The ‘A Star Is Born’ Soundtrack Is Like a Trip Through Lady Gaga’s Career

The film's music moves through the sub-genres she's touched upon across her four albums, reaffirming the popstar's versatility.
October 10, 2018, 1:30pm
Lead image from trailer via YouTube

This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.

Film soundtracks usually fall into two different categories. There are those where an artist produces the entire album, giving the music a cohesive, flowing energy (think of Air’s iconic Virgin Suicides record, or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ The Social Network, or how Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is soundtracking the Suspiria remake) and others where songs, often from different genres, are carefully curated and thrust together to serve the emotional impacts of the film’s various scenes. The newest release by Lady Gaga—a soundtrack album for her film A Star Is Born, both of which were released in full last Friday—is interesting, then, because it’s a little of both, with a bit of a Gaga-for-Beginners class packed in to boot.

From the very opening scene, with its close camerawork and reedy, realistic-sounding, and crucially loud guitars, it’s clear that A Star Is Born is to be a movie with music absolutely at its centre. It introduces Bradley Cooper’s Jackson “Dave Grohl But Make It Country” Maine to us as a musician by putting the viewer on stage with him, and from there we see a huge, outdoor audience, and, at eye level, a man grabbing his guitar by the neck as if to strangle it.

The songs written for Cooper at the beginning of the soundtrack are cocky, country, and high masc (if you can listen to “Alibi” without wanting to drop $100 on a sweet pair of cowboy boots you’re a harder person than me). As the narrative progresses and he meets Gaga’s Ally, however, he duets with her more, and his output becomes musically softer as she brings her own softness to his Troubled-with-a-capital-T life.

It’s Ally’s musical evolution from Jackson’s touring buddy to pop starlet in her own name, however, that really drives the plot of the film, and therefore the soundtrack too. Taken as a whole, the album feels like Gaga reaffirming what she can do following the critical losses of her last album Joanne. On A Star Is Born, as Ally, but also very much as Gaga, her vocal versatility allows her to move through many different colors on the pop spectrum, from Top 40-adjacent to foot-on-the-table rock.

Across this collection of songs—which a recent New York Times Magazine profile refers to as “her major contribution to the film”—there’s something from every stage of Gaga’s musical career, in what feels like a bit of a wry retrospective, considering the film’s self-reflexive subject matter (that is, a young woman becoming an astronomically famous singer, played by an already-astronomically famous singer). Gaga, who has at least a writing or producing credit on all but one of the original tracks on the soundtrack, therefore uses the soundtrack to hop between many of the genres she’s tried out so far, to give viewers who are paying attention something from each of her eras: there’s a little Joanne, a little Born This Way, even quite large dashes of The Fame.

Early on in the film, when she’s playing onstage with Jackson, we hear the bombast of the rockier moments on Born This Way (“Diggin’ My Grave” feels like the ex-husband of “Yoü and I”); later when Ally plays “Look What I Found” for record executives, there’s some of Joanne’s homely nature. And near the climax of the film, when Ally has fully embraced her Tango-haired popstar self, there are delightful shades of Gaga’s early career: hearing her do glossy pop on tracks like “Heal Me” – and especially “Hair Body Face” with its big launch into the chorus and hooky “I got my hair, body, face” line – feels like a fun throwback, and a reminder, like last year’s “The Cure” was, that this is the sort of shit Gaga still revels in. Though they feel tinny in the film’s mix (presumably to slightly eyebrow-raisingly suggest the inauthenticity of Ally’s pop career compared with the rich country rock tracks created during her early relationship with Jackson), on the soundtrack album with full-length edits, these songs, any of which could’ve showed up on The Fame, are just as accomplished as the more traditionally instrumental songs.

Throughout, Gaga not only shows herself to be a generic chameleon, but a hell of an instrumentalist and singer. She’s constantly given moments to sit at the piano and sing her heart out straightforwardly, and these (in particular “Always Remember Us This Way,” which sounds like a classic American song) are the best moments on the record and in the film, her emotional delivery clearly natural and unfaked. She can, convincingly, do it all.

And ultimately with this soundtrack album, I think that’s what Lady Gaga wants to show us. She can do anything she puts her mind to, and she can sing a lung off while doing it. Here she is fully inhabiting a bunch of different pop genres (and surely winning at least one Oscar, Best Original Song, for “Shallow”) when perhaps you thought she’d blown her hand with Joanne; here she is essentially throwing herself a career retrospective out of entirely new songs, in the form of an album soundtrack to the biggest film of the year, in which she also stars.

Here she is, aged only 32, already in possession of a career which has yielded such great versatility and variety. It’s the sort of audacity that only Gaga could pull off.

You can find Lauren slapping her thighs to "Alibi" on Twitter but also just generally.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.