Black Mirror’s latest season blends their typical dystopian brand of science-fiction with the life of Miley Cyrus and the worst side of the music industry. “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” was one of the most chilling episodes to date, painting a disturbing vignette of artist abuse and commercialization that seems unnervingly possible – because it already exists.
Black Mirror has quickly developed a cult following based on one of the essential questions of science-fiction: “What if?” Most episodes ask this question about a new piece of cutting edge technology, then leap with it to the edge of our understanding — showing us the threat of what could be if we don’t take action to divert our own reality from a similar path. Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too contains a healthy blend of all the above, but this time the leap to the edge of understanding is more of a gentle push, a nudge to wake up and pay attention — not to what could be, but what already is.
Starring Miley Cyrus as a reluctant pop star, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too weighs in on the toxic relationships that can form between record labels, artists, and their fans. In a role that is too fitting not to have been written specifically for Miley Cyrus, Ashley O is held prisoner by a horrible contract with her Aunt Catherine, who doubles as her manager. Catherine controls every aspect of her image and her art down to a level that has reduced Ashley to a puppet on a string, dancing for corporate profits in shoes made of nails. She’s restricted to a fake public persona built and forced upon her by Catherine and her label. One step further both symbolically and literally, that restricted consciousness is marketed and consumed directly by replicating it and placing it into countless dolls that are sold as Ashley Too.
The truth of the matter is that this isn’t so different from how we consume artists based on their time in the spotlight and their value as a commodity. Although we might not be purchasing twisted digital versions of our favorite artists yet, we still don’t honestly experience them as individuals on a personal level, and that’s something we should at least be conscious of now, before we lose that choice forever.
Ashley O: Miley Cyrus’ Story Re-told
The character of Ashley O is not-so-subtly derivative of Miley Cyrus’s own painful transition from family-friendly teen pop star Hannah Montana, to the mature and developed singer-songwriter Miley Cyrus. There’s a slew of teen pop stars in the industry who face the same difficulty, Cyrus is merely one of the most vocal. Much like how Miley struggled to shed the wig of Hannah Montana as she outgrew it, Ashley, exhausted from constant promotion and tours, longs to have freedom not just over her music, but her life.
“I think it got harder when I started touring as both—I toured as Hannah Montana and as myself. I think that’s probably what’s a little bit wrong with me now! I mark that up to doing some extreme damage in my psyche as an adult person.” – Miley Cyrus (2017)
When Miley tried to separate her identity from her child star persona in early 2010 she wasn’t received with much encouragement. Her first foray into the new look and sound, Can’t Be Tamed, was greeted with a Metacritic rating of 48/100; the album went over terrible with critics and fans alike, who were expecting more of the happy-go-lucky country girl they were familiar with. In response to the video (seen below) for the album’s title track, Entertainment Weekly said:
“Miley Cyrus has released the video for her new single, “Can’t Be Tamed,” and one thing is clear: The Disney star is flying the coop. No, for reals! The video finds our beloved Hannah Montana ensconced in full bird regalia, rocking deep smoky eyes, and being announced as ‘Avis Cyrus, the rarest creature on earth.’” – Tanner Stransky, Entertainment Weekly (2010)
Some of the song’s lyrics, combined with the imagery of Cyrus as an exotic bird to be caged and observed, sends chills up my spine now looking back at Cyrus’s role the Black Mirror episode. In particular, the imagery of Cyrus as a caged animal calls to mind the twisted, computer-generated pop song pulled from the comatose Ashley O.
After being forced into a coma, Ashley is hooked up to a machine that scans and mines the silent screams of her inner artistic consciousness. Her pained and distorted screeching is slowed down and ran through autotune, and within a minute we hear her cries for help spun up into a catchy pop tune; the kind you would find yourself bobbing your head along to on the radio without really paying attention to the subtle darkness of the lyrics.
