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“Maybe It’s Time To Let the Old Ways Die…”: “A Star Is Born” and Baby Boomer Rock Nostalgia…

It takes a lot to change, it takes a lot to try,

Baby, it’s time to let the old ways die.

A Star is Born would seem to be a massive success, before it has even been released.

The film has an impressive score on both Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. The film has also been named as the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner by publications as diverse as Forbes, Playlist, Vulture and Vanity Fair. Of course, that may not actually mean much; presumptive Best Picture frontrunner status doesn’t always translate into ownership of that little gold statue. Just ask La La Land, the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner from two awards seasons back, a film that literally had the award snatched out of its hand by the underdog that could, Moonlight.

The comparison to La La Land is interesting. In many ways, A Star is Born is effectively the movie that many critics claimed to see in La La Land. By its nature, La La Land evoked nostalgia for a long-lost version of Hollywood, blending a story of an ascendant star with a cynical hipster, filtered through the lens of old-school musicals. Many read the film as the ill-judged story of a white guy saving jazz, glossing over the fact that it was instead a tragic story about a guy who kept an outdated notion of jazz alive in a basement club while shunning the opportunity to work with an African American artist to bring it to the masses.

What is striking about A Star is Born is how it embraces many of the controversial aspects of La La Land and pursues them with uncritical earnestness. A Star is Born is a film steeped in seventies notions of authenticity, reflected not only in the past-his-glory stylings of rock daddy Jackson Maine, but also in the stylistic influences of Bradley Cooper who aspires towards the glory days of the New Hollywood movement. At the core of A Star is Born is a suggestion that popular culture was never more “real” than it was during the seventies, and that modern artists should look back to that authenticity, not craft their own identities.

A Star is Born is inevitably going to be nostalgic. It is the forth iteration of this particular fairytale to use the title, although the story itself has been reworked and reimagined in countless iterations over the past century. Fans were already identifying callbacks and homages to early versions of the story from the trailer. Much was made of the the passing of the torch, whether it was Kris Kristofferson allowing Bradley Cooper to use his set at Glastonbury to film a key sequence from the movie, or his and Barbra Streisand’s visit to the set. Nostalgia was woven into the fabric of A Star is Born.

However, A Star is Born is in theory about more than nostalgia. It is about evolution. It is about a dying star elevating a new voice from obscurity, providing a young artist with a platform from which they might launch themselves. A Star is Born is a tale of succession, of perpetual reinvention, of the passing of the torch from one generation of celebrity to another. This is why the story inevitably focuses on an over-the-hill rocker who discovers a startling young talent. It is a story about how celebrity changes and evolves. It is about acknowledging the future, and allowing the past to legitimise that future.

There are certainly shades of that in A Star is Born. There are certain songs that recur throughout the film, suggesting both potential hit singles from the soundtrack and important thematic markers. Shallow is one hell of a pop-rock love ballad, full of power and emotion. However, Jackson Maine keeps coming back to his own folksy country ballad Maybe It’s Time to Let the Old Ways Die. It seems like an important statement of purpose for the film, an exploration of what is actually happening when this aging crooner plucks young Ally out of obscurity and pushes her towards celebrity.

Unfortunately, the movie itself seems less concerned about letting the old ways die, and instead is much more anxious about what it sees as the lack of authenticity within popular culture. When A Star is Born positions Jackson Maine as an aging rock god, it is entirely sincere. It might accept the man’s flaws, but it heralds his message. A Star is Born is a story about how “real” celebrity looks like a bearded rocker with a guitar thrown over his shoulder singing about lost love, while more stylised modern pop culture is just vacuous nonsense. A Star is Born is a prestige picture celebration of baby boomer rock nostalgia.

American popular culture has a very specific idea of how “real” music looks and sounds. A lot of it is anchored in the rockers of the sixties and seventies, trapped in amber and preserved as a platonic ideal of what music should be. As time has moved on, this ideal has metastasised into empty nostalgia. After all, the Rolling Stones are still touring and selling out concerts almost half a century past their prime. They are not alone; look at the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. This nostalgia is so strong that these bands can become brands, such as the various iterations of Pink Floyd who tour.

Indeed, A Star is Born unfolds very much within this particular cultural context. Earlier versions of A Star is Born tended to focus on a past-his-prime male lead with more overt signifiers of declining celebrity. Instead, this version presents Jackson Maine as a man who is coming apart on a personal level while still being able to tour and sell out venues. Repeatedly over A Star is Born, Jackson is able to play to capacity crowds like various other real-life aging rock stars. More than that, his celebrity is still strong enough that a cashier working a till at a late night supermarket will attempt to take a sneaky camera snap of him.

