Reflecting on A Star Is Born and the Pop Music Portrayal

By now I’m sure we’re all in agreement: last year's A Star Is Born was a masterpiece, and there has been no shortage of discourse surrounding the film. Months on, I remain interested by the portrayal of pop music in the film and in the media.



Blasting pop music with the windows down, or in the shower with the water dramatically spraying your face (cue Easy A montage) as you mindlessly sing to every word, is one of the many joys in life that few can resist. Despite the visceral urge to sing that it inevitably brings, pop music has always been a criticised genre of music - always belittled as the music of teenage girls, lacking both musical innovation and depth. In reality, most pop music displays an abundance of creativity and insight. The few pop artists that are deficient in those elements still have the ability to make us turn up the music. A parallel can be drawn from the binary views of pop music to the opposing opinions on tattoos—some think they need have profound meaning and others think they don't. In Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, a reinvention of the classic A Star Is Born, his rockstar character Jackson Maine makes it abundantly clear that the magic of music lies within its meaning, not the talent of the artists themselves. At the film progresses, it tells a story of love, addiction, and rising pop stardom.




During Jackson’s first conversation with Ally (Lady Gaga) after her performance of “La Vie En Rose”, he tells her, “Talent comes everywhere. Everybody’s talented. Fuckin’ everybody in this bar is talented in one thing or another. But having something to say and the way you say it so people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. Unless you get out and you try to live, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. If there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here, it’s to say something so people wanna hear it.” This concept of depth and meaning is a recurring theme throughout the film - both when Ally starts focusing on her own career, and in relation to Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot), who claims he "stole his voice". Jackson’s response to this claim is, “Because you had nothing to fuckin’ say.” Pop music critique is often based on this very concept - if a piece of music does not possess nuance or profundity, is it worthwhile?




As Ally’s career starts to blossom and her music style ventures into pop, we see the internal battle  materialise and spill over, causing a rift in her relationship. Jackson drunkenly criticises Ally's song “Why Did You Do That?” by scoffing as he recites her lyrics. In a micro sense, this can be seen as Jackson thinking Ally is a sell-out by performing pop music. On the other hand, in a macro sense, this interaction reflects the superiority complex that critics - mostly older men - have when critiquing popular music from the likes of Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, and of course, Lady Gaga. Ally and Jackson’s opposing perspectives is ultimately manifested with “Shallow,” the heartfelt song they sing the first time they perform together. While Lady Gaga has said the song is about the mutual understanding and respect between the two characters, it also appears to exhibit their opposing views on the music industry. Jackson sings, “Tell me something, girl / Are you happy in this modern world? / Or do you need more? / Is there something else you’re searching for?”, emboldening Ally to dig deeper, foreshadowing Ally’s future foray into the pop genre.




In response to his verse, Ally sings, “Tell me something, boy / Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void / Or do you need more? / Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?” Ally’s reaction to Jackson’s lyrics not only dismisses the idea of music having to unveil a higher purpose, but sympathises with how exhausting it must be to live life constantly filled with the pressure to produce work that holds great wisdom. Perhaps this sympathy extends toward critics who just can’t seem to enjoy pop music for what it is - a memorable melody paired with an even more memorable chorus. Within the context of the film, the narrative of A Star Is Born calls both careers into question. Which career is more performative? Ally’s for singing captivating tunes and performing choreographed dances in sequinned bodysuits or Jackson's, who thinks his art is only worth something if it bares his soul?




A Star Is Born did an excellent job at many things; creating characters the audience can identify with, a love story to root for and questioning the integrity of pop music. Further, it provided us with an iconic soundtrack filled with ballads, bops, and everything in between. As it has become abundantly clear in the era of the Internet and overwhelming accessibility to both provide and absorb content, only truly magnificent pieces of art are critiqued; this can be said in regards to both pop music and A Star Is Born.






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