The Idol: Music From the HBO Original Series

If you would like to listen to the music from the first season of The Idol—HBO’s infamous, incendiary show about a young female pop star as told through the eyes of its creators, Sam Levinson (Euphoria), Reza Fahim, and Abel Tesfaye (the Weeknd)—you could sit through all five tedious episodes and see the songs come together in bits and pieces, performed diegetically by the musician-actors in the cast. If you maybe want to enjoy the music from The Idol, you’re better off just listening to it without finding out why it exists in the first place.

To put it simply, The Idol is a mess, a poorly written show that—spoilers for the entire first season to follow—graphically uses a sleazy club owner/talent manager named Tedros (Tesfaye) to abuse its main character Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) only to reveal in the end, Scooby-style, that—surprise!—she was the abuser all along. That’s how season one ends, with an incoherent twist framed as an incoherent critique of pop stardom and the music industry machine. With the particular disadvantage of having seen every episode, some songs that deserve better, such as a beatific Troye Sivan covering George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” are now sullied by association—in this case, “My Sweet Lord” appears in an interminable scene of aspiring stars performing for vampiric label suits in Jocelyn’s living room, a mini-showcase that only serves to underscore how little The Idol has going on in the way of plot and character development.

Taking on the show’s self-serious baggage, a sweet song like “Crocodile Tears,” Suzanna Son’s rendition of a misfit’s sorrowful internal monologue, is marred forever with the image of her underage Squeaky Fromme-type character, Chloe, singing butt naked at a piano, for some reason. “Get It B4,” a true jammer on which the Princely Moses Sumney gospelizes his lust, is now forever connected to Tedros using a shock collar on Sumney’s character in order to—and this is implied with nary a hint of irony—deepen his pelvic thrusts. These are intrusive thoughts you do not want while just trying to enjoy some songs.

Is The Idol Really That Bad?

It may leave you pondering how The Idol feeds into anti-#MeToo backlash (a minor and undeveloped plotline involves a jealous Tedros conspiring to falsely accuse Jocelyn’s ex-boyfriend of rape) for the sole purpose of—what? Exorcising Tesfaye and Levinson’s fundamental misunderstanding of their inspiration, director Paul Verhoeven, while painfully lacking his sense of fun and self-awareness? Revealing that these dudes have possibly never had sex? Maybe, as some have predicted, The Idol will age like fine camp, as Verhoeven’s Showgirls has. I have doubts, but more pressingly for our purposes: This soundtrack would have been better served as a random Weeknd posse album meant to launch the promising minor pop career of Lily-Rose Depp.

The soundtrack, released as a series of six standalone digital EPs corresponding to each episode, opens with Mike Dean’s “The Lure,” the show’s theme, which is built on spare chords and mournful humming by the Weeknd, the sonic embodiment of a fog machine. As erotic thriller themes go, it stays true to its inspirations, setting up a decadent noir mood with a plinky synth stab and strings that owe as much to Ennio Morricone as the Stranger Things and Drive soundtracks. It, too, deserved a better show, and sets the tone for the songs to come, all sexual synth tracks that deploy dramatic minor chords to hint at a seamy undertone.

”Devil’s Paradise,” another Dean instrumental, reprises the themes of “The Lure” with a midnight sax solo that evokes walking through a dark alley circa 1987, maybe bumming a smoke off a skeptical-looking guy in a blazer who just happens to be leaning against the wall. As a score, it’s effective, and transitions into “Double Fantasy,” the Weeknd and Future’s dispatch from the boning phase of a toxic relationship, a serviceable first single with awkward lyrics and a fine bassline courtesy Metro Boomin. “The Lure”’s mien threads through each song here, particularly those by the Weeknd: “A Lesser Man” is a mid-tempo gaslighter from the perspective of Tedros, couching threats in supposed feebleness; a cover of “Jealous Guy” on a bed of John Carpenter-lite arpeggios curdles John Lennon’s original into an ominous threat. “Take Me Back” completes Tedros’ textbook abuser script by begging for forgiveness and blaming it on his childhood, with the Weeknd singing in a hurt warble on a cresting ocean of synthesizers. Its melodrama is slickly beautiful, which might not be enough for a life outside The Idol’s claustrophobic universe—particularly when followed by Sumney’s glittering “Get It B4,” which positions seduction as a much less complicated proposal.

Depp fares better here, as a first-time pop singer whose light rasp is believable, even while singing lines like, “Spit in my mouth while you turn me out,” as she does on the Weeknd’s “One of the Girls,” which can’t be saved even by BLACKPINK’s Jennie. Depp works with what she’s been given on “Dollhouse,” a Lana Del Rey-style sex dirge about submission that ends with the lyric, “Am I playing all right now, daddy?” The song lives in a rare pre-camp space, in that it’s unclear whether it’s meant to be hilarious, though it certainly is on some level. (It should be noted here that the show preemptively sniffed at this criticism via a throwaway line from someone on Jocelyn’s team about the major label staffers who walked out in protest of Jocelyn’s “misogynistic” lyrics, though it’s unclear whether viewers were supposed to hate the staffers in Jocelyn’s defense or to hate the label boss for dismissing their concerns.)

The sexual popsploitation works best when it’s not trying to be deadly serious, as on the soundtrack’s pièce de résistance, “World Class Sinner/I’m a Freak,” a camp filmic single in the grand tradition of Ally/Lady Gaga’s “Why Did You Do That?” from A Star Is Born. Co-written by the Weeknd and Asa Taccone, who had a hand in the Lonely Island’s “Dick in a Box” and “The Weeknd’s Dark Secret” from American Dad!, its lyrics scan just absurd enough—“I’m tryna find someone to bang”—that it lets us in on the joke. The show positions this song as a pop throwaway that necessitates Jocelyn creating some real art, which gives away The Idol’s whole dilemma: It doesn’t know how to have fun, muddling its already troubled thesis (the music industry is rife with users) with scenes like the one where Mike Dean emerges herbishly from his custom Tesla holding a giant bong and a blunt with a second blunt tucked behind his ear. The creators of The Idol seem to look down their noses at its viewers for consuming what it spent millions to feed us: Mass-produced pop that’s somehow even more odious and cynical than the industry that it’s meant to critique.

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The Weeknd: The Idol, Vol. 1 (Music From the HBO Original Series)