9/20/2009

"Every man and woman is a star,"
or
Lady Gaga: An Exhaustive Exegesis.

1. The Image

"Listen!" She held my arm and squeezed it tightly.
A low, rhythmic fusion of melody had been coming from the plants around the shop, and mounting above them I heard a single stronger voice calling out, at first a thin high-pitched reed of sound that began to pulse and deepen and finally swelled into full baritone, raising the other plants in chorus about itself. I had never heard the Arachnid sing before. I was listening to it open-eared when I felt a glow of heat burn against my arm. I turned and saw the woman staring intently at the plant, her skin aflame, the insects in her eyes writhing insanely. The Arachnid stretched out towards her, calyx erect, leaves like blood red sabres.

--J. G. Ballard, "Prima Belladonna"


I'd like to believe that I'm immune to peer pressure. I'd like to think that I can make decisions on my own, without worrying about what my friends or random strangers will think of me if they know, for example, what records I listen to. But let's not kid ourselves--we're all at least somewhat affected by the things that our tastes say to other people. As a guy who grew up in the hardcore scene, I've been socialized by my surroundings--and, to be fair, my own tastes--to hate any sort of modern commercial pop music. At this late date, it's become acceptable to profess my fondness for certain Madonna singles publicly, but the more hardline among my peers will look askance at me if I do even that. Anything that's coming out right now, of course, is seen as total trash. You can get away with liking mainstream hip-hop singles (even though mainstream hip-hop no longer comes anywhere near being the best the genre has to offer), and maybe a Justin Timberlake song here and there, though even that's pushing it. And mainstream pop, of the sort that pleases the former TRL crowd? Forget it! It's an a priori assumption that all of that stuff is crap, and if you even give it the time of day, something must be wrong with you. So, for all of these reasons, the cards were stacked against my ever giving Lady Gaga's music even half a chance.

She drew my attention anyway, though it took a while. I'd heard about her in Rolling Stone when she released "Just Dance," but never listened to the song, and then when "Poker Face" became ubiquitous, I eventually had to listen to it to figure out what someone who'd referenced it in a conversation was talking about. At first, the knee-jerk negative response to top-40 pop music kicked in. Usually, that's all it takes for me to spend the next decade telling everyone I hate Lady Gaga. Hearing "Hit Me Baby One More Time" was all it took where Britney Spears was concerned. But in the weeks after hearing "Poker Face," I found myself strangely drawn to Lady Gaga. And maybe this is shallow, but it wasn't because of her music. It was because of her clothes.



Sure, female pop stars always dress provocatively--it's basically a prerequisite for the job. But Lady Gaga's look is different than the standard "look at me, I'm young and pretty" sales pitch that wardrobe designers go for. There are multiple themes running through the fashions she tends to wear in public, and foremost among them is an alienated, futuristic vibe that makes me think of cyberpunk. She seems to have stepped out of a William Gibson novel. The frequent use of headgear, appearance-changing makeup, sunglasses and even fingers artfully concealing part of her face makes her seem remote from the viewer, cut off from any real connection due to a deliberate obfuscation. She pairs all of this with elaborate bodysuits and jackets that cover the top half of her body but typically leave her legs as bare as they'd be if she were wearing a bathing suit. On one level, all of the skin that is bared is quite sexy. Taken as a whole, though, Lady Gaga's look reveals her body and presents it for adoration even as it guards her face, her emotions, and by extension her entire private life, against outside invasion. You might be able to fuck her, but you will never, never know her.



I hadn't processed all of this on a detailed level when I started following her every move in the press, though. I was just interested in seeing what Lady Gaga was wearing this week. She obviously put a lot of thought into her outfits, and regardless of whether I had any appreciation for her music, I could appreciate the aesthetic she was communicating through her personal appearance. A cover story in Rolling Stone made it clear to me that she wasn't just some dumb pop singer, either--she referenced people like David Bowie and Andy Warhol, and explained her organization Haus Of Gaga, who handle Gaga-related fashion and artistic issues and seem at least somewhat like Andy Warhol's Factory. Then she started making headlines by wearing outfits that were outlandish even by her standards: a bizarre model solar system-like headpiece on Ellen DeGeneres's show, a dress made entirely of Kermit The Frog dolls on German TV... crazy shit. I started to speak instinctively of Lady Gaga in glowing terms, which occasionally caused frantic backtracking when someone would call me out: "You actually like that crap?" I'd stammer and blush, denying any interest in the sort of vapid commercial pop that I still considered Lady Gaga's music to be... and then the next day when a new Lady Gaga-related story showed up in my RSS feed, I'd be just as stoked as I'd been the day before.



