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Miley Cyrus as Ashley O in Black Mirror
Miley Cyrus as Ashley O in Black Mirror

How Black Mirror uses pop music as an emotional manipulator

Throughout the show’s life it’s always used huge pop tunes to pull on the heartstrings, and the new series featuring Miley Cyrus is no different

In the beloved Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”, there’s a five-second snippet of “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths. According to Charlie Brooker, the track cost Netflix “an outrageous amount of money”. Clearly the streaming service appreciated the song’s significance: it alludes to the 1987 setting, it foreshadows the twist, and the ironic juxtaposition of Morrissey’s grief-stricken lyrics and upbeat melody complements the show’s bittersweet tone. Aside from “Stay” by Shakespeares Sister (which is 1992, anyway), what’s the alternative? Tellingly, it’s such an effective needle drop that only a few seconds of Johnny Marr’s riff is required to trigger whatever knee-jerk response we have to The Smiths.

Black Mirror, then, has long understood the emotional pull of pop music. It could be “How Deep Is Your Love?” by The Bee Gees in “Be Right Back”, “I’m a Mother” by The Pretenders in “Arkangel”, or the numerous times Irma Thomas’s “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” has poignantly cropped up over the years. There are even episode titles that refer to songs by Radiohead and The Smiths.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that the highlight of the newly released fifth season would be the “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” episode, a Vox Lux-esque drama dedicated to the industrial machinations of chart-topping singers. After all, when the music execs within the plot calculate the right tune to evoke a specific emotion from the target audience, it’s also Brooker writing from his experience as a showrunner.

In the episode already known as “the Miley Cyrus one”, Cyrus plays Ashley O, a pop star whose fictional hit singles are, in real life, Nine Inch Nails songs – all repurposed by Brooker for a Hannah Montana demographic. So whereas the 1989 NIN anthem “Head Like a Hole” had Trent Reznor maniacally grunting “Head like a hole, black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control”, it’s rejigged by Ashley into the shiny, happy, people-pleasing “On a Roll”, complete with a motivational chorus: “Head like a hole, I’m on a roll / Riding so high, achieving my goals.”

Given that Cyrus is a de facto pop star, “On a Roll” is frighteningly believable. After all, Natalie Imbruglia converted dingy rockers Ednaswap’s “Torn” into a radio smash – a catchy song is a catchy song, no matter what. But the meta-textual joke of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is the ease with which art can be tweaked for cynical marketing purposes. Ashley’s melodies come to her in the form of dreams, but her songs will ultimately be fed through the PR machine and any success depends upon an ability to sell her brand. And as we all know, advertising campaigns are planned in boardrooms, not during your six hours of REM.

Take 15-year-old Rachel’s (Angourie Rice) adoration of Ashley O: is she a fan of the music, or of Ashley herself? As her older sister Jack (Madison Davenport) recognises, it’s the latter. Rachel’s aspirational response to “On a Roll” leads to her mimicking the musician for a school talent show, as well as the purchase of an Ashley Too doll – an AI toy that speaks in the language of celebrity Instagram captions. Inevitably, the pair, human and robot, soon become best buds. The system works. After all, if Nine Inch Nails existed within the Black Mirror universe, would anyone hear “Closer” and want a talking Trent Reznor doll in the bedroom? Unlikely.

“As pessimistic as Black Mirror tends to be, the show frequently frames art as a source of joy and empowerment”

But as pessimistic as Black Mirror tends to be, the show frequently frames art as a source of joy and empowerment. For instance, two of the three new episodes are “art-positive”: “Striking Vipers” depicts beat-‘em-up videogames as a vessel for naughty thrills, while “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” argues that pop music can save lonely, socially awkward teenagers during a difficult period of their life. Strip away the sci-fi and it’s a 15-year-old loner receiving a confidence boost from Ashley’s lyrics.

Crucially, when Ashley hits the stage for the episode’s happy ending, it has nothing to do with technology – it’s just an innocent exhibition of music uniting an audience of strangers. Now reinvented as a Courtney Love guitar hero, Ashley performs Reznor’s original lyrics with gusto – she and her band are, in her head, like a Hole-type unit. It’s effectively a cover of “On a Roll” and a pronounced reinvention. Here, Ashley is rocking out with integrity, while the fans respond enthusiastically that she’s essentially survived a coma and a ridiculous murder attempt. It’s one of Black Mirror’s most optimistic finales – so much so, no one has their phone out to record the gig. (Although maybe Brooker hasn’t been to a concert for a few years and doesn’t realise how rare this is.)

Ultimately, when Rachel listens to Ashley’s music, she’s really listening to what’s behind the music. The viewers, too, experience the catharsis of Cyrus rocking out over the credits. The thing is, Black Mirror regularly takes this amount of care with its soundtracks. The songs are so intrinsically linked to their respective episodes that tracklistings can often double as a plot summary. Just look at, and listen to, “Shut Up and Dance”, which climaxes with Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)”, or how “San Junipero” bows out with the very apt “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle. It’s as if Brooker picks songs by typing plot summaries into Spotify.

“The songs are so intrinsically linked to their respective episodes that tracklistings can often double as a plot summary”

However, just as “On a Roll” is meaningless to Rachel without the context of Ashley’s brand and personality, Carlisle’s cheesy hit is only effective after 55 minutes of emotional investment in Kelly and Yorkie’s romance. The comedian Limmy, who contributed to Screenwipe and was once meant to co-star in Bandersnatchtweeted this a few days ago: “Incredible the effect that ‘San Junipero’ still has on me. I cannae listen to ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ without getting a lump in my throat. A song that meant fuck all to me. Now it's like it reminds me of some childhood memory I never had. What a perfect thing that episode was.”

Maybe Carlisle came up with the song in a dream, but it’s Black Mirror that made me actually care about it. Brooker is evidently having fun with Netflix’s blank cheque (how much did it cost to use Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” as a ringtone in “Smithereens”?) and we’re happily the Rachel to his Ashley O.