Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Worth It In 2011: #6 - Lady Gaga

I can still remember where I was when "Born This Way" first came over the radio, apparently in concert with every other media outlet in the country. (In the car, with the family, no unicorns in sight...) As a pop music event, I can't remember anything as big and exciting since Michael Jackson's Dangerous videos aired on network TV in the early '90s. The monoculture lives! Gaga and Adele battling for ultimate supremacy! Adele winning handily! But still!

Below is my not-necessarily-readable Gaga thesis for Burnside. (Needed an editor.) More readable are the Singles Jukebox writeups on "Marry the Night", "You and I", "The Edge of Glory", "Judas", and "Born This Way": the blurbs nearly as indelible as the songs, and just as divisive.

Lady Gaga
Born This Way

Lady Gaga
Born This Way
“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
– DA BOSS, from “Da River”
What he doesn’t consider is that it might be something better.
At Burnside I’m a rock critic. If I said I was a theologian I’d be fooling myself, though probably not anyone else. Nor would I be presenting an accurate idea of what theologians do. But if I continued to insist I was a theologian, I’d be telling you plenty about myself, about my values and aspirations. Lies and delusions can be good for that.

Where Unicorn meets Highway.
On Lady Gaga’s second-or-third album Born This Way, she tells us she’s all sorts of things. Most obviously, she thinks she’s Bruce Springsteen. The album’s title starts with “Born”, Big Man Clarence Clemons plays sax on a couple tunes, and on the cover, Gaga nearly straps her hands ‘cross her own engines. If nothing else Gaga’s lyrics sound like a once-removed Springsteen copycat — Jim Steinman, maybe, or the Killers’ second album.

