[15 September 2010]
PopMatters PopLocal Features Editor
I love Lady Gaga. You can count my vote with the pro-Gaga factions in the cultural war. Everyone has an opinion; it’s all too much fun to join in the fray side-by-side with the likes of the intellectual and critical touchstone The Atlantic and the high-school-science-project, conspiracy-theory website The Vigilant Citizen, not to mention that haughty, freaky-folky mistress of song, Joanna Newsom. They’ve all gone on record in the past few months about the Gaga’s debatable cultural relevance. Is she the savior of pop? Is she the harbinger of the pop Armageddon? Is she a feminist or a brat? Or is she—is she?—a puppet of the Illuminati literally hell-bent on her mission to brainwash the masses?
Gaga has taken the world by storm in the past two years with a flood of hit singles, strange outfits, and stranger music videos. Her sense of fashion, fearsome ambition, and superstar status invite comparisons to Bowie, Bolan, and Madonna, but it’s hard to say (despite how much it is said) whether she’s an original blend or a regurgitated mixture of her influences. Maybe part of the reason everyone else is so confused about her image is that the singer herself seems uncertain of her motives. She embraces cheap escapism, but she has pretensions to high art. She claims her inspiration from adolescent heartbreak (and she appeals tremendously to that demographic) but her videos consciously employ controversial imagery and abstract, fragmented stories that repel literal interpretation.
Her music, too, is inconsistent and diverse to the point of abstraction. Like many mainstream albums, The Fame Monster and The Fame synthesize musicianship so thoroughly with high production values and marketing strategies that you don’t even know which you’re enjoying (or perhaps enduring) when you hear “Bad Romance” and the hook comes involuntarily bubbling up out of the back of your throat. Because once you’ve seen the song’s video or a picture of Gaga’s latest fashion atrocity, the line “You and me could write a bad romance” inevitably drags all that cultural baggage—the videos, photos, radio play—to the surface of your pop-infested consciousness like a hypnotist’s trigger phrase.
The one thing about which everyone seems to agree, unsurprising as it may be, is that the Lady is pop. She’s pop the way Top 40 radio is pop, the way iPod shuffles and MTV are, one song and one video at a time. And whatever your ideology, pop is a music of “like”. Unlike relatively holistic, grassroots-minded genres like jazz and alternative rock, mainstream music loses almost all significance if you don’t like it. The reason I love Lady Gaga is she gives you so much more to like without the sour aftertaste of the explicitly sincere. With a bewildering assault of daring and reticence, she has buried herself completely until all that’s left is aftershocks of passionate commentary and loaded imagery. As she sings on The Fame‘s title track, “I can’t help myself I’m addicted to a life of material / It’s some kind of joke I’m obsessively opposed to the typical”. Pure Gaga: vacuous, superficial, and corporate, maybe, but an absurd fantasy, a joke. And what a joke! I find it hysterical.