The lyrics to “World Class Sinner / I’m a Freak,” the lead song from the soundtrack of HBO’s The Idol, read like drunken sexts that I would frantically delete the next morning in a hungover shame spiral. “I’m just a freak, yeah, and I don’t wanna change / And every weekend, I’m tryna find someone to bang,” sings a robotic, auto-tuned Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp). “You can pull my hair, touch me anywhere, whip and chains.”
The hypersexualized track was co-written by Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye, who co-created The Idol alongside Europhia’s Sam Levinson. The song is supposed to be the “Can’t Be Tamed” moment for troubled pop star Jocelyn, whose label attempts to rebrand her as a sex symbol after a nervous breakdown led to the cancellation of her last tour. Jocelyn’s bosses don’t seem to care much about her well-being or her music — as long as it sells — so she forms a relationship with Tedros (Tesfaye), a self-help guru and the head of a dark cult.
On The Idol, “World Class Sinner” is supposed to represent when profit swallows up any attempt at artistry. Jocelyn sounds audibly bored, and her team knows it’s bad. But despite all the arrows pointing toward a flop era on the show, people went wild for the song when it dropped on Spotify in the “real world.” Since June 9, it has been streamed almost 10 million times on the platform. On Twitter, people are still stanning the song, despite the scandals that continue to plague the series. GQ even debated whether the track could be the “song of the summer.” (Although, Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam” begs to differ.)
Why has this supposedly “bad” song become a hit? Writing for Vulture, Laura Martin notes its dramatic, TikTok-ready drop. The chord progression is reminiscent of several familiar chart toppers too, including the Weeknd’s biggest hit, “Can’t Feel My Face.” But the streaming success of “World Class Sinner” goes deeper than its musicality. Fans falling hard for a parody of a pop song might seem unexpected — particularly one that flaunts its status as a vapid commercial product. Really, though, people stanning fictional pop girls like Jocelyn is the natural conclusion of wider tensions that have been building for years between industry gatekeepers, creators, and listeners. The success of this song, and others like it, is representative of fans craving a more honest relationship with the art they consume.
Depp’s Spotify breakthrough isn’t the first time a song created for a fictional pop star has become a real-life hit. There’s a pattern: In 2018, there was A Star Is Born’s protagonist, Ally Maine, portrayed by Lady Gaga. The following year, Ashley O — a purple-haired character from dystopian series Black Mirror played by Miley Cyrus — dropped “On a Roll.” The song, which is best described as a “slutty banger,” catapulted her to instant gay-icon status.
The biggest hit from Gaga’s A Star Is Born soundtrack was, of course, “Shallow” — her painfully sincere duet with Bradley Cooper. But Gay Twitter in particular rallied behind “Why Did You Do That?,” a song about sexy asses in tight jeans. In the film, Cooper’s character, Jackson, worries the song will be Ally’s sellout moment, and the two get into a blazing row over the lyric “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” Despite “Why Did You Do That?” supposedly symbolizing an artistic low point for Ally in the film, articles were soon written about the bizarre appeal of “the song about butts” after it went viral on social media. The track was then included on Rolling Stone’s coveted “Songs You Need to Know” list.
“Why Did You Do That?” rides the thin line between high and low art, where we don’t quite know how good or bad it’s actually supposed to be. It’s not surprising that LGBTQ+ people often seem to be leading the fandom for these “fake” songs, given the long tradition of queer art that explores tensions between frivolity and seriousness. We see this in the output of gay artists like Andy Warhol, whose work was initially rejected by heterosexual male gatekeepers on the New York art scene because it was too decorative and kitsch, before he eventually surpassed them in relevance. Or today, in a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which first emerged as an unpolished parody of hyperserious reality-competition series like America’s Next Top Model, later becoming its own kind of cultural phenomenon.
As self-appointed arbiters of taste, gay fans often feel particularly empowered to decide whether a song like “Why Did You Do That?” is legitimately good, “so bad it’s good,” or whether such a distinction even matters. What were the intentions of its creators? Songwriter Diane Warren recalls co-writing the song in the studio with Lady Gaga after a couple of hits of a joint. “It wasn’t written as a joke,” she tells me. “I would never set out to write a ‘bad’ song. It’s a really good pop song. I think it could have been a No. 1 record if they’d released it as a single.”
A recurring theme in the narrative arc of fictional pop stars, particularly younger women, is that they are treated as products and struggle to have control over their careers. In Black Mirror, Ashley O is drugged by her manager, who puts out new music for a hologram to perform so she can profit from her while she’s in a coma. In A Star Is Born, the central conflict is between Jackson and Rez Gavron, Ally’s sinister British manager. In The Idol, Jocelyn is viewed as disposable by virtually everyone in a position of power over her, who see her as a cash cow. It’s a story we’ve watched play out for decades in the real world, from Judy Garland to Amy Winehouse to Britney Spears.
