a star is born

A Star Is Born Songwriter Paul Blair on Writing Ally’s Sellout Bops

Lady Gaga in
There are not a lot of good photos of Ally’s tangerine hair, so we did the best we could with what we had. “Is That Alright?” Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures

Much hay has been made of Ally’s sellout bops, the Star Is Born–loving internet’s affectionate pet name for the pop songs that Ally (Lady Gaga) releases as a rising mainstream star (much to her husband Jackson’s (Bradley Cooper) chagrin. Even when the couple isn’t literally arguing over her songs, Jackson looks disapprovingly at Ally as she performs them. But these are horny and ebullient numbers, giddy in a way that makes me want to run to Zara and buy a “going out top.”

Paul Blair — a.k.a. DJ White Shadow — is a frequent Lady Gaga collaborator who shares a songwriting credit on all of Ally’s bops. We wanted to find out: What does he make of the accusation — from nonfans, and from the movie’s lead — that Ally sells out when she puts on her tangerine wig and asks why you’d come around her with an ass like that? When I asked him, he shrugged. “To me, it’s like, anyone that creates art wants it to be seen by the most amount of people as humanly possible,” he said. “Tupac had a line on one of his songs that was like you have to do some selling out to get your record out.”

Over coffee — and a bag of candy that he picked up on the way when he passed a candy store — Blair told me about writing songs for the character (Ally), not the musician (Gaga). “One of the general questions that people ask is like, ‘Is Gaga and Ally — how close are they related?’ My answer, and I stay with this answer, is that everybody who’s an artist has related to Ally as a character,” he said. “Self-doubt, standing by your craft, there’s an arc there that is very universal.”

I love this movie.
Somebody sent me a thing the other day that said that they went to the movie and people were singing one of the songs in the movie. And I was like, “What? What the fuck are you talking about? That’s crazy.” People were, like, singing the songs as it was playing in the movie theater.

Had you seen the older versions?
After she told me about it, I watched the Barbra Streisand one first. But I bought both the records. I knew I wasn’t gonna be writing any part of the script, you know? I got the gist of the movie, and I listened to the music that was there already. While she was shooting, we’d just have to make adjustments and whatever. We would write stuff, and other stuff would go away — it was less of a spark. It was more like a throw up, which is kind of how albums play out for her as well. I do prefer working that way. And it was exciting, and it was very cool to talk in the third person, or as another person. Neither one of us had written this type of material before.

Meaning stuff for this character, for Ally?
Any character, right? I’ve written songs for other people, she’s written songs for other people, but they’re performing artists; they’re not, like, “Gotta finish this whole story arc in an hour and a half.”

You can’t tap Ally on the shoulder and be like, “How do you feel about this?” You’re trying to imagine the person in your head, what you’ve seen from them onscreen or read in the script. It becomes “How do you think Ally would feel about this?” It’s kind of a weird thing to write around.

On the soundtrack, did you have a directive? Something like, “We need a song accomplishing X”?
It’s more like, “We’ve gotta get to that building over there.” For every song that’s on there, there’s probably three or four songs that might’ve made the cut, and probably another ten songs behind that that are just stupid ideas that didn’t even get to the process.

“Is That Alright?” and “Look What I Found” were written on the same day.

That’s incredible.
That’s what I’m saying; it’s completely unconventional. There are other songs that we had in mind that we worked on for fucking months that didn’t make it in the movie.

Would Bradley listen to what you were working on for Ally, or would you listen to Jackson’s songs?
It wasn’t as direct as “Don’t listen to anything!” But it could kinda be like, “Yo, let me hear what’s happening …”

That’s so coy!
We’d sneak in and listen to stuff. I’d poke my head in. Bradley would see what’s happening and bounce back out. But as a creative process, it wasn’t like, “Let’s all get together every day and talk about this thing.”

It’s a pretty big machine for you to kind of settle on something; it’s like you’ve gotta make a decision early on, which is both comforting and scary. Once you say, “All right, [we’re filming a scene where] Ally writes down lyrics in her notebook,” you can’t just change that. We’re stuck with this.

When did you have that realization?
It was two or three songs in, like when they started coming back in and playing parts of the movie. When Bradley says that line about “ass like that” [while] sitting on the bathtub, telling her, “You’ve gotta be true to your music. What do you mean ass like that? That’s cornball; you’re ugly.” I was like, Whoa, that’s fucking crazy. Bradley Cooper just said the words to the song that we wrote. People filmed that; there were dudes running around with boom mics. You can’t go back and redo that. This is the most expensive song that I’ve ever written. Like, fuck, what if that song sucks?

What did you make about what’s happening in that scene? Jackson — and some people who’ve seen the movie and like it — think that Ally sold out to become a pop star.
In the movie, Jackson’s on his way out and she’s on her way in. There are a lot of complex emotions tied around the whole thing. He’s seeing his career dwindle and fall apart — the alcohol, his ears are going out. I don’t think him sitting there and saying “You’re a sellout; your lyrics suck; you’re so much about selling” is about the song at all. It’s just, Fuck you for doing awesome; like, my ears are going out and I can’t get out of bed.

I love “Is That Alright?” and I’m mad that it doesn’t have a scene in the movie. Instead, it plays over the closing credits. Did you ever see a cut of the movie where that song had a scene?
No. But to be honest, it’s my favorite song because of where it’s at now. When I’ve watched it in theaters, all those things set up for that screen to go black and say A Star Is Born, and for that song to start.

Now it’s started to where people clap at the end. I’m happy people are clapping, but it’s like, “Stop clapping motherfuckers and listen to this song! It’s comin’ on, comin’ on; listen to it!” It’s a very emotional song. It’s an important song. It’s a cool song. I’ve also had people message me and tell me they are putting that in their wedding. Like, fuck yeah that’s awesome.

A Star Is Born Songwriter on Writing Ally’s Sellout Bops