Celebrity Death March

‘The Idol’ comes off more like a dated Vogue fashion editorial than a hot take on pop stardom

Viewers of Max, the network formerly known as HBOMax, formerly known as HBO, placed a lot of expectationson The Idol, which debuted its first episode June 4th. Max needed a prestige hit to fill the void left on Sunday nights by the series finale of Succession (and Barry) one week prior. Many hoped that showrunner Sam Levinson would create a show that was as edgy and controversial as his last series, Euphoria.

The world of pop music also seemed like a great universe to mine for content. Our cultural obsessions with the careers, mental health and chart success of pop girlies like Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Britney Spears, podcasts like Pop Pantheon analyzing the careers of pop stars, and highbrow music publications like Pitchfork giving serious attention and criticism to mainstream pop music indicates that audiences are starving for an edgy series about the world of pop music.  Plus, it attached real-life pop star The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye)  as both an actor, creator and producer of the soundtrack. He’s kind of creepy in this but maybe that’s the point.

Unfortunately – despite The Weeknd’s participation — The Idol doesn’t seem to grasp this world in any meaningful, or authentic way. It comes off like a Vogue fashion editorial which styles a model to look just like a modern-day pop star.  Unlike Succession, which created a cohesive and detailed universe in which the Roy family presided over a media empire that was loosely based on a carefully researched reality, there’s no such careful universe building around Jocelyn’s pop stardom.

Cate Blanchett learned to speak German and studied conducting to prepare for her role as world renowned conductor Lydia Tár .  But what made Tár an authentic portrayal of the rarefied world of classical music was Cate Blanchett herself at the center, a world renowned and highly decorated actress who knows in her bones what it’s like to be that prestigious and powerful.  That informed her performance more than anything else.

The cast of Succession met with “wealth consultants” to learn how to act like rich people.  These consultants taught them things like not to duck when they approached a helicopter. (Rich people take helicopters a lot so they know that the chopper blades aren’t going to chop off their heads).  Thus it felt like we were watching the truly rich behaving authentically thanks to these little details.

When Selena Gomez, in her documentary “My Mind and Me” so much as enters the back seat of a car or makes a phone call, you can tell she’s been under a microscope since she was 10 years old. When the paparazzi spies a jean-jacket-clad Taylor Swift shopping at a farmers market with her current boyfriend, no one needs to tell us she’s a superstar.

This isn’t to say that Lily Rose Depp–attacked on Twitter lately for being a “nepobaby”–isn’t good. Her acting is fine and she holds her own as a singer and dancer. But she doesn’t have pop star presence or charisma. She doesn’t even seem to have a security detail in charge of keeping her safe from her adoring but rabid fan base.  She’s very pretty but she doesn’t seem like someone who is an international superstar, she just looks like she’s working very hard to play one on TV.

The Idol also doesn’t seem to know in which decade it takes place. Sure, it mentions Simone Biles, Kim Kardashian, and Twitter, so this is clearly all happening right now. But there are a lot of anachronisms. Jocelyn seems to be operating under a bunch of rules that pop stars followed in the 1980s. For instance, a selfie of Jocelyn has surfaced on Twitter featuring cum on her face. Her team of publicists, managers, assistants, and label reps consider this a crisis of epic proportions and have no idea what to do.

Is this an alternative universe in which Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardahsian simply don’t exist? Dan Levy plays her publicist and the show displays him calling various people–one at a time–and asking them to stop retweeting the image. It’s 2023, does he not understand how Twitter works? Does no one else on Jocelyn’s team realize that in 15 hours, this “scandal” will disappear from the news cycle? If she’s lucky, she’ll suffer another scandal next week which will keep her trending on Twitter?

Speaking of Jocelyn’s “team,” it’s not clear who is running the show or how any of this actually works. A pop star, unlike a writer or a painter, must be a great collaborator. Regardless of how talented a recording artist might be, she can’t possibly do everything herself so she must delegate brilliantly. You must know who to work with, make them want to work with you and get the best out of them. Pop culture history is littered with recording artists like Pebbles or Tiffany who had a couple of hits and then disappeared.  Career longevity depends on making brilliant and crucial tactical and artistic decisions–either by the artist herself or a brilliant manager. Madonna’s 40-year career is a textbook example of this.

