Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Wither Lady Gaga?

A brief piece appears in Slate this week that wonders how smart dance hit phenomenon Lady Gaga happens to be with her conspicuous cherry-picking of style points from previous avant garde trends, with some discussion of the specific debt she might owe to Madonna. The article's theme is that there is a constant recycling of cultural artifacts that , it seems, a few people manage to package and market into lucrative careers, but one might make note a sub theme that goes un-commented upon; the recycling of old feature story ideas.If one were to change names, references and dates, we'd have the same sort of article that appeared , a dozen a month, during the mid eighties and early nineties that attempted to parse Madonna. What Lady Gaga and Madonna both share is not only pretentiousness but a talent for recycling dated avant- garde gestures and an instinct of what they can get away with in a climate where even the recent past is forgotten. The basic difference between the two, it seems, is that Lady Gaga would really like to be taken seriously , as one can see in her continued references to Warhol, performance art, Bowie, the Bauhaus school.

Like the autodidatic Bowie, she appears to know a bit about experimental art and the like. What I get , though, is a regret and resentment of being born 50 years too late for the generation of edgy art she obviously admires; she wants to , it seems, to join the ranks of her heroes not only through her music and choreography but by trying to talk her way through the clubhouse door way.This Gaga entity might be contrived and a fake, but all this falls under the rubric of art, which deals in things that are created, made up, stitched together. In this sense, she is not dumb at all, and shows smart sources to pilfer from; she is, in fact, in a great tradition of western artists, low, middle and high on the culture scale, who made interesting careers piecing together things they've lifted from other their betters.

Lady Gaga might not be an intellectual, but she isn't stupid. She is smart.The question, really , is whether it's good art or not, a less simple task than condemning her outright. I find her a late comer to the game , and less interesting because I've survived the David Bowie and Madonna years, and have witnessed the bric-a-brac aesthetic of postmodernism bloom and wilt with the fashion season it was part of. I see her as a little girl in an attic trying on her grandmother's old clothes, adoring herself in a mirror as she imagines herself dressed for the day in a generation that isn't hers to claim.

Madonna's pretentiousness was several decibels turned down.

Not a raconteur, as is Bowie , she kept her declarations relatively spare and didn't dwell long on her extra-musical projects, such as the monumentally vacant product that was her book "Sex". She seems to have realized that she wasn't a public intellectual and didn't try to be anything of the sort.One might remember the Esquire magazine interview with her conducted by Norman Mailer . Mailer was ready to do for her image as he had done for Marylin Monroe, to put forth a case that Madonna, like Norma Jean, was a brilliant and profound artist on terms entirely her own. While Mailer's controversial biography on the actress resulted in fanciful if touchingly expressed speculation, Madonna seemed unwilling to follow Mailer's blustery lead. She gave terse answers, sticking to what she knew, the result being one of Mailer's sorrier moments during his late career.

Her energy and her wits brought her back to the music, a mix of obvious borrowings, re-fittings and conflations of compatible musical styles--disco, techno, rock-- and had the self-honesty that although it was arguable that was an artist with a capital "A", she was, as she remained on our radar , a confirmed A-List celebrity. She, like Bowie, appeared to have gotten over the urge to prove that they're still the ones who define what is current on the emerging scene and are content to work at their own pace, on terms they've written for themselves. Will Lady Gaga be so lucky?


  1. Good post. I recall that one of Bowie's old bass players started a band called Golf Has Grown. This trio released an incredible slow blues jam titled IT'S ALL I CAN DO TO KEEP A STRAIGHT FACE. Absolutely devastating.

  2. I don’t know if you’ve seen much of the Lady’s video work, but what’s most interesting to me about it is the ambiguity of the images and what they may signify to her fans. In “Paparazzi,” for instance, Ms. Gaga is a murder victim, a cripple and finally a boyfriend-killer. You can isolate scenes from the song’s video and envision her as a tortured female or a triumphant murderess as you choose. And I think that’s the point – her transcendence of any one role is not only an assertion of pure ego, but empowering to her fans. Sex seems the least of it – “Paparazzi,” “Poker Face” and her new hit “Bad Romance” wrap a pack of venomous insults around a very thin shaft of erotic enticement. While her music is the least adventurous part of what she does, I will credit the Lady for having lyrics that are far more congruent with her video imagery than Madonna was ever willing to attempt. Think of the bland, boilerplate romance lyrics of Madonna songs like “Open Your Heart” and recall how dissonant they were with the transgressive nature of (some of) her videos. Ultimately, Lady Gaga seems to be a visual than an audio artist, a fusion of Ms. Ciccone and Marilyn Manson, just edgy enough to goose the mainstream.


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