Last fall, when A Star Is Born premiered on thousands of screens and was toasted by hundreds of film critics, a mini-backlash brewed. For some pundits, the film’s pop politics were a little off — the grizzled, past-his-prime troubadour Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seemingly was upheld as a paragon of authenticity and artistic virtue at the expense of his lover and protegé, Ally Campana (Lady Gaga), who is guided by mercenary forces into the wilds of disreputable booty jams. That is, if you chose to interpret the film as an endorsement of Jackson’s worldview, a dubious proposition given what ultimately happens to him. (No spoilers, though given that A Star Is Born has been remade four times now, the uninitiated might just want to go ahead and see it already.)
“A Star Is Born has a touch of the fairy tale to it, but it’s Jackson Maine who is actually its most fanciful figure, at least in the intensely fragmented, pop and hip-hop–dominated reality of today’s music industry,” Buzzfeed observed, picking up on a common complaint about the verisimilitude of “a rootsy, still youngish rocker so famous that he plays arenas.” For all of the well-publicized care that Cooper took as a director and co-writer to ground A Star Is Born in current music-industry reality, his own character seemed like an anachronism to many viewers. “There’s really no present-day equivalent for Jackson,” Buzzfeed concluded.
I beg to differ. I just saw the real-life Jackson Maine — a 41-year-old dude with a three o’clock shadow and an acoustic guitar strapped to his chest. A “rootsy, still youngish” singer-songwriter who has railed against lip-syncing in the pages of Rolling Stone and praised Bruce Springsteen as a symbol of promise and vitality in his most famous song. A rocker famous enough to play two consecutive arena shows in my town, Minneapolis, this past weekend.
While Cooper has mentioned Eddie Vedder and Jack White has inspirations for the character, I’m convinced that the real-life Jackson Maine is actually Eric Church. It’s not a perfect comparison — as far as I know, Church does not have a debilitating substance abuse problem, and he doesn’t appear to be suicidal. You could argue that his hit “Drink In My Hand” is a secretly dark anthem about working class people drinking away the pain of low-income work. But for the most part, the worst booze-related mishaps in his songs generally involve terrible hangovers — like in “Jack Daniels,” where the popular brand of whiskey “kicked my ass again last night.”
Church is referred to as an “outlaw” country star, though a cursory listen to his last four albums clearly shows that he pivoted decisively toward rock starting with 2011’s multi-platinum Chief. Church himself has stated this over and over in interviews and even his songs — he has a track that’s literally called “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” — as have crucial collaborators like his long-time producer Jay Joyce. “The first couple of records we had some steel guitar,” Joyce told Rolling Stone last year. “And then we looked at each other like, ‘We f*ckin’ hate steel guitar!’”
The most accurate term for Church’s music is heartland rock, which was applied in the 1980s to artists like Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty, all of whom sold millions of albums and had hits on the pop charts. But once “heartland rock” fell out of favor with music critics as a relevant classification, artists who mine the middle ground between rock, folk, blues, and R&B were shuffled off to country or Americana music. Today, Church is part of a group that includes Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, and A Star Is Born soundtrack contributor Jason Isbell. Jackson Maine would also be in this group… if, you know, he were a real person.
Church’s true identity as a heartland rocker is even more obvious when you see him live. I previously caught him back in 2014, at an arena in Green Bay when he was supporting The Outsiders, a flinty, angry album that careened from Stax-inspired sex ballads to proggy guitar freakouts. At that time, he still nodded slightly in the direction of country music, inviting the great honky-tonk icon Dwight Yoakam to open, even as he was dropping the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” into his own pro-weed ode, “Smoke A Little Smoke.”
But on his latest “Double Down” tour, Church has fully embraced his arena-rock id. One of the highlights of the night was a surprise cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that culminated with a screaming solo by lead guitarist Driver Williams. (I’d like to think this was a subtle tribute to one of the all-time best solos played by hometown hero Prince.) Other times, Church resembled a young Springsteen as he prowled the catwalk that jutted into the audience, pushing his guitar to his back in order press the flesh and sign autographs. (Though never without removing his sunglasses, an extremely Bono-esque flourish.) Like Springsteen, Church has a flair for rock theatrics, which enlivened one of the more country-ish songs that has stayed in his set, the anthemic “These Boots,” from his 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me. As soon as he queued up the number, boots rained down on the stage from audience members apparently unafraid of walking to their cars in frigid Minnesota winter temperatures with only one shoe.
