It took a while, but Chris Gaines has turned out to be one of the most influential artists of 2018, by being the least influential artist of 1999. That’s perhaps the weirdest aspect of Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born phenomenon — how uncannily close it all feels to country stud Garth Brooks’ makeover as Chris Gaines, one of history’s craziest superstar disasters. Garth was the biggest-selling artist at the all-time peak of the music biz, except he blew the whole thing by making a concept album as a fictional rock star, Garth Brooks in the Life of Chris Gaines. Suddenly he wanted us to see him as a dark, tortured, messianic figure crooning soft-rock ballads that sounded like Kenny Loggins crashing Michael Hutchence’s funeral with an audition tape. In other words, Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine is exactly the character Garth was trying to invent. “Shallow” even sounds like the Chris Gaines “hit” single, “Lost In You.”
The Chris Gaines fiasco has always been a great wild loony-star story, but I keep thinking of it when I hear “Shallow,” which is every 20 minutes or so. I’ve seen the movie three times (and ugly-cried every time, don’t @ me) and I’m fascinated by the Garth/A Star Is Born connection. Before his album bombed, Garth announced he was turning it into a movie, The Lamb—except that’s the role Gaga is about to win an Oscar for playing. What does it mean that Gaga, whose career looked dead in the water after too many glitzy makeovers, is suddenly more massive than ever, by turning into Garth’s failed rock-star fantasy? How did the world get to the point where the biggest hit around is Lady Gaga in the Life of Chris Gaines?
A Star Is Born, like Chris Gaines, is a parallel-universe alternate-timeline version of music-biz history where nothing makes a lick of sense. Jackson Maine talks like a guy who learned English from “Drops of Jupiter” and dresses like the last drunk to leave the bar on “Jeremy” Cosplay Speed-Dating Night. He likes to give Gaga pep talks like, “If you don’t dig deep in your soul, you won’t have legs, and if you don’t find your legs, you can’t walk to your heart and spread your wings and keep reachin’ for the stars.” As many people have pointed out, it’s impossible to locate his career anywhere in real-life history. But it works, even at its cheesiest. Garth didn’t get so lucky.
Strange as it might seem now, in 1999, Garth was the most invincible star on the planet. Then he turned in his cowboy hat for a bus-driver wig, grew a soul patch, and turned himself into a codpiece-wearing rocker. The CD collected Chris’ greatest hits from all over his career, culled from fictional albums with titles like Fornucopia. Garth pulled out all the stops to push this new identity. He hosted Saturday Night Live as himself, with Chris as the musical guest. He even did a VH1 Behind the Music documentary about Chris, with a cameo from good sport Billy Joel. (Despite all the hours I spent in 1999 eating microwaved burritos and watching Behind the Music marathons, I never knew this existed until years later, when I read about it in Chuck Klosterman’s book Eating The Dinosaur. I can assure you that if I didn’t see this episode, nobody did.)
The first time I heard “Lost in You” on the car radio, I said “Jesus, I bet this is Garth Brooks doing Chris Gaines.” For reference, I said the same thing the first time I heard Santana’s “Smooth.” I’ve heard “Smooth” on millions of radios since then, but somehow I knew this was the only time I’d ever hear “Lost In You” on the air, and I was right. In an era when music consumers were eager to trade $20 bills for CDs with an enthusiasm beyond anything witnessed before or after, Chris Gaines went bust. It was the kind of mega-star flop that just didn’t happen anymore.
Garth was known for nutty antics — just a few months earlier, he’d held a press conference to announce he was trying out for the San Diego Padres. He and Warren G had recently sued each other over the rights to the letter “g.” He kept talking up the Chris project all year long, and it seemed like his zaniest scheme yet…but had he ever been wrong? “We want people to go into the theater and know Chris Gaines and care about Chris Gaines,” he told the L.A. Times. “The thing I’d like to get across is how serious we are about this. There’s the Rutles and there’s Spinal Tap, and this is exactly the opposite.”
“Serious” was the least of his problems. He worked hard on the world-building, with a CD booklet that laid out Chris’ whole life story. The plot: Chris is born in 1967, blows up in the Eighties with his band Crush, goes solo in 1989. There’s a photo gallery of album covers like Straight Jacket (Chris in the mental ward, getting felt up by sexy nurses) and Fornucopia (Chris in a Clockwork Orange bowler frowning between a pair of spandex-clad breasts). Fornucopia is the “very dark and angry album” that tops the charts in the fall of 1991 — not, say, Nirvana’s Nevermind. Chris gets mystical on Apostle, which comes in 1994 — the year Jackson Maine supposedly debuted. He goes through sex addiction, plastic surgery (“Chris was dubbed ‘The New Prince’ by the media”), a tragic car crash. “Now, on the eve of the millennium, Chris has assembled his greatest hits,” the bio tells us. He’s preparing us for The Lamb, “which the critics are already predicting will be ‘the definitive album of the new millennium.’”
The Lamb never happened, like a lot of the futures people dreamed up for Y2K. The Chris Gaines album dropped on September 28th, 1999 — the same day as Creed’s Human Clay — and bricked so hard, Garth briefly retired. He’s wiped this phase out of his history. The whole stunt turned into an epitaph for its era, a goodnight to the whole “people buying music with money” fad. Needless to say, you can’t find Chris’ songs on streaming services, though you can find Spotify cover versions “In the Style of Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines,” which is truly next-level. (Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die?)
A Star Is Born, like The Life of Chris Gaines, is a Bizarro World fantasy of pop history that cheerfully makes no contact with our planet. Gaga’s Ally is an old-school classic rocker, strutting in her Yes T-shirt, sleeping under a Carole King album cover. Yet she’s never seen Behind the Music, or any previous version of A Star Is Born, so she falls for the first industry sleaze she meets, complete with Hollywood’s mandatory Evil Manager accent. (In The Bodyguard, this character was played by the guitarist from Spandau Ballet.) The manager deserves some kind of award for giving the cheesiest performance in a cast that includes Andrew Dice Clay. He talks her into making a (terrible) disco hit that sounds nothing like Gaga’s (great) disco hits, so she wins the Grammy for Best New Artist, which Gaga didn’t. In the immortal words of Halsey, “How great!” It’ll be fitting if Gaga wins an Oscar for the movie with the best fictional Grammy scene ever, since Whitney won a slew of Grammys for the movie with the craziest fictional Oscars. (Where was Kevin Costner when Gaga needed him? Seriously, where the hell did the chatty limo driver go? Why isn’t there a scene where he’s watching the Grammy debacle with a single tear running down his cheek?)
True, Chris Gaines might have been a flop the day he arrived. But in a way, he lives on today. A Star Is Born is the ultimate resurrection of his legacy. Garth should feel vindicated. And so should Chris. Always remember him this way.