When the Lonely Island first released the trailer for their Spinal Tap–style mockumentary Popstar, many (myself included) assumed that the movie was first and foremost a spoof of Justin Bieber. After all, the movie’s subtitle, Never Stop Never Stopping, is a clear allusion to the blockbuster concert documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
But as I began to suggest in my review for Slate (though I could only scratch the surface), the movie turns out to be about much more than Justin Bieber. As star and co-writer Andy Samberg has said, “It was sort of everybody in pop music and rap music, just heightened.” Below, we break down, as best we can, every major pop star who is parodied by Popstar.
As much as the Lonely Island might deny it (“It was never intended to be Bieber,” Samberg has claimed), Popstar has more fun at the expense of Justin Bieber, arguably the biggest male pop star of the moment, than anyone else.
The Bieber references are almost too many to number. There’s Conner4Real’s black-and-white Calvin Klein jeans shoot. There’s the home movie of Conner erupting into a drum solo as a literal baby. There’s the fact that he has a close relationship with an exotic pet, reminiscent of Justin Bieber’s pet primate (not to mention Michael Jackson’s). There’s Conner’s fondness for the color purple and especially purple suits. There’s the small scandal that occurs when the whole world sees the star’s penis. There’s the fall from grace marked by reported car accidents and DUI charges. And, around the same time, the backlash for publically relieving himself and for making inappropriate comments at the Anne Frank house. (Bieber’s comments in the Anne Frank house guestbook, in case you forgot: “Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”)
Musically, Conner doesn’t have much in common with Bieber, whom Andy Samberg has called “underappreciated,” citing acclaimed singles like “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry,” and “Where R U Now.” But there’s one exception: Performing one of Conner’s flagship singles, he and Adam Levine dance with their own holograms. Bieber and Will.I.Am performed a similar routine (while dressed in purple, natch) for the video for “#ThatPower.”
Justin Timberlake and ’N Sync
One of the most notable differences between Conner and Bieber is that Conner got his start in a band that he soon outgrows. Popstar draws on a number of inspirations in creating the Style Boyz (more on that below), but the arc itself is perhaps most reminiscent of the way Justin Timberlake grew out of, and eventually surpassed, ’N Sync. This is a familiar dynamic in pop music, of course—as old as Michael Jackson outgrowing the Jackson Five, Beyoncé leaving Destiny’s Child, or Marky Mark departing the Funky Bunch—but Popstar producer Rodney Rothman has acknowledged the parallel. And it seems like no coincidence that Conner feels the need to talk smack about Timberlake, or that Timberlake (one of the Lonely Island’s longtime collaborators) also makes a cameo.
The Beastie Boys
Though Conner’s arc with the Style Boyz is most like Timberlake’s, the Boyz themselves are most like another group of rapping white boys. Asked who the group was thinking of when they decked out the younger Style Boyz in Kangol bucket hats and other ’80s hip-hop gear, Lonely Island member and Popstar co-director Akiva Schaffer said, “Yeah, Beastie Boys is pretty fair. They’re just a little bit dumber than the Beastie Boys were. Let’s say License to Ill Beastie Boys.”
The 69 Boyz and “Dunkie Butt”
Though the Style Boyz most strongly resemble the Beastie Boys in terms of fashion sense, not to mention their place within hip-hop as white rappers, their dance-craze–inspiring breakout hit “Donkey Roll” is closest to a pair of mid-’90s hits: the 69 Boyz’s “Tootsee Roll” and 12 Gauge’s “Dunkie Butt (Stand In A Line and Donkey-Donkey).” Notably, the 12 Gauge hit is often mistakenly attributed to the 69 Boyz. Meanwhile, the third move in the dance (in which you are instructed to “make like a dude on an Egyptian scroll”) also gestures toward the questionable ’80s dance craze “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
Another of the most obvious targets in Popstar is Macklemore’s “Same Love,” which receives its definitive parody in Conner’s “Equal Rights.” (Where Macklemore raps “If I was gay/ I would think hip-hop hates me,” Conner raps, “I’m not gay, but if I was, I’d want equal rights.”) But the Conner-Macklemore parallels don’t end there. The way that Conner gradually overshadows and then sidelines his talented producer, Owen (the Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone), is reminiscent of Macklemore’s relationship with producer Ryan Lewis (something Schaffer has acknowledged), though Taccone cautions against taking the parallel too far, saying, “the music that he makes is nothing like Ryan.”