Of course, there are a few recurring hints that Jackson is seen as something of a spent force by the music industry at large and even by some of his contemporaries. At the Grammys, Jackson is coopted into “one of those supergroups” with a bunch of other celebrities to mark the passing of Roy Orbinson. Jackson seems surprised that he won’t be the vocalist, essentially demoted to lead guitarist. When he performs at the ceremony, drunkenly stumbling and missing his cue before announcing his arrival with a delightfully overwrought riff on that introductory guitar line, his fellow stars look uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, A Star is Born makes it very clear that Jackson’s flaws are not that he is creatively tired or out of touch. Instead, they are largely a result of personal dysfunction. Jackson is struggling with addiction, one inherited from his father and enabled by his success. He is introduced swigging from a bottle in the back seat of his car, desperately urging his driver to find a bar or an off-license on his way home from a show. Jackson can barely stand straight, and the movie skillfully captures the blind eye that the people around him turn to his problems. However, despite these issues, Jackson can still perform. And do it well.

Indeed, as much as A Star is Born is about Jackson discovering some previously unseen worth in Ally, it is also about Ally finding some long-lost worth in Jackson herself. Ally inspires Jackson to begin writing again. Although Jackson seems popular, the film suggests that a lot of his celebrity profile becomes filtered through her; his biggest embarrassment at the Grammys, the big viral moment from the first concert that they perform together. Previous versions of A Star is Born suggested that the older male celebrity displayed keen insight in spotting the young ingenue. This version suggests an equivalence.

If anything, Ally repeatedly defends Jackson from the public. Their blossoming romance includes a punch-up at a bar when Ally attacks a fan obnoxiously asking for a photograph, with the film implying that Ally is unique in seeing Jackson as a fully-formed human being rather than as a resource to be cynically exploited. “It’s okay,” Jackson states to one fan trying to sneak a photo on their phone. Ally takes the time to defend Jackson from these intrusions to which he has numbed himself, “It’s not okay.” Ally berates her father for talking about celebrity as something that might “rub off on [him]” be association.

There is a weird sense of delicacy in how A Star is Born approaches Jackson. Certainly, the suggestion of any jealousy that he feels towards Ally’s success is downplayed, relative to earlier versions of the story. The film leaves enough room for the audience to make their own reading on the character, particularly when Jackson embarrasses himself at the Grammys, inviting them to wonder about his own insecurities about being eclipsed. However, the repeated classification of Jackson’s alcoholism as “a disease” invites the audience to look past this simple causation.

Indeed, a lot of A Star is Born seems to argue for the value of the ageing rock star. It insists that Jackson know what real music is. “You stole my voice,” accuses his brother Bobby in one early conversation. Jackson responds, “You weren’t saying anything with it.” It doesn’t matter that Jackson isn’t unique or distinctive. All that matters is that he has something important to say. Jackson is real. Jackson is authentic. Jackson hasn’t sold out. Jackson isn’t mass-produced or smoothed over. Jackson is raw. Jackson is honest.

Indeed, Jackson feels like a familiar set of clichés about baby boomer rock nostalgia, the gods of rock ‘n’ roll who came of age in the sixties and seventies. Every music festival is compared to Woodstock. Every piece of music must stand in the shadow of the Beatles. Lists of the best bands and albums of all time are populated by the same entries over and over; the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. There is a very strong sense of what “great” music looks like in the popular imagination, and watchword for many fans of baby boomer rock is “authenticity.” It is very important that these singers project a sense of realness.

This emphasis on authenticity in some ways carries over to Cooper’s key influences on the film itself. Cooper is very much influenced by sixties and seventies Hollywood in the way that he constructs A Star is Born. The film has a grizzled and grounded realism to it that provides a nice contrast with the fairytale premise of a star discovered in a grotty dime bar. Cooper is fond of tracking and handheld shots, often frames his characters intense close-ups, builds the film from understated longish takes, and offers a naturalism to contrast with the movie’s exploration of celebrity.

