Monday, August 30, 2010

Gaga Order

I realize that even talking about Lady Gaga is, at this point, sort of an exercise in futility. Whatever your thoughts on the Princess of Weird, she's proven herself to be a dominant part of the current pop landscape. She's a spectacle, in every sense of the word. The costumes! The hairstyles! The stage shows! The music videos! The magazine interviews! And, oh, right: the music.

The Lady is clearly filling some sort of void in our pop culture. She's undeniably talented, but I can't be alone in thinking her personality can be grating. Her recent interview with Vanity Fair left me with a bad taste in my mouth: obsessed with her fans, she comes across as someone who has left the real world firmly behind in her quest for what analysts in the 1970s might have called "self-actualization." In her case, it comes by producing an OTT public face that has the kind of empathy that empresses have: loving her subjects en masse, but unable to identify with anyone individually.

I knew about Lady Gaga well before I had heard any of her songs, and when I finally did catch a snippet, the lyrics were about "disco sticks." It was the sort of build-up/let-down cycle that alienates people right away. I was like, this is the girl with no pants? Months later, the video for "Bad Romance" was released, and it felt like Gaga finally hit the next level of exposure. She was suddenly everywhere - she met the Queen, for god's sake; my parents know who she is - and that kind of 360-24/7 exposure is a heady thing. She often snarls at the camera; her videos all seem to have some sort of violence, imprisonment, forced performance, violation. For a pop performer, she wrestles with some pretty intense imagery. Her fans, of course, love her for it. Comparisons to Madonna abound for Gaga, but she skipped the charming and DIY phase of "Lucky Star" and went straight to the over-produced and over-exposed "Sex" iteration. The version of Madonna, in other words, that the public grew tired of and disowned for a while.

Even though he's not in her league, I tend to equate her with the other reigning princess of pop, Adam Lambert. In some ways, I think Lambert's story is timelier: inspired to audition after going to Burning Man and indulging in mushrooms, Lambert shot to fame as the glitziest contestant on the 2009 cycle of American Idol. Where others (like me!) would have been overwhelmed by that media machine, Lambert rose to the occasion, donning shoulder cages and performing the everliving daylights out of showy rock songs. He was coy about his sexuality, instead focusing on the spectacle of Idol. While he was the runner-up that season, Lambert went on to have a couple hit songs and a Rolling Stone cover, officially come out of the closet, and take his rightful place as the sort of B-list dance-music-maker that commercial radio loves.

He's much safer than Lady Gaga: his focus has always been on entertainment, whereas she seems bent on deconstructing something deeper. Her stage shows and music videos have a deadly streak to them: she's constantly showing up in outfits that evoke mutilation and pain. Lambert, as a product of the Idol universe, needs to keep things light, consumable, marketable. But they're both cut from the same cloth. Both Gaga and Lambert need desperately to be looked at, to be seen: otherwise, neither of them exist. Both have their surfaces buffed to the highest gloss. The production values on these two performers are outrageous. Lady Gaga needs the machinery of the media so much: she needs to be photographed, to be written about, to be noticed. Otherwise, she's just Stephani Germanotta, and that ain't no monster's name.

There's been a lot of dithering about where Lady Gaga can "go" from here: public nudity? Faked death onstage? Something so outlandish it'll take some sort of intergalactic genius to conceive and execute it? Who knows. My mind doesn't work like Gagarino's. Part of me sort of hopes she's boxed herself into a corner with all the pyrotechnics and glitter. Maybe the most revolutionary thing Lady Gaga could do would be release some stripped-down pop album. No makeup, no costumes, and no inane comments about her "fans." Just the music, baby.


  1. I think the most important thing about Gaga is that she is a performer, not the object of a production machine. She writes her own songs, directs her own music videos, etc... She has more in common with David Bowie than with the average pop artist today.

    I think the "void" she fills has less to do with her eccentric personality, and more to do with her being "good".

  2. I think that clip of her performing when she was still Stephani Germanotta is SO interesting, because it shows how calculated the whole Gaga thing is. Don't get me wrong, I like Lady Gaga's music, but her insistence that what we see is what we get re: Lady Gaga as a persona isn't really accurate. The constant is her singer-songwriter talent; the variable is how she allows the world to access that talent. While at first it was straightforward and relatively gimmick-less, now it's filtered through these other layers: the stage shows, the shoes, the Glee episodes, the magazine articles.

    One thing I really like about Gaga is that she's indifferent to the whole I'm-pretty side of of pop music stardom. I love that she's willing to obscure the face and body - traditionally a huge part of a pop star's selling point - and be weird, or unattractive, or strange. I think that's great.

    As a side note, I'm not sure Lady Gaga directs her own music videos. I know she's worked with Jonas Ackerlund on at least two occasions, and I'm fairly sure that, while she has a hand in choosing the directors, she herself doesn't direct. Although I'm sure one day she will.