‘The Idol’ and Our Backlash Times

During the Trump presidency, one of the strongest currents in our culture was the struggle for social justice, from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter to the recognition of proliferating gender identities. Now, one of the strongest currents is the backlash to all of that.

Resentment of strident progressive politics unites the hapless CNN chief Chris Licht, who complained, in an Atlantic profile, that the network had been producing too much anti-Trump “outrage porn,” and the louche British rock star (and reputed Taylor Swift ex-boyfriend) Matty Healy, who complained, in a New Yorker profile, that artists are now expected “to be liberal academics.” Anger at the perceived constraints of sanctimonious liberalism seems to have red-pilled Elon Musk. It made Ron DeSantis a presidential contender.

And now, with the debut of HBO’s “The Idol,” we have what appears to be the first big-budget TV show of our backlash era.

I say appears because I’ve seen only the first episode; HBO declined my request for advance screeners. Perhaps the six-part series about a masochistic pop star, which debuted its first two episodes at Cannes last month, takes an unexpected turn later. But for now, “The Idol” is interesting mostly for what it reveals about a moment when reaction is disguising itself as edgy transgression.

To write about “The Idol” at all is to fall into a bit of a trap, because the show desperately wants to be a scandal. In March, Rolling Stone reported that “The Idol,” originally intended as a satire of the music business, had devolved into what one source called “sexual torture porn” after the sudden exit of its female director, Amy Seimetz. According to Deadline, Seimetz had been forced out because the show’s co-creator and co-star, Abel Tesfaye, better known as the pop star the Weeknd, wanted to see less of a “female perspective.” (Tesfaye has denied this.)

Sam Levinson, who created the show with Tesfaye and ended up directing it, pronounced himself delighted by the Rolling Stone report. “When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer,’” he said at Cannes. HBO also leaned into the controversy, marketing “The Idol” as the “sleaziest love story” in Hollywood.

There is, indeed, a lot of sleaze, but the show seems meant to stimulate discourse as much as libido. Lily-Rose Depp plays Jocelyn, a fragile sexpot singer who, it is hinted, had some sort of breakdown following the death of her mother. As the first episode begins, she’s posing for a photo shoot, nearly naked and on her knees, with a hospital bracelet on her wrist. When a youngish creative director expresses qualms about “romanticizing mental illness,” an abrasive Gen X record executive, played by Jane Adams, chides out-of-touch “college-educated internet people” who won’t let the public “enjoy sex, drugs and hot girls.”

The show is on the record exec’s side. Soon a dweeby, performatively progressive intimacy coordinator who tries to stop Jocelyn from revealing her breasts during the photo shoot has been locked in a bathroom. Later, when Jocelyn’s assistant describes Tedros, the unctuous club owner played by Tesfaye, as “so rapey,” Jocelyn replies, “Yeah, I kind of like that about him.” The episode ends with Tedros awakening her creativity by erotically asphyxiating her with her own robe.

I suppose this is meant to be shocking, but what was really striking about the debut episode is its dull nostalgia. Jocelyn, after all, doesn’t really resemble any current female pop stars. The most successful singer in America right now is Swift, whose career has taken her from wistful ingénue to world-weary feminist, and who is both a pop genius and an extremely savvy businesswoman. Megan Thee Stallion may lead with her sexuality, but she’s no submissive broken bird. The stars who’ve been open about their mental health challenges, including Selena Gomez and SZA, certainly don’t sexualize those struggles.

So Jocelyn is a throwback. More than anyone else she resembles Britney Spears, a comparison hammered home in the choreography for the character’s cheesy single “World Class Sinner,” which looks a lot like Spears’s 2001 “I’m a Slave for U.” Spears rose to fame during an earlier moment of backlash, when feminism was considered tired and irrelevant — the buzzword of the time was “postfeminism” — and the culture celebrated a woman’s right to look like a porn star.

“The Idol” seems less like a commentary on today’s music scene than like a wish to return to a prelapsarian period when no one complained about rape culture or toxic masculinity. The debut episode makes a reference to “Basic Instinct,” that 1992 classic of soft-core camp provocation, and Depp has claimed she was inspired by Sharon Stone’s performance. Whether or not that reference is meant as foreshadowing, there’s something apt about it.

“Basic Instinct” now often evokes sentimentality for a more daring, less censorious time; Camille Paglia wrote that Stone gave “the last great sex symbol performance.” But in 2021, Stone claimed that she’d been tricked into the film’s most famous scene — the one where she shows her vagina during an interrogation. (The director, Paul Verhoeven, denies this.) Stone wrote that she even considered trying for an injunction to stop the film’s release. Perhaps she could have used an intimacy coordinator.

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Source photographs by Christophe Simon/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images and Eddy Chen/HBO

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