What A Star is Born gets wrong about pop music

Liam Taft /
Oct 29, 2018 / Film & TV

To Jack – the troublesome country-rock singer in A Star is Born – music is the same story being told over and over again. Just 12 notes repeated over one octave. The magic, he suggests, lies in how each musician sees those notes. Herein lies this film’s most poetic statement about music – it’s a transcendent pearl of wisdom, told in the deep and soothing voice of Jack’s manager.

But in the 2018 rendition of A Star is Born (it’s the fourth version since 1937), this wisdom stops here. As a study of fading masculinity and female ascension, this film is a refreshing take on the original four films, adding new layers to Jack’s sense of desperation. But as a study of the contemporary music scene, it feels awkwardly out of touch.

The 1976 version starred Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in an era when stadium-ready rock was all the rage. Now, when Bradley Cooper’s Jack steps on stage and belts out his country-rock anthems, the primary feeling is one of nostalgia. Of course, that’s the point: Jack’s sense of sadness does come, in part, due to his new and outdated role in the music world. Fans flock to festivals and stadium tours to hear his classics played over and over, but his grasp is starting to slip.

It would feel anachronistic to show Jack at the height of his powers. We live in a decade where R&B, not country-rock, dominates the charts and finds its way to the top of Spotify playlists. He’s an old-fashioned figure, clinging onto ‘authenticity’ in a culture that celebrates artifice.

In the first third of the film, Jack tutors Ally – played by Lady Gaga in her first major studio role – after hearing her perform in a local drag bar. Repeatedly, he reminds her that she’s a gifted storyteller with something to say. As he travels across the country, hopping from stadium to stadium, he brings Ally along to perform her original tracks. She’s an absolute tour-de-force, bringing charm and emotional intelligence to her songs. But inevitably she attracts the attention of a mainstream record label – which is where the film takes a turn for the worst.

As Jack’s influence fades, Ally rises to pop stardom. She goes through the mechanisms of the pop machine: her first single is a hit, the album is then rushed out, and she gains a coveted spot on Saturday Night Live. Her stripped back image is manipulated by corporate bosses. “I don’t even recognise myself,” she says, as she stares at the airbrushed images from her photo shoot.

A Star is Born makes many pointed observations about the state of the music industry, but it also has a reactionary attitude to pop. The song Ally sings in her SNL slot opens with the lines: “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come on over with an ass like that?” The lyrics, performed by Ally in front of an awkward group of backup dancers, are a world away from the tender country songs she sings in earlier scenes. It’s a difficult scene to read: are we supposed to look down on Ally for selling out, or should we sneer at Jack for his snobbery as he looks on in disgust?

Throughout the film, pop music is denigrated by Jack. He loses respect for Ally, whose music no longer speaks to her ‘soul’. With the material that Ally performs, it’s easy to see why. The songs we hear from her new album are painfully bland and blatantly manufactured. They offer nothing of the power that set the crowds alight during her earlier performances on tour with Jack.

In 2018, the idea that pop can be a rich, emotionally intelligent genre is nothing new. One listen through Lady Gaga’s experimental, boundary-pushing oeuvre should be enough to prove that pop can have as much power and ‘soul’ as an outdated country star who still wears a cowboy hat. So why is Gaga not given anything to perform that even remotely lives up to the complexity of her own body of work?

Several scenes in the film are spent critiquing industry bosses who refused to sign Ally because of her looks, yet Cooper’s film also pays into gendered stereotypes by relegating the female-dominated space that Ally operates in below his masculine, ‘authentic’ music. It’s something that allegedly filtered down into the filming process, too: during early screening tests, Cooper reportedly gave Gage a makeup wipe to make her performance more ‘real’.

Strangely, Ally’s journey resembles Gaga’s career in reverse. Lady Gaga dominated the charts between 2009-2012 with her eccentric brand of pop, but in recent years her image has been stripped back. Her 2016 album Joanne, alongside the Netflix documentary GAGA: Five Foot Two, aimed to peel back her quirky image to find the woman beneath the persona. Her role in A Star is Born fits neatly within her career arc, but feels odd considering that the film so clearly disregards the kind of pop that made her a star in the first place.

Pop is a dirty word in A Star is Born. Ally’s music is depicted as a symptom of the corporate underbelly of the music industry and a corrupting force that leads Ally astray. Bradley Cooper’s version updates this classic tale for the contemporary era, complete with iPhones, YouTube, and the anxieties that come with fame in a world dominated by social media. However, its attitude towards pop music is trapped in the past.

You can stream the trailer, below.

Photo Credit: Clay Enos © 2018 WARNER BROS.

Words by Liam Taft

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