Swarm shows there’s nothing funny about a fake pop star.
The new Amazon Prime series Swarm starts with a familiar disclaimer turned on its head: “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is intentional.”
First and foremost, it’s a nod to one Mrs. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter and her Swarm doppelganger Ni’jah. Everything about Ni’jah is a thinly veiled allusion to Beyoncé — from her glittery bodysuits to familial elevator fights to surprise album drops, the similarities are endless. But the disclaimer goes beyond just the singer, referring also to the world that revolves around her. Ni’jah has a devoted BeyHive fan base that calls her Queen Bey Bee and floods social media to discuss every morsel of information about her. In depicting not just celebrity, but the cult of celebrity, Swarm has started to figure out how to portray a figure that’s long been misunderstood and misrepresented by TV & film: the Fake Pop Star.
We all know the Fake Pop Star. You’ve seen her in The Bodyguard, A Star Is Born, Get Him To the Greek, and plenty more. Every story about the Fake Pop Star tries to use her as a vessel to say something shrewd and insightful about culture. Instead, they become unintentional time capsules for our limited and misguided perception of pop stars.
Swarm boldly goes where no Fake Pop Star has gone before by looking at the archetype through the lens of a deranged supe fan named Dre. Part dark satire, part psychological thriller, Swarm embraces the truth about real pop stars we’ve been reckoning with over the past few years: that fame, fandom, and pop stardom is scary shit. All too often, the Fake Pop Star gets played for laughs; Swarm aims for — and gets — gasps. But to truly appreciate what makes Swarm so distinct in its depiction of a Fake Pop Star, you have to first understand the trappings and troubled history that plagued the Fake Pop Stars who came before.
The pop star as punchline
While the modern Fake Pop Star character can be traced back to stories from the ‘80s and ‘90s, the archetype was never more prominent than it was in the 2000s. At the turn of the century, Fake Pop Star characters were numerous, yet monolithic — the same look, the same sound, and almost always serving the same purpose: punchline.
Take Cora Corman, a Fake Pop Star in the 2007 rom-com Music and Lyrics. Before we properly meet her, our first glimpse of Cora comes via a Rolling Stone cover with a telling pull quote: “I don’t think anymore … I just exist.”
It’s no secret who the character is modeled after. Clearly, it’s Britney (bitch). Cora’s blond hair, blue eyes, and green two-piece have her looking all but a python away from a 2001 VMA-era Britney Spears. In 2005’s Monster-In-Law, a Fake Pop Star named Tanya Murphy sets the plot into motion when her mere presence drives Jane Fonda’s character into a psychotic break. In 2011’s Violet & Daisy, a pop idol named Barbie Sunday motivates the titular teen assassins to take on a hit job so they can afford her new merch. 2005’s Just Friends features Samantha James, a vain, unhinged, talentless singer who upends her manager’s life. The message is clear: Fake Pop Stars, (You Drive Us) Crazy.
Ostensibly, the Fake Pop Star is used in these films for commentary on fame and gender, but what exactly these films are saying about Britney and the pop princess trope is puzzling — especially when any commentary on the hypersexualization of teen pop idols frequently relies on the hypersexualization of the young actresses playing them. In Music and Lyrics, then-newcomer Haley Bennett was plucked from obscurity at 18 to play Cora Corman, a character whose body gets more screen time than her face as she spends most of the film writhing around in barely-there outfits. Actress Stephanie Turner also made her onscreen debut in Monster-in-Law as the pop star, a 16-year-old character who wears little more than star-shaped pasties. Every moment is played for laughs, but what — or, more precisely, who — is the butt of the joke? In all these instances, it seems to be the teen starlets, not the music industry that produces them or the masses that consume them.
Of course, Britney isn’t the only real pop star referent, but no matter who the character is based on, the joke is always the same. There’s a Fake Pop Star in Get Him to the Greek named Jackie Q, a visual and sonic knockoff of real pop star Lily Allen. Jackie, however, swaps Allen’s clever lyrics full of social critique (“I am a weapon of massive consumption/It’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function”) for base sexual innuendo (“A ring around my dirty posey/My rear pocket is so fit and so damn cozy”). It feels like Get Him to the Greek doesn’t understand the real pop star it’s parodying and, more damningly, doesn’t want to. It simply aims to fit Lily Allen’s persona into the reductive idea of a pop star it both assumes and wants her to be.
Get Him to the Greek features another unfortunate recurring trope the Fake Pop Star faces: positioning her as a foil to a male artist, with their contrast designed to affirm the masculine, “authentic” realm of rock. It’s a concept most notably on display in 2018’s A Star Is Born, a film that takes the top prize for Most Confusing Commentary On A Fake Pop Star. Countless think pieces have been written about the moment midway through the film when Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) grows distant from Ally (Lady Gaga) as she embraces pop, performing the banger “Why Did You Do That?” How you interpret that song’s value and Jackson’s reaction fundamentally determines your reading of the entire film, but the messaging, as Constance Grady wrote for Vox, couldn’t be more muddled: “It’s a frustrating thematic fight, and it often feels less productively ambivalent to me than the result of an incoherent point of view driving the film.”
A Star Is Born is a decidedly different film from the aforementioned examples. It’s a straight drama whereas the other Fake Pop Star stories discussed so far are comedies. On the surface, drama, a genre that can hold space for nuances and conflict and real emotions, may seem like a better fit for tackling the Fake Pop Star. However, dramas rank among the most critically panned Fake Pop Stars stories (see: The Bodyguard, Glitter, Country Strong) because of how easily they can devolve into melodrama. They fall prey to the same issues mediocre biopics run into: cliche-ridden plot points, one-note characters, and a self-seriousness that can verge on camp. The Fake Pop Star dramas can’t help but become comedies.
