Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Ashley O – On a Roll

It’s Amnesty 2019! In which our writers choose singles from the year that we didn’t get to. And what better way to get the ball rolling than with a song that’s got something to say about pop music…


Joshua Lu: In the final episode of season five of Black Mirror, Miley Cyrus plays pop star Ashley O, whose desire to escape her contract leads her aunt to put her under a coma, which leads to two of her fans saving her, which leads to her performing “Head Like a Hole” at a night club, happy now that she’s freed from the literal and metaphorical restraints that came with being a pop star. Undergirding the episode is “On a Roll,” a remake of that same Nine Inch Nails song but made so overtly benign and bubbly that it becomes as unnerving as the original. Most of these unnerving aspects are probably intentional: the ambiguity behind lines like “‘Cause I’m going down in history” or “I’m gonna get what I deserve,” the distorted moans and cries buried in the instrumental, or the way the bass drops off at the start of the chorus, leaving Ashley O screaming motivational platitudes over an unfeeling beat. But there are so many parts that are equally unsettling yet don’t come across as intentional — were they really expecting us to hear “hey yeah whoa-oh” and not “hey I’m a hole,” or is this mixup supposed to act as commentary on, say, perverse undertones in popular music? (The fact that the original song has “hole” in the same spot makes this mondegreen all the more suspect.) Are the dozen or so seconds of dead air at the end of the song just a consequence of a lazy audio engineer, or was this silence deliberately included to let the song’s termination settle uncomfortably into nothingness? It’s these parts of “On a Roll” that make it so fascinating — not the rockist message of its origin, and especially not the corny, ham-fisted cracking screen in the music video — so much so that even after streaming it for months, I can’t tell how much of this song I’m supposed to enjoy, and how much I’m supposed to fear.

Vikram Joseph: Like “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”, the Black Mirror episode which birthed it, “On A Roll” serves as both escapist fun and a pointed facsimile of meticulously-constructed big-studio pop. Brooker and Reznor’s four-part construction is unexpectedly good — a cheerleader-chant of a chorus (surely intentionally written to, in turn, be wilfully misheard as “hey, I’m a hoe!” by gay twitter) sandwiched between big, melodic, reverberating synths in the pre- and post-chorus sections. Squeezing “achieving my goals!” into a pop chorus is worth an extra point, and also works as a sly joke about influencer culture’s obsession with productivity.

Alfred Soto: Imagine shouting “achieving my goals!” with less enthusiasm than an assistant vice president of human resources at a two-day retreat. At least “California Gurls” put the self-help gumption behind solid beats. 

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “On a Roll” was designed to be a hollow shell of a prototypical pop song grounding a Black Mirror episode satirising toxic music stan culture. And yet, contrary to the episode’s whole point, the Gays™ have still found a way to make it the object of stan culture anyways! Frankly, I can see why: it’s low-key a bop, the kind that burrows under your skin and slowly takes over your body until you’re singing it all the time. I can’t help but like it even though I know I’m not supposed to. Do we really have free will? 

Kayla Beardslee: Yas queen, I’m literally gagging. We love a thinly produced bop! New main pop girl Ashley O has done it again, constantly raising the bar for all of us who want to make basic pop that serves looks? eh vocals? I guess its story without ever impressing outside of its narrative context. We stan. Keep her in that coma so she can churn out more average, serviceable music for AO2!

Natasha Genet Avery: Ashley O’s Gaga impression had me in the first half, I’m not gonna lie. But Gaga would never waste a verse and bridge this good on that laughably staid three-note chorus.

Nortey Dowuona: A fizzing, swaddled bass synth lopes around the black hole of drums that sucks down every other musical instrument, burying a thinning synth key patch pushing up and sinking while Miley scrapes it off the bottom of the ice cream pail.

Tobi Tella: In the same vein as A Star Is Born, turns out executives trying to make empty, vapid pop music actually ends up slapping. It’s a perfect pop parody, with a million meaningless hooks; the drawn out “oh honeyyy,” the pre-chorus that has nothing to do with anything, and, of course, the chorus, which hits the cheesy pop vibe perfectly. Not to mention the fact that it’s an interpolation of a hard metal song, everything about this is nonsensical yet amazing, and it’s honestly probably better than anything Miley Cyrus has put out this year.

Jackie Powell: Ashley O might have just performed my “I can beat burnout” theme song. While this track was released in mid-June, it’s exactly what is needed to deal with the darker days of December. It’s almost as if I’m visualizing that Rachel Bloom on a stage somewhere singing about burnout, but I’m not actually hearing a musical theater melody. It’s one hundred percent pop. It’s also sexier while still cheering me on. How’s that for an anti-burnout fight song? It’s also ironic that “Head Like a Hole” is lyrically so dystopian while “On a Roll” sonically and visually —  with its simple synths responsible for the track’s chord progression and a purple wig and white bodysuit — projects more of a utopian vibe. But as a song featured in Black Mirror, the choice to pay tribute to “Head Like A Hole” was more deliberate than not.