The tension between these two divergent opinions was bound to come to a head at some point, and it finally did this week.



2. The Video

Before she had an audience, it was just Gaga and her mirror. And for a while, it got weird. Four years ago, she was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, after leaving school and her parents' financial support. In her shitty little apartment, she would order a bag of cocaine from a delivery service, get high, and work on her hair and makeup for hours. She'd get it perfect, and then come down from the coke and do it all over again. "It was quite sick," Gaga says with a barely concealed note of pride. "I suppose that's where the vanity of the album came from. It was just like this very special moment that I had with myself where I could feel confident and feel like a star. Sometimes I look back on it and I miss it in a way."
--Brian Hiatt, from Rolling Stone, 6/11/09




The above was the first picture I saw from the VMAs on the morning after they happened. I'd heard about the whole Kanye West/Taylor Swift thing (and as cool and iconoclastic as it is on the internet to take Kanye's side, I've gotta be a square for once and say he was being a dick), but in the excitement over that I forgot about the other event from the evening that I'd been curious about. I looked at that picture in my RSS feed and thought, "Oh yeah! Lady Gaga played on the VMAs last night." If you hadn't already guessed, that's her between Perez Hilton and Beyonce, with the crazy fur headpiece on. That was only one of several outfits she was photographed in over the course of the evening (more to come as this entry progresses). Anyway, Gaga had been talking up her VMA performance, promising something on the level of Madonna's 1984 performance of "Like A Virgin." I didn't really feel guilty about how stoked I was to see what she'd done; after all, this was a video performance, meaning it was just as much about image as music. I expected to hate the song, but there'd probably be a lot of interesting visual shit going on.



If we're going to talk about the VMA performance, though, first we have to talk about Lady Gaga's video for "Paparazzi," the song she performed. The eight-minute clip, directed by Madonna collaborator and former Bathory member (!) Jonas Akerlund, was released in full on youtube, but trimmed down for airing on music video channels, due not only to length but violent and erotic content. It begins with establishing shots of a beautiful mansion in the countryside. Sounds of surf in the background mingle with the faraway sound of someone playing a piano. Overtop of all this, we get retro-style title cards, which give the impression that we're watching a short film produced around 75 years ago. Interior shots mix images of money and diamonds scattered about carelessly with newspapers featuring headlines that proclaim Lady Gaga to be the #1 artist of the moment. Eventually the camera arrives at a bed, in which Gaga and her lover (played by Alexander Skarsgard) recline, curled up together. A short bit of dialogue (in French, with English subtitles) leads into a passionate makeout session, during which Skarsgard picks Gaga up and carries her out onto a balcony overlooking the ocean. He perches her on the balcony's rail, and the first sinister note of the video is struck, as unseen cameras snap pictures of them making out. After a few seconds, Lady Gaga realizes that Skarsgard is attempting to force her to look in a certain direction for the benefit of the cameras, and starts struggling. When Skarsgard won't let her go, she picks up a wine bottle and bashes him on the head. He retaliates by dropping her off the balcony, and she falls multiple stories, seemingly to her death. At the bottom of the drop, photographers--paparazzi--gather around her body, exclaiming delightedly, and newspaper headlines whirl into the foreground: "Lady Gaga hits rock bottom!" they proclaim. "Lady Gaga is OVER."

From here, the music starts, and the rest of the video depicts Gaga's return from death's door, her recovery, her return to her boyfriend's side, and her murder by poisoning of the boyfriend. At the end of the video, she heads off to jail, defiant and unrepentant, as newspaper headlines proclaim: "She's back!" "We love her again!" and "She's innocent!: Police investigate Lady Gaga." The commentary embedded in this video about celebrity culture--the hangers-on willing to sell out privacy; the callousness of the media where personal lives are concerned; the way fan appreciation for a celebrity seems connected only to interesting behavior, regardless of the moral implications of that behavior--strikes me as dead-on, which is surprising coming from an artist that has only been in the public eye for about a year. One can imagine that Gaga spent plenty of time in her pre-fame years studying pop stars, figuring out what to be careful for, and how she'd do things differently. The images of crippled, seemingly dead models and actresses that litter the video can sometimes be questionable--a more precise portrayal might not have flirted with the line between commenting on the exploitation of female vulnerability and engaging in that exploitation--but when tied in with the rest of the video, it's clear the message she's trying to send.



