Monday, May 9, 2011

Lady Gaga vs the world

I knew one day it would come to this and I think I'm about to enter a whole world of pain...

Matt wrote on his blog yesterday about his underwhelming experience watching Lady Gaga's Monster's Ball concert and I have to admit I agree with him in principle. It definitely got me thinking about Gaga and my ambivalnce to her (thanks for the inspiration, Matt). Make no mistake, I unashamedly love good pop music but so far have yet to be seduced by the charms of Gaga even though I'm constantly been told I should be. Herein lies the rub for me, great pop music hits you in the face, makes you raise your arms to the heavens in praise and start shaking your arse. I don't need to be told it's great, I already know it's great by the end of the first chorus - think Beyonce's Crazy in Love. Great pop music announces itself and so far, Lady Gaga, regardless of her politics or style, has not.

Now this is slightly unfair because I think Telephone has an insanely catchy chorus but I think for me, the hype far outweighs the actual music. For example, prior to the release of the Born This Way single, it was touted as a new gay anthem which would replace I Will Survive (I think Elton John actually said this). The problem is I Will Survive became an anthem for the gay community because they adopted it, not because they were told to. Regardless of the community or subculture, music will be championed by the people who listen to it rather than what any record industry press release says so this approach seemed presumptious to me. I actually like that Gaga has written an anthem with LGBT themes and has given generously to LGBT causes but if it is a question of music having resonance with a particular audience, that is decided by that particular group. That being said, it’s not hard to imagine Oxford Street rocking to the sound of that song at 3am so maybe my scepticism is misplaced.

The question of Gaga's image is not important to me in some respects because what she is wearing or her videos seem neither revelatory, revolutionary or that inspired. Perhaps they might be totally mind blowing for mainstream audiences but anyone who has paid any attention to Grace Jones over the last 30 years or attended a student fashion show knows there is nothing new here.

The other thing that is touted quite regularly is that she is the next Madonna but I don’t think that’s true. The reasons for this are:

a) Madonna is a product of her time. With the evolving landscape of music and the music industry in the ‘80’s/90’s, Madonna was the perfect appropriator and vessel to capitalise on the music underground and take it to the mainstream – The Immaculate Collection is so diverse it could be a primer for 80’s pop. Her voice is reasonably indistinct but that is essentially her strength as it can be seamlessly married to any style without sounding out of place (check out Human Nature from 1995 where the backing track could be from a Snoop Dogg song but Madonna still sounds great). It’s a template Kylie Minogue has emulated with some success.

b) While both artists are calculated in the image they deliver, Madonna’s song craft and persona always seemed vaguely natural (except the over exposure of Erotica). Gaga’s image and songs appear to be calculated, designed and curated within an inch of their life so they lack any spontaneity or organic feel. Maybe that’s a product of the time we live in but Gaga’s work seems to be all surface to me (which sounds absurd when you’re talking about pop music and Madonna but there you go).

c) One plus for Gaga is that she writes her songs where Madonna is only as strong as her collaborators. However, while Gaga’s songs are catchy, I’m yet to hear anything as iconic as Madonna’s.

d) Not to be crude but I look at the Express Yourself video and Madonna is totally sexy. I find nothing sexy about Gaga. Is that wrong to say? (yes it is, you sexist pig!)

Maybe I’m wrong on this because Madonna has the weight of history behind her but I own both her greatest hits collections and those songs still sound great. Most often I put them on when I’m in a mood for something other than angst and generally, they are pretty great for road trips and house cleaning. In that weird mundane way, that’s why I don’t think Gaga has succeeded because Madonna infiltrates every part of my life from dancing to cleaning where Gaga seems far too self important and contrived to be, well, y’know, that much fun. However, here’s hoping she grows into the artist she aspires to be because there’s always room in the world for one more great pop tune.



  1. Gaga reminds me of that 'artist' in the doco Exit Through The Gift Shop (not Banksy, but the other dude). She's learnt how the machine works and convinced everyone else around her that she's as amazing as she 'wants' to be (ie not what is the case in reality...)

    Although having said that - do you think there is also a factor of a somewhat natural tendency for people to want to put down others when they achieve great success? (warranted or not?). Dunno. Either way, her music is bland as all hell and I'm sick of seeing chicks in videos dancing around in their undies. Yawn.

