From the moment the beat from Britney Spears’ post-breakdown comeback hit “Gimme More” dropped in the trailer, it was clear The Idol was going to pay homage to the pop princess. But Spears is just one of many musical icons the controversial HBO drama nods to. The show, created by Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Euphoria’s Sam Levinson, is rife with references to real-life pop stars. (Levinson has specifically said the show is not all about Spears.)
The series follows mega-pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) as she attempts to repair her image following a nervous breakdown and her mother’s death, while entering a complicated relationship with creepy, nightclub impresario and cult leader Tedros (Tesfaye) in the process. It’s sleazy, sexy and attempts to wrestle with the exploitation of female pop stars. That The Weeknd is one of the masterminds behind the project makes sense: After all, he’s a pop star himself.
As the show dives deeper into Jocelyn’s world, we’re breaking down all of the pop star references and Easter Eggs the show has to offer.
Episode 1 – “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales”
During the opening scenes of The Idol, Jocelyn is seen posing for a photoshoot at her mansion. While she oscillates from pouting her lips to tearing up on camera in a nearly-nude in a silk robe, she straddles a table covered in empty bottles of booze, pills, and a hospital bracelet—a nod to Jocelyn’s “mental breakdown.” While the item may seem a bit curious, it’s all a part of marketing the pop star. After all, as record label exec Nikki (Jane Adams) declares: “Mental illness is sexy.” But fans have speculated that the hospital bracelet is actually a reference to Selena Gomez and her single artwork and music video for her 2017 single “Bad Liar.” In both, Gomez kept on her hospital bandage after receiving treatment for her lupus that week. She also allegedly happened to be dating The Weeknd that year. Coincidence?
After Jocelyn finishes her photoshoot, she practices the choreography for her new single with her dancers. As Vanity Fair journalist Talia (Hari Nef) notes, it’s “referential” to Spears. Specifically, the pop star’s 2001 hit “I’m A Slave 4 U” where a sweat-drenched Spears intoxicatingly belly dances among a grindfest of dancers. During that time, Spears went from girl-next-door to sex symbol overnight, so it’s no surprise the show pays homage to that era.
When Jocelyn approaches the dancefloor at Tedros’s nightclub, the grand entrance is soundtracked by Madonna’s 1989 hit “Like a Prayer.” Considering Jocelyn is embracing her sexuality—masturbating with ice cubes and getting into some BDSM play with Tedros—the once-controversial track is fitting. Also, Madonna also happens to be a part of the show’s soundtrack—alongside The Weeknd and Playboi Cart—with her new single “Popular.”
In the midst of their makeout session at the nightclub, Jocelyn and Tedros begin debating the superficiality of pop. While Jocelyn takes aim at pop music, Tedros defends the genre, referencing Prince’s Purple Rain hit “When Doves Cry”: “You’re gonna call ‘When Doves Cry’ fucking superficial? If that song came out today, it would be a smash tomorrow.” Later we see Jocelyn has a huge portrait of Prince on her staircase.
When Jocelyn invites Tedros to her house, she plays her new single in the studio for him. Tedros notes that the song isn’t working because he doesn’t “believe” her. He cites Donna Summer’s 1975 disco anthem “Love to Love You Baby” as what she should be doing with her vocals. “When she sings, there’s no doubt that she knows how to fuck,” Tedros explains.
Episode 1 concludes with erotic asphyxiation as Tedros ties a red silk robe around Jocelyn’s face and neck before piercing the fabric around her mouth with a knife and telling her to sing. This seems to take cues from The Weeknd’s own music—his 2021 track “Take My Breath” is all about that particular kink.
Episode 2 – “Double Fantasy”
Britney Spears and Donna Summer
Both pop stars again become reference points for The Idol in episode 2. Jocelyn decides to share a remixed version of her bubblegum pop song “World Class Sinner / I’m a Freak” with her team, which features a lot of moaning a la “I’m A Slave 4 U”—the kind of song that makes it clear Jocelyn knows “how to fuck.” Clearly, Tedros’s comment about Summer worked. The end credits for episode 2 are even soundtracked by “Love to Love You Baby,” making a clear callback to the pilot.
Ariana Grande and Halsey
Despite being a nightmare, Jocelyn’s music video shoot is reminiscent of some other real-life pop stars’ music videos. Perhaps it brought to mind the video for Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom single “Alone” ft. Big Sean and Stefflon Don or Ariana Grande’s self-empowerment anthem “7 Rings.” The same director behind those videos is Hannah Lux Davis, who has worked with everyone from the aforementioned pop stars to Charli XCX, Demi Lovato and Avril Lavigne. The moody, neon lighting is a hallmark of her work.
Episode 3 – “Daybreak”
Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Sky Ferreira
Since episode 1, it’s been clear Jocelyn’s creative director Xander (Troye Sivan) has become a “yes man” in Jocelyn’s world. But Tedros, who thinks “the creative direction sucks,” gives Xander the opportunity to share his one great idea: using Jocelyn’s leaked image as her album cover. Pop stars have often used an album or single cover as a response to tabloid coverage and public criticism. The idea presented by Xander seems to allude to the impact of artistic statements like Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Rihanna’s Unapologetic. The image itself recalls the intimacy of Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, which infamously shows her breast.
The pop references in episode 3 aren’t too deep. But Mike Dean’s name becomes the topic of conversation when Tedros reveals the mega-producer is set to work on Jocelyn’s forthcoming EP. Dean has been working closely with The Weeknd since 2015 and helmed some of the tracks on The Idol soundtrack including the main theme song.
Episode 4 – “Stars Belong to the World”
Mike Dean goes from name-drop in episode 3 to actual guest star in episode 4. Arriving at Jocelyn’s mansion with a giant bong in tow, he helps produce her next single, testing each room’s acoustics and eventually setting up shop in one of Jocelyn’s gathering rooms. There, he witnesses Tedros essentially sexually assault Jocelyn in front of a room full of people to get a grittier sound out of her.
When Jocelyn and Tedros first met they bonded over their shared love for Prince. After Jocelyn discovers Tedros has had a duplicitous relationship with Dyanne, who reveals to Jocelyn her record label has offered her a deal where she’d release World Class Sinner, Jocelyn goes scorched earth She booty calls her ex Rob, and a drunken Tedros tries to force himself into his locked bedroom once he realizes that she’s decided to sleep with him. Eventually tired of pounding the door and realizing he’s not as in control as he thinks he is, he looks back at a portrait of Prince behind him crying—signaling a fracture in their complex rela