‘The Idol’ Finale Gets Nothing Right About Pop Music

In the end, “The Idol” was neither as offensive as its detractors claimed nor as “revolutionary” as co-creator Sam Levinson believed. Like so many works of art that too openly aim for provocation, the five episode HBO drama got in its own way, passing off reductive clichés as radical transgression. Much of the discourse around the show has centered on sex, the most attention-grabbing of its themes. But flashy as its approach may be, how “The Idol” depicts nudity, kink and power dynamics is less indicative of the series’ core problems than its take on pop music and stardom — ostensibly its primary subjects and the center of season finale “Jocelyn Forever.” Even with such an abbreviated buildup, the episode still managed to underwhelm, offering neither shocking twists nor effective catharsis. For a show in part about fandom, “The Idol” failed to inspire one of its own.

“The Idol” is only the latest in a spate of recent projects to thinly fictionalize the experience of world-famous women and the ecosystem that surrounds them. Jocelyn, the mononymous singer played with admirable commitment by Lily-Rose Depp, joins the ranks of a club that includes Lady Gaga’s Ally, the title character of the latest “A Star Is Born”; Celeste, the Natalie Portman character in “Vox Lux”; and Aline, the French-Canadian icon who is definitely not Celine Dion and portrayed in all phases of life, including early childhood, by director Valérie Lemercier. In theory, “The Idol” is distinguished by the creative input of an actual pop star: Abel Tesfaye, who typically performs as the Weeknd but here embodies Tedros Tedros, the rat-tailed nightclub owner who lures Jocelyn into the cult-like crew of aspiring artists he keeps under tight psychosexual control.

Unlike Gaga in “A Star Is Born,” Tesfaye is credited as a co-creator and producer of “The Idol” as well as an actor, and has said he helped populate the ensemble with music industry archetypes. To Tesfaye’s credit, Jocelyn’s entourage provides the show with much of its comedy, the tonal register in which “The Idol” most frequently succeeds: Jane Adams’ label exec waxing nostalgic about anal sex; Rachel Sennott’s assistant nervously third-wheeling a date between Jocelyn and her new obsession; Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s manager wordlessly raising her eyebrows at the “kinky-ass shit” Tedros is up to. These are funny, farcical bits, and if “The Idol” could content itself with being a “Veep”-like sitcom about sycophants circling a narcissist, it might have the makings of a good show. That the music business is filled with self-centered hangers-on is a time-honored trope, but Tesfaye and a strong supporting cast at least infused the stereotypes with accurate detail and entertainment value.

Unfortunately, “The Idol” is also a dark drama about Jocelyn and Tedros, a partnership as creative as it is romantic. In a GQ interview seemingly intended as damage control after harsh early reviews, Tesfaye emphasized that Tedros is meant to be “pathetic” and “a loser.” These traits doesn’t quite contradict his hold on his followers; many cult leaders, including Charles Manson himself, are downright off-putting to those who aren’t in a vulnerable place, like Jocelyn grieving the recent loss of her abusive mother or another acolyte who was living on the street. (Though a more skilled performer than Tesfaye could better navigate that tension.) They do, however, butt up against how the show presents his advice to Jocelyn as genuinely useful, enabling a breakthrough in her music that impresses her handlers and rescues her tour. Except that advice is as stale and trite as the rest of Tedros’s shtick, especially when incorporated into tracks we can hear for ourselves.

When Tedros meets Jocelyn, she’s preparing to launch her comeback single “World Class Sinner,” a generic-if-catchy ode to casual sex. (Chorus: “‘Cause I’m a freak, yeah / You know I want it bad.”) Jocelyn suspects the song is meaningless fluff, and Tedros agrees — so he and Jocelyn remix her sex anthem with actual sex noises induced by erotic asphyxiation at the end of the pilot. This is the first, though not the last, painfully literal application of Tedros’s artistic philosophy: that real stars incorporate real-life experience into their work, and seek out as much material as possible. Jocelyn’s childhood trauma is one such experience, though in her first attempt at recording music inspired by it, Tedros doesn’t guide her to channel memories and emotions into her vocal performance. Instead, he manually stimulates Jocelyn until she’s once again gasping and moaning into the mic. Tedros calls pop music a “Trojan Horse,” and his preferred vessel is apparently sex. 

Various onlookers, including super-producer and inexplicable Tedros associate Mike Dean, openly laugh at this over-the-top PDA. Yet Jocelyn’s manager, an industry veteran, approves of the results and says as much to her colleague. This process repeats itself in “Jocelyn Forever,” when Jocelyn stages a preview of her new act for her team. Eli Roth’s Live Nation higher-up proclaims the material “raw and honest and beautiful,” though the performance largely consists of lyrics like “Perfect as can be / Have your way with me” sung while Jocelyn gives a de facto lap dance. It’s unclear how or why this updated sound is meant to be a step up from “World Class Sinner,” though it’s well established the show wants us to think so. 

Plenty of pop star fiction asks the audience to suspend its disbelief and accept that substandard songs are brilliant hits. (They can’t all be “Shallow.”) More grating is how “The Idol” uses its alternate reality to position Tedros’s school of thought as a breath of fresh air, infusing needed authenticity into a pop landscape starved for connection. Yet in passing off conventional wisdom as a challenge to the status quo, it’s “The Idol” that comes off artificial and out-of-touch.

A former child star who went through a public breakdown, Jocelyn’s most obvious real-life analog is Britney Spears. The show’s conception of pop stardom feels frozen at the time of Spears’s own nadir, when she spent years trapped in a conservatorship that robbed her of agency. But in 2023, the idea that female musicians can assert control over their narrative by weaving their personal lives into their professional output has long since been taken as gospel. Taylor Swift is the textbook example, though an entire generation of younger stars have learned from her example, from Lorde to Billie Eilish to Olivia Rodrigo. Artists like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato have disclosed struggles with substance abuse and mental health that won them devoted followers; even Spears has since freed herself and embraced a new candor with the fans who advocated on her behalf. In another medium, Nora Ephron coined the phrase “everything is copy” decades ago.

Jocelyn, too, opens up about her past in a confessional video she shares at Tedros’s suggestion. When she and the rest of the Tedros “family” put on a showcase of their talents, Tesfaye’s character is credited as a “Scarface Miyagi” who may be “legitimately a genius” for scouting and developing an entire roster on his own. Even when “The Idol” executes its inevitable reversal, with Jocelyn reasserting control, Tedros is still allowed a place by her side as a source of inspiration and check on her exploitative collaborators. He’s supposed to be a kind of idiot savant with a real, if narrow, purpose — except his one special, irreplicable insight could be gleaned from a quick scan of the Billboard charts.

“Euphoria,” a hit that gave Levinson the capital required to make a controversy-courting show like “The Idol,” is rooted in the director’s own battles with addiction as a teenager. Whatever that series’ flaws, there’s a sincerity and depth of feeling to the central story that makes it hard to dislike. “The Idol,” too, has elements of heavily filtered autobiography. But while Tesfaye contributes context, a lead performance, much of the soundtrack and the show’s primary shooting location — his own home — he never practiced what “The Idol” preaches. Tesfaye’s first singles were released anonymously, and adjectives like “enigmatic” and “mysterious” still follow him today. Perhaps that’s why “The Idol” feels so hollow when it tries to make sweeping statements about fame and artistry. Unlike this new Jocelyn, it’s not speaking from the heart.

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