The VMA performance of "Paparazzi" encapsulates these themes and takes them in a different direction. The performance's narrative picks up with Lady Gaga lying shattered at the bottom of that balcony, and seems almost like a deleted scene from the "Paparazzi" video. The stage is elaborately decked out, with staircases on either side of the stage leading up to a raised platform that evokes the balcony in that video. Gaga never ascends the stairs herself (though I believe some of her dancers do at some point); it's really just there to evoke the scene in the video, to put the viewers in that headspace. I find it interesting that she made that choice in light of the fact that many viewers of the VMA performance may not have seen the full version of the video. I like that, though. Instead of spelling everything out and dumbing it down so that every viewer is guaranteed to get it, she's forcing people to work for a detailed understanding of her art. There's an ongoing stream of information being communicated here, and if you put the pieces together, you'll get more out of it than someone who doesn't pay much attention.

Before the song begins, she sings a snatch of the chorus to another of her singles, "Poker Face," then sings, "Amidst all of these flashing lights I pray the fame won't take my life." This is not a lyric from any one of her songs, but references lines from several of them. As she reaches the last word of this lyric, the music kicks in and the song begins in earnest. We only see Gaga and her backup dancers during the performance, so I'm inclined to think that all of the music and backing vocals were pretaped, but they also sound different from the album version, so I think she taped a new version of the song for this performance. I suppose it's an important enough occasion to merit such a thing; after all, she may never be on the VMAs again.



The song opens with Gaga lying on the floor at the bottom of one of the staircases, and as she sings the opening lines, her dancers lift her into an upright position. Both the dancers and Gaga move as if her legs are broken or otherwise immovable, and once she's standing, her first few dance steps are awkward. However, once the dancers join with her, moving in sync with her jerky motions, the dance they're doing suddenly seems funky, syncopated rather than awkward. Gaga doesn't move as much as the dancers, which makes sense, as she is clearly singing the song live. Her vocals are strong and powerful, and she uses a different melody than on the album version, with less high notes, which helps her avoid moments in which her voice might sound thin or slight. There are a couple of points during the set when she sings more quietly, relying on the taped backing vocals to cover for her, but it's understandable, because she's still doing a dance routine that is at least somewhat complicated. The fact that she's willing to sing the song live, instead of doing what so many artists in her genre do and lipsyncing in order to concentrate on their dance routine, is something I find quite admirable.



During the second verse, one dancer wheels another one onto the stage in a wheelchair. As this is happening, Lady Gaga grabs a crutch and incorporates it into her dance routine, crutching rhythmically out onto the catwalk. Towards the end of the second chorus, she tosses the crutch away, suddenly able to move healthily again. The song moves into the bridge, and this is when things really get interesting. At the end of the bridge, there are an extra four bars added before it goes back into the last chorus. There's been a grand piano sitting at stage left this entire time, and now Gaga runs to it. Kicking her left leg up onto the keyboard of the piano, she bangs out a wild, elaborate solo on the higher registers, throwing her head around wildly as she does so. At this moment, she seems to be channeling Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and the MTV cameras cut to Puff Daddy sitting in the audience, looking completely dumbfounded.

When the camera returns to Gaga, she cuts off her solo early in order to get into position for the final chorus of the song. As she sings its first line, blood begins flowing from somewhere beneath her skintight half-shirt, covering her naked belly and dripping down over her bikini briefs and fishnet stockings. As this happens, Gaga's voice seems to break, and she delivers the line "I'll follow you until you love me" as if she's about to burst into tears. I have no idea how sincere this is, whether or not it's just a trick she's doing with her voice in conjunction with the blood, but regardless it's powerful. As she continues singing the chorus, she nearly screams the second line, rubbing her hand into the blood on her belly and smearing it over her face before dropping to her knees on the catwalk. The blood is all over the place now, and the dancers slip on it (perhaps in choreographed fashion) as they gather together to carry Gaga back to the spot where she'd been lying at the start of the video. After singing the last line of the chorus, the dancers lower her to the ground and surround her in a sinister fashion as she moans and wails. Finally, a cable that she's holding onto with one hand raises her slowly up until she's dangling six feet above the stage by one arm, staring at the crowd with a blank expression and fake blood smeared on her face, in her eyes. As the song ends, she drops the microphone to the stage with an audible clatter, and the sound of popping flashbulbs blasts through the PA. The final image of Gaga's blood-covered face sends chills up my spine.