Paul Blair, known by his stage name, DJ White Shadow, co-wrote several of the songs on the A Star Is Born soundtrack. He doesn’t believe pop is inherently lowbrow, but he does think that Ally’s experience of being told to change her music for commercial appeal is something most musicians go through. “We all have to deal with people who are sitting in an office whose only job is to make records as profitable as humanly possible,” he says. “With ‘Why Did You Do That?,’ the point was to write something that was light and bubbly that sounds like what a label thinks would sell the most records.”
Context matters, especially when a parody pop song is performed by someone who is already a world-famous musician. Blair considers some pop songs he wrote for A Star Is Born “an audible sidestep, or a new era we wouldn’t have had otherwise” for Gaga, but it’s important to remember even on the soundtrack, she is playing a character. “The context — a fictional pop star created for a Netflix TV show, played by a real pop star who became famous for playing a fictional pop star — is absurd, hilarious, and naff in equal measure,” Dylan B. Jones wrote about the beloved Ashley O in The Guardian. “Those are three qualities that don’t just make you a star with the gay community — they make you an icon.”
Fictional pop stars aren’t always portrayed by household names like Cyrus, though. In the 2001 musical-comedy film Josie and the Pussycats, the vocals for Josie — the lead singer of the titular band played by Rachael Leigh Cook — were done by Kay Hanley. Prior to signing on to the film, Hanley’s band, Letters to Cleo, had provided music for the soundtracks of other movies, including 1999 rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, but she was relatively unknown and had never been hired for voice work before. “There was something vaguely familiar about my voice,” she tells me. “But I would say that Josie took it to a new level.”
Like many stories about pop stars, Josie and the Pussycats deals with the inherent conflict between consumption and artistry. A central plot in the film is the U.S. government conspiring with the music industry to hide subliminal messages in pop music and indoctrinate young people into buying into a cycle of new trends. The message might not have landed in 2001, when the film underperformed at the box office. But today — when influencers are paid to get their often young and impressionable fans to buy things they don’t need — it feels more relevant. Since being added to streaming services, the film has developed a large cult following, and Hanley says her voice is now more recognized than ever.
Josie and the Pussycats reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons (a show that has given us countless fictional pop songs) that was released in the same year. In “New Kids on the Beach,” Bart rises to stardom in the manufactured boy-band Party Posse. The band’s auto-tuned single, “Drop Da Bomb,” includes the strange line “YVAN EHT NIOJ” in its chorus, which turned out to be a subliminal recruiting message for the U. S. Navy. These plots feel influenced by real-life accusations of subliminal messaging that were leveled at the Beatles way back in the 1960s — including bizarre conspiracy theories that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a look-alike. In the U.S., bands like Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, and the Eagles were also accused of spreading “satanic” messages subliminally, reflecting a wider, long-term paranoia over whether music is art or a product with its own agenda.
The idea that music is “brainwashing” people is rightly rejected — particularly when it stems from right-wing moral panics, as it often does today. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lingering fear in the back of many fans’ minds that they’re being manipulated, or developing a connection with something that is actually just a product. Still, Hanley tells me that writing songs for Josie and the Pussycats actually allowed her to be more honest with her fans. “If I’m putting myself in the headspace of a fictional character, then I can be completely unself-conscious about what I’m saying because it’s not about me,” she says.
I wonder if the same honesty can also be applied to the tensions between consumption and commerciality that is reflected in so many of these stories. On television shows and in films, we’re seeing made-up pop stars plainly presented as a product, which removes some of the peripheral fan anxiety about how manufactured their music is. “If you’re a punk rocker, or a ‘real’ Gaga fan, it’s okay to like this absurd, amazing sellout song that Diane Warren wrote,” Hanley says. “Because it’s not really her.” The songs might sound like silly parodies, but the relationship between listener and artist is actually more clear-cut when their artifice is declared from the outset. We’re in on the joke — not the butt of it.
Fictional pop stars tend to be portrayed as young women beholden to the whims of bad people (usually men) in the music industry. But Blair thinks social media has sent the music industry into strange, uncharted waters, where posts and view counts are becoming more influential, and careers can live and die by the algorithm. “Back in the day, there were a lot more gatekeepers,” he says. “Now, the music industry is cuckoo crazy because there is so much democracy.”
Gatekeepers of taste are losing their influence in the new social-media landscape. When so much art, content, and even basic social interactions feel staged and performed, what fans crave the most is authenticity. As counterintuitive as it might seem, fictional pop starlets facilitate a more transparent consumer-creator relationship by being up front about their intentions. When we know that a song isn’t pretending to be anything more profound than a catchy bop, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience as a vessel for profit, we have greater permission to enjoy it for the most basic reason: Because we actually like it, and we’re comfortable with that transaction. Without false pretenses, we are free to be more honest about our own tastes, too. As Warren says: “There’s nothing wrong with a good, fun pop song — and you can’t keep a good song down.”