The Week In Pop

The A Star Is Born Soundtrack Could Stand To Go Off The Deep End More Often

If you remember any scene from the trailer for Bradley Cooper’s new A Star Is Born remake, it is almost certainly the one in which Cooper’s character, declining roots-rock god Jackson Maine, calls from a car window to Lady Gaga’s aspiring singer, identified only as Ally. It’s a scene that’s appeared in all four(!) versions of A Star Is Born: the 1937 silent film, the 1954 Judy Garland vehicle, the 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson joint, and Cooper’s new bid for auteurist Oscar cred. “Hey!” Jack cries out. When Ally turns around, puzzled, the rocker smiles and says, “I just wanted to take another look at you.” Cue Gaga face:

I saw A Star Is Born at a critics’ screening Monday night. I thought it lived up to the hype — corny and predictable, sure, but executed with a grace and beauty far beyond what I expected from Cooper’s directorial debut. I was engrossed throughout, not least of all by the music. In the context of the film, the songs worked extremely well in their double role as convincing popular singles and vehicles to move the story along. But did they stand up on their own as pop tunes outside the theater? The next day, I eagerly dug into the soundtrack to find out.

What is the point of a movie soundtrack? It depends on the movie. In a Broadway-style musical like The Greatest Showman, the songs are part of the story, modernized showtunes designed to mark key moments in the narrative. The soundtrack for the superhero blockbuster Black Panther functioned quite differently, more like a stylish accessory reflecting the movie’s themes. Perhaps the best way to understand it was as a killer Kendrick Lamar mixtape with a whole festival poster’s worth of guests.

Both of those soundtracks were massive hits this year, remaining at #1 on the Billboard 200 for multiple weeks and lingering in the top 10 far longer. A Star Is Born will surely be a huge success in its own right. The movie is riding a tidal wave of hype, with Oscar buzz for both Cooper and Gaga. Its companion album is 34 tracks long, about half of them spoken interludes comprising dialogue from the film. Even if those interstitial skits don’t count toward Spotify or Billboard’s calculations, the tracklist is built for gargantuan streaming totals.

Conceptually, A Star Is Born’s soundtrack splits the difference between the narrative-advancing The Greatest Showman model and Black Panther’s thematically linked mood board approach. The songs loosely tell a story, but mainly they are supposed to be hit singles by Jackson Maine and Ally. Like Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard soundtrack, the project doubles as a new Lady Gaga album of sorts — or at least it contains the substance of a new Gaga album within its multifarious sprawl — and every one of those since 2011’s Born This Way has debuted at #1. Plus, its appeal could extend far beyond Gaga’s army of Little Monsters considering the range of genres covered within the movie.

Up front, we get a lot of Jackson Maine songs, mostly Southern rock guitar jams Cooper crafted with assistance from an actual Southern rocker, Lukas Nelson, son of Willie. In recent years Nelson’s band Promise Of The Real has toured and recorded with Neil Young, so they’re well prepared for the role of Jack’s backing band in A Star Is Born, accustomed to the art of collaboration with a larger-than-life character. The songs Nelson wrote with Cooper — “Black Eyes,” “Out Of Time,” “Alibi” — are stomping riff-rockers rife with twangy, electrified soloing. They effectively sell Jackson Maine as Eric Church crossed with Derek Trucks. Speaking of trucks, these tracks wouldn’t sound out of place hawking F-150s in a Ford commercial.

Cooper and Nelson also teamed up on “Too Far Gone,” a slow-rolling country tune that appears late in the movie as part of Jack’s redemption narrative: “Please don’t tell me I’m too far gone/ I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms.” But the best of the Jackson Maine solo songs is the one penned by alt-country hero Jason Isbell, a folksy acoustic ballad called “Maybe It’s Time.” You may have heard part of it in the A Star Is Born trailer; it’s the one with the acoustic arpeggios where Cooper sings, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” If the rest of the Jack material is strictly serviceable, this one beams with personality and point of view. In its quietness, it comes through loud and clear.

Gaga’s material is tougher to wrap your head around. In practice, her songs as Ally are fairly straightforward genre exercises tracing the character’s path from Jack’s country-rock backing band to an A-list pop stardom that exists in parallel to Gaga’s own life. But that’s the thing: Are we to understand these primarily as Lady Gaga songs or Ally songs? Sometimes there’s no substantive difference, as when she belts out “La Vie En Rose” in theatrical cabaret style or teams with Lukas Nelson on “I Don’t Know What Love Is,” an operatic number fit for an old Italian crooner, which would have made sense on her collaborative album with Tony Bennett. Other times, it’s hard to tell if a track is intended primarily as pop or a comment on pop.

