In the latest incarnation of A Star Is Born, we are presented with the tropes of self-destructive, addicted and tortured singer/songwriter (Jackson, played by Bradley Cooper) and up-and-coming, manipulated and manufactured starlet (Ally, played by Lady Gaga). I want to use this column to flesh out the Alternative and offer a healthy and rewarding take on being a singer/songwriter/musician/artist, as opposed to the superstar stereotype and all that entails.
The ‘star-maker machinery’ (as Joni Mitchell elegantly put it) has long been known to invent backstories, control, exploit, overwork, underpay, dictate to, commercialise and creatively compromise artists. But, for some reason we’re more gullible to fabricated backstories and creation myths for singer/songwriter/music stars. (Barker and Taylor’s book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music investigates this issue brilliantly).
We really want to believe that we’re getting the real deal (as opposed to the Frankensong/top-line group co-writes that predominate). I believe that if many stars, Amy Winehouse included, had received real joy from performance and wrote through their issues, instead of being forced into co-writes and having almost everything determined by the company, they might still be active today.
The music industry doesn’t want potential stars (whom they can exploit and profit from) or the audience, to know the truth: that there is an alternative. It’s nothing new that ‘stars’ frequently don’t write their own songs, indeed in some cases they might not even be singing them! As musicians though, discerning between what is real/functional from what is false/dysfunctional is helpful and reassuring – so we don’t feel like failures compared to unrealistic and unreal projections.
In A Star Is Born, for example, everything we see on screen has a back-stage actuality, i.e. (Willie Nelson’s son) Lukas Nelson’s band backing Cooper, fantastic vocal coaches, and working musicians who may never be household names, but who are super-legit nonetheless.
The main reason we don’t feel the satisfaction of a robust creative process – writing great songs and mastering our voice/instrument – is because we’ve been alienated from our work. What is an art form (even a spiritual experience) has become a commercial commodity. What used to be merit is now marketing. Joni Mitchell’s song For the Roses encapsulates this metamorphosis perfectly.
On a psychological level, if we’re forced to compromise our creative output (compulsory co-writes, being dictated to artistically) we miss out on the revelations of writing through and facing our issues, personal development through failure and experimentation, and learning during performance. There are immense insecurities in being self-managed and under-supported, but the pay-off is self-determination and artistic freedom.
The messages in A Star is Born are to find your voice and to speak/write/sing your truth. There are a great many internal and external reasons why we suppress or silence our voices, but IRL the cathartic process of finding your voice can be an end in itself. Success needn’t necessitate chasing fame and fortune. Besides, the latter won’t deliver you from your demons or provide empowerment, revelation or peace of mind as a solid art practice does.
We’re conditioned to frown upon (or normalise) substance addiction but don’t vilify the desire/craving to be ‘a star’. The entertainment corporations manipulate musicians to seek approval at any cost from fame, recognition, appreciation, fortune. This becomes an addiction for those same companies to abuse/exploit.
I believe we write our best songs and perform to the best of our abilities when clean and sober. Just look at Jason Isbell (who has a song on the A Star Is Born soundtrack). Addiction is a sticky issue, because the cliché of a drug-addled or alcoholic artist is often viewed as a survival mechanism – self-medication. Addiction is often a consequence of and response to trauma.
The alcohol industry doesn’t want you to wake up to the truth about alcohol’s toxicity and destruction, no more than the pharmaceutical industry wants you to use your confronting and difficult emotions for songwriting. There appear to be vested (corporate) interests obscuring the reality of what it is to be a musician – perpetuating the myth that only a few special people were born talented.
We need to talk to each other honestly about the challenges musicians face: isolation, performance anxiety, self-medication, burn-out, disillusionment, voice-loss, writer’s block, Spotify, self-doubt, lack of mentors/role models/advice, corruption, poverty, the cringe of self-promotion, unhelpful criticism and lack of support. At the same time, we can acknowledge that musical development, stage-craft, robust creative practice and the songs you write are the reward or ‘end in itself’. Celebrate this. Anything else is a bonus!
It’s one thing for the general public to believe the hype and buy into the bullshit, but we as musicians are also buying into a very exploitative deceitful music-industry norm. Where was the support for George Michael when he challenged his record company? Or Prince for that matter? The academic-isation and radical monetarising of all aspects of music, unrealistic expectations about becoming a star keep ‘hopefuls’ desperate, competitive and fixated on image and commercial success. Our focus as artists should be to honour the music rather than sell product.
A Star Is Born’s message about using the platform of songwriter to say something of significance is encapsulated by director/actor/writer/singer Bradley Cooper: “If you have nothing to say, there’s no worth in you saying anything,” adding, “I wanted to tell a story about people finding their voice and how hard it is, especially today when people are telling you who you are, what you should be saying and what your worth is.”
Cooper sings brilliantly in A Star Is Born, and has been honest about the learning process.
“It’s so hard to sing. I mean, I had no idea, I would get fatigued at the end of a phrase. The amount of respect I have for singers … I’ve really been awakened to the phenomenon of singing.”
All we see are the stars, without realising the power of the planets. Let’s be of quality so that we’re not so susceptible to the music industry’s often false promises and cultural homogenisation. Living the Alternative is far more satisfying, sustainable, healthy and rewarding.