The story of pop stardom is best told through the eyes of a fan
After Hollywood’s long struggle with attempting to bring this character to life, a key shift in the Fake Pop Star timeline came about with 2019’s Black Mirror episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” In a meta piece of casting, Miley Cyrus plays exploited pop star Ashley O, held hostage by an abusive conservator and eventually rescued by a devoted listener named Rachel. It’s an imperfect story (tonally confused and often too lighthearted to make the commentary land), but it introduced an innovative thread to the Fake Pop Star narrative: a fan’s perspective. When Rachel helps Ashley O wake up from a six-month coma, breaking her free of constraints and evading nefarious henchmen, all Rachel can think to say is: “I’m such a huge fan,” and, “This is so cool.” While it’s seemingly played for laughs, the words can’t help but feel unsettling. Rachel has become so attached to Ashley O’s music and empowering messaging that even while Ashley O is in crisis, Rachel can’t really take it in. She can only see Ashley O through her own fandom.
Which leads us to Swarm. The series follows Dre (Dominique Fishback), a disturbed young woman with an unhealthy obsession for Ni’jah (the Beyoncé stand-in, played by Nirine S. Brown). Like much of co-creator Donald Glover’s work, it’s a hard-to-categorize show, but the main genre Swarm draws from is where the Fake Pop Star clearly belonged all along: horror.
The allegory might seem obvious, with so many grim stories of real pop stars having come to light (i.e. Kesha, Demi, Britney). Swarm finds new horror not by taking us behind the scenes with a pop star, but by staying far away and looking at how we put them on a pedestal. It’s so easy to feel connected to celebrities, especially pop stars who offer messages of hope in a time of despair or details about their personal lives in a moment of loneliness. Swarm, like the best horror, forces us to confront something about ourselves and does so by examining the downfall of an unhealthy parasocial attachment.
It’s a story of toxic fandom in its most extreme and heightened form: Dre is a serial killer out of touch with reality, determined to take out anyone who slanders the good name of Ni’jah. Unlike the Fake Pop Star stories of yore, Swarm doesn’t posit Ni’jah as a cause for Dre’s madness, but an outlet for it. As the series progresses, so does Dre’s deteriorating mental health, leading her to believe she knows Ni’jah and that Ni’jah knows her. But it’s all in Dre’s head. The story is told mostly from Dre’s point of view, with Ni’jah only appearing in fleeting glimpses, always at a distance. The series never tries to understand Ni’jah — but unlike other Fake Pop Star stories, it’s an intentional choice here. Swarm shows the futility and danger of attempting to think we know them.
Mileage may vary for Swarm. Its generally positive reviews have been coupled with critiques of it falling into misogynistic trappings (this time mostly leveled at the depiction of the fan, not so much the pop star). In attempting to show the Fake Pop Star in a new light, the series might be a tonal overcorrection — if anything, going too dark (a quality allegedly shared by HBO’s upcoming The Idol). The Fake Pop Star may have landed in the right genre, but she’s still on the hunt for the perfect story.
Maybe, though, the perfect story will always evade the character as long as we continue to misunderstand the real-life counterparts: Shortly after Swarm’s release, real pop star Chloe Bailey, who pops up throughout Swarm in a pivotal non-singing role, faced a tidal wave of online comments regarding a brief sex scene in the first episode. Some viewers had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that Bailey, who found fame as a child star, is now a 24-year-old woman taking on more mature subject matter. As Marcus Shorter wrote for Andscape, the real-life discourse ended up “possibly making the point even better than the creators ever imagined” about parasocial dynamics:
Ultimately, those disappointed in Bailey’s choices believe she did something they never see themselves doing. To them, her choices no longer reflect her; they mirror those of an entire fan base devoted to a romanticized version of Bailey that doesn’t exist.
Even the real pop stars aren’t actually real. There’s always a Miley Stewart-Hannah Montana divide, even when the identities share the same name. Chloe Bailey the human being and Chloe Bailey the pop star are two separate entities, and there are consequences to Chloe Bailey the human being when we hold her to the standard of our imagined ideals for Chloe Bailey the pop star.
In the end, Swarm — onscreen and off — illustrates how we project onto others what we want to see. Throughout the series, Dre’s murderous tendencies go hand in hand with her bingeing food and, in a state of delirium, Dre mistakes Ni’jah for a piece of fruit and bites the Fake Pop Star. Dre literally tries to consume Ni’jah.
If you watch the other Fake Pop Stars with the theme of projection in mind, they start to seem inadvertently insightful. The introductory quote from Music and Lyrics’ Cora Corman — “I don’t think anymore … I just exist” — looks less like a joke and more like a disquieting truth. And, in context, coincidentally prescient: Music and Lyrics was released on February 14, 2007. That day happened to be the start of an infamous week for Britney Spears, as she checked in and out of two different rehabilitation clinics, had an altercation with the paparazzi involving an umbrella, and shaved her head. Whether she was being glorified by fans or crucified by critics, we were watching. Britney was treated as someone whose existence was for our consumption.
In 2007, it seemed like comedy. In 2023, it’s horror.
It always was.
Ari Saperstein is a multimedia journalist with bylines in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Advocate. He’s the creator of the award-winning documentary podcast Blind Landing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.