The soundtrack to A Star Is Born – featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper – unwittingly rebuts the film’s storyline, with the female star’s serious music less compelling than the pure pop she’s meant to have outgrown.By Shaad D’Souza.
A Star Is Born OST
It takes about 20 minutes for the A Star Is Born soundtrack to get to its Big Moment. If you’ve engaged at all with the soon-to-be released Bradley Cooper-directed, Lady Gaga-starring blockbuster musical, even in passing, you will likely know the Big Moment to which I’m referring – it’s unmissable, a focal point of the film’s trailers and the subject of myriad memes online. It’s when Lady Gaga steps up to the microphone and unleashes a thrilling, God- and gravity-defying wail on the film’s standout track – and the album’s lead single – “Shallow”. In mere seconds, hope and longing and power are telegraphed; the song is a perfect summation of everything pop music can be. It makes sense that this is the track being used to sell A Star Is Born; “Shallow” is the soundtrack’s musical and emotional peak. It’s a pity, then, that the rest is all comedown rather than afterglow.
The film is the fourth version of a classic and specifically American tale, modernised for 2018. The basic story beats remain the same, though this time around Coachella, Saturday Night Live and “going viral” are all key drivers of plot. A Hollywood tragedy in the most classic sense, the film – painstakingly, obsessively conceptualised over two years – is obviously a play at turning Cooper into more than just an actor. His process for slipping into the guise of grizzled country music star Jackson Maine involved taking guitar and vocal lessons, co-writing many of the character’s songs, meeting with country musicians and attending music festivals. Insistent that his product should be an authentic reflection of the music industry as it stands in 2018, Cooper also spent time working with Lukas Nelson – son of Willie – and his band Promise of the Real, in order to properly understand the life of a touring musician.
A look at the liner notes of the soundtrack shows essentially the same names you might find on any given pop or country record: Lukas Nelson, alt-country star Jason Isbell, prolific producer Mark Ronson and veteran pop balladeer Diane Warren all worked on the film’s music, alongside pop duo du jour Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, Andrew Wyatt from pop group Miike Snow, and Gaga herself, who also co-produced much of the record. Aside from lending the film some sense of musical credibility, the presence of this veritable Murderers’ Row of writers – most of them hitmakers with fistfuls of Grammys under their belts, and the price tags to match – gives the sense that the A Star Is Born soundtrack is meant to be digested as a standalone record as much as it is a companion piece to the film.
Without the crutch of Cooper and Gaga’s characterisation, though, it falls short as a standalone album. In the film, Cooper’s Maine is a Garth Brooks-meets-Neil Young country rock star with a drinking problem who stumbles upon an unknown named Ally, played by Lady Gaga, with whom he becomes personally and professionally entangled. They fall in love and Ally soon gets swept up in the music industry as a pop ingenue. Eventually, their fates switch, and Ally’s profile rises as Jackson’s falls; a star is born as another fades. Much of A Star Is Born revolves around the tension between art and commerce, and how cash can, supposedly, turn good art bad. In the film, this process is reflected in the transformation of Ally’s music from raw piano balladry to glossy electronic pop, of the kind Gaga used to make. Both the “authentic” and “inauthentic” sides of Ally’s music – for lack of better terms – are showcased on the soundtrack, but here they have no narrative arc to signal which songs are fraught and which aren’t. On an album, they’re just songs, which means pure pop like “Why Did You Do That?”, derided in the film, comes across a lot better on the soundtrack than, say, “Always Remember Us This Way”, one of Ally’s pretty piano songs. “Why Did You Do That?” is vaguely ridiculous in the way much of the best pop music is – it references “asses” and text messaging, and there are swelling orchestral strings where there probably shouldn’t be. The chorus, featuring a repeated yell of “Why did you do that, do that, do that to me?”, is very catchy but means very little. It’s an excellent pop song, fun and full of feeling, and efficient in its conveyance of lust and attraction. If it were a single from Selena Gomez, the song would probably do quite well, and deservedly so.
The album’s piano ballads, on the other hand, leave the listener wanting. “Always Remember Us This Way” plays as little more than a Lana Del Rey ballad left in the studio. Tonally and lyrically – “That Arizona sky, burning in your eyes / You look at me and, babe, I wanna catch on fire” – the song feels like imitation. Its chorus, mired in cliché, is one of the most blandly forgettable in Gaga’s catalogue: “When the sun goes down, and the band won’t play / I’ll always remember us this way.” If there’s one thing that Gaga has rarely been, it’s forgettable. Even if she’s playing a character on these songs, it’s disappointing to see her songwriting, which is generally strong even on her most subtle songs, fail here. The problems are similar for the other ballads on the record. “Is That Alright?” cribs more than a little from Beyoncé ballads such as “If I Were a Boy” and “I Was Here”, while “I Don’t Know What Love Is”, one of the soundtrack’s many schlocky duets between Gaga and Cooper, plays more like wedding band than titanic duet.
There’s no inherent problem with a lightweight weepy – artists such as Sam Smith have made millions shilling nothing but pro forma balladry – but their presence on A Star Is Born’s soundtrack exposes the fallacy of the film’s central argument. Stripped of visual cues pulling the emotional strings, the songs positioned as “authentic” in the film are the least deeply felt on the album. Most of all, the failure of these songs feels like another nail in the coffin for Gaga’s recent bid for rootsy authenticity, first signalled in her back-to-basics duet record with Tony Bennett and followed by 2016’s Joanne, which repositioned her as a rockabilly folk hero, in contrast to her beginnings as a purveyor of conceptual avant-pop. Those records, as with Gaga’s work here, mostly fell flat. Their value was in how they proved Gaga’s genius lies more in weirdo art than it does in what was once deemed more traditionally “artistic”. This album confirms that.
Cooper’s solo tracks, with the exception of the lovely Jason Isbell-written “Maybe It’s Time”, are largely even more forgettable than Gaga’s ballads but they are, thankfully, few and far between. Cooper’s voice is entirely serviceable, but Gaga is the real ticket on the album. On their duets, the pair have little chemistry beyond the almost mechanically wrought pleasure of hearing their voices harmonise. At worst, as on the execrable “Music to My Eyes”, both lyrics and performance fail between the song’s central metaphor and lines such as “let your melodies fly in my direction”, which conjure memories of the worst of Jenna Maroney’s music on TV’s 30 Rock.
When “Shallow” arrives, though, the record’s many problems seem to melt away. It plays early on in the piece but is clearly the kind of track designed to be listened to over and over. I’ve heard Gaga’s momentous wail at least 50 times over the past two weeks, and it still elicits goosebumps. “Shallow”, like Adele’s “Hello” or Kesha’s “Praying”, is the kind of perfect pop song that’s engineered to draw as much emotional response from the listener as possible. It barely matters that the arrangement is as staid as the rest of the album – the song’s kinetic power derives in part from the fact there’s something familiar about it. “Shallow” will undoubtedly contribute Grammys and Oscars to some EGOT necklaces – and it would be both tragedy and travesty if it didn’t, as there are few pop songs released this year that pack the same emotional might. The song is a confluence of perfection on every level. Mark Ronson is the perfect writer for Gaga’s vocal range, as he proved on 2016’s co-written “Perfect Illusion”, and Cooper’s performance here is far and away his best on the record. Undoubtedly, “Shallow” will be remembered in film history alongside Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, even if the rest of the A Star Is Born soundtrack isn’t. It’s a classic American tale: an album sinks, but a hit is born.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Lady star dust". Subscribe here.