Notes on Pop Culture: Why Lady Gaga is Like James Joyce, kinda.

"If anyone calls Lady Gaga a pop star, I'll (expletive deleted) kill them. She's a rock star!" - the guy from Semi Precious Weapons, onstage at Lollapalooza.

"I don't mean to speak arrogantly about my musical strategy as a pop artist in the Warholian sense, but today you have to almost trick people into listening to something intelligent." - Lady Gaga on why so many of her songs were about clubbing and getting drunk.

With the above quote in Rolling Stone, Lady Gaga stole my heart. As a guy who tried to write the most intelligent of all possible zombie romance novels (a genre that doesn't naturally lend itself to intelligence, honestly), I see where she's coming from.

As a music fan, I'm a bit of a mercenary. Dance music has no real use for me, because I can't dance worth a damn. Oh, I'll listen to OLD dance music - swing, tango and ragtime are fun to listen to, and they always make you feel classy (though that's exactly the opposite of what they were designed to do), but all of this modern club music that where the songs are crammed full of pop hooks and beats instead of being written, well…what use is it to me?

A prime example of this is that Britney song that goes "all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy." Yes, I get the pun. But the way they present it here is just cheap - "begging to if?" After spending a verse or two talking about a character named Amy, they don't even pretend that the song is anything but a pun in the chorus. The proper way to do the chorus would be "all of the boys and all of the girls, just want to come if you seek amy." This way you keep the pun, and add another double entendre, but can go on pretending that they're all going off on a hunt for Amy and the pun is just a coincidence. Instead of clever, they went for lazy and assumed no one would care.

The first time I heard Lady Gaga, I was in the car with my wife - she often plays dance music in the car. She actually CAN dance, and very well, so it's of more use to her. The song on the stereo was "Boys, Boys Boys" and the chorus went "we like boys in cars / buy us drinks in bars." It was catchy, but I sneered at it. It sounded like it was a song from the point of view of some annoying bar skank or "woo girl."

"Boys in cars?" I asked. "How badly did she need a rhyme for 'drinks in bars?' Who is this?"

"It's Lady Gaga," said Mrs. S.

Oh. So THIS was the Lady Gaga I'd heard so much about.

Earlier that same drive, I was probably lamenting the fact that so many readers didn't seem to be picking up on the satire behind I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It, but there I was, not noticing any of the intelligence behind the mask of shallowness on The Fame.

I try to keep an open mind about pop music - one of the great pleasures of being a grown-up is that I can listen to pop without worrying that I'll loose any street cred, since I never really had any, and, now that I'm 30, I'm too old to get any. I am mature enough to know that if I get caught selecting Kelly Clarkson's "I Do Not Hook Up" on my mp3 player, no goon squad is going to come and take my Tom Waits albums away. Kurt Weill himself said that just because something is popular doesn't make it bad, and I'm not the kind that would argue with Kurt Weill.

But as far as I could tell, Lady Gaga was just another pop singer singing about drinking in clubs. "I don't like to go drinking in clubs myself," I said, "and I sure as hell don't want to listen to songs by people who act like that scene is the be-all end all of human existence."

That's what I said, anyway - but it was a lousy excuse. I listen to plenty of songs about clubbing (The Hold Steady have plenty of songs about douchebag kids who go to clubs that come from a sort of detached, sympathetic perspective). And the fact I don't want to live out a song doesn't mean I shouldn't like it - after all, songs are a form of fiction and fiction is supposed to be a window into someone else's life. I love 1970s country songs about truck drivers and rodeos, despite the fact that I'm certainly not a trucker and can't imagine sitting through a rodeo - songs like "Tapedeck in his Tractor (The Cowboy Song)" by Ronnee Blakely, "God Bless Our Mobile Home" by Steve Goodman, and "Someday Soon" by Ian and Silvia (the best version of which is a Jewel / Garth Brooks duet) are all songs that I play over and over again, and they're all about a lifestyle just about as alien to be as the club scene.

If anyone CALLED me on this bit of hypocrisy, I would just bring out my favorite Walt Whitman quote: " Do I contract myself/ Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." With enough of a chuckle that I didn't sound like TOO much of a jackass.

But the truth is that me brushing Lady Gaga off as "not my sort of thing" wasn't about me containing multitudes - it was just about me not paying attention to a song because it seemed like a song based on beats instead of melody. I was wrong about it. Lady Gaga is not a pop singer. She's a pop artist (of the Warhol variety) with more in common with Queen (from whom she took her name) than the pop divas of the world.

When I started seeing her in outlandish costumes performing on television, and playing a piano, I got the idea that there was more to it all (nothing makes you seem like a real musician more than playing a piano, does it?). She seemed to have much more artistic ambitions than people who just want to be pop divas - someone who wanted to be famous FOR something, not just for being a celebrity. And her persona in interviews made it clear that even when she was doing something weird, she knew WHY she was doing it (even if it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, SHE certainly knew what she was doing).

