Rockism and Poptimism in A Star Is Born

(Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

A Star is Born opens with Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, a drunk and ragged rock star who sells out arenas, discovering Lady Gaga’s Ally as she sings “La Vie en Rose” in a drag bar. After being dragged backstage by Ally’s enthusiastic friend, he takes a particular interest in Ally’s eyebrows, asking if they’re real (they’re not) and then offers to peel them off, revealing the first bits of the “real” Ally.

This scene serves two purposes: The first, and most important to the rest of the film, is to reveal that Jackson values authenticity above all else, and that he’ll do everything in his power to draw out the “real” Ally, even as both characters inhabit the superficial world of show business. The second purpose, and most important when considering the discussion surrounding this film, is to inform the audience that A Star Is Born is not a subtle movie.

Since the movie’s release, their have been a spate of headlines questioning (or flat out asserting) whether or not A Star Is Born, a runaway popular hit at the box office, “hates pop music.” I say “headlines” instead of “articles” because I have not read these articles. And I have not read these articles because (1) I wanted to see A Star Is Born with fresh eyes and (2) I really, really don’t have the patience to re-litigate the rockism v. poptimism wars again. But, alas, the discourse demands it, so I will submit, and give my take below. Just know that I don’t do so happily.

For those of you who actually enjoy music and don’t like to argue about it constantly, a quick primer: In the mid-2000s, a sect of music critics decided that mainstream pop music, the kind that appears in the top 40 charts and is listened to by ostensibly everyone, but perceptually by teenager girls and minorities, could be good, and was worthy of the critical attention given to classic rock bands and underground acts. This new approach, which effectively sought to make the notion of “guilty pleasure” obsolete, was called “poptimism.” The old approach to music criticism– one that valued singers who sang songs they wrote and emerged from local scenes– was then dubbed “rockism.”

Nowadays, the poptimist approach to music criticism is the standard, and its effects are immediately recognizable. Last month, Pitchfork, a website essentially created to cover the kinds of music mainstream outlets like Rolling Stone and Billboard were not, created a new list of the 200 Best Albums of the 80s. They’d already made a list of the “top” 100 albums of the 80s in 2002, but Pitchfork founder and editor-in-chief Ryan Schreiber said the new list was created because the website’s “purview of music has evolved to encompass a broader range of artists and genres.” Poptimism’s effects are apparent when you look at the top 25 ranked albums of each list. In the 2018 list, indie stalwarts Tom Waits, The Fall, and, XTC are out, while Sade, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson (the King of Pop himself) are in. The number one spot in the 2002 list was taken up by Sonic Youth’s indie rock milestone Daydream Nation. In 2018? Prince’s 13 times platinum Purple Rain.

On the whole, poptimism has some clear benefits. It’s helped elevate the voices of non-white, non-binary artists who gravitated towards disco, rap, and electronica more so than the many shades of rock out there. And, in the case of disco, it helped rehabilitate the reputation of an entire genre. But it has its drawbacks, too. Once you decide that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, you decide there’s no such thing as bad music, and a terribly boring critical consensus begins to emerge. You see, once you declare that no one form of music is more “legitimate” than another, you open up the door to the assertion that, as long as someone finds enjoyment in a song or artist, it cannot be bad.

The poptimist vs. rockist debate rages on throughout A Star Is Born. After Jackson discovers Ally, she joins his band in playing their desert-bleached strain of country rock to stadiums full of adoring fans, becoming a kind of Patti Scialfa to his Bruce Springsteen, playing piano and singing back up. She quickly becomes a fan favorite, enough so that she gets some of her own solo songs in the set and is eventually approached by agent/manager Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron) about the prospect of her launching a solo career. Ally takes Rez up on his offer and quickly metamorphosizes from an anonymous, slightly biker-y Italian chick from New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia into a modern pop star. She dyes her hair orange, trades her “Yes” t-shirt for a leather catsuit, her piano ballads for snapping electro-beats, and goes from writing songs about seeing the Arizona sky in her guy’s eyes to sugary pop songs that open with lyrics like “”Why do you look so good in those jeans?/Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”

This sudden transformation sends Jackson spiraling and exacerbates his substance abuse problems. This leads to him accusing his wife of writing songs that have “nothing to say” and hiding behind an artificial exterior, which, understandably, causes a rift in their marriage. This all reaches a head at the Grammys, the virtual altar of poptimism, when Ally goes to accept her “Best New Artist” award. A visibly intoxicated Jackson takes the stage with her, mumbling incoherently and pissing himself before he starts to pass out. As a result, he enters rehab, exits rehab, and ultimately commits suicide.

The surface level conclusion to draw from this turn of events is simple: Jackson, the old school rocker, has his life ruined by poptimism and pop music. He’s so legit that the mere idea of sharing a stage with his pop star wife, of reducing himself to her level, leads to him killing himself. He’d rather destroy himself than destroy his art and credibility, and given the tear-jerking tribute that Ally gives him at the end of the movie, he’s meant to be a martyr, a cautionary tale. “Don’t let your wife run off with a pretty British manager,” the message of this movie seems to be. “She’ll make a mockery of your music and ruin your life.”

But, I don’t completely buy into that reading because it ignores one huge element of Jackson’s story. Namely, Jackson’s complicity in his own demise.

