Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The Big Lady Gaga Debate

ARTPOP is here, so myself and Conor Behan are BATTLING IT OUT with our Gaga points of view.

Fri, Nov 8, 2013, 10:19

   

The clothes, the hit singles, the high art ideas brought low down to earth, the Madonnaisms, the frostiness twinned with over the top emotion, the celebrity, the star, the subject of one of the greatest pop interviews of the modern era. Gaga gets airtime. For what feels like forever, I’ve had back and forth debates about Gaga with my buddy Conor, some of them over Twitter, some in clubs at 2am. I think it’s fair to say that I’m a Gaga skeptic and Conor is a fan. They are two valid positions, so I thought upon the release of ARTPOP, we’d take The Big Lady Gaga Debate to PopLife. Has her star fallen? Is this a new era? Is the album any good? This is one for the pop nerds. Feel free to weigh in.

Gaga’s impact


Conor

On a visual level she certainly changed things up for female popstars. As much as the site of Gaga in her pants was common she also was willing to break the mould of a pretty pop singer in a dress, upping the ante for how a popstar could present themselves. It was obvious when Rihanna started rocking giant shoulder pads and spikes in 2009 or when Christina Aguilera’s Bionic riffed on similar outlandish visuals. And there’s no doubt that Katy Perry’s use of wigs, big bold primary colour outfits to cement her success with the singles from 2010’s Teenage Dreams hit a mark because in a post-Gaga pop world, a degree of dressing up and frivolity was considered essential. Gaga’s ability to create event videos from ‘Bad Romance’, ‘Telephone’ to ‘Alejandaro’ (Which certainly was a “wheels fall off” moment in terms of her visuals overwhelming her completely) made people excited about pop videos again, something that was crucial to how YouTube has become an essential part of the pop marketing strategy. Her pushing of a synth-soaked Euro-pop sound at American radio also helped usher in the dance-pop revolution that shook up how pop radio sounded and also took US radio into a dance direction properly for the first time. Her slick marrying of commercial R&B’s style with electro-pop ideas in 2009 was taking off just as David Guetta’s work with Black Eyed Peas took electro-house onto the charts. She helped usher in a new sound for pop music and her delving into harder (but still admittedly pop dance) electronic dance beats courtesy of DJ White Shadow, French electronic music whizzkid Madeon and German dance star Zedd on ARTPOP is very much a continuation of a pop style she’s helped make successful (will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and Guetta even turn up on a track at one point).

She also brings a sense of character and some sort of aggravation to pop music. Sure there’s Bowie, Madonna, Grace Jones in her musical DNA but Gaga is a lot better at tipping her hat to her contemporaries then she’s given credit for. Even if a song like ‘Born This Way’ can be read as cashing in on a gay fanbase, she put the word transgender into a number 1 song heard around the world, she returned to the pop world with a song that gleefully namechecks a famous sculptor. Gaga suggests that pop stars can be outlandish and strange, believe their own hype and create dizzying performances. She can get up on stage and disappear completely into the moment, face scrunched up and eyes rolled back, willing to look completely ridiculous. Sure the power and grace of Beyoncé is hard to match, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus tick the bad girl boxes and Katy Perry can play safe as much as she wants but Lady Gaga does something different, even in the fact that get us talking about something other than who a female star is dating or what size she is.

Una
Gaga’s impact has been huge. Does it really matter if some moanface like me is yelling “GRACE JONES DID THAT” “MADONNA DID THAT” “ROISIN MURPHY WORE THAT” if the experience is actually new for her younger fans? Her appropriation of gay culture is as blatant as Madonna’s, but what Madonna didn’t do was portray herself as a misfit. Gaga’s “I’m an outsider/weirdo/freak just like you” shtick is hugely empowering for kids who feel like that and need someone to look up to within the pop paradigm which favours surgical and PR perfection at every turn. She doesn’t set unrealistic expectations for her fans, but encourages them to be themselves and that’s cool.