While Conner’s verses on “Equal Rights” lampoon “Same Love,” Pink’s chorus, with its declarations of “I was born this way,/ and you were born your way,” is clearly written with self-styled pop savior Lady Gaga in mind. (Gaga identifies as bisexual, but she has often been accused of exploiting the gay community for profit.) The debate about whether Conner has a penis is also reminiscent of the similarly silly rumors that Gaga addressed in her “Telephone” video.
U2 (and Jay Z and Rihanna)
The endorsement deal that Conner makes to “surprise-release” his new album via smart appliances (which provokes outrage after it brings down America’s power grid) is most reminiscent of the way U2 faced backlash after they “gifted” Apple users with their new album without asking users first whether they wanted it. This bit of brand synergy is also similar to the deals that Jay Z and Rihanna made with Samsung, in which their albums were bought by the cellphone company and given away to Samsung users.
While the references to Kanye West are more subtle, there are a number of elements of Popstar that are reminiscent of West’s various scandals. For example, when President Obama calls Conner, at his commercial and creative nadir, a “dumbf–k,” it’s an only slightly exaggerated version of the time Obama called West (at the height of West’s own unpopularity) a “jackass.” Conner’s elaborate proposal, shot for reality TV, is also reminiscent of West’s own proposal to Kim Kardashian, which was filmed for a special episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (This is one of the only cases where the real thing was even more elaborate than the Popstar version—West rented out a baseball stadium and a 90-piece orchestra for his proposal—though West’s proposal wasn’t attacked by wolves.)
There are other more minor allusions throughout. Conner’s “Humble,” for example, uses the same flow as West’s “Monster” verse, and the cover of Conner’s Thriller, Also shows Conner wearing a heart patch on his jacket just like the one West wore around 808s and Heartbreak.
The controversy over the cover art for Conner’s sophomore album ConnQuest, which resembles fascist propaganda, might have been inspired by the controversy surrounding the lyric video for Nicki Minaj’s “Only,” which featured Nazi imagery.
In addition to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, one of the primary “popumentaries” that the Lonely Island wanted to parody was Katy Perry: Part of Me. It’s from this documentary that they got the idea for Conner’s “kitschy magic trick” costume changes (though they went more smoothly for Perry).
As I already mentioned in my review, the conceit at the center of “Finest Girl (bin Laden Song)” is most reminiscent of the elaborate and sometimes alarmingly violent sexual metaphors used by R. Kelly, though Kelly is more often in on the joke.
Daft Punk and Deadmau5
This one is obvious, since both artists are name-checked, but: The giant, futuristic, and dangerously unergonomic helmet worn by Conner’s DJ is a parody of the large, fairly impractical helmets worn by Daft Punk, Deadmau5, and others.
Insane Clown Posse
The Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” (with its iconic lyric “F–kin’ magnets—how do they work?”) is already most successful as self-parody, but that didn’t stop the Lonely Island from having a little fun with it in their closing number, “Incredible Thoughts.”
Moviegoers who stick around through the closing credits will hear Conner’s song “Ibitha,” an electronic dance music anthem about his trip to Spain that evinces a severe misunderstanding of Spanish culture. Though it could be a coincidence, it seems likely that this song was inspired by Mike Posner’s own EDM anthem “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” which made it all the way to the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 this spring. (To be fair, Posner doesn’t attempt a Spanish “lisp” when pronouncing Ibiza.)
The Lonely Island
It’s not lost on the Lonely Island that many of the events in Popstar also parallel the trajectories of their own careers. As Schaffer has said, Samberg was “the Beyoncé to the Destiny’s Child [of the movie], and in real life he’s more famous than me or Jorma. It’s that way in the movie.” As the countless pop stars who show up in the movie surely know, it can be helpful to indulge in a little self-parody, too. The Lonely Island: So humble!