This story contains spoilers for the episode “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” of Black Mirror’s fifth season. Read the rest of our show coverage here.
If the jingle that Miley Cyrus’s character Ashley O sings over the course of the Black Mirror episode “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” sounds familiar, that’s not just because it’s meant to scan as a generic pop song. It’s also explicitly a rewrite of “Head Like a Hole,” the 1989 Nine Inch Nails hit anti-consumerism rant. Trent Reznor’s sneer of “Head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die / than give you control” becomes “Hey I’m a ho / I’m on a roll / Riding so high / Achieving my goals,” delivered by Cyrus in a pink bob and silver bodysuit. By the end of the episode, when Ashley O has achieved liberation from her villainous manager who wanted her to only ever make bubblegum music, she rocks out at a dive bar, playing the Nine Inch Nails original.
“Head Like a Hole” is a perfect pick for a touchstone here. Not only does it express the Netflix episode’s themes of greed and resistance (“God money, I’ll do anything for you!” goes the first line). Not only does Reznor’s music already seem like the sonic expression of Black Mirror’s bleak outlook and techno-thriller aesthetic (isn’t every installment, in some way, about “Happiness in Slavery”?). But “Head Like a Hole” is also, underneath the industrial guitars and grunting singer, a really fabulous, energizing pop song. It’s a testament to the way that “rock” can work as an aesthetic, an emotional mode, that meshes with candied sing-alongs—a potential symbiosis that “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” ignores on its way to its simplistic, if amusing, pop satire.
In the episode, Ashley O is a popular entertainer who sings upbeat, empowering lyrics aimed at young female fans. Behind the scenes, though, Ashley wants to change her sound, as expressed when she looks yearningly at a rock club and when she writes a pining ballad about feeling trapped (it’s another Nine Inch Nails tune, 2005’s “Right Where It Belongs”). But Catherine, her aunt and manager, stymies her ambitions both with an ironclad contractual agreement and with a sleazy doctor who keeps Ashley on a diet of docility-ensuring drugs.
The latest brand extension for Ashley is a toy robot called Ashley Too. Crossed between an Alexa and a Furby, it’s imprinted with Ashley’s personality (building on previous Black Mirror episodes about psychic cloning) and merrily chitchats with fans who buy it. One of those fans is the 15-year-old Rachel. Shy and unpopular at school, she finds solace in Ashley O’s inspirational messaging—even if Ashley’s music makes Rachel’s indie-rock-loving older sister, Jack, sneer from her side of the bedroom. Ashley Too’s encouragement gets Rachel to perform a dance routine in the school’s talent show, but her clunky performance results in humiliation. Turns out that slogans like “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything” aren’t always what people need.
These two narrative threads—the suffering star and her worshipful fan—converge when Catherine responds to Ashley’s rebelliousness by poisoning the singer, sending her into a coma. The management team then uses technology to digitally resurrect Ashley in a more pliable form. Brain-wave scanners extract new tunes from the incapacitated songwriter, production software makes those tracks more radio-friendly, and holography generates a larger-than-life replica of Ashley that can tour the world. Meanwhile, Rachel’s Ashley Too—accidentally freed of the “limiter” programmed into it, thereby unleashing the full Ashley personality—learns of Ashley’s hospitalization on the TV. The robot and the two sisters then embark on a heist to rescue the real Ashley.
It’s a zany story that’s rich with real-world resonance. Britney Spears has been in the news lately for reported mental-health medication struggles and for seeming to chafe against the conservatorship her family set up—thereby taking control of her finances—more than a decade ago. Cyrus, a former Disney star, has faced resistance and skepticism for overhauling her sound a number of times (rap-influenced-pop in 2013; psychedelic rock in 2015; country in 2017; rap-influenced-pop again this month). The holographic pop star is not a fever dream, either. Japan’s popular entertainer Hatsune Miku is totally synthetic. The late Whitney Houston’s image will soon go on tour.
“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” extends these sorts of stories for a semi-comical nightmare, adding in advanced AI as well as ethical mouse-killing technology (Rachel and Jack’s dad is an exterminator). As it imagines a pop star’s team essentially murdering her so as to profit off the ensuing nostalgia industry, the episode isn’t so much far-fetched as it is extreme. But the truth is that the gaslit, hyper-managed starlet is an old trope—as old as Hollywood—and technology has actually allowed musicians like Cyrus to push back against it. Take the example of her 2015 experimental album, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. As I wrote around the time of its release:
Theoretically, the album’s creation could be seen as a brave declaration of independence from someone long seen as a corporate-controlled, Disney-made pop puppet. Recorded without the input or money of her record label RCA, featuring heavy contributions from indie-rock legends The Flaming Lips, and unleashed without warning, for free, onto SoundCloud at the conclusion of the VMAs, it’s certainly a project without precedent. Cyrus has said her team of advisers told her “they’d never seen someone at my level, especially a woman, have this much freedom. I literally can do whatever I want. It’s insane.” They also told her that at 22 songs, Dead Petz was too long. In response, she added one more track, an instrumental called “Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz,” “not to be mean, just to prove that it can’t be too long.”
SoundCloud allowed her an end run around her label, and it sounds like management was somewhat game to let Cyrus experiment. Confident in the social-media-enabled devotion of their fans, superstars like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga have splashily bucked convention and made risky sonic swerves as their careers have developed. Rihanna, once a steady generator of hit singles, remains as big a name as ever thanks to Instagram and her business ventures, even if her last album—the moody departure Anti—came out more than three years ago. Not everyone enjoys such freedom (again, Spears’s example seems eerily relevant), but it’s hard to say that technology’s progress has short-circuited the possibility of artistic evolution. A star who has strong enough appeal as a celebrity brand and a lifestyle totem can often push boundaries with music a bit more.
Certainly it appears that Ashley O’s brand is strong; that’s what she’s cashing in on with the Ashley Too devices. The most intriguing portions of the episode deal with that doll and with Ashley’s fans’ relationship with the star. When the pink-and-white machine chirps out motivational advice, the show is clearly playing with the way that this millennium in pop has been packed with generic self-help rhetoric, which can indeed come off as creepy or dopey. But there are fans who really do get some succor from that rhetoric. Black Mirror observes this upside, yet it also suggests there’s something sinister in Ashley Too pushing Rachel to undergo a garish makeover and to gyrate at her school’s talent show. What exactly is the problem, though? Is it that Rachel’s being told to “be herself” in an already narcissistic culture? Or is it that being herself actually amounts to becoming someone else? If Black Mirror had delved into these questions more fully, a sharper, more relevant satire could have emerged.
The show’s take on the genre is also oddly stale, relying on a textbook dichotomy between “pop” and “rock,” which corresponds to the split between the naive Rachel and the wiser Jack, and between the fakey Ashley persona and the real artist being clamped down. (One example of the level of subtlety: There’s a sticker on the wall on Jack’s side of the bedroom that says “ROCK.”) In the most fascinating scene of the episode, Jack tells Ashley Too what bands she likes—Pixies, Sonic Youth, Idles, Savages—and says she learned about them from her mother. Jack’s clearly trying to prove her hipster cred to a toy. But Ashley Too, sounding confused, asks, “So you only listen to music your mom liked?” It’s the one moment when Black Mirror seems to question the hierarchies of taste and authenticity that regularly bring ridicule to stars like Ashley and, more damagingly, to fans like Rachel. But Jack just sends the device to sleep, and the episode proceeds as an all-too-conventional romp about an artist who’d rather die than give you control.