It took some time before the Me Too movement took its hold in the music industry, in contrast to the wave of high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct in the movie business. But now, as a result of social media, scandals around figures such as R Kelly and Ryan Adams have brought the spotlight on how systemic abuses of power so easily thrive amid the culture of celebrity entitlement, professional favours, and access to fans.
Once Aurora, by directors Benjamin Langeland and Stian Servoss, follows Norwegian indie pop sensation Aurora as she prepares her second studio album, Infections Of A Different Kind – Step 1 (2018). So far this might sound like any music documentary, but the way in which the creative process is presented here is an altogether fresh and soberly condemning indictment of the distribution of influence and how it is wielded within the industry. Gentle and rather tame, the documentary (which originally aired on television) is without doubt not a story of overt abuse. But in the subtle yet clearly debilitating workings of misogyny and the on-going demand for more money-making hits from this young star, barely out of adolescence, we see just how vulnerable to manipulation young female musicians are in an industry of normalised capitalistic exploitation.
No tragic sensationalism
Having grown up in the woods in a Norwegian small town, Aurora Aksnes (born in 1996) was only sixteen years old when she attracted the public eye after performing a song she’d written at her high school that went viral online. A corporate music management team, spearheaded by Geir Luedy from the agency MADE, assembled around her with ambitions of moulding her into a saleable artist. She dropped out of school, released her debut album All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend (2016), and spent the next few years touring on the road.
We see just how vulnerable to manipulation young female musicians are in an industry of normalised capitalistic exploitation.
This relatively low-key filmic portrait does not offer any tragic sensationalism to manipulate us into voyeuristic excitement. But it does reveal how the much older men around Aurora who are charged with guiding her career contribute to her bouts of emotional isolation and sense of creative disenfranchisement.
«I’ve never had many friends; this is the first time I’ve felt part of a gang,» she says early on tour, immediately setting off our alarm bells given the age and gender differential between her and those she is relying on for companionship on the road.
This becomes especially clear when she admits she’s not sure she even wants to be an artist. Management’s assertions that although the tour is very demanding they «don’t think she can live without it» come across as a rather guileful form of pep talk.
As the film progresses, we see Aurora at times buoyed up by her performances and the act of creating, although under increasing pressure as a commoditised product and subject to bouts of panic from the incursions of fandom.
Power games vis-à-vis producers and managers
Daily rounds of meet-and-greets in Brazil and intensely emotional fans exhaust her and leave her leaning on her producer Magnus Skylstad. A studio session sees an awkward interchange between her and Luedy (whose rivalry with Skylstad is palpable) as he demands they finish sixteen songs, when all she wants to talk about is cuddling her algae ball.
Having grown up in the woods in a Norwegian small town, Aurora Aksnes was only sixteen years old when she attracted the public eye.
Resentment over having been pushed to include the track «Conqueror», a commercially oriented song she doesn’t like, on the previous album erupts in her refusing to play it live. Seen individually, these incidents are of minor dramatic import, but together they paint a picture of an industry of men intent on using Aurora as a tool to further their own ambitions more than to nurture her creative independence.
Transitioning from a teen to an adult but still resembling a young, fragile elf, the very picture of outsider fragility that her image is built upon undermines her clout as she increasingly endeavours to take creative control.
The very picture of outsider fragility that her image is built upon undermines her clout.
Her communion with fans through music also leaves her ambivalent and wary of people – the sense of instant intimacy (being permitted to swim around in people’s hearts, as she puts it) that is just as suddenly over.
It’s essential to note, however, that the picture of feminist evolution of selfhood within the rigid, self-serving demands of patriarchy painted by the film may simply be a further construct to feed into Aurora’s image by cynical design (just as an artist such as Lady Gaga’s endorsement of difference can be read as much as branding as it can a genuine human impulse toward inclusivity).
Regardless, the vulnerabilities we witness in this starlet are all too clearly real enough so that when she declares she’s stopped distinguishing between Aurora (the person) and AURORA (the performer), the unnatural contortions and haze of life in the spotlight hit home.