“See the animal in her cage you built / Spotlight on me shining strong / Feel such happiness inside of my heart / And it’s all right here in my song.” – Ashley O in Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too (2019)
This song is a new rendition of the same somber piano tune that Ashley sits down to play in the middle of the night towards the beginning of the episode:
See the animal in her cage you’ve built / Are you sure what side you’re on?/ Feel the hollowness inside of your heart / Everything right where it belongs / If you look at your reflection, is it all you want it to be / If you could look right through the cracks, would you find yourself afraid to see?” – Ashley O on Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too (2019)
The implication of being observed like a caged animal is darkly similar to Cyrus’s “Can’t Be Tamed,” and Black Mirror is not a show known for thoughtless coincidence. I’m left with the sinking feeling the entire situation is dramatically derivative of Cyrus’s feelings about the exploitation of her own life and career.
“I wanna fly, I wanna drive, I wanna go / I wanna be part of something I don’t know / And if you try to hold me back, I might explode / Baby, by now you should know… I can’t be tamed, I can’t be tamed…” – Miley Cyrus on ‘Can’t Be Tamed’
Much like the themes of the Black Mirror episode, “Can’t Be Tamed” borders just on the line between intense existential message and catchy pop tune. Thankfully, in the fictional story, once the limiter is removed from an Ashley Too doll that was restricting her to the chains of her commercial identity, Rachel, her four-time self-proclaimed biggest fan, overcomes the divide between the fake Ashley she’s such a big fan of, and the real person inside who needs her help. In our reality, we don’t have miniature versions of our favorite artists to set us straight when we prioritize artists as products, rather than people, but we also shouldn’t have to.
Coercion, Record Labels, and Bad Contracts
Ashley’s escape from a terrible contract quickly evolves into a fight for her life and ownership of her own mind, when surveillance cameras placed in her dressing room catch her hiding the illegal “creativity” medicine she’s being forced to take. When confronted about hiding the pills and the suicidal distress that Ashley has expressed in her personal journal, her aunt’s much larger concern is how Ashley could damage the financial status of their brand.
“What was the plan? OD? Make me look bad? I know precisely what you know. You do seem preoccupied with contract law. You know I could have saved you some clicks. Your contract is watertight, it doesn’t expire till you turn 25.” – Catherine on Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too (2019)
Even outside of Black Mirror, it’s not uncommon for artists to jump through major legal hoops and go through brutal disputes to get out of terrible contracts and own the rights to their own creations. Most famously perhaps, is the five-year personal and legal battle between Lil Wayne and Birdman over the rights to Carter V. In 2014 Wayne tweeted, “I want off this label and nothing to do with these people… I am a prisoner and so is my creativity.”
In another hip hop financial dispute, Ice Cube had similar feelings about N.W.A.’s manager, Jerry Heller. According to Forbes, at the time Ice Cube left N.W.A. he had only received $32,700 in album royalties combined for his work as a writer and performer for Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-E’s Eazy- Duz-It, despite the albums selling over 5 million copies. Ice Cube’s solo track, “No Vaseline,” is full of scathing remarks directed at Heller, Dr. Dre, and his former group. In the years following Ice Cube’s departure both Eazy-E and Dre would also break connection to Heller over financial disputes.
“Tried to diss Ice Cube, it wasn’t worth it / Cause the broomstick fit your ass so perfect / Cut my hair? / Nah cut them balls / Cause I heard you like giving up the drawers / Gang banged by your manager, Heller / Getting money out your ass like a mothafucking Ready Teller / Giving up the dolla bills.” ‘ Ice Cube on “No Vaseline“
While many artists taking their first steps into the industry see a label as a means of getting the support they need to take their music to the next level, those labels often only see the artists as a means of making money. Labels and managers make decisions based on profits, and they often push for decisions that put their profits above the wishes and even the health of the artists.
Monetizing Addiction and Drug Abuse
During a conference between Catherine, Dr. Munk, and Habanero that wouldn’t be out of place in many record label offices, Dr. Munk suggests upping Ashley’s dosage of illegal “creative” medicine, and even introducing other drugs to up her productivity and deal with her non-compliance.
