Does 'A Star Is Born' Devalue Pop Music – Or Is Bradley Cooper's Character Just Shortsighted?

A Star Is Born
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born.

Lady Gaga’s career informs a character that is able to adapt with the times, unlike her counterpart

“Look,” grizzled rocker Jackson (Bradley Cooper) tells unknown singer Ally (Lady Gaga) in the opening minutes of A Star Is Born. “Talent comes everywhere, but having something to say, and a way to say it so that people listen to it -- that’s a whole other bag.” In the orange glow of a dive bar and in between mumbled flirtations, Jackson urges Ally to perform her own songs, and never apologize for the message she wants to deliver.

“You don’t worry about why they’re listening or how long they’re gonna be listening for,” he advises in his hangdog drawl. “You just tell them what you wanna say.”Ally becomes a star with Jackson’s help, of course, and eventually earns a coveted performing slot on Saturday Night Live.

From a dark corner of the 30 Rock studio, Jackson looks on as Ally performs “Why Did You Do That?,” a slinky electro-pop single that includes ample xylophone as well as the line “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” Jackson recoils, watching in horror as the emotive songwriter he plucked from obscurity -- the one he urged to delve into songwriting, who broke through with the smoky power ballad “Shallow” with him by her side -- gyrates through the choreography and lip-synchs her hook on national television. The implication is clear to A Star Is Born’s audience: Jackson interprets the SNL performance as a bastardization of Ally’s talent, and he turns away, unable to stomach another soulless second.

But... Ally looks thrilled with the performance. And “Why Did You Do That?” earns rapturous applause from the studio audience. Ally may be performing pop music with a plastic sheen, but she becomes wildly successful by doing so: she’s got a record deal, a savvy manager, tour dates and billboards bearing her name. As the classic tale goes, Ally continues to develop into a strong, confident headliner while Jackson increasingly relies on drugs and alcohol to numb himself from his downward professional spiral; he accuses his partner of becoming artistically inauthentic while his own career spins out of control.

The Cooper-directed remake of A Star Is Born, released last Friday (Oct. 5), could easily have been rockist… or, at least, anti-poptimist. There’s a world in which the film explicitly champions one type of musical delivery over another and weaves its story of authenticity into an anti-bubblegum screed. The SNL performance could have been as disheartening for Ally as it was for Jackson, and she could have taken the advice of the guitar-toting country-rock hero when he subsequently reminds her that she has something to say, dammit, and she should say it without a drum machine! From there, Ally ditches the mainstream, Jackson helps her regain her footing as a songwriter, she soars with her “real” voice and rock-n-roll rules the day. That would have made for a tidier, and worse, movie.

In actuality, the ideological debate of A Star Is Born doesn’t have a victor. It’s not pro-pop or anti-pop, but instead props up a world in which pop music becomes a wedge driven between its two protagonists; the dramatic tension mined from its main characters’ dueling points of view -- Jackson’s traditionalism versus Ally’s modernism --- complicates, and ultimately strengthens, the film. We can think that “Why Did You Do That?” is a clumsy, cheap-sounding single, and empathize with Jackson as he gets choked up watching Ally perform a song designed to sound anonymous. But we can also feel the warmth of Ally’s smile when she finishes the song on a triumphant note, and think that Jackson is out of line as he later derides Ally’s career. When Jackson mocks Ally’s lyrics to her face while hovering over her in the bathtub, Ally defends her pop confection as “my song,” upending his expectation that she’ll let him shoehorn her into his musical style. Jackson has nothing to combat her defiance, so he sneers at his wife, “You’re just fuckin’ ugly.” 

“Why Did You Do That?” is portrayed as a stark departure from the rootsy writing of an undiscovered Ally, as evidenced by “Shallow” and other pre-superstardom cuts like “Always Remember Us This Way” and “Look What I Found.” The BPM changes when she hires a slick British manager named Rez, gets overly glammed up and books the SNL stage. But her career -- and, by extension, pop music as a whole -- is never portrayed as unfulfilling in the second half of A Star Is Born. Ally initially chafes under the expectation of a mainstream career, but before long she embraces her red hair and backup dancers, and evokes pure joy when her character is informed during a magazine photo shoot that she’s been nominated for multiple Grammys. Are we, A Star Is Born’s audience, supposed to think less of Gaga’s character because she opted for a synthesizer instead of a six-string to get them??

A Star Is Born follows the general narrative arc of its previous iterations, but with Lady Gaga as its lead actress, the film slyly nods toward her own shapeshifting career. From her dance-pop Fame days to the Springsteen flairs on Born This Way to the country-rock twang of Joanne, Gaga has always bent pop music to her will, often by pulling unorthodox artistic ideas into the mainstream (see: Cheek To Cheek, her duets album with Tony Bennett that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200). Some Gaga eras have been more successful than others, but the constants have been her talent and artistic agency; she can make something wholly unique and mass-marketed without compromising her vision. Gaga’s role in A Star is Born and its soundtrack is simply her latest transformation that’s both time-honored and mainstream-friendly, but fiercely by her own creation.?

“During The Fame and The Fame Monster I was incessantly probed and asked questions,” Gaga said in a 2011 interview about her Born This Way album. “Like, ‘Is this the real you?’. And I never knew what to say. I never knew how to answer.” The quote again brings to mind that bathtub scene, where Jackson ignorantly challenges Ally to forego the artifice and perform as the “real” her.?

There are moments in A Star Is Born in which the audience wonders whether Ally can change sounds without sacrificing her authenticity. After resisting backup dancers at first, can she ever fully accept the role of mainstream pop idol? Yet like Gaga, Ally proves adept at refracting her talent through pop music norms; she molds her gift in order to succeed, and never expresses regret or unhappiness in the context of adjusting her approach. Jackson, on the other hand, cannot understand such a shift, which leads to his frustration with Ally, as well as his own professional stagnation. ?

The conflict that sets up the tragedy of A Star Is Born is not between pop and rock, but between one artist who can adapt with the times and another who bristles at the idea of doing so. Amid the tragic love story is an examination of artistic integrity, that ultimately harkens back to Jackson’s original point to Ally about saying “what you wanna say.” Jackson’s right when he tells Ally to be unapologetic in her artistic vision. He just wasn’t ready for that vision to be pop.