A star of Gaga’s magnitude to be rattling the cages of DADT, marriage equality, bullying and presenting a version of alternative culture, is important. She may even be a gateway drug to the stuff she’s referencing for pop fans. As a role model, she’s a good one. Her championing of LGBT rights is hugely commendable. But she’s also responsible for one of the most annoying tropes in pop music today, and that’s the collective nouns of fans. Marina & the Diamonds did it honestly, but I really have had enough of Little Monsters, Rihanna’s Navy, Katy Perry’s KatyCats, Ke$ha’s Animals, Nicki Minaj’s Barbz, Justin Bieber’s Beliebers, Taylor Swift’s Swifties, Miley Cyrus’s Smilers, and whatever other patronising names labels have yet to come up with. That said, it has brought a tribalism back to pop, which is fun.

I know lots of people credit Gaga with bringing contemporary ‘dance’ music on to mainstream American radio of late, but Guetta and will.i.am are really responsible for that. Or, you know, disco.

Super extra bonus counter argument
Conor
Agree re: her use of fanbases, it’s quite patronising and the more outspoken, questionable behaviour of her extreme fans have definitely been the cause of plenty of online eye-rolling and negativity (such as how Kelly Osbourne received death threats from extreme fans after talking about Gaga on Fashion Police). She’s built a following that will give her a certain amount of hardcore support but it’s also harmed her wider image. Sure, Guetta and Will.i .am’s electro house pop was important but it’s significant that Gaga had to hustle ‘Just Dance’ up the American radio playlist a good year before ‘I Got A Feeling’ happened. The way she joined up the synth soaked R&B palette of the time (think Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’) with 80s ideas was hugely helpful for making their next step so palatable to US audiences.

Why does Gaga wreck people’s heads?
Conor
Even if you appreciate her material there’s no denying that Lady Gaga serves up a lot of her work with the kind of the over the top statements that make it hard not to roll your eyes. Some see her never-ending hype of her own work and use of artistic statements grating, and a lot of the time it is. But surely a belief in your own work and a conviction that your new stuff is the best yet is sort of de rigeur for any truly gigantic star? There’s a lot of people who dislike her position as a popstar making chart ready music, with all the big choruses and mass appeal that implies, who also claims to be a performance artist. It says a lot about how people view both pop music and music aimed for the masses, as if once someone is popular or successful they suddenly have less merit. Sure Gaga may grate when she claims she’s a pop performance artist but her work with the likes of Jeff Koons on her album art shows that she is keen to marry ideas from different disciplines with the world of a contemporary pop star.

Una
Gaga wrecks people’s heads because she talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. You simply can’t announce yourself as pop’s Warhol and then rhyme “Uranus” with “famous”. Kanye West can scream that he’s a god and get away with it, because the material he’s producing is making him one of the finest musical artists of his generation – if not the finest. Plus older pop fans have seen it all before. Nothing Gaga has done hasn’t been done by Madonna or Marilyn Manson or the Dixie Chicks or Courtney Love or Grace Jones or David Bowie or Jobriath or Bjork. Her output doesn’t live up to the hyperbole so you’re left thinking that the grandiose statements make her seem like a bit of an eejit.

What about the album?

Conor

Lady Gaga makes great pop music, even on her most out-there moments she manages to curl a chunky chorus and some kind of ear-worm hook around the sometimes ungainly lyrics or thundering electronic-pop production. On ARTPOP, songs like ‘G.U.Y.’ and ‘Sexxx Dreams’ are sleek and effective, peppered with moments that burrow into your brain. On the Rick Rubin produced ‘Dope’ she takes things in a downtempo direction and it’s genuinely moving. ‘MANiCure’ is a punk-pop meets synths slab of No Doubt style pop. There’s also the juddering R&B electro of ‘Do What U Want’ with Gaga teaming with R Kelly for a song that skewers the media obsession with women’s bodies and also works as a straightforward sex jam.