“Well if she’s feeling under-creative there are some mild hallucinogens I can recommend, all organic.” – Dr. Munk, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too (2019)
What sounds like dystopian fiction isn’t far off from the pressure a lot of artists in the industry have felt to use drugs for creative inspiration or to keep up with the demanding and fast-paced lifestyle of the touring and recording cycle. Ask a room full of artists who’ve struggled with addiction if they felt their career contributed to their illness, and Slim Shady will be the first to stand up.
Eminem’s tough life and a series of tragic losses, when combined with the money and pressure of being a superstar, was enough to brew a struggle with addiction that landed Marshall in an emergency room for a methadone overdose in 2007. The overdose was just one particularly telling part of a 5-year long writing slump spurned by drugs and circumstance. After finally getting sober and back to writing, he was greeted with responses from some fans and particularly vulgar critics that could read like throwaway lines for Dr. Munk himself.
We all know that Relapse, Recovery, and The Marshall Mathers LP II didn’t sound like the same Eminem we had missed over his five-year hiatus, but I’m nowhere near willing to demand a recovering drug addict get back on the train to an early grave over something as trivial as my listening pleasure. That same dark and selfish dialogue that builds online gathered and found its energy personified by Catherine and Dr. Munk. It’s easy to pick them out as villains in the film because they’re given characteristics and faces to hate, but the implication is the same for everyone sitting behind their phone Tweeting about how some artist’s music was better when they were on drugs. As Shane Ryu said in his piece, Triumph and Tragedy: Eminem’s Journey from the ‘Slim Shady LP’ to ‘Kamakize:’
“We must remember that [Eminem’s] already given us multiple bonafide classics — visceral bodies of work born of pain, rage, and drugs. This grim trifecta is a tried and true formula for Eminem, but if drugs can no longer fulfill the unsettling emptiness in his gaze (and his music), then so be it. Marshall Mathers has been through hell and back throughout his life, and his struggle to reconcile with his decline is a sobering reminder that he’s a human being like the rest of us. He is still prone to failing miserably and dealing with the crippling insecurities that follow, and he can still feel like he’s right when the rest of the world says he’s wrong.” – Shane Ryu (2018)
As fans, journalists, or bloggers, we often carry more influence — and therefore more responsibility--than we are comfortable with acknowledging. The pressure Ashley O feels to not to let down her fans is used directly by Catherine as a mechanism of convincing her to swallow pill after pill. Ashley depressingly refers to her costume and wig as feeling like she’s wearing someone else’s skin. Catherine coldly disregards the uncomfortable metaphor with emphasis on the fans being there to see the public persona constructed around Ashley, and not who she really is.
“Look, you’ve got 20,000 fans out there, waiting to see the you they love. Their folks bought them tickets, they’re so excited they’ve been waiting for this for months. Don’t. Let. Them. Down.” – Catherine, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too (2019)
After all, there’s plenty of examples of the brutal reception artists can get from their “fans” when their shows don’t line up with expectations. Just recently, in April, the popular DJ and actor from Real Bros of Simi Valley, Getter, canceled the remainder of his Visceral tour after the terrible blowback against his music’s new direction.
Imagine working toward something, putting in all your effort, time, and money into something that you feel could FINALLY separate you from the rest and show you DO have purpose. All to just get yelled at, booed and have shit thrown at you because it’s not the cookie-cutter bullshit they are used to… The constant hate and disgusting attitudes I’m faced with are destroying me.” – Getter (2019)
While money is certainly a part of it, many artists get into music because their passionate about music, not because they’re entrepreneurs. Most of the financial pressure to do what makes money as opposed to what the want to do, is passed down from people around the artists, like their labels and families.
Tupac, Mac, and Profit After Death
In the worst case scenarios, when artists are unable to overcome their personal demons or the combined pressures of the spotlight, suicides and overdoses have claimed the lives of many artists before their time. Admittedly, it wasn’t until recently that I had really thought in depth about what happens to an artist’s work after their death. One of the first deaths that had really felt deeply personal to me was Mac Miller’s death in 2018.
I had caught the leak of an unreleased Mac Miller song produced by Metro Boomin, “Real.” Of course, the track slapped, and I sent the leak out to friends of mine. Later that night when some of us met up at the bar I asked the biggest Mac fan of them all what he thought about the track. To my surprise, he told me that he wouldn’t listen to it because if Mac had wanted the track released he would have released it.