To be fair, these parallels suggest themselves. Cooper’s path from bankable leading man to modern auteur is straight from the Warner Brothers playbook. Cooper’s journey from sex symbol to director of a potential Best Picture winner evokes that of Ben Affleck. However, the default comparison for both Cooper and Affleck is to the definitive seventies sex-symbol-actor-turned-director, Clint Eastwood, who has a long association with the studio dating back to the mid seventies. It’s not to hard to imagine a younger Clint Eastwood in the Jackson Maine role in A Star is Born. In fact, Eastwood was the director who originally developed the project at Warner Brothers.

The New Hollywood movement in particular and seventies cinema in general was much more engaged with similar notions of authenticity to that of baby boomer rock ‘n’ roll. Advances in technology made location shooting cheaper and easier. The performances became more realistic and grounded, as New York actors developed a style distinctive from stage acting. This shift is evident even in the look of the films of the era, with a shift away from technicolour towards more naturalistic cinematography. Dialogue like that of Woody Allen became a lot more realistic.

As such, it makes sense that A Star is Born would be drawn to seventies ideals of authenticity and legitimacy in rock ‘n’ roll, a preference for the naturalist and the realistic in popular music reflecting the film’s own cinematic influences. It fits very comfortably within the framework of the film that Cooper is trying to make. It is very difficult to imagine a film that would work as effectively with the character of Jackson Maine without adhering to this nostalgic ideal of “authentic” artistry.

However, particularly striking is the way in which this adoration of rock music has been exclusionary and aggressive, how this insistence upon the “authenticity” of rock comes with an underlying assertion about the lack of authenticity in other forms of music. Notably, this older generation of music fans tend to look on pop as fake or inauthentic by comparison. Pop music is seen as fake and shallow, to the point that there are moments within A Star is Born where it seems like Shallow is more of a warning about the temptations of light and bubbly pop music than an emotive love ballad.

More than that, there’s a sense that this preference towards a particular model of “truly artistic” singing and songwriting has traditionally rejected outside voices, whether passively or aggressively. As of 2009, of the 159 total inductions in the Performers category at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, 135 were of solo male performers or male groups. By 2017, of the 317 total inductions at the Hall of Fame, only 43 were of women or of groups that included women. This is to say nothing of the repeated exclusion of R & B acts and the cautious embrace of hip-hop by the powers that be.

These are just passive measures of the way in which baby boomer rock nostalgia shapes and colours the popular conception of music. During the seventies, fans of rock music were actively engaged in attempts to downplay and delegitimise disco music. In the late seventies, a large group of rock and roll fans swarmed Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a mass-burning of disco albums, turning the event into a miniature riot. The politics of that night are still reverberating in popular culture, in spaces as surreal as The Martian, wherein a defining personality trait of Mark Watney is that he hates disco music.

It should be noted that Beyoncé was originally supposed to star in A Star is Born. She was attached to the project before Cooper, back when Clint Eatwood was originally supposed to direct. She had to drop out due to a pregnancy, however did briefly come back to the project after Bradley Cooper came on board in December 2015. That did not work out, and she was replaced by Lady Gaga in June 2016. This might have been for the best, given the potential cultural landmines around a white rock ‘n’ roll star lecturing a black artist about “authenticity.”

Even alloying for this, there is something decidedly uncomfortable in the way in which A Star is Born approaches the relationship between Jackson and Ally. Jackson is presented as something of a rock ‘n’ roll Jesus Christ within the film, complete with his beard and his profound personal insights. He is repeatedly framed as a martyr; whether to his addiction or to his celebrity. Jackson is real, and Jackson values realness above all else. When he finds Ally performing in a dive bar, he is immediately drawn to her, because of the honesty of her performance and the honesty of herself.

However, A Star is Born immediately classifies Ally as a pop star in contrast to Jackson’s rock star. Whereas Jackson is presented as uncouth and unfiltered, and more than a little unreliable, there is an immediate emphasis on just how much of Ally’s pop persona is manufactured. Her hair is dyed. She is provided with back-up dancers to add a sense of spectacle to her regime. Looking at the photographs from one promotional session, Ally gasps in awe, “That doesn’t look like me.” She means it as a compliment, a sign of how much she has transformed and been transformed. However, Jackson is more wary.

A Star is Born is tilting very much at a certain model of celebrity. Indeed, it is very much directing its anxieties towards pre-packaged and heavily manufactured pop sensations like those featured on X-Factor or America’s Got Talent. As much as A Star is Born has a villain, it is Rez. Rez is Ally’s new manager, and is very consciously modelled on Simon Cowell, the personification of modern soulless manufactured pop stardom. A Star is Born presents Rez as a sinister and Machiavellian figure, one capable of subtle manipulation and aggressive control.

