Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lady Gaga - "Born This Way," Postmodernism, Madonna, Hitchcock, Vertigo, and Other Thoughts

Lady Gaga is probably the definition of a pop music postmodernist. True, postmodernist theory and philosophy hasn't exactly been applied to pop music in any definitive sense (yet...I'll get on that), but if we scroll down a list of some general postmodern attributes every one of them smacks of Gaga:

Lady Gaga Postmodernism Pop Vertigo
Chase you down until you love me...
  • Mastery of pastiche (has anyone mentioned how much "Born This Way" sounds like a Madonna song? Not to mention Gaga's last two music videos are almost lectures on the history of the Madonna video. Then there are the throwbacks and references to Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, ABBA, etc.)
  • Belief that art (in this case, pop music) not only exists in itself but that it can, does and should have relevance and even power in the cultural, social and even political contexts (Flamboyant soldiers and topical issue of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" make for far more interesting music videos than the rejection and distrust of non-sexual interpersonal connection...hence "Alejandro")
  • Conflation of "high" and "low" in popular culture through the undiscriminating use of elements, tools, and means of presentation from both as a rejection of any distinction at all. (It's important to remember that Gaga is a performance artist at her base, not a musician...a fact useful to recall whenever she has you stumped)
  • References to and quotations of music from many different cultures and times (direct references like "Alejandro" (ABBA) or the occasional bits of foreign language that crop up here and there, although the latter is probably more influenced by Sacred Heart than worldly inclusiveness)
  • Disdain for rigid structural unity and social norms (Little Monsters, just be yourself, etc.)
  • Self-referential art, i.e. meta-fiction (in Gaga's case, both specific references e.g. "I wanna *just dance* and "I'm a free bitch" in the song "Monster," referencing "Just Dance" and "Bad Romance," respectively; but also and mainly general references to dance, music, songwriting, and fame, e.g. "I love my life/I love this record" in "Born This Way")
  • The deliberate inclusion of the audience/consumer in some way (can anyone deny Gaga's effectiveness here?)

Contrary to what the current pop conversation might suggest, Lady Gaga does not copy, pay homage to, or suggestively reference (depending on your point of view) Madonna alone. In all fairness, if you're going to go the postmodernist route in pop music then Madonna will necessarily be a strong presence, being as she was so singularly influential in modern pop music's early decade and continuing to effect the genre even up into the early 2000s. It is exactly that inevitability, however, that is proving a bit problematic for Lady Gaga, although there's still too much noise over Madonna references in the first place for this idea to be debated: even once you reconcile and defend Gaga's Madonna shtick, there remains the fact that if the game is pastiche, referencing Madonna is the most obvious, least thought provoking, and ultimately least useful of choices. When Britney Spears referenced Prince on "I'm a Slave 4 U," THAT was interesting, especially when she followed it up with the first nod to the icon Spears would ultimately draw the most inspiration, Janet Jackson. Of course, Spears was subtle about it, subtlety being so fundamental to her image and style throughout her career; Gaga is of a vastly different school where subtlety stays locked up in a remote closet and only brought out on rare and strategic occasions, and then usually only as a means of amplifying her defining lack thereof.

Gaga's musical references are so obvious and unsurprising that those of us familiar with pop music before Gaga (which we must remember much of her core audience is's unnerving to realize how young "young people" really are) can tire of her once the visceral excitement of the immediate rush wears off, and I can speak from experience. I sometimes have to remind myself of the reason I chose to name my great pop blogging adventure Vertigo Shtick, and thereby recall what it is - was? - about this 24 year old phenomenon that inspired the pop music renaissance that allowed for many of the artists and new releases that so fascinate me, aesthetically and critically, including Ke$ha, Robyn's great Body Talk trilogy, and, yes, to a significant extent, the comeback and continued career of my favorite pop star of all time, Britney Spears. Sure, the truth is I really shouldn't have to work this hard to appreciate a pop great, and I hope this album Gaga has in store gives us a lot more than lazy Madonna rewrites and Elton John piano ballads, so stay tuned for that.

Meanwhile, the Lady has thrown a few bones our way that her single so thoroughly lacked, which she has accomplished with the same shrewdness with which she transformed her fourth single from her then-year old album The Fame into a brilliant, giant step forward artistically. Think about it: the woman managed, using a more than year old song, to erect the connecting bridge between the blonde disco diva of The Fame to the avant garde fashion daredevil and general pop culture colossus of The Fame Monster and beyond - and she did it with nothing more than the power of Jonas Ackerlund and the medium of the music video. That medium, I might remind you, was on life support at the time, as MTV and VH1 found more profit in sensationalist horror stories about teenage mothers and media-savvy Italian kids from New Jersey than uninspired clips of stars lip synching to familiar songs, when the same stars could be increasingly seen nearly anywhere, thanks to a newly televised tabloid culture and a shortage of mega celebrities in a music scene inhabited mostly by non-visual hip hop artists and a lot of B-list artists with one or two hits apiece. Now, every time you roll your eyes at some ridiculous product placement for (have you EVER met anyone who's actually used that Ke$ha/Britney/Gaga-endorsed dating site?) or a certain luxury car, electronics logo, fragrance or alcohol brand when you're just trying to watch Katy Perry shoot pyrotechnics from her boobs already thank you very much can we get on with it, you can thank Lady Gaga. Then, thank her again when Katy's breasts finally erupt...that too has largely been made possible by Lady Gaga, who played a major role in saving the music video itself. (Really, Gaga, thank you so very very much for Katy Perry's explosive tits. For that I am truly grateful.)