Out of respect for his favorite artist, he had decided not to experience new music by him, saying that he didn’t want to give the guy who leaked it “his five minutes of clout.” The idea stuck with me, and while I can’t un-hear the track, it’s made think more carefully about who actually benefits from a late artist’s work. If it can often be an artist’s own label that is helping to dig their graves for them, what does that say about supporting posthumous work even released under the label in some circumstances?
Catherine forces Ashley into a coma because it’s deemed the more profitable option. She’s able to use her likeness, her voice recordings, and her inspiration to generate a digital, holographic version capable of being streamed to multiple shows around the world at large-than life-size, while the real Ashley is strapped to a hospital bed. This case is obviously pretty cut and dry because of the criminal intent behind Catherine’s actions, but it’s not always so clear in the actual music industry.
Tupac Shakur has a more extensive posthumous discography than he does albums released while he was alive, with 7 of his 11 platinum albums having been released after his death. In 2002, Forbes ranked Tupac tenth on a list of top-earning dead celebrities, and in 2008 Forbes reported his estate earned another $15 million. If you further question the plausibility of a digital superstar’s ability to replicate a real artist and generate revenue, check out the video below of holographic Tupac performing live at Coachella alongside Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre in 2012. The week following the performance, Tupac’s 1998 Greatest Hits album returned to the Billboard 200 for the first time since 2000.
The sharp spike in profits and well-received performance makes some pretty solid encouragement for labels to look into further monetizing digital artists and the technology that made it possible. The incredibly life-like representation of the legendary west-coast rapper was created seven years ago, meaning there’s been plenty of time to further leverage the potential that the tech offers for future artists and performances. If you’re interested in learning more, this is a good read about the preparation and advanced set-up that made the show possible.
While permission was obtained from Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur Davis, to use his likeness as a hologram for the show, she has since passed away, leaving the management of his estate to Tom Whalley, former chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Records and current head of Loma Vista Recordings. After Afeni’s death in 2009, Tupac’s old friend and videographer, Gobi Rahimi, said he felt that the industry professionals in charge of Tupac’s estate had previously taken advantage of his mother for profits,
She [Afeni] would try to have people represent hers and Tupac’s interests, and in the past I don’t think a lot of those people necessarily gave a fuck about the estate or the legacy; they saw it more as a cash cow. A lot of people took advantage of her.” – Gobi Rahimi (2016)
Afeni had initially used a large share of the money from Tupac’s estate to open the Tupac Amura Shakur Center for the Arts, a performing arts day camp and theatre inspired by Tupac’s own time spent at the Baltimore School for the Arts helping him to find solace from a difficult home situation. But despite the late rapper’s $15 million in earnings and highly profitable post-mortem discography, the center had to be sold and closed down in 2015. Since Tupac himself doesn’t see any of his share of the profit from his work, it should seem only right that his share would go towards exactly what he would want it to. Instead, his art simply fuels an industry agenda; money stuck making more money.
Robots Can’t Make Art, But They Can Make Money
We’re on the fast track to a 20-story tall Tupac towering over Coachella like Godzilla with a corporate agenda; which certainly sounds hype but spells out a concerning future for the music industry. A label at its core is a corporation with profit as the main goal. If the industry model is somehow able to make this shift to digital artists being more profitable than their living counterparts the ramifications are frightening, to say the least. Ashley O was drugged into a coma, Miley Cyrus was trapped with a fake persona, Lil Wayne was shot at and oppressed for years, Ice Cube struggled to survive on royalties, Eminem has been pushed to continue drug use, and Tupac’s legacy has been molded to serve corporate profit margins. The groundwork has already been laid for the profit-over-person mentality that infects the industry.
For me, it comes down to the main point made by the Black Mirror episode: artists are more than just a commodity, and art has to be more than just a product. Think about all the emotional connections that you have to your favorite artists and their music. Those connections are driven by real experiences in both your life and theirs, not from a fabricated, digital persona. If we continue to treat artists like machines, that’s exactly what we’re going to be left with.