I've argued with a lot of people on the internet this week about what this whole performance means. No one denies that the imagery is powerful, but by mixing violence and damage in with eroticism and lyrics about obsessive love, some have argued that Lady Gaga is merely selling the sexual aspects of violence against women, profiting from a damaging and all-too-common evil. To me, though, it reads as something completely different. The key here is the newspaper headlines in the original "Paparazzi" video, and their completely amoral reactions to the events that occur in the video. It's clear what drives them--profit, at the expense of any human consideration for the subject of their reporting. In the VMA performance of "Paparazzi," Gaga pushes that point further, confronting everyone watching with every time they clicked excitedly on a link to a youtube video of a popstar meltdown, or drooled over a TMZ story about Britney Spears being taken away in an ambulance. As with the original "Paparazzi" video, she's making less of a reference to her own personal life than to that of the Britneys, Lindsays, and Parises of the world. Her career has just gotten rolling in the last year or so, and she hasn't had to deal with the media really turning on her yet. But she's prepared; she's seen it happen to the other women who've been in her place before, and she's pre-emptively throwing it in the face of her audience. "We bleed for you," she's saying. "Are you not entertained?"



There's one more video that I'd like to show you before we move on to the music. "The Brain" is an 80 second introductory film that was shown as an interlude during recent Lady Gaga shows, part of a short film cycle that also includes films entitled "The Heart" and "The Face." In this video, she plays a character named Candy Warhol, an emotionless pop star who responds to her manager's queries about obsessive grooming by explaining that pop ate her heart and her brain. "What will you live for, Candy?" he asks. "I want the fame!" she repeats over and over as a snatch of her song "LoveGame" plays in the background. This video cuts to the heart of Lady Gaga's central theme: the machinery of the music industry and its tendency to hollow out the lives of those who partake in it. By portraying a character whose personality is destroyed, who leaves behind merely a hollow shell to be adored by the masses, Gaga attempts to protect her true self from the music industry's worst tendencies. Forewarned is forearmed, and her armaments involve exacting control over her image. She isn't allowing herself to become Britney Spears, whose onstage dancing and offstage personal calamities are equal fodder for the celebrity industry. Instead, by controlling her image, Gaga at least attempts to control the way the media talks about her. For her trouble, she's been falsely labeled a hermaphrodite, but she's also created some of the most interesting pop images since the days of Madonna's "Truth Or Dare." This then, is her art, or at least is a large and important part of it.

3. The Music

The lights had been turned out, but a brilliant glow filled the shop, throwing a golden fire on to the tanks along the counters. Across the ceiling liquid colours danced in reflection. The music I had heard before, but only in overture. The Arachnid had grown to three times its size. It towered nine feet high out of the shattered lid of the control tank, leaves tumid and inflamed, its calyx as large as a bucket, raging insanely. Arched forward into it, her head thrown back, was Jane. I ran over to her, my eyes filling with light, and grabbed her arm, trying to pull her away from it.
"Jane!" I shouted over the noise. "Get down!"
She flung my hand away. In her eyes, fleetingly, was a look of shame.

--J.G. Ballard, "Prima Belladonna"


So what, then, of the music? If Lady Gaga's art is so heavily wrapped up in her public face, in her performances and promotional videos, is her music merely a sidenote? Is it even worth considering? To say "no" would be to say that it's worthless, run of the mill pop music that doesn't even manage to distinguish itself from a typically mediocre genre. That's a strong statement, and were it true of Lady Gaga, I might continue to be fascinated by her media presence, but I'd never really be able to give her credit as a truly talented performer. I had to find out what I really thought about her music. I downloaded the first version of her album, The Fame, that I could find, and ended up with a 23-song brobdingnagian monster of a special edition. That seemed quite excessive, so on initial listens, I only played the original 14-song running order of the album. I played it a lot, too; partly because I was trying to form an opinion of what I was hearing, and partly because the more I listened to it, the more positive said opinion became.



Say what you want about Lady Gaga, but one thing no one can take away from her is her ability to write incredibly infectious earworms. She actually got her start writing songs for Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls before making an album of her own, but it's clear that she saved her best material for herself. An important facet of The Fame is how little influence it seems to derive from R&B, which ordinarily looms large in the backgrounds of top 40 pop singers. Compare her music to that of Beyonce, or Christina Aguilera, and the difference becomes obvious. Lady Gaga's music is instead based in European electronica and the cold, emotionless extremes of 80s synth pop. I'd much more expect to find Heaven 17 albums in her record collection than albums by Michael Jackson. She also bears the distinctive stamp of Berlin-period David Bowie, and takes her name from the title of an 80s-era Queen single, "Radio Ga Ga."



