A track from Bradley Cooper’s worthwhile stab at the “Star is Born” franchise has people talking about butts. “I’m Obsessed With That Song About Butts From A Star Is Born,” wrote Nate Jones in Vulture. “Is This ‘A Star is Born’ Pop Song Supposed to Be Bad or Glorious?” asked a headline in the New York Times.
The butt debate is really a debate about pop music. The song in question, “Why Did You Do That?” is used in the movie to symbolize Ally Maine’s departure from the kind of serious music her husband Jackson makes, much to his consternation. “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an -ss like that? You’re making all my thoughts obscene. This is not, not like me,” she sings. The Ringer referred to the song as “flagrantly vapid,” which is as apt a description as I’ve read.
Lyricist Diane Warren, a nine-time Oscar-nominated songwriter, has disputed interpretations suggesting “Why Did You Do That?” was intentionally written to be “bad.” Pressed by the New York Times to explain what the filmmakers asked her to do, Warren said, “the directive was just to write a fun song, something that shows she’s becoming this pop artist.”
“I love that her character defended her music. It doesn’t have to be what [Jackson] thinks music should be — music can be everything. It can be a serious song, it can be a pop song, it can be a song about an -ss,” Warren elaborated.
It’s hard to read the film as suggesting success in the industry is predicated on making “bad” music, given that Jackson (played by Cooper) achieves great fame without ever doing it. Ally (played by Lady Gaga) is thrust into the spotlight after her performance of a “good” song—one that doesn’t mention butts—goes viral.
Pop music and politics have something in common. We often decide what we like based more on emotion than reason. People we remember as great politicians usually understood that how they said something could be more important than what they were saying. Without the time or expertise to think seriously about everything we consume, we often gravitate towards the mindless but compelling— with mixed results.
So can a “flagrantly vapid” pop song be considered “good”?
There’s a certain science to creating something utterly devoid of substance that manages to worm its way into people’s ears and capture listeners like “Why Did You Do That?” This applies, by the way, to television, stand-up comedy, movies, books etc. Some popular entertainment may be technically and substantively “good,” like Jackson’s work is supposed to be in the film. But unless a song or movie is popular for less democratic reasons, or is culturally corrosive, there’s something to be said for the act of creating any piece of art that people find compelling en masse.
I prefer country music that would never be played on country radio to the music that is. I hate everything about “Red Solo Cup”— but a lot of people loved it (just like I love “Body Like A Back Road” against my better judgement). It would kill me to call that a “good” song, yet a lot of people got a lot of enjoyment out of it. I would argue “Roseanne” is not as technically good as “Veep” but they’re made for people with different tastes and different reasons for watching comedy on television.
In a sharp profile of a reluctant and guarded Cooper published last month, New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner landed on a conclusion about “A Star Is Born” that I think is correct. “Mostly,” she wrote, “it’s about the way that commerce interferes with art — how people who aren’t artists pretend to know what art is, and how an artist has to protect himself from what the machine asks of him.”
Perhaps, then, the answer to our questions about “Why Did You Do That?” can be found in the movie itself. The song Jackson derides in fiction is finding real-world success, a clear sign as any that Warren did her job well. A commerce-driven entertainment industry produces some seriously terrible music that people love, like Ally’s song, and some great music that people love (even if there’s more of the former), like Jackson’s work.
But maybe those vapid songs about butts are only terrible if your singular purpose as a listener is to consume technically good music. Maybe Warren is right that enjoyable “music can be everything. It can be a serious song, it can be a pop song, it can be a song about an -ss.” There’s room for distinction between technically good music and music that lacks technical credentials but does a good job achieving its purpose.
I’m not prepared to say “Why Did You Do That?” is a good song. But if keeps catching traction and captures people’s affection en masse, I could be persuaded. If the market demands anti-substance songs with catchy hooks, there’s something to be said about the people who supply them effectively.