Jem and the Holograms was always a strange beast: The animated TV cartoon took a Hasbro toy line and remarketed the female band of its namesake as an Eighties alt-Josie and the Pussycats, all while turning pop stardom into a sci-fi adventure. Its young, female hero, Jerrica, was a record company exec who lives a dual life as her company’s biggest pop star via a holographic computer — name: Synergy — hiding the technology and her Ziggy Stardust-ish secret identity from the world and her boyfriend/road manager. To quote the theme song that played over the show’s neon-nightmare opening, Jem was “truly outrageous…truly, truly, truly outrageous.”
By 2015, the year of its feature-length live-action remake (which currently has the distinction of having had there single worst wide-opening for a studio movie ever), the exploration of pop star double-identities has been told many times over; look at the success of a show like Hannah Montana and our own unpacking of real-life personae like Lady Gaga. Though this Jem movie uses viral success as a vehicle for 21st-century chart dominance, the predictable music-business-on-film tropes (A shy star! An evil record exec!) acts as if there’s nothing new to say about the world of pop music — despite the fact that, thanks to the same internet vehicle it uses, the business of pop is more complex than ever.
Movies and musicals like the Streisand-era A Star Is Born and Dreamgirls have taught us repeatedly that record companies are battlegrounds for good and evil. As a TV show, Jem and the Holograms included the artistic integrity vs corporate bottom line combat but focused on the identity of Jem and her real-life counterpart. The duality was more complex than putting on glittery make-up — the risk is not in Jerrica’s identity being exploited, it’s the technology she needs to protect. And while Synergy exists in the film, an actual computer is what propels the talented teenager into the public’s eye after her sister, Kimber, releases a video of Jerrica’s alter-ego protoype singing on…YouTube.
A singer going viral is more commonplace today than any other form of music discovery, and the Internet is responsible for the majority of names on our Top 40 charts (see: Lana Del Rey, the Weeknd, Halsey, Shawn Mendes). The music business is no longer the romanticized world of a kid hitchhiking to Los Angeles or New York City then knocking on record company doors until they get noticed. It’s as simple as a click, with many of these young superstars merely recording Vines or YouTube videos on their web cameras and phones. Video and audio streaming sites have become a crucial A&R for not only companies but music consumers, and the DIY success makes the stories feel real and even attainable.
From start to finish, Jem and the Holograms wastes its opportunity to explore dual identity beyond the impeccably bitchy Starlight Music CEO Erica Raymond (played, ruthlessly, by Juliette Lewis) incubating and transforming Jerrica and her sisters into pastel-colored pop stars. There’s a complex psychological story to unpack from tales of viral success, especially since the Web has broken down our barriers between stars and fans, making expectations greater than ever. Screw the idea that a label CEO owns you; what happens when millions of people think you belong to each and every single one of them?
The issue would seem smaller if the YouTube plot device — and how the Internet has changed music distribution/consumption overall — weren’t a key part of the movie. But despite the fact Jerrica and company are just as tuned into online culture as the filmmakers’ ideal millennial audience, the culture is misunderstood and mishandled throughout. Words like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are thrown around constantly and without a deeper context of what it means to navigate these forums, especially as an artist today. Homemade, viral videos of people dancing or playing drums are used as transitional devices — a self-consciously “hip” spice to liven up a Happy Meal. This is a very 2015 film that somehow manages to touche on its own era from an arm’s-length distance, as if this technology is something we’ll understand in the future instead of an integral part of our here and now.
Oddly enough, one of the film’s producers is Scooter Braun, the man who discovered a pre-teen Bieber singing on YouTube nearly a decade ago. This is the man responsible for one of the earliest stories of stardom-via-the-Web and has helped navigate Bieber out of a viral-success origin story. Looking at the 21-year-old singer’s trajectory, the growth of his online popularity gave him an organic start, and even though public opinion of him has been mostly split in recent years, his post-teenage-rebellion apology tour has been successful enough to make his forthcoming album Purpose feel like a triumphant comeback. He’s a star we’ve watched grow up who broke into the industry because his mom just wanted to share her son’s talent on the video platform with no expectations.
We already know that the music business is still catching up to the Way We Hear Music Now, and now it appears the film industry is, too. As companies are still learning how to handle internet-related waves like the streaming wars, the commonplace nature of viral success is still being treated on screen as a novelty or, worse, a passing fad. (Hey, let’s throw a Vine in here…you know, for the kids!) But the revolution has already happened, and has sufficiently shaken up stock stories of pop identity and superstardom. Jerrica fights to be more to herself and her loved one than just the glamorous, shiny Jem. If the movies were half as willing to treat the modern pop-star machine with that sort of authenticity, we might have had something more than D.O.A. nostalgia and failed demographic courting.