what's demanded of mainstream music stars in 2023. The extreme, over-sexed artifice championed by her team hasn't been en vogue these days among the tween audience I imagine her label is trying to court, who'd sooner find themselves in the lived-in songwriting of stars like Olivia Rodrigo, Lizzy McAlpine, SZA, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift. There's also the issue of what could erupt an artist's career at Jocelyn's level; pop stars cancel global tours to protect their "mental health" regularly, after all, and many go so far as to make that mission a marketing angle or the central thesis of a new project. The Idol may bill itself as a project "from the gutters of Hollywood," but have Jocelyn's Hollywood peers ever been tamer? So removed from the glare of any TMZ camera crew, you're more likely to be inundated with pap photos of stars carting $14 Erewhon smoothies to pilates than sloppily stumbling out of a club at 4 a.m.? Dua Lipa is too busy podcasting, anyway.

I can't help but think about what on-screen depictions of messy music superstardom would look like if they turned their gaze away from pop girls like Jocelyn. The genres that soapy TV shows like Nashville and Empire first mined nearly a decade ago, country and hip-hop respectively, now indisputably produce America's most popular music stars. Where is the show about the handling of an artist like Morgan Wallen? The country star was suspended by his record label, pulled from radio rotation and banned from the CMA Awards after a video surfaced of him using a racial slur. And yet it only seemed to make him more popular — album sales for his 2021 album Dangerous increased after the scandal, and his most recent album One Thing at a Time dominated the charts for 12 straight weeks. If we had to hold a contest for who actually embodies "main pop girl" spirit and chaos in the Billboard-charting set, Drake might actually be closer to the title than any current popstress. Or even The Weeknd himself, who is positioned as a dorky, rat-tailed scumbag in The Idol rather than a dark, sexy singer prone to debauchery (as he was, briefly stealing Howard Ratner's girl, in his Uncut Gems cameo).

There is also a wealth of stories worth telling about the music industry's predations and unspoken rules beyond the cliched respectability web in which Jocelyn and her fictional pop girl brethren are often caught. I'm reminded of the hip-hop drama Atlanta, its episodes grounded in Donald Glover's experiences with the music industry. That show depicted the way a local scene could become a viral, global export, and the co-option of hip-hop's stories and aesthetics by white companies and benefactors Earn and Paper Boi mingle with. An early scene in which the two of them visit a Spotify-type company and witness a rapper dancing atop a table for an audience of white start-up office workers, or episodes like the final season's "Born 2 Die" in which the concept of the "YWA" ("Young White Avatar") is introduced as a pathway for Paper Boi out of music-making, feel far more cutting than The Idol's goofy jabs at publicists trying to control a star's X-rated photo being leaked.

Of course, a more holistic on-screen depiction of the music industry's careful narrative-building around its stars may not be nearly as titillating to someone like Levinson, whose body of work thrives on titillation. The Idol's first episode isn't about the music industry, so much as it is about carefully maintaining a certain strain of celebrity. "Pop music is the ultimate Trojan Horse," Tesfaye's character Tedros tells Jocelyn. "You get people to dance. You get people to sing along." The issue is that The Idol's thin conception of what pop music sounds like (not to mention the femininity Jocelyn is selling), wouldn't actually be as popular in today's landscape as the show's world makes it out to be. That a character within the show has to evoke Britney Spears as Jocelyn's spiritual counterpart confirms Levinson's dated ideas about stardom and the pop music that facilitates it. Modern pop music can be a Trojan Horse for transgressive or revolutionary ideas — about identity, about sex, about real hardship and trauma. But The Idol is yet another project about a fictional star that swerves past reality in favor of a focus on trappings of a fame that feels chained to a bygone era, one where main pop girls reigned supreme.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.
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