Monday, February 01, 2010

Coo-coo for Gaga

I was happy to avoid the Grammys last night. Why? Oh, you know: the usual reasons.

Still, now that the is show is over, I suppose it's as good a time as any to "come out" with respect to my admiration for Lady Gaga. I realize that I say this at my own peril, and at the risk of losing whatever sliver of jazz credibility I may still have, but what the hell: for my money, this chick is the most interesting thing to emerge from the "mainstream" popular music scene in a long time.

I'm aware of the Madonna comparisons, but I don't know. Whatever her other talents, Madonna could never really sing. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, has got some pipes, a sense of pitch, and a refreshing mistrust for melisma. She takes the direct approach with each song, and yet seems able to change the color of her voice at will. I dig that.

Also unlike Madonna (not to mention visually interesting but musically effete peers like Marilyn Manson), Gaga actually has more than a few decent songs. "So Happy I Could Die" is a good song. "Bad Romance" is a very good song (despite the bad grammar). "Paparazzi" is a fucking great song; perhaps because it's also disturbing as hell:

Baby, you'll be famous
chase you down until you love me
Papa, paparazzi

It would be hard to appreciate that sentiment (or indeed the entire Fame Monster album) outside the context of the carefully staged death-wish that is modern celebrity culture. And unlike an earlier paean to obsessiveness, the music of "Paparazzi" doesn't hide the song's more sinister content; arguably, it amplifies it. Yet the tune generally inspires no shortage of getting down. That has to be some sort of coup.

Which is not to say that The Fame Monster is flawless. It's an insistently loud record, for one thing. And though I admire the varied production (which runs the gamut from glam rock to full-on electronica), let's face it: any autotune is too much, even when it is not being used for pitch correction per se. (Still, I get it: this music wasn't intended primarily for solitary headphone listening, and, for better or worse, autotune has become the principal signifier of modern dance music.)

But the thing that really intrigues me about Gaga is her knack for pointing toward a nexus between two seemingly opposed musical ideologies. (I'm reminded of the political theory that "extreme right" and "extreme left" are, but for a few rhetorical quibbles, more alike than different, and that the political continuum is more circular than linear.) With her music, it's the peaceful (and seemingly effortless) coexistence of the so-called "avant-garde" and the so-called "mainstream" that fascinates.

Now, if you read this blog at all you probably know that I think these aesthetic terms are bunk. Still, I recognize that they have a certain utility in discussions of culture: for instance, they help us organize our perceptions. Which is great, because, as it turns out, the social organization of perceptions is useful material for an adventurous artist to play with.

Consider the video embedded below -- perhaps with these questions in mind:

If "avant garde" is characterized by weirdness, is there anything weirder than this happening in music right now?

If "mainstream" is characterized by popularity, is there anything more popular than this happening in music right now?

I realize that isn't the most provocative Lady Gaga video out there, but come on. Is there not something vaguely unsettling, even dystopian, going on here? What with the metallic themes, the hard-edged synths, the robotic dance moves, the leather-gloved middle finger, the roaring crowd? Gestures and tropes that would be merely boring in the hands of another mega-concert practitioner (the Black Eyed Peas, say) take on a whole new valence. And it's one thing to experience this music from the safety of the internets, but I doubt there are many fans of even the most thorny "new" music who could put themselves in the middle of that crowd and not feel at least a little uncomfortable.

And isn't interesting art, to some extent, about being at least a little uncomfortable?


Mike said...

good for you... I share similar feelings - she's not necessarily my cup of tea - but I have to admit she is talented - my kids love her. I think Andy Warhol said nothing is cooler than be being unafraid to be uncool. I like the attitude of "jazz" folk like yourself, Bad Plus, Mehldau and more that can see that bjork, radiohead, abba and even lady gaga tunes have merit... paparazzi is a creepy song - made creepier by it's poppy sound - i like the melody too - but what do i know

Art said...

