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In our monthly column Laughed to DeathBrianna Zigler takes a look at the way comedy and existentialism go hand-in-hand in seemingly unlikely ways. For this installment, she examines the humanity lost on the pop star persona through Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana.


“I’d love to get Conner to the point where people forget that he’s a musician,” reflects Paula Klein (played by Sarah Silverman), manager to pop superstar Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), “where he’s just kind of everywhere — like oxygen, or gravity, or clinical depression. He’s just everywhere.”

Pop icons are already everywhere. To the point where they are often stripped of not just career titles like “musician” or “actor,” but of personhood. It’s one of the many ideas woven into the fabric of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the 2017 satirical comedy from The Lonely Island’s Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer chronicling the absurd rise, fall, and resurrection of bombastic, fictional musician Conner Friel (stage name Conner4Real) through the prism of a music mockumentary.

Playing on the success of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, One Direction: This Is Us, and the litany of other documentaries following the simultaneously harrowing and dreamlike lives of musicians such as Katy Perry, or Beyoncé, or Mark Ronson, Popstar parodies not only the hackneyed formulas of these films but their objective. These music docs attempt to both deify and humanize a pop star’s life, in an attempt to portray them both as a person just like us and, simultaneously, as inspirational, untouchable icons. But a question that can be gleaned from Popstar and these docs alike is this: at what point does a pop star transcend their ability to be seen as human?

Three years after Popstar went criminally overlooked at the box office, the Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana debuted at Sundance. While the film chronicles the pop sensation’s life and, in particular, the grief she endured under media scrutiny and her public pivot to social justice and politics in 2018, there is still this unmistakable through-line of deification versus humanization within its carefully crafted narrative.

Miss Americana gave Swift the chance to set the record straight on her life and tumultuous past fear years — her expedited rise to fame as a teenager, her world-wide adulation, the eventual controversies of her public and musical persona, and her fall from grace in the eyes of her audience, the very people she only did everything in her power to get to like her.

Swift has lived a particularly blessed life, but when a good portion of it exists in the eyes of the whole world, there are obvious and traumatic disadvantages. Swift reckons her desire to be loved and to remain uncontroversial with the injustice she realized she could no longer turn away from, especially with her massive platform. And although one might find fault both in the time it took for her to get to this realization and the plain neoliberalism of her progressive politics, it’s hard to not, at the very least, consider Swift a force for good.

But Miss Americana also desperately wants you to see Swift as a person in addition to a music icon and activist. The film opens on an emotionally calculated scene in which her attempts to play the piano are thwarted by her adorable cat. Later in the film, shares a “girls night” in her massive home with her childhood friend and clumsily prepares for takeoff on her private jet with her mom.

She gets burrito takeout with her producer while they record music for her 2018 album Lover, and she explains to him her method of adding tortilla chips for an “extra crunch.” She films stripped-down, messy-haired testimonials in front of the camera, where she pores over her old childhood diaries. However, such scenes cannot divorce Swift’s wealth and celebrity from these down-to-earth moments. In the film’s determination to recreate this idolized persona as a flawed, misunderstood woman, the quest becomes both fair and futile — something made utterly abject in Popstar.

“Ever since I was born, I was dope,” proclaims the egomaniacal Conner4Real, and while nothing so absurd is ever uttered in Miss Americana, a similar sentiment exists within the subtext of the film nonetheless. Emphasis is put on showing that Swift was gifted from a young age, seemingly destined for stardom. A small-town girl from Reading, Pennsylvania (not Tennessee, as she does her best to rewrite her own mythology there), with big dreams, a whole lot of talent, and a little ol’ guitar.

Conner, too, was once just a suburban kid from Sacramento, with a pet turtle afflicted with “soggy bone syndrome” and two best friends who loved to rap about their dicks. Although the three friends first formed the trio of the “Style Boyz” — comprised of Conner, Owen Bouchard (Taccone), and Lawrence Dunn (Schaffer) — it was the narcissistic Conner who broke free from the boy band trappings and became a successful solo act. In something of a Beastie Boys-to-Beyoncé-syle rise to stardom, he essentially threw his two friends under the bus and disavowed their necessary contributions to his success in order to artistically self-actualize.

But after the release of his highly-anticipated sophomore album “Connquest” (the album cover of which depicts a ludicrous image of Conner steeped in Nazi-like imagery) and vicious pushback against its public debut in the form of kitchen appliances, the film follows him touring the ultimately commercially and critically panned record as he struggles to reclaim the fan devotion and star power so easily lost to him — just as it was lost to Swift.

Except, well, it wasn’t. Not really; at least not at first. The advent of Swift’s momentary downfall was based unknowingly (at the time) on a mistake. Kanye West’s infamous interruption of her acceptance speech for Best Female Music Video at…

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