She seemed to have grand designs for even her most shallow-sounding music - the idea that you can still feel famous, beautiful, and dirty rich even if you have nothing more to your name than some lipstick that you left in someone's ashtray pervades the first album. I'd be tempted, based on her newer material, to say that all of those songs about clubbing were just a ruse to get her foot in the door (and that "Boys Boys Boys" was actually a straight-up satire) except that the way she talked reminded me of the idea James Joyce trying to inject a soul into his people through writing. In a way. She was trying to inject a soul, and a sense of art and creativity, into a scene that desperately needed them (and deserved them just as much as anyone else), like the guy in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man talks of trying to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Even if it didn't work, and even if she wasn't being snarky on "Boys Boys Boys," and I'm just over-deconstructing here,  it seems awfully noble of her to try.

Still, the most encouraging thing to me, the thing that makes me thing I'm not reading too much into all this, is that she keeps getting better and better.

I liked "Bad Romance" right away - now here was a SONG. It still had pop/dance beats, but it was a well-written song that I could imagine being done either as a solo piano song or as a heavy metal song. If you can take a song out of its genre and have it keep working, it's a sign that you've got a good song on your hands.

In fact, The Fame Monster is really a terrific album, much more appealing to me, personally, than Gaga's earlier stuff. If you're not paying attention, you could actually mistake it for an extension to The Fame, which I guess it's officially supposed to be, but it's really very different in tone, a distinct album of its own. The Fame is all about dancing and clubbing (or, anyway, it sounds like it is), while The Fame Monster is more of a breakup album. There's hardly a nice thing to be said about boys, in cars or otherwise, here. Rather, it has things like "baby loves to dance in the dark / cause when he's looking she falls apart." It urges for women to find their freedom in the music - not in their men. It's certainly a better message than having a heroine who bases her self-worth on the extent to which a vampire stalks her.

And then there's the ballad "Speechless," which sounds - between the piano, the backup vocals, and that George Harrison guitar tone - like something from Abbey Road. Even the Beatles had to break into their fame with deceptively simple songs about holding hands. Part of what awed people so much about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was that this was THE BEATLES, those four moptops who fall over each other whenever they get out of a car in cartoons, doing "A Day in the Life" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," just as part of the appeal (a large part, I think) of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is that this is those guys who normally sang about surfing and cars singing about alienation and disillusion.

Lady Gaga is a hell of a writer, and one who knows exactly what she's doing. Her costumes and stunts may seem like appeals for intentions, but even if I don't understand what she's trying to say with them, I certainly get the impression that she does, and when the dust settles, she'll be standing tall.
Sure, all those stunts get her attention, but that doesn't mean she just wants to be famous for being famous - it simply means that she understands how the media works.

And boy, does she ever understand how the media works. Remember how many people thought Madonna was just out to shock people with "Like a Prayer?" The song still works twenty years later (and, incidentally, that's me doing the piano cover of it that goes around on blogs now and then, not the Adam Selzer in Portland, who I'm sure would have done the piano part a lot better I did). But I feel like Madonna wanted to be a controversial FIGURE early in her career, wheras Gaga wants to be a controversial ARTIST.

Whether she's succeeded thus far or not (and I'd say she does on at least a handful of cuts) is almost beside the point - the thought alone counts. Sort like I have no idea whether Daniel Radcliffe is just blowing smoke out his butt when he talks about how he's really in John Keats and his concept of negative culpability - the sheer notion he wants to be perceived as the kind of person who knows about stuff like that is fantastic.

I'm still not much into songs where it's all about the beats, not the melody, which is still an issue in a lot of Lady Gaga's songs for me. But even in the songs I can't get into, I find myself at least appreciating them.

She now has the fame and the platform that she doesn't need to trick people anymore - she can do pretty much whatever she wants next. She's talking up her next album as a big rock and roll album with a "bitter jelly" in the midst of a sweet cake. Nice. The one new song we've heard so far, "You and I" is a VERY good song - a rock ballad that sounds like Elton John at his best (and it's easy to forget, now that he's been doing adult comtemporary stuff for so long, that in the early 70s he was a hell of a rock star). For entirely selfish reasons, I hope she's going away from dance beats and making more of a rock album. We need people like her in rock.

I just hope her media manipulation works out better for her than it did for Marilyn Manson, another secretly-highly-intelligent artist who knew just how to play with the media, but whose career seemed to flounder after the shock wore off, even thought the quality of the music was fairly consistent. But Manson was in the metal world, which tends to refuse to let people grow or develop much, musically. Gaga could put out an album of showtunes or a metal album next. And I'd buy either one.


Anonymous said...

Lady Gaga is to Andy Warhol as Chips Ahoy is to pirates.

Adam Selzer said...

Ha! Hey, I'm not so arrogant that I don't harbor doubts that I'm reading WAY too much into a handful of interview quotes.

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013