These 2019 dates pick up the thread from Church’s 2017 “Holdin’ My Own” tour, where he played three-hour, two-set shows every night, as many as five times per week. (On the current tour, he’s “doubling down” by performing back-to-back marathon gigs in 19 different cities.) Striking another parallel to the mythical Jackson Maine, Church played the “Holdin’ My Own” tour until it almost literally killed him, gutting out the second half of the tour on an anti-inflammatory steroid to ward off the wear and tear, eventually dropping 17 pounds by the end of the tour. (For the “Double Down” campaign he’s taking more time off between cities.)
Can you imagine how film critics would’ve reacted if Jackson Maine had died on stage in A Star Is Born from rocking too hard? Or if Cooper had given his character the last name “Church”? Sometimes, truth is even more earnest than fiction.
More than one thinkpiece about A Star Is Born has cited a famous 2004 takedown of “rockism” written by then-New York Times music writer Kelefa Sanneh, which critiqued “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star… loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncer.”
In the past 15 years, this paradigm has been upended by musicians, critics, and fans. In 2019, the most powerful voices in the music industry continually dismiss old-fashioned notions of authenticity as signified by a drunken, doomed anti-hero like Jackson Maine. That includes rockist god-heads like Bruce Springsteen, who spent much of his recent career-spanning Springsteen On Broadway deconstructing his own blue-collar persona, revealing the neurotic multi-millionaire artist underneath. (Springsteen performing on Broadway can be viewed by itself as an anti-rockist gesture.) Even the Grammys, the stodgiest of all music-industry institutions, which just a few years ago handed its top trophy to a decent late-career Beck album over a career-defining Beyoncé record, has seemingly gotten with the program of moving past rockism.
Where does this leave a movie like A Star Is Born? What A Star Is Born presupposes is that a man and a woman with different sensibilities can come together and find common artistic ground. While the Jackson Maine character is too tragic to fully come around — though this is due more to addiction and self-hatred than rockism — Ally has the wherewithal to embrace both the romanticism of the underground hero and the exhilarating scale of ginormous pop stardom.
So does Cooper — at least more than he’s gotten credit for. If it was truly Cooper’s intention to “mock” his pop star leading lady, he utterly failed, considering that A Star Is Born is arguably Lady Gaga’s greatest ever showcase. (You can’t be cynical about the possibilities of pop music and put together that rousing “Shallow” sequence.) At the same time, it’s also obvious that Cooper thinks that Jackson Maine is genuinely awesome. I also think that Jackson Maine is awesome. If non-fictional people pissed their pants at the Grammys, I would actually watch the Grammys. Though I suspect Eric Church wouldn’t want to emulate that.
Kidding aside, I think you have to be pretty hard-core polemicist to still buy into the binaries that Sanneh describes while watching A Star Is Born. The movie is more generous than that. It imagines a pop world where a weathered screw-up like Jackson and a charismatic polymath like Ally can co-exist with all their flaws and attributes accounted for and abided. Why choose one archetype when you can embrace both?
This inclusiveness also exists in Church’s music, like in the song “Mr. Misunderstood,” in which he shouts out Elvis Costello and Ray Wylie Hubbard and calls Jeff Tweedy “one bad mother” — all artists that reside in a much different commercial strata than Church. (He’s a little like Ally sometimes, too.) Church played “Mr. Misunderstood” last Saturday night, along with 33 other songs, an appropriately large canvas to put across a narrative for his career. He has six studio albums, and he digs down deep into each of them every night, connecting the hyperbolic puritanism of “Country Music Jesus” to the more grounded, slice-of-life vignettes of the incredible “Give Me Back My Hometown.”
For all of his bluster about being an outsider, it really is true that Church doesn’t fit in with either the country mainstream — the CMAs declined to name him Entertainer of the Year in 2017 even after the exhaustive “Holdin’ My Own” tour — or the larger world of pop music. He’s both a superstar and, weirdly, also a cult act. Partly truth and party fiction, hiding in plain sight. Like Jackson Maine, minus the tragedy.