There’s this one pivotal scene in A Star Is Born which catches Ally Maine (Lady Gaga) in the middle of her transformation into full-fledged pop starlet, and her husband Jackson (Bradley Cooper) just beginning to plunge into the nadir of his alcoholism. Ally’s about to make her first big hit debut at SNL, and Jack is buzzed, and at this point in the film we as viewers have been taught to expect a certain sonic inclination: the genre of Country, which sometimes veers into the folkier waters à la Carole King (Always Remember Us This Way), or rockier territory à la Black Stone Cherry (Black Eyes).
But what’s this? The scene gives us something… Billboard-y. Saccharine. This song is asking you why you came around here with an ass like that. Unapologetically pop. Those fucking xylophone notes.
Why Did You Do That? is a bop, and I am ready to die on this hill.
A Star Is Born tells the story of Ally’s journey to stardom — from drag bar cover shows, to a live performance going viral, through the whirlwind of celebrity and managerial pressure. She has to go through all these trials until she reaches a moment of transcendent self-actualization — why do you think I’ll Never Love Again sounds like the birth of a sun, unfolding into cosmic nothingness?
But how this self-actualization should occur seems to be a point of disagreement, and the thing behind why Why Did You Do That? is so divisive. Storytelling conventions have conditioned us to assume how this arc is gonna go: talent is discovered, money-grubbing manager signs talent on, talent forcefully changes her sound and identity, talent breaks free from the constraints of the industry, star is truly born. For some reason these are beats we immediately accept, which is why when we see a bedazzled Ally on SNL backed by a team of dancers and cloyingly synthetic instrumentations, we can’t help but feel uneasy. We think, this is big business interfering with true artistry, this is Ally momentarily losing herself, before finding herself again, supposedly with Jack’s help.
But that’s not how it went, right? Because Jack is the one losing himself.
Right after the SNL scene, Jack goes up to Ally in a drunken delirium, straight-up calls her and her work ugly. And still, Ally overcomes, and is reborn a genuine star. The problem wasn’t the pop. It was Jack and his alcoholism. Are you kidding me?
People are certainly allowed to not dig Why Did You Do That?, but to assume that the song represents a problem of integrity is to fall for a tired, pop-phobic elitism, a condescending sensibility that sees anything Billboard-y or mainstream as frivolous or low-brow. It’s the kind of attitude one can see in the way some parents call their kids’ music too loud or morally bankrupt, or in fratty, normie dude bros who vehemently disparage One Direction or Taylor Swift’s largely female fanbase. It’s 2018 — how can anyone still stay perched on their musical high horses when there’s so much good pop going around? And how can we call Why Did You Do That? frivolous, when it so eloquently describes the way attraction can also feel like a small crisis? “Boy, could you please stop being so fine? / When I stare at you I wish I were blind,” Ally sings, in the throes of a feeling so intense it’s almost torturous.
Near the end of the film we see that Ally’s pretty much made it — a billboard with her face and name, styled with the kind of pink and blue hues you’d expect from a Carly Rae Jepsen “E*MO*TION” tour promo. And while we’re entitled to believe that Ally’s heart is never far from the country ballads and cabaret tunes that characterized the beginning of her career, we have to accept that pop is a sound that she’s embraced. Self-actualization, after all, involves admitting to yourself and to others, unashamed, that you like the shit you like. We also have to accept that her manager (personally my favorite character in the movie — again, fight me) helped her with this, and that creativity can flourish in the weird, controlling conditions of celebrity and business. I mean, with that, we wouldn’t have Hair Body Face, another perfect pop bop.
So yeah. Why Did You Do That? Doesn’t matter. What matters is… she did that.