In a brand-new episode of sci-fi sensation Black Mirror, Miley Cyrus plays off of her Hannah Montana past. The musician stars as pop star Ashley O, a singer with a sticky-sweet image who–spoiler alert–actually wants to write music more reflective of her tortured soul. She’s so lucky, she’s a star, etc.
Ashley O’s biggest hit, “On A Roll,” is a catchy earworm, the sort of song that gets in your head and stays there until something worse takes over (for us it was the “that girl is a psycho” nightmare). But there’s a funny reason that “On A Roll” has such staying power: it’s actually a revised take on Nine Inch Nails’s 1990 industrial classic “Head Like A Hole.” Miley goes on to sing the original version at the episode’s close, resulting in a banging, rock star-approved cover. It slaps! The music is a clear highlight of Black Mirror’s fifth season.
In an interview with GQ, series creator Charlie Brooker spoke about the difficulty of writing believable hit songs. “There’s nothing worse than when you’re watching a film or a TV show about someone who is meant to be a celebrity, be they a comedian or a musician or whatever, and you just don’t believe that they would actually be very successful,” he said.
And then he had an epiphany. “I was just out for a run with Spotify playing, and some Nine Inch Nails came up,” he continued. “And I thought, You know what? You could turn this into bubblegum pop. You could turn this into dance pop if you tweaked it a bit.”
Brooker and his team reached out to Nine Inch Nails founder and primary member Trent Reznor (whose composing partner, Atticus Ross, provided the score for a season four episode of Black Mirror). Reznor was already a fan of the series, and happily approved the request to use the song.
“I didn’t question the integrity of how it would be used,” he told GQ. “It was a flattering ask, and I thought, Yeah, let’s try it, let’s see.”
Brooker proceeded to rewrite “Head Like A Hole” lyrics to make them more positive and poppy, changing “head like a hole” to “I’m on a roll,” and transforming lyrics like “Bow down before the one you serve” into ““I’m stoked on ambition and verve.” And so an angry screed against wealth and Reagan-era state control got transformed into a syrupy call for empowerment.
“I think the most exciting part was when the music tracks came back. You can’t listen to it without a smile. I put it on in the car with my wife, and she was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’” Reznor told GQ. “It’s just so well done in that style.”
The episode also includes a cover of Reznor’s “Right Where It Belongs,” and Brooker even transformed “Hurt” (famously covered by Johnny Cash) into a track called “Flirt,” though he didn’t end up including it.
“It suggests that Trent Reznor could have had an alternate-universe career as a bubblegum composer,” Brooker added.
“That’s my takeaway, too,” said Reznor. “What was I thinking, all that time ago?”
Since the episode’s release, Cyrus has been tweeting as her character, a star who (again, spoiler alert) is entirely controlled by her aunt/manager and various team members. It’s not exactly unrealistic–Cyrus once said that her life performing as Hannah Montana did “extreme damage in my psyche.”
On the show, Ashley is drugged and left in a medically-induced coma; engineers map her brain waves to create new music, and they create a hologram that can go on tour, a take on holograms of dead stars like Whitney Houston and Tupac.
But the hologram never makes it. In one of Black Mirror’s few positive takes on technology, an Amazon Echo-like doll imprinted with Ashley’s personality (called Ashley Too) saves the star, waking her up. The episode concludes with Cyrus performing a straightforward cover of “Head Like A Hole,” railing against industry control. She screams and wails so well. This thing really needs to be on streaming.
Nine Inch Nails is releasing a co-branded Black Mirror t-shirt in support of the project. I’m riding so high, achieving my goals.
Back in December, Cyrus told Howard Stern that her role on Black Mirror is “the first thing I've been proud of."