What the 'twisted' Weeknd saga says about journalism
And who are the losers, really?
Yesterday, creators of HBO’s long-anticipated and much-delayed new show The Idol – about a young female pop star groomed into a cult – were accused, in a thorough and disquieting investigation by Rolling Stone Magazine, of going “wildly, disgustingly off the rails”.
Thirteen sources contributed to the exposé, detailing how Sam Levinson (the already controversial director of Euphoria) and musical superstar The Weeknd had rewritten the original script from now exited director Amy Seimetz, having taken issue with its “female perspective”. The new script, claims a source, reads like “torture porn”, while another described it as a “male rape fantasy”. A member of the production crew said: “What I signed up for was a dark satire of fame and the fame model in the 21st century…It went from satire to the thing it was satirizing.”
While this all sounds unpleasant enough to make you shiver – although the show’s star Lily Rose Depp has come out in defense of Levinson’s direction – the saga also struck a dispiriting note for journalism.
In response to the Rolling Stone exposé, The Weeknd posted a yet-unseen clip from The Idol (which, despite releasing three teaser trailers, still hasn’t sent journalists screeners or updated us on when this year it is finally coming out). It shows The Weeknd (Tedros) and Lily Rose Depp (pop star Jocelyn) grilling their nervous publicist (played by Dan Levy) about doing a cover for Rolling Stone.
“Rolling Stone? Aren’t they a little…irrelevant?” says Tedros, with all the charisma of a boiled sprout, while Jocelyn simpers woodenly. “I feel like it might be past its prime,” adds Jocelyn, interrupting her publicist’s speel about the man being a “heritage brand”, while Tedros gets out his phone and compares Jocelyn’s 78 million Instagram followers to Rolling Stone’s measly six million. “Rolling Stone gets Jocelyn’s followers. What does Jocelyn get?”
The scene may look and sound like it was written on a piece of bog roll by a demotivated primary school drama teacher on his toilet break, but it does, unfortunately, ring true for us journalists.
Magazines, once arbiters of culture, who could make or break a musician, now beg for celebrities to post their interviews on their social media – and the promise of a social push is in fact often baked into the editorial deal.
But that’s when such celebrities even deign to work with them at all. As I’ve written about here before, many musical superstars – who wield enormous fanbases that most A-List actors would find terrifying – believe that press is pointless, particularly the younger generation. Why publish what you have to say through a third party with less influence, less reach, and which allows you no editorial control? (You can read my previous rebuttal of this line of argument here).
The other day, while speaking to a group of 21 year olds about my previous job at GQ, I was left speechless when two of them said they’d never heard of it. The only magazine that rang a bell was Vogue.
To add salt to the wound, many of The Weeknd’s younger followers assumed the Rolling Stone exposé was in fact just PR to promote the show, indicating that they had quite literally only read the headline on social media. “Media literacy is dead”, tweeted one exasperated journalist.
Having said all this, with some perspective it does seem like Rolling Stone has emerged victorious from this whole saga. Their investigation – a powerful piece of journalism that will start important conversations about how far the MeToo movement has really gone – has gone viral. Yes, it may have been heavily buoyed by the Weeknd’s shady clip to his 50m Twitter followers (versus RS’s 6.3m – The Idol was at least correct there), but the fact the Weeknd reacted at all suggests he cares very much what the press says about him. (It should also be noted he also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in both 2015 and 2020).
And ironically, the clip the Weeknd posted has been torn to shreds online, with Dan Levy’s fandom quite literally planning a rescue mission for the beloved star of Schitt's Creek, who one fan reasoned “appears like Daniel Day-Lewis in comparison to those pieces of cardboard in front of him”.
I had expected good things from the Weekend, whose musical world-building, performances and videos have always been brilliant – and the Idol’s teaser trailers (admittedly largely dialogue free) had landed well. He has, it seems, shot himself in the foot by posting what I can only hope is a scene that doesn’t speak for the overall quality of the show. What’s more, the Weeknd, who has made his name as someone who won’t bend for the status quo – boycotting the Grammys and almost boycotting the Oscars – is now trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. One of the most popular memes now making the rounds is of a man reading with his head in his hands, the caption: “The Weeknd reading The Idol script and seeing too many lines for women.”
How does one fix that kind of reputational damage? A 3000-word magazine interview might do the trick.
This week in links
I’ve been watching The Whale, the controversial, Oscar-tipped film starring Brendan Fraser as a grieving, morbidly obese man who no longer wishes to live. It has been accused of fatphobia, while criticised of not casting an actual obese actor, choosing instead for Fraser to wear a fatsuit. I can’t say I enjoyed the film. It is highly depressing, mostly set in Fraser’s character’s dark apartment, and having read Roxane Gay’s NYT comment about how it dehumanises fat people and turns Fraser’s character into a freakshow, I am inclined to agree with her.
I’ve also been doing a deep dive into the gruesomely brilliant horror films of Mia Goth, which I also talk about in the new episode of my podcast here.
I’ve been reading a joyous interview with the Phoebe Bridgers-fronted band Boygenius, which, incidentally, is by Rolling Stone. The band were January’s cover, recreating the iconic Nirvana cover from 1994, and with their name, Boygenius, gently ribbing, as the journalist says “overconfident men who are praised for their every thought”. Case in point for why good interviews matter, the writer captures the magic of their friendship dynamic and their personal interests and quirks so beautifully that I immediately began streaming their music, having barely listened to them previously. What’s more, it’s unlikely Bridgers would have felt comfortable revealing her tensions with her fans on her own social media, telling the journalist: “I want to normalize talking shit about fans. There’s a way to [be a fan] without filming me without my permission behind the back of my head, chasing me down the street.” Read it here.
I’ve been listening to the sultry new Kali Uchis album, out today, Red Moon in Venus. Listen to the song Moonlight.
I can’t stop thinking about Blacklock, the steak restaurant I have been religiously attending every few months for the last year. I went to line my stomach before my 30th birthday party the other weekend, deciding a steak, rather than my usual enormous bowl of pasta, was perhaps a more elegant way to prepare myself for my third decade, I was freshly reminded that a divine Denver steak was just £12, and an excellent marg just £8. Also the white chocolate cheesecake, which they serve you out of a giant tray and even let you keep it on your table if it’s nearing the end, is a thing of dreams.