Consider the song co-written by veteran hit-maker Diane Warren, “Why Did You Do That?” It’s a paint-by-numbers pop tune with slinky xylophone and violin parts, big bass drops, and an incessant chorus melody that practically stabs you in the eardrums. In the movie, Jack writes it off as vapid sellout garbage, scoffing at lyrics like “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why you come around me with an ass like that?” Ally defends her work, but elsewhere in the movie she balks at backup dancers and other trappings of prepackaged pop stardom. And A Star Is Born takes pains to broadcast Jack’s belief that the path to a long and meaningful career involves giving your audience “the truth,” having “something to say.” So is “Why Did You Do That?” supposed to be “bad,” representing Ally’s turn away from authentic expression in pursuit of cheap fame? Or is it a “good” song designed to offend a rockist’s sensibilities?

For Lady Gaga the actress, Ally is a juicy role that might earn her an Oscar. For Lady Gaga the pop star, the character is another costume change in a career full of them. In one sense it’s an extension of the rootsy normcore real music of Gaga’s Joanne era, but with an added layer of distance. Her duets with Cooper fit this bill, as do the stripped-down but blustery piano ballad “Is That Alright?” and “Always Remember Us This Way,” a tune she wrote with country songwriting veterans Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna. Both of those last two songs would work as Joanne bonus tracks, and they’re at least as good as “Million Reasons,” that album’s one true hit.

But Ally is also a chance for Gaga to explore different styles without the pressure that comes with a New Lady Gaga Single. Granted, none of these experiments are nearly as out-there as you’d hope from an artist who made her name on over-the-top flamboyance. There is “Look What I Found,” a tasteful Motown-style romp that puts Meghan Trainor to shame. There is “Heal Me,” a wispy synth-pop track co-written by Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, which adapts the Chvrches sound to the mainstream far better than the last Chvrches album did. There is the emotional grand finale “I’ll Never Love Again,” a fairly blatant attempt to recapture the glory of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” cover from The Bodyguard, which turns out to be more powerful when it cuts from Gaga’s bombastic orchestral take to Cooper meekly plucking it out at a piano.

In A Star Is Born, these songs work wonders. On the A Star Is Born soundtrack, they’re good, not great. If we’re to receive them as Ally songs, they are believable hits within the film’s cinematic universe, and they’ll effectively transport listeners back to the movie in that Greatest Showman sense. But where soundtracks as stealth superstar albums are concerned, A Star Is Born is no Black Panther. Saddled with the pressure of measuring up to “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” and “The Edge Of Glory,” most of these tunes would flounder the way most of her singles since “Applause” have floundered.

The one song that stands up to such scrutiny is “Shallow,” a true home run that stands as Gaga’s best song since Born This Way. Co-written with Mark Ronson, Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, and Anthony Rossomando of Dirty Pretty Things, it reflects none of those artists’ usual aesthetic inclinations. Instead, it’s a country-fried ’70s power ballad of Meat Loafian proportions. Cooper’s burly acoustic first verse gives way to Gaga’s response, backed by a rising swell of orchestration. After this lovelorn exchange, Gaga launches into one of her signature powerhouse melodies, wailing, “I’m off the deep end! Watch as I dive in!” The song flips into high gear with her meme-worthy wordless howl and a firestorm of power chords, and suddenly we’re off the deep end right along with her. To borrow a phrase Jackson Maine would probably disdain, it’s lit.

Admittedly, the way “Shallow” is unveiled in the movie, crackling with is-this-really-happening excitement, is now forever interwoven with the song in my psyche. I wasn’t convinced at first that it’s an instant-classic song, but after seeing it in an instant-classic movie scene, I’m sold. Maybe as millions of other people see the movie they’ll get caught up in the same euphoria, and “Shallow” will become the mega-hit it deserves to be. If their experience is anything like mine, the song will easily climb to #1. On my way home from the theater Monday night, I listened to “Shallow” on repeat, almost compulsively. The screening had generated in me an excitement to match Jack and Ally’s on the night they first met. I just wanted to take another listen.

CREDIT: Ashlan Grey

CHART WATCH

Brockhampton have a #1 album! How about that? The hip-hop collective and self-proclaimed “boy band” enter the Billboard 200 on top with Iridescence, their first release for RCA. Per Billboard, the album logged 101,000 equivalent album units and 79,000 in pure sales to become Brockhampton’s first #1 LP. It’s an especially impressive feat given that none of Brockhampton’s songs has ever charted.

