Under the Surface

Shallow by Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper is indeed a well-crafted song. Although – or because – it is slightly reminiscent of other great songs.  

There are songs you hear for the first time – and yet you can’t help feeling that you’ve known them for years. It can be an unpleasant feeling, especially when you recognise that the artist you hear has blatantly ripped off some other song. But it can also be an exciting feeling. For instance when you recognise that what you are hearing is a pleasing reminder of several other great songs – even if you are not able to name them at the first go. Deliberately or just by intuition, the songwriter has managed to assimilate different influences and create a unique piece of music, which nonetheless pays tribute to its sources. And because those influencing sources have come together so gracefully and organically, you are haunted for days by the deliciously tortuous question: Dammit – what does this wonderful piece of music remind me of?

The last time I had this exciting feeling was when I listened to Shallow by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Written by Lady Gaga, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando and Mark Ronson and featured in the movie A Star Is Born, Shallow won several prizes, including the Oscar for ”Best Original Song“. The powerful ballad was played very frequently when it was released and there was much speculation about the question whether Cooper and Gaga were having an affair. But that was not the reason why I got the feeling I’d known this song for many years. First of all, there is the mostly successful concept of the ”VIP torch song duet“ – you can’t go wrong with it. And then there is the way the acoustic guitar is played. The song’s mood. Some distinctive chord progressions. Last but not least, there is the melody in the verse parts.

I may be wrong, and you may have a different opinion, but here are the four songs that come to my mind when I listen to Shallow. Once again: I’m NOT addressing the topic of plagiarism – it’s quite the reverse: To filter the most significant and best elements from different (hit) songs and put them together in a touching new musical entity is great song art to me. Extreme was the name of an American band which conquered the world with More Than Words in the early nineties. It is the mood of this reflective love song which may have inspired Shallow – and of course the way the acoustic guitar is being played.

Some of the chord progressions of the Cooper/Gaga song remind me of Only You by Yazoo, especially in the refrain with the following lines: ”All I needed was the love you gave / All I needed for another day / And all I ever knew / Only you“. Among the artists who covered Only You is Selena Gomez, and her calm electronic rendering of the song emphasises its beautiful harmonies perfectly.

As for mood and melody: Something in Shallow also seems to echo the song classic Dust in the Wind by Kansas. It may be far-fetched, but if it’s true it is a much better achievement than the Dust in the Wind cover version someone did for a German tea advertisement in the 1990s.

And here’s the most intense déjà vu I experience when listening to Shallow. I can’t help but think of And Then You Kissed Me, an exceptional song released by the Swedish Band The Cardigans in 2003. And Then You Kissed Me combines the feeling of love with the distasteful topic of domestic violence. Although it reveals some nasty details, it is extremely touching. I don’t know how readers of this post feel, but to me the guitar and the vocals which set in after a strange organ intro are something like a blueprint for the first song part of Shallow.

Of course all the songs I mentioned are completely different from the Cooper/Gaga hit. They start out differently and take different directions. Nevertheless, they might have left some traces – that’s the reason why Shallow sounds so familiar and compelling to me. One could say: Under the surface you can discover a lot of things. Why else should the Gaga/Cooper lyrics contain lines like: ”We’re far from the shallow now …“? What makes Shallow unique is the fact that the song neglects the classic verse-chorus pattern. Rather, it increases step by step, with the finale setting the climax.

Lady Gaga belongs, quite legitimately, to the pantheon of pop music superstars. Smart songwriting, powerful vocals, extravagance, a provocative ambivalence in her songs and the ability of reinventing herself again and again, make her a fascinating entertainment diva. From dancefloor queen to country lady, from rude rock singer to sensitive singer-songwriter – whatever she does comes across authentically, and yet it is always part of a flamboyant Gesamtkunstwerk, including overpowering performances and powerful music. With these skills, Lady Gaga has become an attractive stage guest for fellow superstars, even for old stagers like Sting.