It's amazing you posted this today Andy, of all days.

Last night I was forced into watching the Grammies (is that right? It looks wrong) because, well, we have one TV and two rooms and I felt like watching something...and I was amazed by her entire act.

I had been stubbornly ignoring her thinking she was just another club performer-type, but at the gym every day last week "Poker Face" was playing and I could NOT get it out of my head. Still, I figured nice hook but whatever.

Dystopian is exactly the right word. Also "ironic" could actually be correctly applied (for a change) to a concert where the crowd is going crazy for a song called "Paparazzi". It's an honest view of the possible future as brand mass merchandising goes to the extreme. It's also a little reminiscent of 1984.

Either way, I was reluctant to get hooked, but I really like her stuff. Plus it was actually interesting to see her play with Elton John and see that she appreciated the experience (or so it seemed) instead of treating it like so many others might have.

Art said...

The only negative is that part of "Paparazzi" sounds like that song from Top Gun. I forget the name.

mrG said...

but what if avant garde is not about weirdness, but about the bleeding edge advancing our understanding of ourselves?

Clearly the Gaga Corporation - and don't kid yourself, the kid on stage may have some talent, but she isn't the whole show - clearly the troupe that is the Circus Gaga understands something about salesmanship, which indeed tells us something about our human foibles, but does it tell us something about ourselves that we didn't already know? Do they enrich our lives? Are we, as a species, elevated by this experience?

If not, well, it's kitch, it is applying the art of others so as to part rubes of their coin, which is ok, kitch is still a respectable occupation, way more so than, say, selling iPads, but really, it is hardly an advancement to the arts, is it?

"The superior man understands what is right. The inferior man understands what will sell." (Confucius)

Oh, but don't worry, I respect your admiration of the Gaga Corporation (btw, who is the CEO?) just as I respect the fact Marshall McLuhan loved those gaudy kitch paintings on black velvet :)

as an aside, and perhaps a redemption ;) and on the subject of the strange Cirque de Solais over beyond the Dreamland styleguide of Gaga Corp, I recently watched Jim Henson Corp's Mirror Mask, a movie that bubbles with a creative styleguide that I think puts Gaga Corp to shame because it is not only wildly outside, but it also says something in the process. To be fail, I have only seen the Gaga Show once, on Opra at a friends (who couldn't take their eyes off their show) but I really can't say I'm glad I saw it in the same way I feel priviledged to have experienced the Henson crew's work.

docker said...

Your post inspired me to photo editing. Click here

Andrew Durkin... said...

(Art, I think the song you're thinking of is "Take My Breath Away"... (shudder))

Thanks for the comments, all. David and Gary, sorry for wasting your time!

I feel like I need to insist that I'm not arguing that Gaga is the second coming of [insert whatever unimpeachably edifying artist you like]. I was somewhat measured in my praise, after all. And the point of the post was not to raise an already quite well-known profile (why on earth would I want to do that?). The point was rather to highlight the overlapping of "pop" and "anti-pop" sensibilities. The "anti-pop" part of that equation may not pass muster with you, and if so, that's fine. I assure you it passes muster with the people who keep joking that she is actually a man...

In other words, taken from the starting point of most mainstream music, Gaga is "coo-coo." I assure you, David (per your post), there is nothing "very sexy" or "very glamourous" about her. In fact, the whole thing seems somewhat anti-sex to me -- which is partly why I find it (and the cultural moment in which it is ensconced) so disturbing. And while I agree with Gary that this phenomenon may not be "elevating the human species" (a tall order, in any case!) sometimes cultural expression can be equally valuable for the way it points out our sicknesses.

Either that, or maybe I'm just listening to too much pop music lately.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why anyone would feel that this post merits stripping you of your hard-won jazz cred. LG came up out of the NYC singer-songwriter scene -- she writes her own material, which she used to perform stripped-down, mostly-acoustic versions at intimate venues for, like, 20 people. She still does similarly minimal piano-vocal performances of her hits on teevee.