If you've watched all of the videos I've posted thus far, you've heard "Paparazzi" enough times to notice all of these influences within it. Indeed, I don't think I would have explored her music any farther myself if I hadn't noticed them. Once I'd watched the VMA performance video a few times, I found that "Paparazzi" was stuck in my head. That occurred the day before I downloaded The Fame in its entirety, and at that point I merely downloaded the studio version of "Paparazzi" and threw it onto a mix CD. The studio version was a decidedly different creature from the live version, and not only because of Gaga's calmer, more controlled vocal performance. There's also quite a bit less instrumentation on the studio version--the beat is held down by a clacking, machine-like (yet strangely funky) drum machine beat, and above it swirl layers of synths and keyboards, but the midrange frequencies are strangely empty. The effect is similar to that of Prince's "When Doves Cry," which originally featured a bass track that Prince later removed from the final version. Maybe there never was a bass track on "Paparazzi," but without one, the song feels like it's missing a piece, right about where its heart should be. "Paparazzi" is ostensibly a love song, and the Rolling Stone article tells me that it's about an ex-boyfriend of Gaga's who played in a band with a following of its own. She saw herself as a star in the making, and yet when she was around this boyfriend, she felt more like a fan, someone who subverted herself to him and his own fame. If this is what inspires "Paparazzi"'s lyrics, it's easy to condlude that Gaga's relationship with this band boy was an unhealthy one. The lyrics resemble those of another obsession-disguised-as-love classic, "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. Think back to the moment when her voice broke during the VMA performance; regardless of whether that moment was real or staged, it added a resonance to the line she was singing. "I'm your biggest fan, I'll follow you until you love me." It's one kind of dysfunction to feel that way about a pop star that you don't know personally. It's another to have that sort of reaction to someone you're in a relationship with. When she informs this boy that she'll "be your girl, backstage at your show," and in so doing, completely sublimates her own will and independence to him, it seems so out of character for Gaga, a supremely self-confident pop star with lofty ambitions. The fact that "you're my rock star between the sets" seems little reward to receive in return for this kind of self-sacrifice. Perhaps this is why Rolling Stone reports that the affair didn't end well.



I was concerned that no other song on the album could live up to the quality of "Paparazzi," but those concerns evaporated as soon as I played it for the first time. Opening track "Just Dance," also Gaga's first single, is supremely catchy, a bouncy uptempo club banger that sounds like an appropriate soundtrack for the behavior the lyrics describe. "I've had a little bit too much," is how the song begins, Gaga matter-of-factly documenting the excessive substance abuse that was a big part of her life not long before The Fame was recorded. That's what the entire song's about, in fact--as Gaga stumbles around the club, unable to find her drink, her keys or her phone, wondering why her shirt is turned inside out and confused about where exactly she is, she's unable to muster the ability to care. "Just dance, it'll be OK," goes the chorus, and she pitches herself back onto the floor, painting a picture of herself as the epitome of epicurean clubkid denial. I know a lot of people who party like this now, or at least have spent a few years of their lives doing so. It's scary to know that your friends take these sorts of risks, and a lot of the time, I can't stand to be around for it. Nonetheless, without judging it as positive or negative, Lady Gaga depicts it accurately, which makes sense, as she's admitted to having lived this lifestyle herself.

The guest appearance of Colby O'Donis on this track, taking a guest verse as he dances up to our protagonist and babbles about how he "ain't gonna give up, steady trying to pick it up like a car," sounds at first like your typical guest verse from a rapper on a female pop star's upbeat single. However, when you think about what role he's playing with his lyrics, it becomes clear that what he represents in the narrative of "Just Dance" is one of the dangers that might befall a wasted party girl on her own at a club. "I'm gonna hit it, flex it and do it til tomorrow," he proclaims, and then informs Gaga that "There's no reason why you can't leave here with me." And yet, there are obvious reasons why doing so might be a terrible idea for our heroine. A wasted girl who has been separated from friends and communication devices is easy prey for the sort of dude who looks to take advantage of drunk girls. The fact that this possibility is never discussed in the song makes it sort of scary, if you think about it too much. And yet, when Gaga returns to lead vocal duties for the last verse, she's obviously into the idea (at least in her current inebriated state). This verse underlines the point--that this song is not about careless fun but risky behavior and the denial necessary to continue with it. By contrasting such lyrics with a tremendously upbeat backing track, Gaga pushes these implications into the background, but they're still there, and this won't be the last time that she constrasts music and lyrical content to make a point.



