With her Black Mirror episode, pop’s most unapologetic skin-shedder returns to the medium that made her a star
Let’s play “Nine Inch Nails or Miley Cyrus?” for one round: “I would scream but I’m just this hollow shell / Waiting here begging, ‘Please, set me free so I can feel.’”
Did you guess right? That’s “Robot,” the best song on Cyrus’ least-remembered album, 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, which tells the story of being owned by Disney. Whether or not the finale of Black Mirror’s fifth season was consciously adapting it for the laptop screen is moot. Both Cyrus, the star of “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” and the popular dystopian Netflix serial rehash clichés with utmost camp, and her starring role was no exception. Plus, Miley the musician has never shown much care for whatever her last album was. Her mall-pop Hannah Montana departure Breakout, bad-girl half-measure Can’t Be Tamed, trap-pop image explosion Bangerz, glitter-spunk bad-trip Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, and, most recently, 2017’s wholesome Younger Now, have no continuity whatsoever. Presumably this has something to do with proving she’s not your robot.
But she’s about-faced so many times she’s circling around; the new EP She Is Coming is kinda like Bangerz, only one album cycle since she denounced hip-hop as too “got-a-girl-on-my-cock.” Also like Bangerz, it’s not very good, but it has its juicy moments, like a long overdue shot at Nicki “Miley, What’s Good?” Minaj that declares she prefers Cardi.
“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is better, but it’s not quite as juicy. As with much of Black Mirror, you know what’s going to happen on some level in the first 20 minutes of the hour-long episode. Cyrus plays Ashley O, a pink-haired pop star whose smash hit “On a Roll” repurposes Trent Reznor’s breakthrough song “Head Like a Hole” as an Empowerment Anthem™ (“Ridin’ so high / Achieving my goals”) in a year when everybody’s repurposing Trent Reznor. The younger of the two teenaged sisters of the title, Rachel, idolizes her, to the chagrin of her older, bass-playing sister Jack.
When Ashley O unveils a line of AI toys called Ashley Too, imbued with a “limited” version of the singer’s Xeroxed personality, this literal robot becomes Rachel’s BFF, and by the time it inspires Rachel to attempt a performance of an Ashley O song in the school talent show, Jack is jealous or disappointed or both. Meanwhile, the real Ashley is rebelling against her nightmare of an aunt — who manages and controls her brand in a twist on the usual Cinderella trope — and attempting to write darker and more personal songs her guardian’s worried will sabotage her income stream. (Clearly Billie Eilish doesn’t exist in the Black Mirror universe.)
Even with the presence of the AI, you can probably map out everything that follows, except for maybe the somewhat shocking confrontation that first reveals Ashley and her aunt’s plans to subvert each other. This in itself isn’t a problem; it’s that the episode is so slight. There are interesting tangents that never develop: We never learn much about the girls’ mother, whose death is said to point to Jack’s own sullen behavior (and presumably Rachel’s dependence on a pop star and a simulation of her for a role model), and their father, who invents stun guns shaped like mice for a living. And we don’t ultimately learn any motivations why Ashley’s aunt is so evil; the episode quickly turns into a car-chase caper with an android sidekick like some kind of cheap ‘80s farce. This isn’t a bad thing, but it prevents us from looking deeper at the themes.
Even the alleged irony of the Nine Inch Nails appropriations used has no real shock value when the real world pop landscape is more liberal than the one in this universe: Johnny Cash’s last big hit was “Hurt,” for god’s sake. And Cyrus herself has already made a whole album with the Flaming Lips that’s way weirder than the grunge-lite that suits her character by the episode’s close, which is in itself rather abrupt. The sad fact is that the real Cyrus’ best music is still usually her hits: “7 Things,” “Party in the U.S.A.,” “Younger Now,” “Malibu.” (“We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” have always been too lifeless and cookie-cutter for the supposed rebelliousness of the period.) And her greatest deep cuts are a truly wondrous “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” cover with sizzling guitar leads and disco strings, and, well, “Robot.”
Cyrus has plenty of fun as Ashley O, and it’s not the first time she’s portrayed a doppelganger pop star, or even one with a deceased parent. In fact, other than the morbid premise and her getting to curse a lot, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” ultimately gives us the eerie déjà vu of a Hannah Montana episode. That may be weirdest irony of all: more than a decade later, this perpetual costume-changer may be beginning to cycle through the same career moves again already. Maybe the lesson is that she really is a robot, or that we all are, that the world is finite with possibility. But there’s plenty more groundbreaking TV and music that says otherwise.
VIDEO: Miley Cyrus – NIN Head Like a Hole (Black Mirror) COVER