Lady Gaga Challenges the Sellout Trope in A Star Is Born

In the film, Bradley Cooper’s Jackson believes Lady Gaga’s Ally is betraying her authenticity, a concept long critiqued by the pop star-cum-actress.

A scene from A Star Is Born  (Warner Bros)

This article contains some spoilers for A Star Is Born.

Lady Gaga does some great acting in A Star Is Born, but her performance extends beyond film. She’s been wearing outfits that evoke classic Hollywood when promoting Bradley Cooper’s remake of a Hollywood classic, and one particularly fascinating look came in the form of a black veil on the Toronto International Film Festival red carpet. Both funereal and nostalgic, the face covering recalled the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Stanwyck. Cooper carefully lifted it for the cameras, and Gaga then repurposed it as a shawl.

In A Star Is Born, Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, makes a few gestures of unveiling toward Gaga’s character, Ally. He removes her false eyebrows, and then he tears down the psychic shell she’s built around her songwriting talents. These acts are supposedly contrary to the artifice that the larger world demands on her rise to fame. She is asked to hide her striking nose, dye her brown hair something flashier, exchange her jeans for catsuits, and record dance-pop rather than piano ballads. As she complies—donning a glittering new veil of sorts—Jackson comes to feel she’s sold out. The viewer gets hooked into a tension that’s never clearly resolved: Is he right? Has Ally lost herself?

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.

Gaga herself once sang about veils on the 2013 tune “Aura,” which kicked off Artpop, the album that represented her career’s last sustained statement for titanium-plated pop. “This song is about me basically saying that just because all of those things are there [it] doesn’t mean that there is not sort of the same person underneath,” she explained at the time. Over thundering EDM, the lyrics asked,  “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover? Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?” This is the tease embedded in celebrity culture writ large, and Gaga’s post-Artpop efforts gave the impression of a strip show as she dabbled in country rock, show tunes, and vérité.

A Star Is Born, with its hype about a mascara-free Gaga, might be seen as another sop to the incoherent notion that realness is an ideal achieved through superficial tropes: acoustic instruments, untousled follicles. But maybe something deeper is going on, tying Gaga’s quiet later phase with her frenetic early years. The story depicts two human beings not only revealing themselves to each other, but also changing each other—musically, yes, but in physical form as well: applying and removing makeup, inflicting and tending to wounds. To reshape oneself for others is not necessarily a soul-smashing capitulation to cameras, the movie hints. It is a requirement of living itself, and in pretending otherwise lies the true danger.