The show gleefully exposes that a team of handlers who don’t have her best interest at heart are manipulating her.  Yet despite their acerbic wisecracks, they all seem a little incompetent. Yes, it’s often, if not always, true that people who are exceptionally good at managing talent can be toxic assholes.  But these people on Jocelyn’s team don’t seem to be that good at managing talent.  They’re just assholes.  So why is she a star if she’s not running the show?  Elvis had Colonel Tom Parker.  Whitney Houston had her mother and Clive Davis. Diana Ross had Berry Gordy. Who is the mastermind here?

This becomes an issue when a conflict arises thanks to an “intimacy coordinator” who has objections to Jocelyn baring her breasts during a photo shoot for her next album cover. An intimacy coordinator is a consultant on a movie set who is there to ensure that any sex scenes between two (or more) actors proceed comfortably. I’ve never heard of an intimacy coordinator policing a photo shoot featuring only one model. If such a professional were there, one would presume that the person being photographed (Jocelyn) or her manager would have insisted on him being present. Jocelyn informs the intimacy coordinator that it’s her body and she’ll bare her breasts if she wants to. The intimacy coordinator doesn’t back down.

Who hired this intimacy coordinator? If Jocelyn’s manager (a woefully miscast Hank Azaria) hired him, he can also fire him.  Instead, he locks him in a bathroom for three hours. Apparently, “the label” employs him, but it also employs Nikki (Jane Adams, the only actress on this show who seems to understand what kind of a project this is) and she is annoyed that he’s meddling. So, who is objecting to Jocelyn’s bare breasts…..in a still photograph that could be easily photoshopped or cropped out? It would seem that showrunner Sam Levinson–whose actors have called him out for pressuring them to do nudity that felt unnecessary – is trying to make some sort of statement about censorship. But this cheeky message falls flat.

Another anachronism is “the reporter from Vanity Fair” that appears uninvited at Jocelyn’s house while she’s doing a photo shoot and perfecting the choreography for one of her upcoming dance numbers. “Having her around is like living in communist China!” says Nikki (Jane Adams), the label rep. Suddenly, everyone’s gotta be on their best behavior lest this reporter from Vanity Fair find out all is not well in Jocelyn’s world.  It’s too bad that no one on Jocelyn’s team can tell her to — I don’t know — go away because we’re all busy working.

Never mind that social media has made glossy magazines like Vanity Fair irrelevant and their reporters grateful for what limited access celebrities grant them. Oh no, the reporter from Vanity Fair has walked through the front door and everyone’s got to impress her…. otherwise she might write something unflattering….in Vanity Fair….that magazine that no one reads anymore!  Gosh I hope she doesn’t see those photos on Twitter! Jocelyn nails a sexy choreography sequency, the reporter from Vanity Fair gives a thumbs up.  Oh, thank GOD Vanity Fair approves!

Most pop stars working today have a very active social media presence. It’s the lifeblood of their success, engagement with fans…and even another source of income. Even if a pop star didn’t do her own social media, she’d certainly hire someone–maybe even a team of people–to maintain her various profiles. Jocelyn doesn’t seem to have as much as an Instagram account.

This brings my final–and biggest–criticism of The Idol’s portrayal of pop stardom: the mononym Jocelyn. If you’re going to have one name, that name better be interesting and auspicious–like Madonna, Cher, Prince, or Eminem. If your name is Jocelyn, use your last name. Jocelyn isn’t an icon. She’s the office manager of an ad agency. “I need to use one of the conference rooms for a meeting, how do I reserve it?” “Email Jocelyn!”


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One thought on “Celebrity Death March

  • June 9, 2023 at 1:11 pm

    Hey Matthew, I don’t usually follow all this, but I can at least say that it’s a treat to read your observations. Very fine writing! Love, Mom


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