People accuse her of ripping-off and watering-down more adventurous underground artists like Peaches -- but I'm sorry, her vocal and songwriting chops are only about a million times more developed.

My only point of disagreement with you is that I think LG's lyrics are incredibly dull. But clearly she can sing, she can write, and her persona is about as self-invented and self-directed as you can get when you are a multi-platinum megastar with a 360 deal.

Art said...

Ouch you're right, it's "Take My Breath Away". I honestly couldn't remember the name which is amazing considering the almost constant presence of Top Gun in every conceivable venue back then.

I do have an argument with the idea of dismissing her (and her troupe) because they are the "Gaga Corp". Yes, they are of course...but that doesn't take away all credibility. What were the Beatles and Elvis after all if not "Beatles Corp" and "Elvis Corp" for their age? The hype, the merchandising, and so on. It was the 50s and 60s though. If the resources were available then to do what Gaga and her handlers are doing now, I'm sure it would've been the same then as it is now.

I'm no music critic and I don't have anything CLOSE to the knowledge and experience Andy has, but I do know that I'm impressed by her voice, her appreciation of her luck to be where she is, and the overall depth of the experience compared to your "normal" dance music performer.

Art said...

Obviously I'm not comparing Lady Gaga to Elvis or the Beatles--but to knee-jerk discount anything because of the "machine" and not on its merits is just unfair. The landscape has changed, but there's still some mainstream talent out there.

SodaPopGirl said...

I whole heartedly agree. Sometimes it is hard for me to admit liking mainstream artist but I will secretly say that I have youtubed Paparazzi more than once.
As for music, writing, art, film, even ad I do think that leaving one a bit uncomfortable is what it is all about...not the hokey pokey.

docker said...

>> there is nothing "very sexy" or "very glamourous" about her.

Maybe I watched the wrong video. Saying that Lady GG is not about sex and glamour seems to me like saying that Lassie was not about a dog.

mrG said...

who ever said being a Corp was de facto evil? I only said that given the budget, it is unsurprising that it is spectacle, and given the marketing machine, it is unsurprising it is titilating and pushes all the pop buttons, and I said that kitch was a respectable occupation. I mean, hey, I like Ed Wood movies!

A friend recently expressed some dismay over the volume of LGG emails in her inbox, not direct marketing, but otherwise friends simply dying to tell her something more about the GG Corp's latest publicity stunt. I said that this was really an opportunity: clearly there is something in their method of marketing madness that is powerful juju for mobilizing viral communications, and if we could learn even just a teeny smidgeon of that skill, with a droplet of that mojo in our mix, who knows, our own bands might reap some benefit.

She countered by saying large venues left her cold, that the experience she really sought was in the stripped-down, mostly-acoustic versions at intimate venues for, like, 20 people ;)

Andrew Durkin... said...

Input greatly appreciated, all!

Saying that Lady GG is not about sex and glamour seems to me like saying that Lassie was not about a dog.

Okay, I'll take your point. Let me put it this way: Lady Gaga (the show) is about sex in the same way that most porn is about sex. And it's about glamour in the same way that Bruno was about glamour. (I mean, did you see the General-Zod's-floating-rings headpiece?)

A friend recently expressed some dismay over the volume of LGG emails in her inbox

Ah! I suspect your friend may need some new email contacts. But I'll admit that if I had been deluged with pro-Gaga emails I would have been less inclined to write this post in the first place...

cinderkeys said...

I have to be the only person on this planet who still hasn't heard Lady Gaga.

It hasn't been out of studied avoidance. I just haven't gone out of my way.

But now I'm intrigued. Maybe I'll check out that video when there isn't other music in the background.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can at least hear the "good pipes" (while still disliking her singing) but I'm just mystified by the idea that there's any redeemable value in the songwriting.

Anonymous said...