Beyond the Pale

Lady Gaga's "Alejandro"

by Nathan Pensky

1 September 2010

A long string of cribbed beats and run together pop references, "Alejandro" is a song truly made up of nothing, not even bothering to revel in its vacuity.

Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” is an artistic tailspin from the recent heights of singles like “Bad Romance” and “Telephone”. Pop artifacts that borrow heavily from their forbears must contain some framework of originality; a difference must coincide with the sameness so as not come off as plain stealing. Lady Gaga has not even attempted this with “Alejandro”. She not so much stands as stomps on the shoulders of giants like Madonna, ABBA, and lesser wits like Ace of Base. A long string of cribbed beats and run-together pop references, “Alejandro” is a song truly made up of nothing, not even bothering to revel in its vacuity. Sure, the song is catchy and danceable, but considering the level of work that came before it, a simple pop song is a letdown. A stolen one is a tragedy.
Gaga’s considerable artistic achievements are based in reflecting back our pop predilections in a super-stylized fashion. Her intentionally gaudy aesthetic is not meant to shock but to self-immolate and, by so doing, highlight our readiness to gawk and warm our hands by her fire; the point is not to push the boundaries of what repels but what attracts. She both dazzles us with her rhinestone brilliance and comments meaningfully on that blindness.  Her “art as car accident” experiment is unique for focusing on fame itself, tricking us into sensationalizing her and yet never letting us forget just how cheap and disposable that sensationalism is.

But while the subject of her dual-purposed aesthetic thus far has been fairly generalized to the genre of pop itself, with “Alejandro” she narrows her gaze with laser-like precision. Gaga steals Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” wholesale, making effective use of its dance beat while passing all the obviously cheesy parts off as satire. “Alejandro” seems like the high school fake-out flirt of a pretty girl to an ugly boy, all for the benefit of an adoring pack of admirers somewhere off-stage. She blatantly rifles through the back catalog of a long since relevant dance group, creating an effect much more startling than any of the video’s bumping and grinding or lamely un-holy genuflecting (the only redeeming quality of the video is the Karen O bowl-cuts of the dancers—now there is a reference at least somewhat unexpected). And of course, Gaga herself would own up to none of this, because when has she ever owned up to anything, even the most blatant of her farces? Her antics up to this point have ecstatically defied rules of logic and decorum to jaw-dropping effect, but apparently this flouting of rules has come back to haunt her.

What is particularly maddening about “Alejandro” is how deftly Gaga skirts between what would be acceptable methods of pop reference. The song is not quite a cover of “Don’t Turn Around” though the differences would be defined only in terms of copyright legality. The Gaga-faithful would, of course, answer that the song is a “tribute” or some kind of sample, where instead of culling actual sound bites, it borrows the style of the original. But the similarities are too stacked, the borrowing too blatant to be anything but sarcastic.

Deciding where sampling ends and plagiarism begins—where sincerity dies and “ironic enjoyment” re-animates—is not an exercise in logic but taste. And if you’re not sure whether Gaga has crossed into P. Diddy territory, listen to “Alejandro” and “Don’t Turn Around” back to back. A skipping record never sounded so awful.

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