However, A Star is Born isn’t particularly specific in what it doesn’t like about pop music. Ally is played by Lady Gaga, and the character is very much coded in a way as to suggest some deeper connection to the performer. Ally is introduced playing at a drag night, evoking Gaga’s origins playing “a lot of gay bars and dive bars” and also her sizable gay following. Ally talks about how she had trouble landing a record deal because she is considered unattractive, mirroring Gaga’s experiences at school where she’d be called “a slut or a b!tch or ugly or big nose or nerd or dyke.”

That said, A Star is Born also ties Ally’s misbegotten star persona to that of Lady Gaga. At one point, at the height of her fame – in a scene in which Jackson openly wonders if she might ever find herself again – she is introduced wearing a blouse decorated with the familiar “oh oh oh oh oh oh” refrain of Poker Face and Bad Romance. At another point, Rex wonders is Ally might consider dying her hair platinum. The high production values of Ally’s stage persona recall the sort of spectacle associated with Lady Gaga’s stage performances. A Star is Born seems to take aim at Gaga as readily as Simon Cowell.

At one moment in A Star is Born, Jackson seems to puzzle over the lyrics to Ally’s latest song. “I listened to it over and over,” he observes, slightly confused. “What does it mean?” Although the scene quickly turns hostile, as Ally gets defensive over the fact that Jackson is questioning her art, the early beats play his confusion as entirely genuine. It recalls the befuddlement that traditional music publications might feel trying to make sense of pop songs like Poker Face. (Never mind scientific studies that “prove” modern pop music is worse or that it is ruining its listeners’ brains.)

In the world of A Star is Born, Ally is never more legitimate an artist than when she’s sitting at a piano or alone on stage accompanying a traditional rock star carrying a guitar. Everything else is a distraction from her talent and something that waters down her artform. A Star is Born gives no consideration to the idea that it is possible for something stylised or heightened to communicate true artistic intent.

This overlooks the fact that modern pop stars can communicate valid artistic intent through production, performance and staging. Lady Gaga might not conform to traditional rock ‘n’ roll ideas of authenticity, but she undoubtedly means a lot to an audience who see something of themselves in her music. She helped to mainstream queer culture in the twenty-first century. She writes the majority of her own music, she plays her own instruments, she produces her material. She has paid her dues in terms of her work with older artists like Tony Bennett.

It would seem absurd to define any of this as especially or egregiously inauthentic. David Bowie very famously cycled through genres and personas while producing his music; Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, Tin Machine, the persona on 1.outside. It seems absurd to argue that the artist was inauthentic, or that he put none of himself in his work, that he would be somewhat less valid an artist than anybody standing in front of a crowd with nothing but a guitar in hand.

A Star is Born has a very strange notion of authenticity. Ally performing a song that Jackson genuinely does not understand is presented as a betrayal of her talent and her abilities. However, the movie builds towards a climax where Ally finally sings a beautiful song that Jackson has written for her. When she visits him in rehab, she shows him the scribbled notes that she found tucked away inside a notebook. “I thought you might find that when you got back to you,” Jackson tells her.

Even here, perhaps, there is a sense of encroaching metatext. Recent years have seen Lady Gaga attempting to transition towards a more rock ‘n’ roll style. Critics suggested that her last studio album, Joanne, revealed Gaga to be “a rock ‘n’ roll showgirl at heart.” Perhaps it’s not too much to read Ally’s journey towards these very retrograde notions of authenticity and legitimacy as the cinematic equivalent of the cowboy hat that she wore on the cover of Joanne. It should be noted that Joanne was released only three months after her casting in A Star is Born was announced.

Even if the rock ‘n’ roll authenticity within A Star is Born appeals as readily to Gaga as to Cooper, the climax of the film focuses upon an idealised image of artistic integrity that features a young female performer singing the words of a tired old rock god. That is a very strange and unconvincing idea of authenticity, but one that feels strangely in keeping with the film’s rock ‘n’ roll bona fides.

2 Responses

  1. Baby Boomers have grown up to become their parents. When they were teens, Baby Boomers were constantly lectured to by their parents, told over and over “When I was your age, we listened to REAL music, not the this rock and roll crap that you keep playing.” Now that THEY are the adults, the Baby Boomers are the ones who are always lecturing their kids and grandkids, telling them “When I was your age, we listened to REAL music, not this crappy pop music that you keep playing.” I doubt very many of them notice the irony of the situation.

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