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.