The romance between fading rock musician Jackson Maine and rising star Ally may be the focal point of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, but in the margins of the story, a secondary narrative takes shape, positing a compelling commentary on pop music, the music industry itself, and the question of what it means to sell out.
Ally’s first performance in A Star Is Born is at a crowded drag bar where she delivers a powerhouse performance of “La Vie en Rose” in false eyebrows, painted hair, dark red lipstick, and a black slip. Aside from the meta-quality of this performance – one that will only strike those familiar with Gaga’s early career in New York City – this is a rather peculiar choice of performance to use as the introduction to Ally’s talent. It’s an odd choice because the genre and performance style she demonstrates in this first performance is unlike anything we see from her throughout the rest of the movie.
A Star Is Born — now having been made and remade 4 times (5 if you count Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood) — is a story about archetypes. Sure, Hollywood loves remaking movies, but A Star Is Born endures because stars, whether in the sky or on the screen, rise and fall as regularly as seasons change. As the nature of celebrity evolves, so do these stories; Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born perfectly understands what this story needed to be for today’s audience and that means taking on the pop music behemoth.
It’s no coincidence that “La Vie en Rose” is the first song we hear Ally sing. Nor is it by mistake or oversight that we never see her deliver a performance like this a second time. From the very first act, the movie works to establish a secondary narrative about how fame and stardom can reshape an artist’s identity. More specifically, the movie tackles how the pop music industry works to sell an image and product rather than nurture an artist.
One of the greatest strengths of A Star Is Born is how it uses performance as a way of informing the text of the film. There’s not a single song or performance that does not directly articulate or reveal something about Ally and Jack’s romance, career paths, or both.
“La Vie En Rose” is, of course, full of crooning about being so in love you see the world through rose-colored glasses, aligning perfectly with the love at first sight we see on Jack’s face as he watches Ally perform.
Then there’s “Shallow” with opening verses that allow Jack and Ally to speak to one another’s needs and a chorus that begins with “I’m falling” to signal the intense feelings they have for one another.
Ally’s performance as “Always Remember Us This Way” paints a nostalgic picture of a relationship already in the midst of inevitable change.
These songs, with their distinct genre and style, define Ally’s identity in the first half of the movie. It’s an identity that Jackson understands and supports. These are the songs that give way to Ally’s rise to fame and yield her a high-powered manager who promises to help carry her to the top.
This is when the style and content of the music begins to change. As Ally’s solo career takes off, her music changes along with her image. Not only does she dye her hair bright orange, but her performances now include choreography and backup dancers, auto tune and techno beats.
Pop songs like “Why Did You Do That?” and “Heal Me” reshape Ally’s identity as a musician. Lyrics like “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” and the overall sound of these songs are incongruous with the image of Ally we were accustomed to seeing. It’s easy to draw a line between Ally’s shift towards purely pop music and an anti-pop music narrative in the movie.
The clearest distillation of the film’s possible anti-pop sentiment is Ally’s SNL performance of “Why Did You Do That?” She comes out on stage clad in an outfit that appears to be made entirely out of plastic. The song sounds strangely discordant from what we’ve heard from her before this.The performance cuts to Jackson’s unpleasant reaction as he cracks open a beer, one that will no doubt be the first of many.
But the easiest explanation is not always the correct one; implying that A Star Is Born is anti-pop misses the more significant point about identity and artistic integrity that lies at the heart of the film. In fact, “Why Did You Do That?” embeds that message in the text of the song: “This is not / not like me.”
A Star Is Born is not anti-pop; it’s pro-artistic integrity. The problem is not that Ally starts making pop music, it’s that the pop music Ally makes is inauthentic and at odds with who she is as an artist. As her star begins to rise and as her new manager puts the pressure on her, she makes decisions that don’t align with who the movie at first depicted her to be.
Like everything in A Star Is Born, it all traces back to Ally and Jack’s relationship. When Jack first meets Ally, she has such low self-confidence that she won’t even sing her own songs in front of others. He offers her the inspiration, the confidence, the hearty push she needs to face her fears.
For better or for worse, this opens her up to a brand new world that – like any normal person – she can’t always navigate with perfect precision. We see Ally at a moment in her life when her dreams are finally coming true and the movie interrogates how even the most idyllic situations can lead to difficult decisions regarding identity and artistic integrity.
Ally undoubtedly sells out, abandoning her artistic integrity in favor of a path she believes will lead to greater success. Pop music and the voracious music industry are simply the backdrop for this crisis of identity; it’s hardly a condemnation of pop music, but rather a critique of the way the music industry seeks to strip away authenticity in search of a marketable product.
In the end, we see Ally tear away from this and come back to herself. In the process, a star is well and truly born.