In this week's edition of Pop is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood unpacks the story of a diva battling her demons in Natalie Portman's new film, Vox Lux. But is the film's view of the pop industry being exploitative a cynical on or an uncomfortable truth?
The fact that director Brady Corbet’s last film, The Childhood Of A Leader, portrayed a fascistic figure from his younger years to his reign might seem like a red herring when you learn that his follow-up is about pop music. After all, there’s little on the surface that connects the careers of major label megastars and, y’know, the leader of the Third Reich.
But tyrant figures exist in both worlds. Just as The Childhood Of A Leader portrayed an individual’s obsessive desire to turn people into puppets without considering who they are as human beings, so too does Vox Lux.
The issue of autonomy is something that I often seem to circle back to here, alongside whether or not pop music is better (on a surface level) or worse because of the level of artist control involved in it.
What’s seen as pop’s biggest downfall is also, in some ways, its greatest asset: amazing pop songs and pop stars are often machine-made; formed by someone whose job it is to seek out talent and shape it into a box, like those novelty square watermelons: predictable, uniform and worth sticking on your Instagram. But the business side of pop is seldom explored in depth, perhaps because it’s ugly and its easier to consume the music without thinking about how it came to be.
Split into two parts, Vox Lux is a pop star’s origin story. It tells the tale of Celeste (first played by British star Raffey Cassidy, then Natalie Portman in her adult years), a young girl from Staten Island who survives a mass shooting in her high school. As one of the few who escapes with injuries she can bounce back from, she becomes a symbol of hope for the victim’s families and TV news viewers the world over. After performing a song at a memorial service alongside her sister, an eagle-eyed A&R type spots them both, and decides that Celeste has what it takes to become the next big pop singer. What ensues is a story of a girl becoming a superstar and then a woman, all while coming to terms with flashbacks of her violent past. Sia wrote for Celeste’s own roster of pop bangers, and the late Scott Walker worked on the eerie, spectral score.
It tackles a pertinent and divisive question: is the pop industry still a monster in 2019? Are there still young women being led towards what they think is stardom, manipulated by older men with the promise of securing a pop career? Of course, the answer is yes, and you get glimmers of that throughout Vox Lux, a film some critics are calling a cynical vision of what the pop industry is like for women these days. In a time where Beyoncé, Robyn and Ariana Grande seem to make their own calls and dominate the industry narrative, isn’t it a bit silly to claim that women are puppets and products to the world pop?
I get that stance, but there’s also another edge to the film that I find far more alluring, and it’s to do with fame as a whole. In a time when any kind of public exposure – even becoming an impromptu meme – can turn you into a star, how far off are we from exploiting vulnerable people for their talents, regardless of how emotionally stable they might be? Celeste is painted as a diva by the outside world, but the fawning nature of her fans and the sheer spectacle of her live shows cloud out her horrifying past. Her troubling childhood becomes a PR hook, a reason for her to speak out against ‘copycat’ attacks like the one that transformed her into a celebrity. We’d be naive to think that the industry doesn’t see people as a product, even if their fans and the stars themselves don’t.
Pop music is a monster to many, but Vox Lux‘s no bullshit protagonist is an example of a woman who’s doing everything in her power to gain some sort of autonomy in the industry that formed her. It might be uncomfortable to watch, but sometimes, when you pick at the glitter of a shimmering industry, the ugly side creeps through. Vox Lux isn’t a fantasy; like it or not, it’s a disconcerting and visceral vision of what pop culture looks like in 2019 – warts and all.