To Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s credit, the most controversial, critiqued element of A Star Is Born is a simple plot point. After Gaga’s Ally spends the first half of the film falling in love with Cooper’s turbulent, alcoholic rock star Jackson Maine and playing her songs around the country with him on his tour, she gets her own deal. A famous manager named Rez (Rafi Gavron) decides to take her on as his client and puts her in a studio for the first time. With Rez’s guidance, Ally ends up moving away from Jackson’s sound towards that of a full-fledged radio pop star. Her hair is orange, she’s backed by two female dancers and is seen in make-up and designer dresses for the first time. This isn’t the Ally we met, but it’s the Ally that makes it on her own and without the aid of a famous, albeit now less so, husband.
This portion of the film has been interpreted in many ways. On one hand, Jackson is more supportive of Ally’s career than previous incarnations of A Star Is Born male leads. He helps her record her first song, the catchy piano-pop love song “Look What I Found” and encourages her to stick around and finish recording her album instead of coming to Memphis with him. However, watching her perform “Why Did You Do That?” on an Alec Baldwin-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live drives him to drink after a brief period of semi-sobriety.
A bit dramatic, right? Of course, the moment Ally dives into the song is meant to be jarring on many levels. It’s the first time we meet the full-fledged pop star. It’s the point where she feels furthest from the modest Ally both the audience and Jackson met at the beginning. While she rebuffed the idea of using dancers on stage, for this she has several that she grinds against and spins around on stage with. No piano in sight for the girl who found it hard in her first studio session to perform without playing one as she sang. Plus the lyrics are an extreme level of over-the-top. “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” she inquires, a line meant to catch you off guard.
This moment, and a few others during Jackson’s worst drunken stupors, seem to present an argument against pop, which inherently feels like an argument against Lady Gaga herself, one of the biggest advocates for the delectably catchy dance-pop Ally embodies. When the song gets a Grammy nomination, a blackout drunk Jackson is not only confused but angry at Ally for letting go of the person he thought she was happiest being. Ally herself, however, mostly struggles with the presentation but seems genuinely pleased with the music she makes and performs.
In movies and television, there have been numerous “bad” pop songs written but very few written by actual pop stars. That makes an element of listening to “Why Did You Do That?” so intoxicating: here’s Gaga trying to make a fictionally Grammy-worthy song that someone like Jackson will hate and it’s actually pretty great. It’s her “sell-out bop” as fans on Twitter have called it. It’s peak The Fame-era Gaga: a vampy flirt with a penchant for a hook you won’t forget for years. This is no different than “Just Dance,” “Poker Face” or “Love Game.” She actually makes a strong case that not only is Ally an overnight success in the movie, but she’s actually made it seem plausible that the orange-haired Ally would succeed right now, on the actual charts and on today’s radio.
Gaga hasn’t had a straight-up dance-pop hit that sounds like “Why Did You Do That?” in a while: as proven by ASIB, she’s gotten pretty incredible at banging out a power ballad in more recent years. But in true Gaga fashion (or maybe even irony), it took her embodying someone else completely to get back to the root of one of her greatest skills: an inventive, forward-thinking pop artiste.