To an eerie degree, this inquiry fits with Gaga’s decade in the public spotlight. She landed from the NYC cabaret scene as a meta-superstar, with the titles of her debut-phase releases, The Fame and The Fame Monster, asking the question articulated by the title of the 1932 film that spawned the entire Star Is Born franchise: What price Hollywood? A wild new outfit every time she stepped out in public, a series of gnomic statements in the press, and her music’s sleekly robotic tributes to the superficial hinted that Gaga was out to kill the concepts of fixed identity and art as an expression of truth. This was the start of an internal dialectic, and her 2011 masterpiece of bombast, Born This Way, attempted synthesis. The embrace of true self—especially for the marginalized—might be the same as the embrace of the costume. Dyeing one’s hair and disappearing into nightlife was self-actualization, punk and proud.
Maybe that’s exactly what Ally believes from the start. Jackson discovers her at a gay bar, where she performs in costume with drag queens, those boundary-breaking entertainers for whom self-expression requires breastplates and wigs. He then coaxes her into his world of singer-songwriter rock and roll, and the advice he repeatedly gives her is that meaning matters more than talent; it’s the message you articulate with your voice that counts. But the lyrics of their signature duet, “Shallow,” hint at a rift in sensibility. “Tell me somethin’ girl, are you happy in this modern world, or do you need more?” Jackson sings, insinuating that to be of the now is to be empty. Ally’s reply is a critique of purity: “Ain’t it hard keepin’ it so hardcore?”
As the movie shifts from its flirtatious and freewheeling first half to a chronicle of dark complications, the authenticity debate plays out in a fashion that’s either simplistic or subtle; it’s hard to tell. Ally links up with a smarmy industry type who encourages a garish makeover on the way to hits and acclaim. She makes muted protests, but overall seems okay with his plan. Meanwhile, Jackson’s disgust wells up. It’s possible his critique of her music is fueled by jealousy and the emotional carnage of substance abuse, but many of the complaints he expresses do accord with the attitudes he’s held all along. Peace arrives only at great cost: He makes a final, wrenching decision that he perversely thinks will let her career flourish. It’s tough not to wonder if it is also a gesture of spite, and a statement of defeat.
The concepts embedded in Jackson and Ally’s back-and-forth are the same ones embedded in larger arguments about genre, art, and even gender: Jackson sneers just like many real-world rockers do at pop divas’ supposed falseness, frivolity, and crassness (he takes specific issue with an Ally lyric about ass). The movie never really gives Ally a moment to argue her case, which means viewers are left wondering whether she believes she’s been corrupted. Yet details about Cooper’s character contain an element of critique toward his side. His gravelly voice, the audience is told, is “stolen” from his older brother, a failed musician. When Jackson finally gives up on his journey, he lays down his cowboy hat, the gruff rocker’s costume. All along, he’s been wearing a veil as surely as Ally’s been dyeing her hair.