An established male rock star stumbles across a talented younger female singer. He recognises that she’s a great songwriter and tells her so, inviting her to collaborate and then tour with him. Their relationship swiftly becomes sexual. When her talent becomes apparent to others, he reacts by becoming jealous and controlling. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and disturbing.
Pop quiz: Is this (A) a brief summary of just some of the allegations against Ryan Adams, reported earlier this month by the New York Times? (B) The plot of ‘A Star Is Born’, nominated for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Oscars? (C) Both. It’s both, isn’t it? This is a rhetorical device, not a real quiz.
Bradley Cooper’s remake of ‘A Star Is Born’ was widely fêted upon its release last October. In the New York Times – the same paper that later broke the Adams story – one reviewer wrote that the film: “wrings tears from its romance and thrills from a steadfast belief in old-fashioned, big-feeling cinema”.
Yet the film reinforces the exact same toxic tropes about troubled male ‘geniuses’ and the women sucked into their orbit that allowed Adams’ alleged manipulative behaviour to go unquestioned for so long.
Phoebe Bridgers spelled this out when she described her initial relationship with Adams, which began when she was 20 and looking for her break in the industry. “There was a mythology around him,” she told the Times. “It seemed like he had the power to propel people forward.”
He invited her to record and tour with him – much as Cooper’s character Jackson Maine pesters Lady Gaga’s character Ally to – but after she broke up with him, the Times reports that Adams: “became evasive about releasing the music they had recorded together and rescinded the offer to open his upcoming concerts.”
During the lowest point of their relationship, Bridgers says that Adams would threaten to commit suicide if she didn’t reply immediately. A similar scenario is painted as a romantic – even self-sacrificing – act at the end of A Star Is Born.
Granted, the worst allegation against Adams – that he groomed a 14 year-old girl over Skype, sending her 3,217 text messages – goes far beyond anything even suggested in the film. His actions in that situation drew comparisons with the ongoing R Kelly scandal, most pertinently from Adams himself.
At one point, Adams reportedly sent the girl a message reading: “If people knew they would say I was like R Kelley lol.” A small piece of general advice: If you ever find yourself thinking how similar your own relationship is to one of R Kelly’s, your reaction really should not be: “lol”.
In the recent Surviving R Kelly documentary, several of Kelly’s girlfriends say that they were initially drawn in by the promise of assistance with their musical careers. The same seems to have been true of many of Adam’s relationships, which is exactly why it should trouble us to see this sort of unequal power dynamic given a romantic whitewash by Hollywood. ‘Sure, he drinks too much and he wants to control her,’ A Star Is Born invites us to think, ‘But she should still be grateful he gave her a break!’
It’s an obvious point, but it bears repeating: Young women who want to be musicians should be free to pursue those dreams without worrying they’re only getting a break because some old rock star wants to fuck them.
Men like Ryan Adams and R Kelly don’t exist in a vacuum. They are able to act in the way they’re alleged to have done thanks to the networks of enablers around them, and because of a wider culture that permits it. How will Phoebe Bridgers or any of the women involved with R Kelly feel if A Star Is Born is crowned as the Oscar’s Best Picture this weekend?
You’d imagine their reaction would be pretty similar to something Lady Gaga’s character Ally says long before she even meets her self-destructive mentor. When we first meet her she’s dumping her boyfriend over the phone in a bathroom cubicle.
She hangs up, storms out and at the top of her lungs screams two words: “FUCKING MEN!”