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Does ‘A Star Is Born’ Hate Pop Music?

Bradley Cooper’s remake is an electrifying ode to rock music—which puts Lady Gaga’s character in a confusing spot

Elias Stein/Warner Bros.

Halfway through Bradley Cooper’s pompous, silly, and insidiously electrifying remake of A Star Is Born, I started imagining the speech I assumed Lady Gaga’s character would eventually give. She is, of course, the Star, a frazzled waitress and unsung singer-songwriter named Ally, plucked from obscurity by a pickled country-rock deity named Jackson Maine. (Maine is played by Cooper, as part of his impressive bid to leap several tiers of Hollywood prestige in a single bound.) One minute, Ally is belting out a sultry “La Vie en Rose” at an L.A. drag club that Maine just happened to stumble drunkenly into. The next, she’s whisked off via private jet to one of his festival-sized gigs and pulled onstage, where she and Maine make googly eyes at one another whilst belting out a rootsy mega-jam called “Shallow” that they wrote together, sort of. I knew exactly what was going to happen during that part, and cried when it happened anyway. It’s that kind of movie.

But what kind of Star does Ally want to be? She and Maine, as both lovers and artists, are suddenly inseparable. During another rapturous show together, she debuts a bombastic piano ballad called “Always Remember Us This Way,” and afterward she is approached by an oily music-industry big shot named Rez. This guy has a British accent; in the movies as in life, the oily music-industry big shot with a British accent is the villain 200 percent of the time. He is the guy who makes you do what you don’t want to do and be who you don’t want to be. “What you have right now goes way beyond just this,” he tells her, dangling the lure of instant fame. “And my question to you is, what do you want?”

Ally is too starstruck and tongue-tied to really respond. And that disorientation, in a quite charming and only slightly frustrating way, becomes the movie’s. Which goes double for the A Star Is Born soundtrack, whose genuinely transcendent moments make a fine complement to the handful of baffling ones. This record has the potential to enjoy the same standalone chart success as La La Land or (gasp!) The Greatest Showman—and maybe greater potential, really, given that Lady Gaga is involved. As a collection of songs, the soundtrack is delightful. As an argument about love or art or genre or pure self-expression or stardom, it is hella confusing. But the confusion might be an essential part of the delight.

In the movie, Ally soon becomes a full-blown mononymous pop star with a record deal, backup dancers, a flashy billboard, three Grammy nominations, and a flamboyant wardrobe. (Not Lady Gaga flamboyant, but of course her reality is stranger than any fiction, including her own attempts at fiction.) She’s also got a flagrantly vapid dance-pop hit called “Why Did You Do That?” Opening lines of that song: “Why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” Up to this point, Ally has presented herself as earthy and gritty and so forth, like an honorary Allman Sister; this new direction, Robyn-ward but wayward, is a radical departure. She performs the song on Saturday Night Live, lip-syncing so as not to foul up her choreography, and driving her disgusted soulmate to drink even more. The new her and the old her seem incompatible, or at least her new and old respective fans do.

So the question is: Are we supposed to think that “Why Did You Do That?” is bad? Are we supposed to know it’s not the “real” Ally? (Actual lyrics: “This is not / Not like me.”) What A Star Is Born is missing, if this song is meant to be a blatant sellout disaster, is the scene in which her oily British handler goads her into it. There’s a brief flash where Ally and Rez lock horns over her overall direction: He stresses the importance of “fine-tuning and creating an image,” and she responds evenly with “I just don’t want to lose the part of me that’s talented.” But mostly they quarrel over details, and don’t really quarrel at all. Rez wants her to go blond, and at first she refuses: “I am who I am.” But a few scenes later, her hair is dyed anime-heroine red. A lot is riding on the question of whose idea that was. But we don’t get an answer.

Meanwhile, I kept waiting for the speech when she renounced all of this. Maine is presented, in this movie, as the stumbling, slurring avatar of integrity, highly credible if barely functional. He is prone to slurring such gin-ocean Zen koans as “If you don’t dig deep in your fuckin’ soul, you won’t have legs.” Early on, wobbling about the stage before an audience of tens of thousands, he fires off several righteous guitar-god blues-rock jams with titles like “Black Eyes” and “Alibi.” His backing band is played by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, who are perfect for the role given that (a) they’re currently Neil Young’s real-life backing band, (b) Lukas is Willie Nelson’s son, and (c) “Promise of the Real” is right there in the name.

Surely Maine will convince Ally to ditch this fizzy-pop bullshit. That’s where we’re headed, right? A rockist screed that aims to do for gritty Americana what La La Land did for jazz? I could just picture Gaga’s Oscar-reel freakout in a bathroom mirror: Who is this? Who am I? Furiously rubbing off the makeup. Firing the backup dancers. Denouncing lip-syncing as the mortal sin all movies like this know it to be. Smashing a mirror or two. Throwing herself in her blotto boyfriend’s arms and moaning, “Take me back to Bonnaroo.”

I was waiting, in short, for Ally to deliver the This World Is Bullshit speech to herself. But she never does—her two diametrically opposed artistic selves never quite reconcile, which creates an odd tension in the movie and on the soundtrack. Does that make A Star Is Born a more progressive take on the rock vs. pop divide? Or is this just a slightly subtler sort of bullshit?

