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Lady Gaga Rediscovers Her Pop Magic on A Star Is Born‘s “Hair Body Face”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27: Lady Gaga at 'A Star Is Born' UK Premiere at Vue West End on September 27, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros)

It’s not really up for debate that the Joanne era was a misstep for Lady Gaga (memes aside). The singer herself essentially admitted as much in April 2017, when, six months after unveiling her diamond-encrusted country trifle, she suddenly released the one-off single “The Cure.” Bouncing along on a breezy beat accented by lightly rippling guitar lines that could’ve been pulled straight from a Haim record, “The Cure” was the opposite of an experiment. It was instead devised specifically to be in conversation with our narcotic, mid-tempo lingua franca, the sort of song I Shazamed at least three times, on account of it being pretty good and because each time I was convinced it was by one of those random Swedish vocalists who only seems to do songs with Diplo. “The Cure” felt like a sign that Gaga was working actively to find her footing in a pop marketplace shifting beneath the feet of a generation of pop stars; it peaked only at No. 39, but it did succeed at accomplishing the most un-Gaga of goals: dressing her up as just another face in the crowd.

The second most surprising thing about her new film A Star Is Born—aside from the movie’s very existence—is that, sprinkled among the soundtrack’s soaring piano ballads, are a few of Gaga’s best pure pop songs in ages. The standout among them is “Hair Body Face,” which is basically “The Cure” injected with the wit and personality found in Gaga’s hits of old, but conspicuously absent in her attempt to move briskly past Joanne.

If there’s been a central problem in Gaga’s music since becoming the world’s foremost pop star, it’s that her albums have primarily reacted to her own mythmaking as opposed to simply prioritizing good songs. Born This Way and its mawkish lead single wanted to be everything to everyone, while Artpop regrettably tried to catch the sprit of the meat dress era; after the latter in particular failed to stick, Joanne attempted a textbook one-album reinvention.

“Hair Body Face” is meta in its own way, too. “A man loves a triple threat,” Gaga says, winking at the growing breadth of her celebrity. But, of course, that’s not really what she means, as the song’s title reveals. She is instead singing cheekily about the way we reduce ourselves to assets when offering ourselves to someone whose approval we crave. “I won’t leave here / If you promise to me / I got the hair, body, face / Hair, body, face for you,” she belts. Where Gaga’s post-stardom songs often twisted themselves into knots trying to comment on fame—think “Applause” or “Do What U Want,” the otherwise great song whose message became impossibly muddled with the inclusion of R. Kelly—”Hair Body Face” is a slick little rug-pull about a relatable emotion: the nervous thrill of only caring what one person in the world thinks of you.

It helps that the composition itself hits the bullseye. Written and produced with the team that helmed “The Cure” (DJ White Shadow and the songwriters Nick Monson and Mark Nilan), “Hair Body Face” works off that familiar sound palette—opening with pillowy organs and clock-tick percussion, it’s actually strangely reminiscent of “What Do You Mean?,” the (sublime) Justin Bieber single that hit at the crest of pop’s obsession with the lithe hotel pool beats of tropical house. But where “Hair Body Face” otherwise could’ve felt like her second consecutive stale crossover attempt, it instead explodes into a tightly-coiled, perfectly tense synth-pop song, the sort of head-on collision between desperation and adrenaline that Robyn has spent a career trying to perfect. Back before fame consumed The Fame Monster, this was the sort of track Gaga produced with industrial efficiency. It’s nice to close your eyes and remember 2010.