"Poker Face" is another track that's been a big hit from this album, and I'd heard it in passing before even discovering "Paparazzi." The first half-dozen times I heard it, I hated it. Hearing it in context with the rest of the album, though, made clear to me its perverse genius. The thing I hated the most about it, what kept me from appreciating any of its other positive qualities, was the way the melody on the verse stuck almost exclusively to one note. My first response to this anti-melody was to condemn it as lazy and annoying. I saw it as a poorly written song and nothing more. However, I experienced an epiphany the seventh or so time that I heard it, and suddenly it seemed brilliant to me. The perversely unmelodic verses are designed both to reflect the song's lyrical content and to subvert a ubiquitous convention of popular music. In a move that is reminiscent of "Man-Machine" era Kraftwerk, Gaga has used a monotonous drone to create a verse melody that renders her voice completely emotionless. It's no coincidence that she's singing lyrics that use poker references as a metaphor for manipulating her boyfriend. "Luck and intuition play the cards with Spades to start," she says, "and after he's been hooked I'll play the one that's on his heart."

In the Rolling Stone cover story, the writer made reference to "Poker Face"'s lyrical content, and stated that the song is about Lady Gaga trying to sleep with another girl without her boyfriend finding out. I was surprised to read this, and even knowing it now, I can find almost nothing in the lyrics that points to the involvement of the second girl in the song's narrative. Instead, the lyrics focus on the relationship between Gaga and her man, and it's clear that she sees this relationship as one in which she must always maintain the upper hand. A big part of doing this involves concealing her emotions from her lover. And even though I find this take on relationships to be quite unhealthy, I can't help but admire Gaga for her skill in evoking it within a song. It's kind of fascinating every time the song switches from the monotonous/emotionless verses into the chorus, which seems to explode outward from the rest of the song with its sudden, overt vocal melody. "You can't read my poker face," Lady Gaga taunts her man at the chorus's apex. When the song reaches its bridge, after the second chorus, Gaga almost seems to over-emote, talk-singing "I won't tell you that I love you, kiss or hug you, because I'm bluffing with my muffin." Here it's safe for her to express her emotions--and betray the slightest hint of a Noo Yawk accent (Gaga hails from Yonkers)--only because her vocals are heavily processed, giving her an unnatural effect to hide behind. Ultimately, she feels she must keep her feelings hidden in order to get what she wants.



"Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)" is the first song on The Fame to move away from the Euro-techno-electro basis of most of her songs. Instead of evoking Britney as produced by Kraftwerk, "Eh Eh" sounds like a great lost Madonna single. And if it wouldn't be a huge reach to compare "Just Dance" to "Ray Of Light," "Eh Eh" is a song that would be right at home on "Immaculate Collection," slotted between "Crazy For You" and "Into The Groove." It'd be a stretch to call it slow, but the bounce of her other singles is missing, and it has a more wistful, midtempo feeling. The synth sounds aren't quite as dated as those on early Madonna singles, but they are comfortably retro, and Lady Gaga's relatively conventional vocal bears no trace of the Germanic coldness that comes through in "Poker Face." It took me a while to adjust to this song, even in the context of this commercial pop album, because it's a different sort of commercial pop than Gaga is attempting on most of the album's other tracks. It's almost like she decided to see if she could shed all of the less mainstream influences she brings to the making of a pop record and still make a good song that would have fit right in on Casey Kasem's American Top 40 back when she and I were children. Based on the evidence, it appears that she can.



I've never traditionally been a fan of Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt, but I have to admit that the closing track on The Fame, which bears a strong resemblance to No Doubt, is one of my favorites on the album. The instrumentation is based in traditional rock--multiple guitar tracks, acoustic drums, keyboards playing conventional keyboard roles as well as that of a synth (though still no bass)--which might not seem so weird were Gaga's backing tracks not typically a million miles away from such sounds. The upstroked guitar riffing and vaguely calypso percussion sounds make me think of Blondie's "The Tide Is High," and Gaga's vocal performance lands somewhere between "Hella Good" and "Spiderwebs" on the Gwen Stefani meter. A song that both sounds this much like Tragic Kingdom and also this good almost makes me want to go back and listen again to those early No Doubt LPs. On the other hand, it's obvious to me that Gaga's version of No Doubt is missing the annoying, overly singsong melodies that always drove me away from No Doubt in the first place, so I'm going to avoid doing anything drastic.

"Brown Eyes" is another unique track hidden towards the end of The Fame, and its piano-based balladry for some reason calls to mind Queen jamming with Fiona Apple. The snarling, distorted electric guitars that double the main melody laid down by the piano are straight-up Brian May, that's for sure, and the synths take such a background role on this track that it doesn't really even sound like a Lady Gaga song. It makes more sense in the context of the rest of the album once you know that Lady Gaga originally had a Def Jam record deal, back before she started tinkering with electro stylings, as a piano-playing singer-songwriter. Apparently she got bored with what she was doing in the middle of making her first album, started experimenting with Euro-techno sounds, and so confused the folks at Def Jam that they dropped her rather than see what she could do with her new material. Probably a mistake on their part.



