In this week's Pop is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood anticipates the return of modern pop culture's most iconic enigma – this time, as an actress – and whether or not the culture-shifting star can have the world hanging on her every word again
Whenever one of my favourite pop stars falls out of vogue, there’s a voice in the back of my head that taunts me: “this might be it”.
There’s an idea – one that exclusively applies to the genre’s women for a fucked up reason I’ll address later – that there’s a single ‘queen of pop’ crown that is passed from person to person. Once a woman has had her share of it, she’ll be relegated to a lower tier as someone fresher and sexier takes her place.
The industry let Lady Gaga have her turn: a seemingly relentless four years between 2009 and 2012 during which she had the world in a chokehold. Every action, word and outfit she gave us earned her a new headline. The general public obsessed over each new single. The bangers – accessibly produced like Eurodance, but laced with her oddball attitude as a lyricist – felt like the heart of her success.
“The industry let Lady Gaga have her turn as queen of pop – a relentless four years between 2009 and 2012 during which she had the world in a chokehold.”
But somewhere between the tail-end of her ‘Born This Way’ era and the hyperactive “goes to Berlin once” sounds of ‘Artpop’, Gaga’s mainstream relevancy fell by the wayside, and the response to her really very good ‘Joanne’ album was muted.
Her singles didn’t smash the charts like they used to, and soon enough, everybody had moved on to someone new. Our recent column on the semantics of flopping (shameless plug) goes into this a little deeper.
But like a phoenix rising, Gaga has entered a new era that’s got everybody talking again. Its catalyst? A vibrant lead performance in A Star is Born, the debut film from actor-director Bradley Cooper, which has already gained the 32-year-old icon serious Oscar hype.
In the film, which debuted to glowing reviews from critics, Gaga plays Ally, a waitress with a big voice whose musical release is an occasional performance at the drag bar downtown. When a grizzled rockstar, played by Cooper, stumbles into the bar one night, he falls for Ally, having witnessed her deliver an emotional rendition of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’. Instantly hooked on each other, a love affair ensues that coincides with Ally’s first taste of the pop success she’d always dreamed of.
Musicians making the move from songs to cinema is a dodgy one that hasn’t gone well for some of her predecessors (Rihanna, I love you, but literally all of your movies suck), but Gaga’s investment in her debut lead performance is so strong that she’s practically unrecognisable beneath it. That’s not a gimmicky take on her much-discussed ‘stripped back’ look, it’s a testimony to her skill as a sincere actor. She switches up everything, from her conversational mannerisms to her distinct style of performing, to take us away from her own pop narrative – even if Ally’s story bares some glaring resemblances to her own.
There is one thing that pains me to mention, though. Pop is, much to my disappointment, a vitriolic enemy that stands alongside substance abuse in ‘A Star is Born’. It’s the ultimate marker of compromise; a sign that Gaga’s character has had to sacrifice creative control in order to be the massive and successful star she is.
The story frames her ascent to stardom as one laced with fakery and disappointment, as opposed to Cooper’s ‘authentic’ rock ‘n’ roll. As much as I think that’s a dated view of how pop stars make it in 2018, I’d be lying if I said pop music still wasn’t littered with the false hopes of young artists who’ve had to sacrifice so much of their creative selves to make it.
But in a film that feels like a ‘woke’ re-up of the versions that came before it in every other way, it’s sad to see pop be treated as a weak stereotype, rather than the empowering and game-changing genre it is these days. Maybe I’m naive, but I feel like we’ve reached a point where we’ve rooted out the manufactured and coercive kinds of pop music to shed light on the ones who are a) doing it well, and b) happy to be seen as a ‘pop star’ and carry its weighty, if ignorant baggage around with them.
“It’s sad to see pop be treated as a genre of fakery and disappointment, rather than the empowering and game-changing genre it is these days”
Nevertheless, A Star is Born feels like a fresh and natural rebirth point for someone who’s been unfairly dismissed by the charts and radio over the past few years, cast aside like a ‘generic pop chick’ when her multitude of talents have always consciously set her apart from the rest of the flock.
After all, she’s the only person with enough audacity to try her hand at new things with genuine passion rather than desire for a quick cheque, and she’ll reap those rewards come awards season. The Vegas residency that kicks off in December is set to enter her into a selective circle of musical legends (Elton, Mariah, Britney) and her next solo LP might be her most audacious yet, with producer SOPHIE and Kanye’s creative director, Eli Russell Linnetz, already on board.
The internet is going wild for the film and Gaga’s red carpet looks, alongside the promise of new poppier music on the horizon. Might the general public be willing to listen to the Twitter stans and give Lady Gaga the chance to return to the top spot? I, for one, hope so.
After a short spell of respite from the scrutiny of the public eye, today – the day A Star is Born hits cinemas – marks the day Lady Gaga really steps back into the spotlight. She returns bearing the scars of a hard half-decade, but ever bit the pop cultural deity she’s proved herself to be.