Katherine St Asaph: As long as Nine Inch Nails have yarled, people have observed, often intending to blow your minds, that they might Actually Be Pop. There were the band’s early appearances on questionable proto-TRLs. There was that Sound on Sound interview about how Dave Ogilvie mixed “Call Me Maybe” like a NIN song, resulting in this (featuring, in the comments, one “DigitalPimp” marveling at how it sounded like something out of a Black Mirror episode, four years before “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”). There was the weird spate of offhand references in media about and/or marketed to young, non-generally-industrial-listening girls, from Clarissa from Clarissa Explains It All to Cassie from Animorphs to the babies in A Visit From the Goon Squad who are sold future!NIN’s hit “Ga Ga.” There are the many real-life “Ga Ga”s, like this, or this by Devo, or this seasonally appropriate medley. And there is, of course, this deeply strange year 2019, in which Trent Reznor earned his first No. 1 hit with one “Old Town Road,” and in which this happened. I’m not a Trent purist — I’m too much of a Tori Amos fan for that — but “On a Roll” misunderstands the medium. The track, at least, is done by actual pop producers, The Invisible Men, and thus sounds plausible, though it can’t decide whether it wants to be “California Gurls” or Weeknd-produced-by-Max-Martin smooveness or whatever the hell that half-time prechorus or Can’t Take Me Home faux-soul backing vocal are. But the lyrics are by Charlie Brooker, and though he nails the inane in-universe promotional bullshit, he doesn’t understand songwriting. “Bow down before the one you serve” is a more plausible pop lyric than “I’m stoked on ambition and verve.” One shamelessly plunders greed and S&M and melodrama and does so the way actual people talk. One is a thesis statement rather than a lyric, doesn’t scan, and is finished by rhymezone.com-ing vocabulary that for the life of me, I cannot remember if any pop lyrics have used. It’s not even a timely thesis; in cynical 2019, post-Madonna, post-Gaga, post-Eilish, hell, post-“7 Rings,” a pop star is less likely to put out “Everything Is Awesome” jingle music than just cover “Head like a Hole.” And indeed, “On a Roll” exists so Black Mirror can get a cathartic moment out of Ashley O singing the actual “Head Like a Hole,” which sounds great, because by comparison what wouldn’t? Trent says he’s OK with it, but then we know his stance on what he’d do for money.

Iain Mew: I was at the lower context end of the scale for my initial listens to “On a Roll.” I haven’t watched the Black Mirror episode; I was vaguely aware of a Nine Inch Nails link but not its form; I don’t know “Head Like a Hole.” In that context “On a Roll” sounded like an intermittently functioning pop song with some unusually scanning lyrics that ranged from awkward to witty to both. Listening to the Nine Inch Nails song afterwards brought it together in a different way, but “On a Roll” stood up without that at least as well as most of the high concept early-’00s mashups that it’s the conceptual successor to.

Katie Gill: Does this work more if you’re canon-familiar? Because I get the joke: ha ha, we’re going to turn Nine Inch Nails into a pop song as some sort of commentary for Charlie Brooker’s Ham-Fisted Social Commentary Hour! But I’ve only watched one or two Black Mirror episodes, so I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something here. Because if the joke is that this complete antithesis of a pop song is now turned into a pop song, I don’t think it works. The lyrics are sheer beautiful banality, a 2010s take on the same joke Music and Lyrics made over ten years ago. But the pop instrumentation & reworking doesn’t hide the fact that “Head Like a Hole” is not fundamentally built like a pop song. It’s like going into a guest bedroom that was obviously once a storage attic with low ceilings and poor insulation: put on a new coat of paint and the bones still show through. Maybe I have to watch the episode in order to fully appreciate the joke. But then again, great examples of musical parody & homage stand wonderfully on their own without context. Why doesn’t this?

Alex Clifton: As a parody of manufactured pop, this is pretty good; unsurprisingly, I’m reminded of Hannah Montana’s “Nobody’s Perfect” with its aggressive positivity (“riding so high! achieving my goals!”). But I’m seen people refer to this as an “accidental banger” and that’s overrating the song. It’s serviceable, it’s catchy enough to be in the background at a party, but if you’re going to go for manufactured pop, go hard or go home. This just doesn’t commit itself enough to the genre to meet my expectations.

Will Adams: I’ve spent the better part of the decade railing against PC Music’s uncanny valley pop and its purported inability to make satisfying commentary on pop music. Allow “On a Roll” to serve as my mea culpa. Clickable premise of Miley Cyrus covering Nine Inch Nails for a Black Mirror episode aside, “On a Roll” feels pointless. Especially when a pop version of “Head Like a Hole” already exists, deliberately cynical pop by mainstream artists already exists, and your chorus hinges on a line as fatally clunky as “I’m stoked on ambition and verve.”