What might have been dept: the above was filmed at a Marc Jacobs fashion week party, the night after Gaga's VMA performance. It's her playing a completely different arrangement of "Poker Face," by herself on a grand piano. The excessive crowd noise mars the performance slightly, but for me it's worth it just to see her outfit. That headdress! The bright red see-through lace bodystocking! The makeup job that makes her seem to be crying tears of blood! Incredible. I'm also a fan of the point in the song where she switches to French lyrics in honor of Paris resident Marc Jacobs. And really, I hope she releases an album like this at some point in the future.

When I was talking about "Poker Face," I didn't mention one line in it that I find rather amazing: "When we make love, baby, if it isn't rough it isn't fun." Of course, just in case I forgot, there's an entire song about this very topic, much later in the album. "I Like It Rough" isn't anything too much different from the other Euro-techno/Berlin-synth-pop stuff that Lady Gaga does elsewhere on the album, but it's both delightfully risque and quite catchy. There's an electric guitar track mixed into the choruses that adds a nice extra layer, and the monotonous vocal technique from the "Poker Face" verses shows up on the bridge, though instead of having lyrical resonance, this time it's just a neat technique. I'm also kind of a big fan of "Money Honey," which has a blatantly materialistic lyrical slant that I can't help but take as at least somewhat tongue in cheek. "It's good to live expensive but my knees get weak intensive when you give me kisses," Gaga proclaims to her lover. It's like she can't decide whether she's more stoked about the money or the sex. The part that really gets me, though, is when she mentions "enjoying some fine champagne while my girls toast." I can't help but think she means "girls" in the Li'l Kim sense. Maybe my mind's just in the gutter, but if Gaga takes as many pains as she does to remind us all that she likes it rough, it's easy to believe that her mind is in the gutter too.



There are a few other songs on this record that I haven't mentioned, for the reason that I'm not as excited about them. While "Boys Boys Boys" has a really catchy verse, the chorus is just a bit too early-90s techno for me; it sounds lifted from a Robyn S single, like the long-lost sequel to "Show Me Love." Which is rad if that's your kind of thing--it's not mine. Speaking of stuff that's not my cup of tea, let's talk about "Starstruck," which features a guest appearance from Flo Rida. I guess this is Gaga's southern rap track, and I respect her right to do one. In fact, I have to admit that it's better than the lion's share of southern rap that I've heard. Sadly, though, that's not saying much. Flo Rida's guest verse is noticeably inferior to Gaga's verses, but the overly simplistic beat and laser-like deet-deet synth sounds drive me nuts. She gets the southern rap genre down with the production, and Flo Rida nails the flow, but none of that seems worth doing in my eyes. The only thing I like about this song is Gaga's introductory vocal, which is so heavily autotuned that it sounds like a decaying cassette. That's a neat effect. I wish she'd used it on a better song.

There is also one single on this album that I haven't been able to get into at all, and that's "LoveGame," the one a lot of people seem to know as "the disco stick song." "Disco stick" as a synonym for penis is pretty inventive, so she again gets credit for that. In fact, even with the songs I don't like on this album, it seems more to be a case of me not liking the thing she's trying to do than her doing a bad job of it. But really, "LoveGame" doesn't offer much in the way of melody. It's kind of a generic song, and the only time on the entire album when I feel like she's not only doing something that Britney Spears would do but doing it just as uninterestingly as Britney would do it. She should have given this track to the Pussycat Dolls or somebody, because it drags down the quality of the album as a whole.



There's only one more song on this album that I really want to talk about, and it's among my favorites. The Fame's title track is somewhat unique on this album in that it's driven by a repetitive guitar riff, one that is about as close to the main riff in Elastica's "Connection" as the Elastica riff was to Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba." I don't imagine Elastica, or Wire for that matter, will be suing Lady Gaga, as the bleeping synths and driving drum-machine beat take the song in a different direction than either Wire or Elastica were trying to go, but it's an interesting reference nonetheless, and I can't help but wonder if it's intentional. Gaga would have been about 7 when Elastica had their big hit single with "Connection," and her pre-fame days on the New York club scene were probably enough to make her aware of Wire, so I can't really rule it out. Regardless, the song is catchy, and makes excellent use of guitar riffing (which I'd like to hear a bit more often from her--but of course, I would say that). Like the lyrics to "Just Dance," "The Fame"'s lyrics document a clubkid attitude of epicurean denial, though this time focusing on a different aspect. "All we care about is runway models, Cadillacs and liquor bottles," Gaga declares during the first verse, and later announces during the chorus that "we wanna live the life of the rich and famous." This song comes from a far different perspective than that represented in the "Paparazzi" videos, but it's easy to tell that they're two sides of the same coin. Like Neil Young, who wrote "Out Of My Mind" for the first Buffalo Springfield album before anyone knew who he was, Gaga was already aware of both the triumph and tragedy inherent in being famous. Once she had the kind of national attention necessary to put across a message about the problems of celebrity culture, she used that platform to great effect. But back when she was still making the record that would grant her "The Fame" she desired, she chose to focus on the good things that said fame would put her in line for.



