Friday, November 13, 2009

Methinks the Lady doth provoke

These past months I have found myself intermittently confronted with Lady GaGa, but I find myself contemplating her more as a pop cultural phenomenon than a musician. I can’t think of another successful pop artist whose music and visual image operate at such a stark contrast, and that seems to be the origin of my interest.

How to make sense of her? With my eyes closed, I hear the latest in several decades’ iterations of what might be described as Euro-pop; the GaGa lineage can be traced from ABBA to Dead Or Alive to Ace of Bass. That’s a good thing because while the patterns may be lovingly worn, the practitioners who are skilled enough to use them create quintessential, infectious popular music. It’s a bad thing because when popular music is this commodified it rarely displays much in the way of a soul, and rarely endures beyond the time period it epitomizes, except for kitsch value.

With my eyes closed, in fact, I only hear a second or third rate dance act; she would be the ideal competitor in the Eurovision song contest, spinning out club singles and enjoying modest success on the dance charts.

The distinction with GaGa is, of course, her striking instincts and the increasing resources at her disposal to craft her image. With my eyes open and the sound turned down, everything changes.She has listed David Bowie, Grace Jones and Donatella Versace as style icons, and name-dropped artists like Jean-Paul Goude (who helped Grace Jones to craft her image in the early eighties); all of those references make sense. I can’t help but wonder if she isn’t familiar with Leigh Bowery; her recent forays into stylized fetish wear and vinyl headpieces suggest to me that at least someone in her camp has done the research. And the twitching specter of Marilyn Manson is never far, either.

Is this the apotheosis of the eighties, then, epitomized by a devotion to visual impact that in some cases (but not always) eclipses content and meaning, whether seen, or heard? What is distinguishing Lady GaGa on the pop landscape at the moment is her willingness to put her actual product – music – in the back seat in order to create other products: performances, videos, even appearances where she doesn’t perform. That might be a slightly hyperbolic assessment, but she is tipping the balance further than most; that’s for sure.

In Western literature we discuss works as they relate to the great lynchpin: Shakespeare. Works that predate him are examined to see how they anticipate him. Contemporary works are eclipsed (poor Christopher Marlowe…) Subsequent works face the choice of accepting his influence or struggling against it; there is no escape.

In popular music, particular popular music performed by women, the great lynchpin, for better or for worse, is Madonna. In the case of Lady Gaga, it’s a worthwhile comparison because so far there are quite a few similarities. Early experiments in New York’s downtown club scene. Demonstrations of force of will, without which a career likely wouldn’t have happened. Camraderie with, and appropriation of fringe cultures both as reference points and sources of taboos. Assiduous control of fashion and styling. A debut album that went from zero to watercooler buzz in under six months. Reasonable, but not exceptional musical skill, compensated by shrewd public relations instincts.

Several years ago Madonna tried to anoint Britney Spears to be her successor, but the choice was wrong because Britney wasn’t a product of her own creation – she lacked the essential self-determination that would enable her to endure. It was unsurprising to see Madonna make her overtures to Lady GaGa in the form of a Saturday Night Live skit a few weeks back; perhaps this time she has found a more appropriate successor.

That’s not to say it’s a foregone conclusion; Lady GaGa will have to navigate half a dozen more transmogrifications before she deserves a comparison to Madonna. For the moment, though, it’s interesting to watch. Perhaps with the sound turned down.

In a way this is consistent with what I commonly write about here: the exploration of popular music as a canon as vibrant and vital as literature. In this case, the canon in question is the hybrid canon kept alive almost single-handedly by popular music: on the one extreme is the well-worn commercial with its catchy jingle; on the other extreme is the performance art relegated to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Somewhere in the middle is Lady GaGa.

Lady GaGa's official web site