  2. Mr Brainwash? That's probably a good parallel as I'm sure Gaga is convinced that it is high art. I'm not putting her down for her success though (or at all really), I think it's the hype that surrounds her that bugs me. Songs like Pokerface and Paparazzi are just pretty standard pop, nothing amazing but because she wears funny heels she's somehow seen as this avant garde revolutionary. As you know, I like my girly pop so I think she's got a fair way to go to get to Madonna territory.

  3. So, what is my problem with Gaga? I suppose I could dress it up in serious theory, but that wouldn’t be the full story. I think a more complete way of explaining it is saying that it fails on both its own merits, and on an objective case. The beat isn’t good enough to be a real clubthumper, the lyrics aren’t universal enough to make for an anthem, and the melodies are half baked. It’s simply not good music. However, that’s not enough for me, because as I said, it’s not just distaste; I feel lessened as a human being by her persona as a pop music entity. I think that’s because she’s wrapped herself up in a cause the way a politician wraps up in a flag- by identifying herself with the cause of LGBT equality, she’s created a dialogue whereby it calls one into question, if you question her- no matter how dubiously she represents her cause- you still have to declare yourself not a homophobe when you say you don’t like her. Make no mistake, she does represent her cause pretty dubiously- her breakthrough hit is a celebration of remaining intentionally in the closet. Almost every other song is about heterosexual love and its effects, and even her gay pride “anthem” contains a complete misuse of the word “transgender”. Lame. But what do you expect from a catholic schoolgirl? Answer: I expect Madonna- who represented gay culture far more seriously, and far more equitably. Throw in some things that cause mild offense to Latinos, and Asians, generally bad ethics ( think about if the character she portrays were your girlfriend- how long would that last?) and obvious hypocrisy ( umm, maybe you do sing some notes, but if you’re not using samples, loops, backing tapes and heavy processing, I will surrender my electrical engineering degree, so yes, saying you don’t “lip synch” is, in fact hypocrisy) and yes, I do think it reduces your humanity to listen to her. Remember Bill Hicks? They are DEMONS set upon the earth to LOWER the STANDARDS….

  4. Oh, and as for the Mcqueen couture and "Shocking" fashion? I'd suggest folks check out Matthew Barney, and get back to me about any ground broken.. And to finally put the Madonna shibboleth to bed- Madonna's songs were at times derivative, true- however, you can plot Lady Gaga's songs to corresponding Madonna songs- that is to say, literally every song she has has taken something from a pre-existing Madonna song. Such emulation of a single artist runs completely counter to what Madonna was doing. She wasn't trying to be Grace Jones, or David Bowie or Exene Cervenka, or Toyah Wilcox, or a few dozen other artists- she was taking bits from each to make into her own pop persona. Lady Gaga, at her top dollar best (let's say Telephone, just because you seem to like it), is half a Madonna song. Compare Telephone to "Vogue", or even "music". See what I mean?

  5. Ahh Matt, I like your take on this - you've obviously given it a lot more thought than me and I hadn’t picked up on a lot of that. I definitely hadn't made the link between Gaga and Matthew Barney before but now you've said, it's so obvious I'm surprised I missed it.

    I don't think anyone would call you a homophobe for not liking a poor Express Yourself knock off and if they did, then fuck 'em. But I take your point that the cause she has adopted feels like it's tacked on. To me, it seems to fit her attempts to identify as 'other' even though when you scratch below the hits, there is a lot of banal filler which is no better that a than any other popular singer like Katy Perry or Christina or whomever... She has used her image and LGBT championing to differentiate herself but the music itself is pretty generic. In most respects, the bells and whistles don’t really matter, it’s the songs that matter and so far she’s failed to deliver on that front. Except I stand by my assertion that Telephone has a catchy chorus – no doubt Bill Hicks will punch me in the face in hell for saying that but I hope he’ll forgive me.

    That being said, while the motivations for supporting LGBT rights might be dubious and it’s delivery misguided, I still thinks it’s a good thing that a mainstream artist is entering into the debate on this even at a basic level. I guess it’s how I felt about Rage Against the Machine – so many contradictions in the delivery but very few bands have infiltrated the mainstream talking about Marxism or Zapatistas. But that’s a WHOLE other story. Sometimes I think something is better than nothing but I’m lame-ing out in my old age and am probably wrong…