David Moore: A few months ago I was doing my weekly Spotify trawl and came across what sounded like a long-delayed aftershock of self-titled-era Taylor Swift. I was amused to see that this artist was Taylor Acorn, suggesting an elaborate algorithm designed to generate successive Taylor Swift clones named according to a variation on the NATO alphabet: Taylor Acorn, Taylor Bravo, Taylor Charlie. And this in turn gave me an idea for a television pilot with this exact premise, which I wrote ten to twenty minutes worth of before it fell flat. The problem, as it usually is with these sorts of things, is that the music needs to be good, and it can’t just conjure its goodness from the perspicacity of its commentary. And of course most bizzer behind-the-curtain shows fail even at this basic commentary level — the easiest part! — and are doomed to be not only bad both in show and in soundtrack, but a little insulting, too. So it’s a pleasure, if a mild one, to hear those exhausting try-hards over at Black Mirror let a decent pop song just kind of sit there. I didn’t see the episode, but from what I can tell Miley Cyrus is supposed to be a bit of a cipher, which of course she isn’t at all — and funnily enough it makes this song do almost the opposite of what it’s supposed to; it acts instead as a kind of metacommentary on how hard it is to make Miley Cyrus sound cool and competent. What, Taylor Acorn wasn’t available? 

Michael Hong: It’s nice to see Hannah Montana aim for something that fits directly into the image of the pop machine. “On the Roll” lodges itself firmly in your head while attempting to stimulate your pleasure receptors, rather than forcing all its energy to generate the cycle’s “new authentic me,” which ends up barely being a reinvention but more of an embarrassing reminder that Miley Cyrus is once again, back at it. Next time maybe she can aim for something good.

Kylo Nocom: As satire? Boring, but not unexpectedly so! A good rule of thumb is that blanket parodies of pop music are never smart and rarely funny. Just last year A Star Is Born and Vox Lux soundtracked rockist paranoia with gratingly obvious piss-takes: “Why Did You Do That?” had a title that doubled as a lament for Ally’s career; “Hologram (Smoke and Mirrors)” drove accusations of artifice that seemed directed equally at an imagined lover and Celeste herself. “On a Roll” suffers the same issues through less obvious signaling, being the commodification of an anti-establishment song, yet even here the writers can’t resist an ironic nod. An uncomfortably extended silence following the last “I’m gonna get what I deserve” leaves room for interpretation: is this about Ashley exiting the pop machine as a break into authentic living, or about her suffering as retribution for being part of the pop machine? Who knows! The song is otherwise fantastic, and it being fantastic fucking sucks. Interpolating Nine Inch Nails wholesale puts Miley in her most enjoyable mode: anthemic rock-adjacent joy, some of the best she’s done since her Hollywood Records era. Even if Black Mirror‘s idea of future pop is suspiciously like 2017, with tropical percussion breaks from “New Rules” and the pulses from “Sorry Not Sorry,” the arrangement of “On a Roll” suggests actual, realized verve. The charm of the song concerns; in the context of the show itself it’s the result of exploitation, and outside its context it’s packaged with tacky viral marketing bullshit. But I can’t resist.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: I was prepared to give this some begrudgingly high score based on the weird, feverish week in the early summer where I listened to this on loop. But on the return visit, the appeal of “On a Roll” fades away with its novelty. All that remains is the general structure of “Head Like A Hole,” which ties that undeniable melody to a much more compelling creep of a beat, and a slightly-above-average vocal performance from Miley. With every year of this nostalgia-focused decade I have grown wearier and wearier of this sort of reincarnation pop, yesterday’s pleasures repackaged winkingly for an audience that sees the artlessness, the lack of aura, as the point. There’s no way to listen to this sincerely, and I’m no longer amused by irony’s mirror.

Reader average: No votes yet!

Vote: 0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

8 Responses to “Ashley O – On a Roll”

  1. Loving how this got every possible score 1-9, managed to avoid 0 and 10, and averaged out to a perfect 5.0. The Netflix gods are smiling somewhere

  2. All these blurbs are great, lots of interesting/insightful takes on the song! (Also loving the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Galavant references in Jackie and Katie’s blurbs).

  3. are you #TeamHeyImAHole or #TeamHeyImAHoe

  4. love this new record by nice is neat

  5. (I left this out of my blurb because it had too many tangents as it is, but if black mirror really wanted to go hard with the satire they’d do a malevolent-AI-rebellion plotline, except with ashley too starting stan wars. unless that’s a little too close to reality?)

  6. last comment I promise: dave’s premise is super close to Dollhouse, at least the NATO alphabet

  7. Yeah I think I was going for “Dollhouse” meets “Nashville” with a dash of “Orphan Black” but again — the songs have to bring it!

  8. It is also very On Brand that this ~edgy song is riding the fumes of a 90s bort-pop wave that was probably happening unbeknownst to Brooker, a person who seems to think he can “predict things” based on summaries of Atlantic articles?