Let's return for a moment to the inspiration behind this blog's title, since it relates to one of these bones thrown by Gaga via the "Born This Way" video (which you can watch above if you need a refresher). I relayed the full story in a pair of posts (here and here) during my first month writing this blog, but to summarize, I wanted to select a title from the lyrics of one of the handful of artists most important to me, initially hoping to use something specifically referring to music. Not long before launching, I decided my initial working title ("The Bourgeoisie and the Rebel." I know.) was far too cumbersome and erudite to be remotely welcoming, and instead began to search for a two-word title, still from a lyric that would be familiar to many but not predictable, simple enough to maneuver around the web but unique enough that no one would have preempted the inevitable Twitter usernames, web addresses, and so forth. This was during the glorious wake of Lady Gaga's best moment, the release of "Bad Romance," and my love of the song plus my admiration of Alfred Hitchcock brought about the Eureka moment, though it was quickly tempered by the debate as to whether the lyric was "Vertigo stick," which had been my first thought, or "Vertigo shtick," which of course turned out to be correct. I still think the triplet of Hitchcock references in "Bad Romance" look better than they translate ("want you in my Rear Window baby, you're sick" has been convincingly interpreted to mean one of two things, one significantly less work-safe than the other), but I liked the nerdy shout-out.

When I first watched "Born This Way" I knew the music that scores the expository prelude was familiar, but frankly I got too distracted by the bizarre objects being extracted from the simulated vagina of "Mother Monster" (meta-fiction well worth the eye roll I gave) to think on it more, except to notice how elegantly it transitioned to the cellos that open the single. I noticed an uptick in visitors finding my site through search keywords like "Born This Way Vertigo" and similar, which seemed odd as I could see no reason the anonymous masses would take particular interest in what I had to say about this particular song. It clicked as I viewed the video a second time a few days later, when instantly I knew why the music was so familiar and of what these anonymous searchers were actually in search: the ominous tremolo from a hoard of cellos was borrowed from the prelude to Bernard Hermann's iconic score for Hitchcock's masterpiece, Vertigo.

AHA! Good old Gaga, always pulls through just when I'm about to lose all hope. I can honestly say I was so tickled by Gaga's little nod to the post-adolescent set (which Ke$ha also used to great effect with her recent James van der Beek-starring video for "Blow") that I didn't notice any of the plethora of homages to Guess Who that pervade the video until indignant bloggers bellowed them into my consciousness (I did catch the Michael Jackson gloves at the end, but I was far more entranced by the trippy digital effect than anything). As for the video, there are a number of bits I love, and there are a few things I dislike to some degree or another; then there are elements I simply find amusing or interesting. Pretty much everything I don't like involves the dance scene: the biggest knock I have is for the frenetic choreography, which is far too fast and far too busy for the song, and not only does it not add anything, it actually is really distracting, especially for such a simple song. It doesn't help that the other main issue I found - surprisingly to me, as I'm in no way a prude - was how uncomfortable I felt the more I watched Gaga dancing in the beige and black lingerie that may fit thematically but, along with the hairstyle and those shoulder/head horns this new non-judgmental race of awesome seems to have, she appears so thin it's almost worrying, and for some reason her near nakedness didn't bother me to see, it bothered me that somehow I couldn't help imagining myself similarly exposed, which is an odd reaction to have but there it was. On the bright side, I found the other tableaux especially pleasant by contrast.

Dead sexy
Then there's the stuff I love. I love the self-consciously glamorous way Gaga-as-evil-mother-goddess fires the machine gun from side to side, complete with shampoo commercial hair flippage. I love the sassiness of the purple-bobbed Gaga-as-mannequin-head, and I don't know that I'd seen quite that attitude from Lady Gaga until now (Beyonce brings enough in "Telephone" for the both of them). The best part of "Born This Way," though, is everything involving Gaga's pink ponytailed skeleton freak (and her murderously hunky skeleton freak man-friend). To begin with, it's the one visual statement that really makes its point, because Gaga and friend so perfectly manage to turn the most outwardly repulsive characters in a video not exactly overflowing with Prada models into the most lovable, even attractive. It's a great point and it sticks the landing flawlessly, but it also does some positive work on Lady Gaga's behalf, too: if you can name the last time Lady Gaga seemed to be having fun - and I mean real, silly fun, not the strategic, scripted fun of "Telephone" or "Alejandro" - since...well, The Fame Monster, then perhaps you've been paying more attention than I, because I hadn't seen the silly, relatable Gaga that reappears under grotesque makeup and pink Rapunzel wig since the "LoveGame" days of lightning bolt face paint, platinum blonde hair and bluffin' with muffins. I had forgotten how fun Lady Gaga can be when she's channeling Andy Warhol rather than Madonna. I wouldn't mind seeing more of that Gaga once in a while.

Beat it...or cross the damn street!
Right. I think I've succeeded in saying everything I might like to say on the topic of Lady Gaga and her silly little "Born This Way" business. I found it necessary to get it all out now because there is a new Britney Spears album coming out in less than a month, and I do not need any unnecessary Gaga-related distractions, especially with a May release date for this supposedly epic album. Are we all sufficiently geekified?
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