If you know one concrete detail about the making of this movie, it’s that Cooper wiped off Gaga’s makeup during her audition, offering a four-word incantation: “Completely open. No artifice.” That anecdote—and a half-zany, half-erotic early scene where Ally lets Maine peel off one of her fake eyebrows—gives this A Star Is Born a familiar shape: a budding female pop star lovingly molded by her integrity-rich lover, stripped down to her purest self. Think music-biz fables like the 2014 romance Behind the Lights, or even the first season of the cornball country-music soap opera Nashville, in which Deacon the heartfelt singer-songwriter chides Juliette the glitzy, teenager-beloved pop star for the unforgivable sin of, yes, having backup dancers. (At least Juliette didn’t lip-sync, though she did eventually join a cult.)

You walk into the theater with that archetypal power dynamic in your head; thanks to A Star Is Born’s mesmerizing and meme-saturated trailer, you also walk in having already thoroughly internalized the two best songs on the soundtrack. “Maybe It’s Time” is a lovely little folk earworm meant to establish Maine as a superstar and establish Bradley Cooper as a competent enough singer to play one. It succeeds on both counts, largely thanks to the fact the great Jason Isbell wrote it. (Isbell insisted on reading the script before getting involved, to ensure it avoided all the usual clichés.)

And then there is “Shallow,” an absolute monster power ballad that a shocked Ally first delivers with her hands over her eyes, terrified and triumphant. If you’re trying to find a better tear-jerking musical moment in a movie made this century, it’s Coco or bust. Per my Instagram feed, a wail-along version of “Shallow”—“HAAAAAAA AH AH AH, AHHH”—was the highlight of at least one wedding this past weekend. If one song can make a soundtrack an all-time classic, then please welcome A Star Is Born 2018 to the Ghostbusters tier.

To say it’s all downhill from there is unfair to very large hills. It’s true that the worse the song, the more glaring the disparity between Cooper’s voice and, uh, Lady Gaga’s, as evidenced by the neutered waltz “Music to My Eyes” or the mildly shouty outlaw-country jam “Diggin’ My Grave.” The solo Gaga stuff is better but still occasionally suboptimal, evoking the amiable Americana of her underrated 2016 album Joanne (dig the shampoo-commercial soul of “Look What I Found” or the torch-song grandiosity of “Is That Alright?”) but sacrificing much of the eccentricity.

And that’s when things get weird, when you start trying to project Gaga’s career onto Ally’s. Once again, every last thing about Gaga’s career is much, much stranger, but it’s certainly odd that Ally runs that trajectory in reverse, from the relatively stately Joanne to the bubbly single-entendre hedonism of “Poker Face.” Even with little clips of dialogue between nearly every song to keep you oriented, the soundtrack’s pivot to Ally’s pop career is awfully jarring, and even without the onscreen lip-syncing to oversell the heel turn, “Why Did You Do That?” feels like an act of vapid sabotage. The line “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” is only in this song so Maine can throw it back in Ally’s face later. It holds out the tantalizing .0005 percent chance that Lady Gaga might actually be willing to renounce her pop career if it means winning an Oscar. As performance art, it’d be her biggest coup yet.

But then the soundtrack serves up “Hair Body Face,” a far less shrill and far more assured confection that might be Gaga’s best pure pop song in years. The question of whether Ally’s fans dig it is not explored. A Star Is Born, blessedly, does not much bother with music-biz details: there are no oily execs save the British-accent guy, no reviewers or journalists, no fan interactions that aren’t grim condemnations of the privacy-sapping aspects of fame, and except for Ally’s “Shallow” performance hitting YouTube, no conspicuous mention of the internet. It is hard to describe how good all that feels—the no-internet part especially. But it leaves the audience on its own in terms of determining whether Ally is Bad Now, or at least Better Before.

Finally, she and Maine finally have their preordained big fight—she’s in a bathtub, and he’s even drunker than usual. Maine tries to shame her for her pop excesses: “I’m just tryin’ to figure it out,” he slurs. But all that really registers is the slurring. The cliché version of this scene is cruel and catastrophic, but it also convinces Ally that she’s gone astray and needs to find her inner (and outer) cowboy hat. Wasted as Maine might be, he’s still serving up hard yet necessary truths, and sacrificing his own life to put his wife back on the righteous path. But his dialogue here makes him out to be a mere drunken asshole, abandoning any hint of wisdom or integrity and leaping straight for “You’re ugly.” The movie up to now has treated Ally’s pop career with extreme skepticism, if not outright derision, but as both the director and the lead actor, Cooper doesn’t quite close the sale. Maine in this moment is not “right,” in any sense. He’s just a lost cause whose doom is only relevant for whatever effect it has on the star who long ago eclipsed him.

All of which puts an enormous amount of weight—too much, but in a movie like this, too much is barely enough—on A Star Is Born’s very last song, the chest-pounding weeper “I’ll Never Love Again.” Maine wrote it for Ally, and snuck it in her old songbook: “I thought you’d find it when you came back to you, maybe.” But the song itself, for all its melodramatic grandeur, is hardly a retreat to Ally’s humble roots: It’s a blatantly Whitney Houston–esque eulogy-as-fireworks-display designed specifically for an “in memoriam” segment or an in-progress natural disaster.

It is also the A Star Is Born soundtrack’s third-best song, but it hardly answers the question of who Ally is, or was, or will be, or should be. You can indeed imagine a no-frills diva like Adele ripping into it, honoring that “completely open, no artifice” lifestyle. But somebody much wilder—Ariana Grande, say—could do it justice, too. Gaga sings the hell out of it, of course. That’s the job. But it’s also her job to leave you wondering who the real Ally (or the real Gaga) is, and questioning whether the line between art and artifice even exists.