Why do pop musicians so often want to be Springsteen? You know, besides factors like Money, Success, Respect, Good Parenting, etc? I mean sure, the guy can be great, but so can Neil Young, and nobody’s been drinking from THAT particular adenoidal well lately. But Springsteen! Back when the Killers were recording their explicit Boss-mage Sam’s Town, lead singer Brandon Flowers said:
“Springsteen touches on the American dream, and that’s everybody’s dream… Most of [our new] songs are about getting to that place, of making it to the promised land… It’s very optimistic.”
If you’re anything like me, that sort of claptrap makes you wanna either puke, blast some KMFDM records, or create a garish piece of public art consisting of desecrated baseballs, apple pies, and the Goldman Sachs logo. But maybe that’s just me. More than most pop stars, Springsteen’s capable of drawing people together into a simulacrum of National Uplift. His post-9/11 album The Rising meant a lot to a lot of people. Also to his credit, he’s usually more nuanced than his role of National Uplifter would suggest, as I tirelessly remind my poor wife whenever we hear the bleak character study “Born in the USA” during a fireworks display.
But for pop musicians who wanna be uniters-not-dividers, Springsteen’s the guy. Gaga, with her blond ambition and her devotion to her litter of adopted “monsters”, wants to signify that same broad, all-accepting appeal. She also wants to make money. As Karen Spears Zacharias andRich Juzwiak have both pointed out, Gaga knows how to pander to our insecurities and our desire for glory. So she’s crammed Born This Way with Bruce-derived symbols of the runaway American dream — the Road, the Night, Freedom and stuff. None of the symbols dig very deeply into that dream, nor do they acknowledge its central paradox: that it somehow manages to glorify both democratic equality and cutthroat individual achievement. Album closer “The Edge of Glory” could almost be a parody of that paradox, given its parity of Springsteen-isms with the lyrics of adult contemporary D-listers Lifehouse. Why else would an otherwise intelligent woman spend half her song singing “I’m hanging on a moment with you”?
But of course, the uplift is only half of it.
I’m guessing that Gaga’s unity claptrap sometimes makes her wanna puke. This may explain why half the album sounds like a KMFDM record. (Goodness knows the Lady’s been responsible for some garish public art.) More even than on The Fame Monster, the Gaga of BTW tells us she’s a dark outsider. Her songs are thick with heavy industrial beats, and every song seems to have some huge phasing distorted synth in the background. She claims to be a “Government Hooker”, fulfilling all your sinister fantasies, over a track that could have come from the most recent Skold album. “Scheiße” works the same theme, evoking a Eurotrash world of dirty youth hostel experiences. There’s also “Heavy Metal Lover”, officially approved by Decibel magazine, in which she aligns herself with a whole subculture of leather-clad gay-friendly Eurometal without actually sounding like any of it. (Sadly, “Lover” is one of her most forgettable songs.)
And then there’s all the religious talk. Please tell me you don’t turn to Lady Gaga for theology. I doubt even her most ardent monsters do, except to feel flattered by some fancy Bible-talk. That’s fine; that’s also what people get from Bob Dylan. I’d guess that 90% of your record collection flatters you in some way, even the “challenging” stuff.
But yeah, “theology.” The lyrics of “Judas” use a wild phantasmagoria of Gospel images to express a timeless girl-group message: “He’s a bad boy, but I don’t care.” Actually, “wild phantasmagoria” is generous; you could also say “random-ass freewrite.” In the first verse Gaga’s boyfriend “Judas” betrays her three times, and that’s after she’s washed his feet with her hair, which seems to indicate that both Gaga and her boyfriend are Jesus. May we all so honor our loved ones.
I suppose I should mention, this is a really good album.
Ever since I’ve known my wife, she’s had a very weird poster hanging on the wall: The Arrival, byCliff McReynolds. It’s a surrealistic landscape with a bunch of little naked people running around, doing possibly symbolic things — worshipping a giant breast, holding aloft a big piece of cherry cheesecake, etc. It strikes me as the decadent ramblings of a twisted mind wary of self-editing — which isn’t to say I couldn’t look at it for a while.
On Born This Way, Lady Gaga tells us she’s a dark industrial musician who’s also Bruce Springsteen. She’s a hooker who’s steeped in religion. (I won’t even attempt to parse the lyrics to “Bloody Mary”.) She wants to marry the night while riding away on Highway Unicorn. Her disparate identities practically fight with one another. The imagination of this album is all over the place, but it’s definitely got personality.
That goes for the music, too. Sure, it’s wall-to-wall dance music, but Gaga’s main producers RedOne and DJ White Shadow (hometown!) draw from an immense variety of past disco styles. Besides the Euro-club thumpers and the industrial stuff, there’s the sleek and spacious “Electric Chapel”, the sparkling “Bad Kids”, and the Santa Esmerelda handclaps of “Americano”. (You may know Santa Esmerelda from that epic version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on the Kill Billsoundtrack.)
That said, Gaga’s classical popcraft is as sturdy as ever. Her songs have memorable meat-and-potatoes hooks and unified constructions. Britney Spears’ recent Femme Fatale album may be more sonically adventurous, but it’s harder to love. After only a couple listens, Born This Way felt like home.
Part of that is Gaga’s singing. Pretty much everybody acknowledges that Lady Gaga is a better straight-up singer than her Top 40 peers. Her songs sometimes rip off Madonna, but isn’t it nice to hear Madonna songs sung well? She can do American Idol wailing, but she can also cut loose, and she’s not afraid to distort her voice to serve her songs. You rarely catch her preening. I mean, preening is basically all she does, but in the unself-conscious manner of a wild fowl who must preen to survive. You can practically see the bugs wiggling between her teeth. She’s not precious.
But an even bigger part of that comfortable, homey feeling is that Gaga comes across as recognizably human in her songs. It’s weird. She hardly ever looks or acts recognizably human in public. She’s a workaholic who hugs people while wearing raw meat. But somehow, despite sounding like the soundtrack to a green-tinted German art film about organ trafficking, Gaga’s music comes across as warm.
Sometimes in life we don’t want recognizably human people. Especially if they’re strangers. We want polite small talk or maybe gossip, but above all we want people to be easy. Understandable. Followers of protocol. People should let us know what they’re gonna do and then do it, and our expectations will be met and nothing will be disturbed. Smooth sailing.
Of course, that approach rarely works in music — if people kept singing about their normal everyday lives, music would get pretty boring and/or country. Musicians are more effective when they’re larger than life. But Gaga’s something else again. In some ways she’s an abject slobbering failure. Her music doesn’t even meet its own expectations. She tells us what she’s gonna do — basically, make a world-unifying fusion of high art and pop that melds de Tocqueville with de Sade — and she totally misses the mark. With such a tall order, how could she do otherwise? She’s not unlike that fascinating person you meet at a bar, or maybe on the street, with big dreams and no apparent chance of success. She’s the hustler who’s becoming an entrepreneur, the Vietnam vet who’s also a one-man prog band, the rock critic who dreams of being a theologian. Her failures are more captivating than other singers’ successes.
Of course, it helps that her songs are insanely catchy.

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