Why Are ‘The Idol’ Characters Calling Mental Illness ‘Sexy’?


When Britney Spears released Blackout, the album that many critics and fans alike would assert is the superstar’s best record, the music arrived on the heels of the mess. Not even one year prior, Spears was photographed shaving her own head, an event that tipped millions of forum comments, media harassment, and fan concern. Despite all of the hubbub, Spears still managed to craft an album full of self-referential, robotic electropop. Naturally, almost all of the reviews, good and bad, made mention of Spears’ public struggle with her mental health.

The Rolling Stone review opens with a reference to Spears’ child visitation rights, and later quips that “she’s gonna crank the best pop booty jams until a social worker cuts off her supply of hits.” The Guardian’s review said that her songs about losing herself in “coital ecstasy” conjured memories of Spears attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Pitchfork’s piece compared the pop star to Laura Palmer, one of television’s great lost souls.

Whether or not Blackout made Spears more appealing to audiences is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that the album kept her brand accessible. Spears may have been publicly flailing, but her music was bumping, and the money kept coming in. There were enough dollars to pay off the bloodsuckers on her team, who made sure Spears honored her contractual commitments, despite the artist needing much more than just some encouragement to get back in the vocal booth.

It’s impossible not to think of this Britney era while watching the opening scene of The Idol, in which fictional pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) is shooting her latest album cover. Jocelyn writhes atop a wooden coffee table, empty pill bottles and uncorked tequila handles splayed out around her. On her wrist sits a dainty hospital bracelet, an allusion to Jocelyn’s recent hospitalization for an as yet unexplained mental breakdown.

When a member of Jocelyn’s visual team, Xander (Troye Sivan), asks one of her managers, Nikki (Jane Adams), about the bracelet, he wonders if including it romanticizes mental illness. “Absolutely,” Nikki replies. Xander tries to object, before Nikki cuts him off. “You people are so out of touch—you college-educated internet people… mental illness is sexy.” Xander once again attempts to interject, before Nikki explains her reasoning, all the while watching the photographer’s flashbulb reflect off of Jocelyn’s hospital bracelet.

“If you live in Sioux City, Iowa, you’re never going to meet a girl like Jocelyn,” Nikki says. “She’s not walking down the street, she didn’t go to your high school, she doesn’t work at the bar or the diner, and she did not marry your best friend. And if—on the off chance—she did, she is still never, ever going to fuck you. Unless she has some very, very serious mental problems.”

Her conclusion: “And that, right there, is why mental illness is sexy.”

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As Nikki says this, we’re instructed to really think about what she’s asserting and if it holds any weight. She’s beyond confident in her declaration that portraying a star as “young, beautiful, and damaged” is good for their image. After all, you don’t get to be a manager of one of the hottest pop stars in the world without being a little good at your job. But Nikki’s real job is not to care for Jocelyn; it’s to rake in money for the label and collect her contractually stipulated percentage of the profits.

Not much later in the episode, we find out that after Jocelyn’s hospital stint, her team pushed her world tour back and refunded the tickets sold, only to put the tickets back up the moment Jocelyn was cognizant enough to perform again. The artist’s team is composed of masters of the spin, and they have decided that Jocelyn owning her interior battle in the public realm is the best possible thing for her image.

Despite anyone with half a brain in 2023 understanding that mental illness is not inherently sexy, that hasn’t necessarily stopped pundits from claiming that pop stars are still trying to glorify psychological strife. Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish made themselves the inadvertent poster women for depression with their music. Both stars generated massive fanbases, who glommed on to early lyrics about romanticizing abuse and suicidal ideation, not because they idealized the pain, but because they could relate in one way or another. Is it really such a stretch to depict a music industry manager weaponizing that same success to drive a fragile pop star’s sales? Spears’ struggles kept the music relevant. Couldn’t the same thing work for Jocelyn?

‘The Idol’: Every Pop Culture Reference, Explained

The Idol’s excitement about extolling mental illness is meant to be seen as a product of the industry’s shallowness and toxicity, not as an offense to those who contend with their own mental health issues. (Though, it should be noted, the show intentionally frames it that way to drive controversy.) We’re supposed to shudder at these spineless, wicked people, who have all convinced Jocelyn that they have her best interest in mind, and laugh at their vacuousness, not take everything they say as gospel.

A direct reference to Spears, a bit later in the episode, highlights this imperative best. “I think that what Britney and Jocelyn have gone through is really unique,” Benjamin (Dan Levy), another member of Jocelyn’s team, tells a Vanity Fair reporter (Hari Nef). “But also…really universal.” Really unique, but really universal? That’s a classic case of manager-spinning, meaningless word salad if I’ve ever heard one.

Almost a year after her head-shaving incident, Spears was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hold. Her mental illness was sexy—aka, marketable—and “pop booty jamming,” until it wasn’t. It’s obviously impossible to know everything that went on behind the scenes, but it’s not hard to figure out who the players were that propped her up and profited from her downfall. The Idol is simply trying to warn us that, despite living in a more socially progressive time, where the media is attempting to show contrition for how they treated icons like Spears, the pop music industry will always value its bottom line before its stars. It’s not impossible that a case of pop history could repeat itself, especially if a manager can find a way to twist fragility into shiny, sexy, platinum records.

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