February 22, 2019

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In ‘A Star Is Born,’ Lady Gaga Pits Pop Against Authenticity

In ‘A Star Is Born,’ Lady Gaga Pits Pop Against Authenticity
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Her songs were driven by glossy, thumping dance-club beats, even as her lyrics insisted on darker impulses of attachment and obsession: “Chase you down until you love me,” she vowed in “Paparazzi.” At the same time, she was eager to prove that she was a skilled pianist and singer who had paid her dues at piano bars and remained a flesh-and-blood live performer, regardless of any trappings. Like Madonna before her, she made theatrical pop spectacle and full-tilt self-expression parts of the same package. But a battle between the perceived ephemerality of pop and the assumed durability of something more authentic has raged on in her music.

She followed her 2008 album debut, “The Fame,” and its extended version, “The Fame Monster,” with “Born This Way,” an album that mingled electro-pop tracks with ’80s-style arena anthems, flaunting an emissary from “real” rock music: Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The willful “Artpop” turned back to playful artifice, with art-world ambitions and diminishing returns. So Lady Gaga swung the pendulum far the other way, recasting herself on established ground — as a song-and-dance trouper who’s melding Broadway and movie-musical conventions with the demands of current pop. She sang a medley from “The Sound of Music” on the Academy Awards; she made an album with Tony Bennett. “Joanne,” from 2016, made an insistent show of authenticity: a painful story from her family’s past, acoustic guitars, a wide-brimmed hat.

In “A Star Is Born,” she casts herself as simultaneously approachable and larger than life. The movie tells a tragic love story, so of course the album is full of love songs. The 1954 Judy Garland version of “A Star Is Born” focused its songs on love and show-business ambition; the 1976 Barbra Streisand vehicle placed love alongside a woman’s self-assertion. The new one determinedly extols sincerity and truth-telling. Jackson Maine arrives onstage in the movie’s opening sequence to gulp down some booze and pills and then sing, “It’s time to testify/There’s no room for lies.”

[Read our review of “A Star Is Born.”]

For his character, the trappings of authenticity are straightforward. He’s a long-running rock archetype: a gruff-voiced, guitar-slinging, hard-drinking, country-rooted road warrior. His record collection is on vinyl; the camera lingers over his vintage stereo system. In the 1970s, his music would have been categorized as Southern rock or outlaw country; in the 2010s, he lands on the rowdier side of the arena-country mainstream. His songwriting collaborator and onstage bandleader is Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son.

As Ally, Lady Gaga gets all of the movie’s better songs; Cooper’s vary from serviceable to embarrassing (“Music to My Eyes” stays as labored as its title). But she also has a far more complicated relationship to supposedly unvarnished self-expression.

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