Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Lady Gaga Critique (21 April 2010)

I've read here that people would rather be reading about Lady Gaga than Goldman Sachs. I will do my part. Lady Gaga is a phenomenon I was hoping I could get away with opting out of, sort of like Twitter. It comes up often enough, but never in a way that makes me feel I'm truly missing out.

But PopMatters recently ran a feature about Lady Gaga that inspired me to try to listen to her album The Fame Monster. It doesn't seem like the sort of album you are supposed to listen to by such a deliberate process -- as a recording complete unto itself that you play from start to finish, as though it were a symphony or something. It's not Sgt. Pepper. It's purposely vapid dance music that succeeds by getting you to forget yourself and blend with a crowd. It certainly felt odd to be listening to it by myself in my apartment.

It took some perseverance, but I made it all the way through. (It seems like it is several hours long.) For something that is supposed to be sort of outrageous, it was fairly easy to ignore. Two of the songs sounded like "Strangelove" by Depeche Mode. Another sounded like an amped-up "La Isla Bonita." One song mentions "riding a disco stick," which I assume is sex- or drug-related innuendo? There are lots of dopey chants that seemed especially engineered to be catchy, as though they had neuroscientists doing brain scans to see which stuttering syllables lit up the greatest proportion of the temporal lobe.

Much of the rest of the album was already familiar -- from cars driving by, from going to Phillies games and hearing it between innings, from being in restaurants and stores that play the radio. For me, much of the album was the sound of being in public places. It made me feel sort of exposed while it was playing, as if just having it on meant I was seeking publicity or was simply visible. I felt like Lower Merion School District might have activated the webcam in my laptop.

Lady Gaga seems good at what she does, but I have no interest in listening to her album again. Still, I don't really get what Mark Dery is complaining about in this essay (which is nonetheless an highly enjoyable read, despite his theory baiting). He seems surprised that Lady Gaga is not as legitimately strange as her handlers, apologists, and devotees sometimes make her out to be, as if something genuinely weird could ever achieve repeatable commercial success. He's right; she is not an outsider artist. She is not Gary Wilson (though arguably their music is vaguely similar). Lady Gaga, as Dery demonstrates without really explicitly arguing, sells the promise of outré weirdness without ever being genuinely transgressive or even semiotically coherent. Instead of presenting a series of interlocking propositions of a grand artistic vision, Lady Gaga serves up flat signifiers of superficial ideas -- the frisson of the peculiar, disassociated fragments of subcultures (S&M porn, haute performance art, etc.) that would be entirely unpalatable for mainstream Americans if presented more thoroughly. Her shtick is not meant to add up, because then that would actually scare the people she's trying to woo.

I was confused, though, to learn that Lady Gaga compares herself to glam rock performers from the 1970s, like T.Rex and Bowie. As Dery points out, she doesn't make make rock music, and she is not doing anything unusual for the genre she is working in. (I'd be hard-pressed to differentiate her songs from the other stuff on top 40 radio, or Disney radio for that matter.) Maybe she will move to Berlin and start making tranquilizing mood music.

I suspect most of the media people who praise her are mainly glad that any musician can still become megafamous, which seems to prove the continuing survival of the whole superstar system that justifies the existence of professional pop-music pundits. If there are a few relevant artists that everyone is supposed to care about, big media can assign someone the job of covering that beat. But if the pop music market splits into so many niches that each demands its own microexpert, then big media won't bother trying to cover it all.

That's about all I have on this subject. Of course, the most important commentary on Lady Gaga can be found here.

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