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
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?