When Britney Spears came out Blackouts, the album that many critics and fans would argue is the superstars best record, music came in the wake of chaos. Not even a year earlier, Spears was photographed shaving her head, an event that sparked millions of forum comments, media harassment, and fan concern. Despite all the hubbub, Spears still managed to craft an album full of self-referential robotic electropop. Of course, nearly every review, good and bad, mentioned Spears’ public struggle with her mental health.
THE Rolling stone the review opens with a reference to Spears’ children’s visitation rights, and later jokes that she’ll make the best booty pop jams until a social worker cuts off her stash of hits. The GuardianThe singer’s review said that her songs about losing herself in coital ecstasy evoked memories of Spears attacking a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. PitchforkThe s piece compared the pop star to Laura Palmer, one of television’s great lost souls.
Whether or not Blackouts made Spears more appealing to audiences is up for debate, but there’s no question that the album has maintained its approachable brand. Spears may have freaked out publicly, but her music was booming and the money kept pouring in. There were enough dollars to pay off the bloodsuckers on her team, who made sure Spears honored her contractual commitments, even though the artist needed more than just some encouragement to get back in the vocal booth.
It’s impossible not to think about this era of Britney while watching the opening scene of The idol, in which fictional pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) is shooting the cover of her latest album. Jocelyn writhes on a wooden coffee table, empty pill bottles and uncorked handles of tequila scattered around her. On her wrist is a delicate hospital bracelet, an allusion to Jocelyn’s recent hospitalization with an as yet unexplained nervous breakdown.
When a member of Jocelyn’s visual team, Xander (Troye Sivan), asks one of her managers, Nikki (Jane Adams), about the bracelet, she wonders if including it romanticises mental illness. Absolutely, replies Nikki. Xander tries to object before Nikki cuts him off. You are so out of touch, college educated internet people, mental illness is sexy. Xander tries once more to intervene, before Nikki explains her reasoning, as he watches the photographer’s flash reflect off Jocelyn’s hospital bracelet.
If you live in Sioux City, Iowa, you’ll never meet a girl like Jocelyn, says Nikki. She isn’t walking down the street, she didn’t go to your high school, she didn’t work at the coffee shop or diner, and she didn’t marry your best friend. And if by any chance she did, she will never, ever fuck you. Unless he has very, very serious mental problems.
His conclusion: And that, right there, is why mental illness is sexy.
As Nikki says this, we’ve been instructed to really think about what she’s stating and if it carries any weight. She is overly confident in her statement that portraying a young, beautiful, damaged star is good for their image. After all, you can’t become a manager to one of the hottest pop stars in the world without being somewhat good at your job. But Nikki’s real job isn’t taking care of Jocelyn; it’s to cash in on the label and collect her contractually agreed percentage of profits.
Not much later in the episode, we learn that after Jocelyn’s hospital stint, her team pushed back her world tour and refunded the sold tickets, only to put the tickets back the moment Jocelyn was conscious enough to perform again. The artist team are masters of spin and they’ve decided that Jocelyn owning her inner battle in the public sphere is the best possible thing for her image.
Despite anyone with half a brain in 2023 understanding what mental illness is Not inherently sexy, that hasn’t necessarily stopped experts from saying that pop stars are still trying to glorify psychological conflict. Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish have become the unwitting poster women of depression with their music. Both stars generated huge fan bases, who focused on early lyrics about romantic abuse and suicidal ideation, not because they idealized grief, but because they could relate one way or another. Is it really such a stretch to portray a music industry manager using success itself as a weapon to drive a pop star’s fragile sales? Spears’ struggles have kept music relevant. Couldn’t the same thing work for Jocelyn?
The idolMan’s enthusiasm for the glorification of mental illness must be seen as a product of the industry’s superficiality and toxicity, not as an offense to those struggling with their own mental health issues. (Although, it should be noted, the show intentionally frames it this way to stir up controversy.) They should have cringe at these spineless, evil people, all of whom convinced Jocelyn that they had her best interest in mind and laughed at the their emptiness, do not take everything they say as gospel.
A direct reference to Spears, a little later in the episode, highlights this imperative best. I think what Britney and Jocelyn went through is very unique, Benjamin (Dan Levy), another member of Jocelyn’s team, tells a Vanity Fair journalist (Hari Nef). But also truly universal. Really unique, but really universal? This is a classic case of meaningless meaningless word salad if I ever heard one.
Nearly a year after her head-shaving incident, Spears was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility. Her mental illness was sexyaka, marketable, and pop booty jamming, until she wasn’t. It’s obviously impossible to know everything that went on behind the scenes about her, but it’s not hard to figure out who the players were who backed her up and profited from her downfall. The idol is simply trying to warn us that while we live in a more socially progressive age, where the media is attempting to show contrition at the way it has treated icons like Spears, the pop music industry will always weigh its profits first of its stars. It’s not impossible for a case in pop history to repeat itself, especially if a manager can find a way to turn fragility into shiny, sexy platinum records.
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