(Black Mirror, 2019)

Spoiler alert: you may want to watch the Black Mirror Season 5 episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” before reading this.

News announcer Todd: Six months ago, millions were stunned to learn that Grammy-winning pop sensation Ashley O had suffered a catastrophic allergic reaction while dining at home. She slipped into a coma, where she remains to this day….But incredibly, Ashley’s music career didn’t end there, thanks to a remarkable technological leap.

Dr. Munk: We discovered that although we couldn’t communicate with Ashley we could read her brain waves using a temporal interceptor.

Todd: Once plugged in, what they heard stopped them in their tracks.

Manager Aunt Catherine: Music. She was still composing music in her head, in her dreams.

Todd: By linking Ashley’s mind to a computer, technical director Jackson Habanera began the miraculous process of extracting new material.

Jackson: That’s a G#. That’s an A. Another a G#.

Catherine: It was beautiful. It was beautiful. And I just knew there had to be someway to get this out to her fans. That what she would have wanted.

The Netflix series Black Mirror is renowned for imagining worlds just one technological step beyond our own, and working through the complex, often creepy implications of that step. The Season 5 episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is no exception. It imagines multiple ways in which the creative work and identity of a pop singer – Ashley O, played by Miley Cyrus – can be technologically extracted and mass reproduced. The episode’s key technologies are shaped by the conflict between Ashley O, who wants to express herself musically and live her own life, and her manager Aunt Catherine, whose pursuit of profit means she wants a compliant and reliable instrument of pop music production and performance. When Ashly goes into a coma, her management team succeed in extracting songs from her dreams (first screen shot), and in transforming their rage-filled vocals, glitches and distortion into uplifting pop confection with the turn of a couple knobs for time stretch and pitch shift, and sliding a fader to increase “positivity” (second screen shot). While this particular mind-to-music technology remains imaginary, the concerns the episode raises about being able to synthesize an artist’s voice and simulate their living presence are already very real.

Text and images: Netflix series Black Mirror, season 5, episode 3 (“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”)