In fact, it might be this element that I like the most about Lady Gaga's work as a whole. Her image, her music, her videos, all of them combine to put across a multi-faceted message that encompasses both the good and the bad aspects of the pop culture she's part of. She also combines the mainstream ideas of high and low art, mixing bizarre futuristic costumery, experimental filmmaking, and references to Warhol with unapologetic commercial pop music. The ultimate result is that she points out both the absurdity of the distinctions people continually try to draw between high and low art (in my humble opinion, there is no such distinction--that's a judgement call, and I'm making it); and that we both grant too much power and authority to celebrities, and expect way too much from them. Gaga's ability to point out these contradictions not only overtly in interviews, but more subtly within her work, demands a respect from her audience that many people seem unwilling to give. In a lot of conversations I've had over the past couple of weeks with people who find Lady Gaga distasteful, I've had to defend her from accusations of being vapid, uninteresting, attention-seeking, and above all, lacking in any coherent unifying message. Right wing conspiracy theorists blame the Illuminati, while more typical members of my peer group see her as the product of a faceless and powerful music industry, but no one wants to consider the possibility that Lady Gaga was smart and resourceful enough to come up with her image herself. "You're reading too much into it," people tell me. "You see what you want to see, but those messages aren't actually there." It seems to me that a great deal of this antipathy stems from the perception of Lady Gaga as low art, as cheap entertainment for the masses that therefore must be devoid of any intellectual quality. Even as a Madonna-loving teenager, I held a lot of these same preconceptions, and it took a lot of intense conscious thought to work through them and come to my current viewpoint. These are socially-condoned messages about art that lead people to see things in this way, and I understand that. However, people are eventually going to have to shed all of these prejudices if they want to be able to evaluate art, and indeed the world in general, in an accurate manner. Lady Gaga is merely the latest in a long line of pop culture artists who subvert the divide between the high and low art divide, and I can only hope that, in doing so, she will open the minds of impressionable teenage girls (and others) who have not yet realized just how wide open their potential is, how many different paths in life are open to them.

If all goes according to plan, Gaga won't have much time to relax for the foreseeable future."I feel like I have so much to do," she says. "The whole world sees the number-one records and the rise in sales and recognition, but my true legacy will be the test of time, and whether I can sustain a space in pop culture and really make stuff that will have a genuine impact."
She wants to make "museum-worthy" art out of pop--an ambition probably better left unstated. But more important, she wants to inspire her fast-growing fan base--which now ranges from downtown drag queens to suburban eight-year-olds--to find their true selves, to shoot their fear in the face. "I operate from a place of delusion--that's what
The Fame's all about. I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star," she says, her voice rising. "I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be--and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth."
--Brian Hiatt, from Rolling Stone, 6/11/09

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3 Comments:

Blogger lordokrakon said...

I have lost touch with most mainstream musical endeavors and artists as of late, so the whole Lady Gaga thing sort of was off my radar. I have actually had good feelings about her each time I've seen pictures of her or clips of her music, but I hadn't taken the plunge and grabbed The Fame. You've done it! I'm getting this album.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

I really enjoyed this post. As someone who doesn't listen to pretty much any pop music, but who loves Lady Gaga, I've been conflicted about her music very much. The way you've explained the influences and subtleties of her songs has helped me appreciate them so much more. You might enjoy this video, which features her singing a cover of Neil Young's Out on the Weekend (though you may have heard it before--and the linked article doesn't acknowledge it as a cover): http://idolator.com/5390452/listen-to-lady-gagas-fooled-me-again-honest-eyes

1:59 PM  
Blogger M. Dery said...

Andrew TSKS: I owe you a response---a *thoroughgoing* response---to your Online Notebook post in which you accuse me of misogyny and homophobia. Since neither your Tumblr blog nor this one provides an e-mail address, I'm resorting to your comment thread. Shall I leave my comments here, or would you rather I send them to you via e-mail, to be appended (in my dreams) at the end of your Online Notebook post (which only seems fair, given the defamatory nature of the charges)? Contact me at markdery at verizon dot net.

6:19 PM  

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