What’s even wilder is that Iridescence tops the debut of Josh Groban’s new album Bridges, which enters at #2 with 96,000 units and 94,000 in sales. That’s a significant dropoff from the 180,000 units/176,000 sales for 2015’s Stages. The rest of the top 10: Eminem, Drake, Travis Scott, Post Malone, Carrie Underwood, Juice WRLD, Lauren Daigle, Ariana Grande.

Over on the Hot 100, Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” holds on to #1 for a second straight week. The bigger news is Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” which rises to a new #2 peak after lingering in the top 10 for weeks and previously peaking at #3. This is the song’s 20th week on the chart. Also reaching a new peak is Post Malone’s “Better Now” at #3 in its 22nd week.

Those climbers bump Drake’s “In My Feelings” down to #4 and Eminem’s “Killshot” to #5. Back up to #6 is Travis Scott (and an uncredited Drake)’s “Sicko Mode.” Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It” is at #7, followed by 6ix9ine, Nicki Minaj, and Murda Beatz’s “Fefe” at #8. Rounding out the top 10 are Kanye West and Lil Pump’s “I Love It” at #9 and 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Youngblood” at #10.

POP FIVE

Halsey – “Without Me”
Did you know Halsey has a small part as herself in A Star Is Born? She presents Best New Artist at the Grammys! On her new single, her first solo release since last year’s quite good Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, she’s erring away from the hip-hop side of her sound toward synth-pop. It didn’t blow me away on first pass, but subsequent listens reveal the “thinkin’ you could li-i-i-i-ive without me” hook to be sneaky good. Is this a G-Eazy breakup song?

Mariah Carey – “With You”
That “Mustard on the beat, ho!” tag came out of nowhere! Despite its minimal production style and those finger snaps, “With You” veers far from Mustard’s signature sound. Thankfully it sounds very much like a signature Mariah single, a breathy love song over warm piano chords with ample opportunity for vocal vamping. “Damn, I fucks with you” is a hilarious lyric for an iconic diva who’s pushing 50 to be singing.

DJ Snake – “Taki Taki” (Feat. Selena Gomez, Ozuna, & Cardi B)
You really gotta work hard to take a group of people with this much personality and come away with such a blank slate of a song.

PRETTYMUCH – “Solita” (Feat. Rich The Kid)
PRETTYMUCH have a lot of ground to make up on Why Don’t We in the boy band wars, and recording a Latin pop song with one of Atlanta’s most popular rappers is one way to check off a lot of boxes. Unlike some of these new boy band tracks, “Solita” actually sounds like a song that might make its way into top 40 rotation. Consider it Timberlake’s “Señorita” meets Cardi’s “I Like It.”

Marc Anthony, Will Smith, & Bad Bunny – “Está Rico”
Will Smith can certainly afford to dress like that, but I don’t feel like it fits his vibe. Also, this song sucks.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift will open the American Music Awards next week. [Taylor Swift]
  • Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin did actually get married last month, TMZ reports, and they did so without a prenup. [TMZ]
  • Emma Stone will appear in Paul McCartney’s next video. [THR]
  • Lil Pump’s Harverd Dropout Tour has been cancelled, likely because he’ll have to serve jail time for violating parole. [Complex]
  • In his “Song About You” video Mike Posner sets aflame the giant papier-mâché head from the “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” video. [YouTube]
  • Post Malone debuted a snippet of his Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse song “Sunflower” on Fallon. [YouTube]
  • Clean Bandit announced their new album, What Is Love?, out 11/30, featuring Charlie XCX, Ellie Goulding, Sean Paul, Demi Lovato, Luis Fonsi, and others. [Billboard]
  • A new Little Mix single featuring Nicki Minaj is out next week. [Instagram]
  • Kim Petras released a Halloween-themed mixtape Turn Off The Light Vol. 1. [Kim Petras]
  • Twenty One Pilots, the Killers, Muse, Weezer, Rise Against, Bishop Briggs, and the Revivalists will play iHeartRadio’s second annual alt-rock fest ALTer EGO in LA in January. [iHeart]
  • Former Fifth Harmony member Lauren Jauregui’s debut solo single “Expectations” is out next week. [Twitter]
  • Madonna told WWD she’ll have a new record next year. “Yep, in between rose mist spray and serums, I’m actually making music. Can’t quit my day job.” [WWD]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME