I once took a class on light and color, where I learned about the receptors in the retina that let us see. There are two kinds, rods and cones. Cones are in charge of seeing color, but they’re less sensitive to light, which is why a darkened room often appears desaturated. Rods are in charge of making sense of space, which they do by paying attention to differences in light levels. This point was illustrated to us by showing us paintings where every color was the same luminosity, resulting in odd, unsettled images, where the boundaries seemed to be constantly shifting.
It’s these pictures that come to mind when I think about a pop-culture artifact that’s equally hard to pin down: “Why Did You Do That?” otherwise known as “the song about butts that Lady Gaga sings in A Star Is Born.” Truth be told, there’s only one butt in the song, but it’s a memorable one: As Gaga’s Ally sings in the opening lines, “Why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” In the movie, “Why Did You Do That?” is Ally’s first big solo hit (she sings it on SNL), and it occupies a central position in what’s become the biggest discussion topic around Star: Does this movie hate pop music? Your answer to this question often boils down to how you feel about “Why Did You Do That?” — is it terrible, is it a bop, or is it a terrible song that’s also a bop?
We know what Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine thinks about the song. He’s so upset seeing Ally lip-sync it on SNL that he flees to the nearest bottle, the first downward slide in an arc that ends in humiliation and tragedy. Later, he drunkenly berates her about the song’s lyrics, accusing her of wasting her talent and calling her ugly to boot. He’s clearly being an asshole in this scene, but critics I’ve spoken to can’t agree on whether we’re meant to see him as an asshole who’s wrong, or an asshole who’s a little bit right. Personally, I think the tell is in the way the camera treats Jack picking up the bottle on the SNL set, with a big dramatic close-up. Though Sam Elliott’s character later says that his brother’s story was only ever going to end one way, in the moment it seems like we’re meant to believe that, if Ally’s song wasn’t so shitty, Jack might never have started drinking again.
And yet, like some of the songs in Spinal Tap, it’s hard not to feel a little bit of affection for “Why Did You Do That?” It’s no “Shallow,” sure, but it certainly feels more like a real pop song than anything in Beyond the Lights or the upcoming Vox Lux. (Although, just like the songs in Vox Lux sound way more 2012 than 1999, this one sounds maybe a little too Neptunes-y to be a hit in 2018. But since the movie seems to take place in a world where mainstream grunge evolved in the direction of alt-country rather than nu-metal, maybe it also takes place in a world where that kind of production never went out of style.) If you listen to the song enough, you’ll find some of what musicians call “ear candy.” Those slinky xylophones in the beat! The little “damn” in the bottom of the mix! And I maintain that, in a pop universe where you need to grab listeners’ attention as quickly as possible, the butt line is actually pretty good. Songwriters today talk a lot about “skip rate,” the time it takes for a listener on Spotify to skip over to the next track. After “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” wouldn’t you want to stick around to see what comes next?
The chorus has been compared to Gaga’s early hits, but it’s not quite as melodically nimble as “Just Dance” or “Paparazzi.” Still, it gets to you thanks to sheer earworm-y repetition — “Why did you do that, do that, do that, do that, do that to me?” — that kind of feels like late-period Charli XCX, if she was working with worse producers. I’ve had it stuck in my head for the past 36 hours.
Plus, there’s a certain transgressive thrill in stanning for something a gigantic critically acclaimed film is telling you is bad. After some pre-release debate at Gaga Daily about whether or not the song was “basic,” the Little Monsters have decided to reclaim it as a banger:
Now, “Why Did You Do That?” is not the only Ally song on the soundtrack that’s worth a listen. It’s followed on the track list by “Hair Body Face,” a song about a woman who’s a “triple threat” that is, by any objective measure, a much better song. But for some reason, I find its competence much less thrilling than the bizarre mix of quality and anti-quality in “Why Did You Do That?” How did this song do that, do that, do that, do that, do that to me?