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Are We Human, or Are We Pop Star?

Through the mockumentary ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’ and the documentary ‘Miss Americana,’ the limits of humanizing the pop star persona are tested.
Popstar Never Stop Never Stopping
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on February 21st, 2021

In our monthly column Laughed to DeathBrianna Zigler takes a look at the way comedy and existentialism go hand-in-hand in seemingly unlikely ways. For this installment, she examines the humanity lost on the pop star persona through Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana.

“I’d love to get Conner to the point where people forget that he’s a musician,” reflects Paula Klein (played by Sarah Silverman), manager to pop superstar Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), “where he’s just kind of everywhere — like oxygen, or gravity, or clinical depression. He’s just everywhere.”

Pop icons are already everywhere. To the point where they are often stripped of not just career titles like “musician” or “actor,” but of personhood. It’s one of the many ideas woven into the fabric of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the 2017 satirical comedy from The Lonely Island’s Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer chronicling the absurd rise, fall, and resurrection of bombastic, fictional musician Conner Friel (stage name Conner4Real) through the prism of a music mockumentary.

Playing on the success of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, One Direction: This Is Us, and the litany of other documentaries following the simultaneously harrowing and dreamlike lives of musicians such as Katy Perry, or Beyoncé, or Mark Ronson, Popstar parodies not only the hackneyed formulas of these films but their objective. These music docs attempt to both deify and humanize a pop star’s life, in an attempt to portray them both as a person just like us and, simultaneously, as inspirational, untouchable icons. But a question that can be gleaned from Popstar and these docs alike is this: at what point does a pop star transcend their ability to be seen as human?

Three years after Popstar went criminally overlooked at the box office, the Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana debuted at Sundance. While the film chronicles the pop sensation’s life and, in particular, the grief she endured under media scrutiny and her public pivot to social justice and politics in 2018, there is still this unmistakable through-line of deification versus humanization within its carefully crafted narrative.

Miss Americana gave Swift the chance to set the record straight on her life and tumultuous past fear years — her expedited rise to fame as a teenager, her world-wide adulation, the eventual controversies of her public and musical persona, and her fall from grace in the eyes of her audience, the very people she only did everything in her power to get to like her.

Swift has lived a particularly blessed life, but when a good portion of it exists in the eyes of the whole world, there are obvious and traumatic disadvantages. Swift reckons her desire to be loved and to remain uncontroversial with the injustice she realized she could no longer turn away from, especially with her massive platform. And although one might find fault both in the time it took for her to get to this realization and the plain neoliberalism of her progressive politics, it’s hard to not, at the very least, consider Swift a force for good.

But Miss Americana also desperately wants you to see Swift as a person in addition to a music icon and activist. The film opens on an emotionally calculated scene in which her attempts to play the piano are thwarted by her adorable cat. Later in the film, shares a “girls night” in her massive home with her childhood friend and clumsily prepares for takeoff on her private jet with her mom.

She gets burrito takeout with her producer while they record music for her 2018 album Lover, and she explains to him her method of adding tortilla chips for an “extra crunch.” She films stripped-down, messy-haired testimonials in front of the camera, where she pores over her old childhood diaries. However, such scenes cannot divorce Swift’s wealth and celebrity from these down-to-earth moments. In the film’s determination to recreate this idolized persona as a flawed, misunderstood woman, the quest becomes both fair and futile — something made utterly abject in Popstar.

“Ever since I was born, I was dope,” proclaims the egomaniacal Conner4Real, and while nothing so absurd is ever uttered in Miss Americana, a similar sentiment exists within the subtext of the film nonetheless. Emphasis is put on showing that Swift was gifted from a young age, seemingly destined for stardom. A small-town girl from Reading, Pennsylvania (not Tennessee, as she does her best to rewrite her own mythology there), with big dreams, a whole lot of talent, and a little ol’ guitar.

Conner, too, was once just a suburban kid from Sacramento, with a pet turtle afflicted with “soggy bone syndrome” and two best friends who loved to rap about their dicks. Although the three friends first formed the trio of the “Style Boyz” — comprised of Conner, Owen Bouchard (Taccone), and Lawrence Dunn (Schaffer) — it was the narcissistic Conner who broke free from the boy band trappings and became a successful solo act. In something of a Beastie Boys-to-Beyoncé-syle rise to stardom, he essentially threw his two friends under the bus and disavowed their necessary contributions to his success in order to artistically self-actualize.

But after the release of his highly-anticipated sophomore album “Connquest” (the album cover of which depicts a ludicrous image of Conner steeped in Nazi-like imagery) and vicious pushback against its public debut in the form of kitchen appliances, the film follows him touring the ultimately commercially and critically panned record as he struggles to reclaim the fan devotion and star power so easily lost to him — just as it was lost to Swift.

Except, well, it wasn’t. Not really; at least not at first. The advent of Swift’s momentary downfall was based unknowingly (at the time) on a mistake. Kanye West’s infamous interruption of her acceptance speech for Best Female Music Video at the 2009 Video Music Awards caused Swift to crack, thinking the booing that West received was directed at her. The incident utterly unraveled what was Swift’s fervent desire for the world’s approval, and when she perceived it as being taken away, the entire foundation her pop stardom was built on began to fracture. It was as if once her confidence was somewhat lost to her, her perception in the eyes of an audience began to destabilize along with it.