We’re introduced to him as he’s taking the stage in front of an adoring crowd, hearing a ringing in his ear (later revealed to be chronic tinnitus), and popping some pills before tearing into a raw, bluesy riff and a sort of Zeppelin-by-way of Arizona fist-pumping rock tune. This establishes a clear, symbiotic relationship between rock music, Jackson’s deteriorating body, and his self-destructive habits. Jackson’s devoted himself so much to the cause of rock and roll that it’s beginning to take away his hearing, and his solution is to dope himself up with pills and steroids so he can keep traversing the country, rocking souls and minds.

He pursues these temporary solutions that merely mask his symptoms instead of more practical ones, like the in-ear monitors proposed by his doctor and by his brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliott). His reason for refusing the implants is that it creates a separation between him and his audience– that he can’t feel the energy necessary for him to give a great performance. Here, rock isn’t aspirational, it’s a crutch that’s abused time and again by Jackson to justify his drug and drinking habit. Jackson may be keeping it real, Cooper seems to say, but it’s that same authenticity that’s destroying his life.

In fact, the very venue in which Jackson and Ally meet seems to suggest that traditional notions of “authenticity” are either bunk or limited. Sure, it contains the subtext soaked scene I described above, but consider the clientele that bar usually caters too. We’re introduced to the drag performers as they’re getting ready backstage, painting their hair, plucking their eyebrows, and strapping on fake breasts.

Most of these performers don’t even sing and, instead, lip sync to pre-recorded classics. And yet, if I could cast some aspersions regarding an identity that is not mine, the drag community is one where people must put on a disguise to reveal their true selves. Because their organic physical appearance does not properly represent their inner life, they have to adopt a synthetic one. And Jackson, who literally keeps it so real it goes wrong, loves it! He even signs a pair of fake boobs, as if to give the entire subculture his seal of approval.

If anything, the drag club sequences reveal that authenticity is not a simple concept. The drag performers use artificiality to attain the rockist notion of authenticity, and they are painfully honest about it. Compare this to Bobby’s accusations that Jackson has stolen his signature singing and speaking drawl. In the latter example, it’s deception, meant to convince the audience of something that is not. In the former, it’s a knowing, outward expression of inner identity. It’s art.

So, if pop music isn’t the villain of A Star Is Born, then what is? Well given the snide, snotty, and disdainful air that follows Rez, Ally’s sockless manager, it’s the commodification of music rather than any one genre itself. It’s Rez who leads Ally astray from Jackson in the first place, who suggests she dye her hair, hire backup dancers, and it’s he who tries to drive a wedge between Ally and Jackson when he thinks their relationship might affect her career. When Ally suggests that a detoxed Jackson should join her on tour, Rez makes it very clear that this is career suicide, and then ensures that it results in literal, human suicide when he accuses Jackson of holding Ally back from true success.

Rez views performers as nothing more than assets. He doesn’t care whether or not their art is good, he only cares if it sells. Once he identifies a toxic asset muddying up his thriving one, he tries to jettison it in as cutting and cruel a manner as possible. This squares with Jackson’s earlier experience at a corporate event in Memphis where’s he’s too fucked up to play. He’s used to playing for arenas full of people there because they connect with and adore him, not because they wrote him a big check. In that instance, the music and reason for performing have become so corrupted that he can’t stand it, and needs to numb himself — even if it results in self-sabotage — to avoid playing it.

Bradley Cooper’s big tent approach to musical genre and artist popularity — Jackson Maine is the rare 2010s rock star who can be recognized by a Latino drag club patron, black cashier, and white cop, all in the same night — squares with his approach to moviemaking, too. A Star Is Born is a “pop” movie, for sure, but it’s the kind of “pop” movie that doesn’t really seem to exist anymore. There are no superheroes, CGI explosions and, despite an aggressive advertising budget, no tie-ins with fast food chains or sports leagues. Instead, A Star Is Born is a crowd-pleasing melodrama that draws people in with the charisma of its stars and a story of doomed, eternal love. It’s the kind of thing that would give an Academy that actually went through with the proposed Achievement in Popular Film Oscar a headache. It’s a popular film but in the classic, old Hollywood sense, not in the Marvel or DC sense.

And it has all of the flaws of a “popular” film as well. The romance at the center of it all is designed to fail, and the song Ally sings at the end in tribute of her fallen husband is at once a stirring endnote (it literally left my theater speechless) and an unearned flourish. As powerful as that final moment is, there’s something…icky about its setting.

A Star Is Born’s insistence that Jackson is someone who deserves such a tearful farewell is Old Hollywood at its core. It’s supposed to make you cry, then make you tell all of your friends how much it made you cry, so they’ll feel compelled to buy a ticket so they can cry, too. It’s well executed, but it’s manipulative, as well, and is meant to make you mourn a fictional man who may not be all he’s cracked up to be.

Because, the truth is, Rez is kind of right: Jackson was bad for business, and, as evidenced by his actions, not a great man. But given the resonance of his art, he was kind of a Great Man, someone whose music touched multitudes of people and left its imprint on rock history. In that same way, A Star Is Born is not a great movie, but, through its sheer reach and execution, it is a Great Movie. Greater than the sum of its parts, maybe, but destined to be great when measured in dollars made, awards won, and tear ducts filled. Because of that, I have a bit of a hard time comparing it to the other movies I’ve seen this year. It didn’t scare me like Annihilation, didn’t shock me like First Reformed, and didn’t touch me like Eighth Grade, but it did make me feel something, even if that something is just the result of a studio and director trying to make the biggest hit possible.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, even though it feels like a bit of an anomaly in this current franchise happy era, A Star Is Born is still a corporate backed, mass-market product meant to touch the largest amount of people. And even though it’s shameless in that regard, it’s still undeniably effective. That seems pretty poptimistic to me.