Like with Conner’s backslide (similarly of his own making, albeit far more carelessly intentional), the pitfalls of celebrity fan devotion — “stan culture” — and tabloid journalism prove to be just as insidious, if not worse, as “haters” or bad reviews. People will turn on you quickly when you’re not really a person to them. The public and the media craft a narrative around you when they don’t have the whole picture. You’re music; you’re something to love; you’re a headline.

Miss Americana

Swift understands that on her rise to fame she “became the person everyone wanted [her] to be,” but the reality present in Miss Americana is that she still is. After audiences rejected her following the release of Reputation, she simply reinvented herself once more to fit a better ideal. How can anyone be seen as truly authentic when they have a team of people behind their public persona? But when it comes to crafting a star visage that embraces both the manufactured and the authentic, Swift is no vanguard. Beyoncé has made this fusion of “real” and “fake” the anchor of her contemporary image as a pop musician, creating audience participation and immersion aspects in her brand beginning, arguably, with her 2013 self-titled album.

While maintaining an exceedingly controlled environment for this intimate form of stardom, Beyoncé seemingly lets her fans in to carefully chosen aspects of her life. This form of artistic expression is, described by music video scholar and pop aficionado Sydney Urbanek, as something that “sells, because your fans feel like they’re getting the real you, and also pop-phobic people take you more seriously.” Although, perhaps, less about being “taken seriously,” this direct line to a pop star’s audience is not lost on Popstar, as Conner4Real finds success during the height of his fame creating a series of personal videos for his fans, bringing them a little too closely into his day-to-day life — such as letting them know when he’s just masturbated.

Still, archival footage, childhood home videos, camera testimonials, and attempts to authenticate himself to his fans can’t quite compete against Conner’s massive star persona. At one point towards the end of the film, after Conner has accepted the rebuking of his scorned public and he goes into hiding — harkening to what happened to Taylor following the mixed response to Reputation: “nobody saw me physically for a year” could truly have been a line from Popstar — he feels forced to put on a ludicrous disguise in order for Paula to bring him to a bar where Owen is performing solo.

While the authentic and the performed are not nearly as gratuitously divorced from one another in the case of Swift, they still cannot compete against one another, try as Miss Americana might. When your presence in the eyes of millions is inseparable from how much they love you, from existing to be either loved, hated, or something more, there is a humanity that will always be lost upon your audience. Your life, no matter how honestly depicted, no matter how much can be gleaned from song lyrics or interviews, will always be a performance — criticized, consumed, obsessed over, discarded.

In particular, stans (“stan” now a widely-used term that combines the word “stalker” and “fan,” derived from the eponymous Eminem song) embroil themselves in an unhealthy form of star worship. The point of their celebrity idolatry is namely to become as obsessed as they possibly can be, the object of their affections more an accessory to their personality and online presence than attempting to know and understand who they are.

It’s somewhat humorous to watch pop star docs like Miss Americana continue to be made after Popstar portrayed them as such a farce in the same way that it feels silly that formulaic music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody have continued to flourish since the release of the parody film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The carefully calculated “candid” moments, the organic-but-not-really songwriting sessions, the rise to fame from obscurity, the home video footage, and depictions of vulnerability. Both Popstar and Miss Americana even feature songs that attempt to capture the political and social zeitgeist but ultimately come off as tone-deaf and absurd (Conner4Real’s “Equal Rights,” Swift’s “Only the Young”).

Swift speaks out about her eating disorder and her harrowing time during her sexual assault trial, and yet, while not diminishing the gravity of these real experiences, there’s something that will continue to be lost upon the audience whom they’re imparted upon. There will always be a disconnect between our desire to know a celebrity and their desire — no matter the level of sincerity — to humanize themselves to us. It’s only what they want us to see, and so we only see what we want to see.

Anxiously awaiting the Grammy nominations in 2018, Swift films herself on her couch in her pajamas, talking on the phone with someone from her team over the results as they roll in. She’s expectant of Reputation to have taken at least one spot. As I watched that scene unfold for the first time when Miss Americana premiered at Sundance, I couldn’t help but immediately be reminded of another scene from Popstar. Conner is filmed at a table in his home, his laptop at the ready, anticipating the reviews of Connquest. In a similar fashion, both Swift and Conner try to bargain with what they know to be true and their ultimate anguish at their art being looked over (though Miss Americana’s scene conveniently leaves out that Reputation was nominated for a Grammy). It’s the simple crux that anchors these kinds of pop star documentaries — human vulnerability paired with unattainable stardom.

At the end of Popstar, Conner imparts his new personal philosophy to the world after enduring the events chronicled in the mockumentary: “be a good person, the rest will fall into place.” It’s an intentionally hollow statement, meant to mock the sort that a film like Miss Americana quite unironically finishes on. The juxtaposition of purportedly honest self-exploration with the airlessness of a statement like Swift’s own “sharp pen, thin skin, open heart” make Miss Americana and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping a double feature match made in heaven. Watch Miss Americana to see the woman that is Taylor Swift, and watch Popstar to understand that we will never truly see her.

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.