Una
ARTPOP is not a brilliant album. It has no hits – at least none at the level we’re used to expecting from Gaga. It’s an extremely cluttered record, and clutter is bad. Clutter is the opposite of clarity in music. It may mean that options kept proliferating when she couldn’t come up with a good idea. There is very little ‘cut through’ here, until you come to ‘Dope’, which is a fantastic track, super stripped down (how the album actually should have been if she was keeping with her rambling aesthetic) and expertly reduced by Rick Rubin. ‘Applause’ actually stands out as a decent track at the end, and considering that’s a pretty poor song, that says a lot about the company it’s keeping. There are flashes of Peaches and a lot of Kylie, especially on ‘G.U.Y.’ and ‘Sexxx Dreams’ (the latter of which has grown on me) with both songs musically referencing ‘In My Arms’ and ‘Get Outta My Way’. It’s these Calvin Harris-isms that Gaga is missing if that’s what she really wants to do. Get bloody Harris into the studio then. Other people are doing what she’s trying to achieve with these tracks far better. ‘Do What U Want’ is catchy but throwaway, and the less said about the atrocious ‘Jewels and Drugs’ the better.

Super extra bonus counter argument
Conor
I think that’s an interesting take as the pressure to deliver hits is huge on someone of her stature at this point. I would say the likes of ‘Sexxx Dreams’ and ‘Do What U Want’ riff on Prince / Janet / Vanity 6 funk-pop of the 80s and 90s R&B more than Kylie per se. ‘Jewels and Drugs’ is certainly a misfire but given that there was some rather dodgy “trap” songs floating around from her last year it’s just a good thing they’ve limited this stuff to one song. And re: ‘Applause’, as much as it feels disappointing compared to say, ‘Bad Romance’, it’s actually a proper earworm. And it’s hung around on the charts and performed a lot better than many expected when it arrived at the same time as Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. Is it as big a single as that? No, but it’s stuck around and kept a steady chart presence which suggests that it’s won people over (often a big opening single will appear from an album and disappear within a week or two if it doesn’t catch on. ‘Applause’ hasn’t done that). If they can handle ‘Do What U Want’ right there’s real potential for that to get even bigger over the next few months, the strong reaction to it when it released as a promo single for the album was impressive enough for the label turn it into a proper-send-it-to-radio single.

The narrative surrounding Gaga is just meant to bring her down

Conor
In a sense Lady Gaga was on to the idea of a star imploding before anyone else was. She talked frankly about her MTV VMA’s performance of ‘Paparazzi’, which sees Gaga die on-stage, killed by her own fame just as it was going into orbit, which was her way of talking about how the media seeks to tare apart successful stars. Speaking about the performance and her work in 2011, she told Anderson Cooper: “That’s what everyone wants to know, right? What is she going to look like when she dies … when she’s overdosed on whatever they think I’m overdosing on? Everybody wants to see the decay of the superstar…. Of course they do. They want to see me fail. They want to see me fall on stage. They want to see me vomiting out of a night club … Isn’t that the age we live in? That we want to see people who have it all lose it all?”

The success Gaga enjoyed was never going to be sustainable at the same level with the breakneck pace that pop moves at and the waning of interest to a degree was inevitable. Born This Way moved over a million copies in it’s first week of sales in the US, with over 400,000 over those accounted for by a $1 sale of albums by Amazon.com. There’s no way ARTPOP will open similarly, current estimates put her doing around 350,000 on the US charts in her first week. Sure, a step down but with Katy Perry setting a peak for a female stars in 2013 of 286,000 it’s a healthy number. In fact this year Justin Timberlake moved close to a million in his first week in the US with The 20/20 Experience Part 1. It’s follow up did 350,000 this September. Nobody suggested Timberlake was less popular, it will be interesting to see how similar figures are treated for Lady Gaga.

Una
I’m with Conor on this. She really was being risky when she was toying with the idea of a celebrity falling apart, with that whole the end is the beginning is the end vibe (apologies to Smashing Pumpkins.) And yes, of course success is also a catalyst for failure. She wasn’t going to be able to be that big forever. But the narrative is there for a reason and that’s because the hits aren’t there this time. It’s an unfair narrative, but also consequence of success and overexposure, and the lack of originality.

Who you gonna call? Gaga’s collaborators.  Conor
Although Gaga’s songs are often loud, vibrant and occasionally overcooked she keeps her list of collaborators pretty short musically. The bulk of ARTPOP’s production comes from Gaga working with DJ White Shadow, a DJ from Chicago Gaga recruited around the time of her last album and two DJ / producers with big following Zedd and Madeon. Zedd’s charted with singles like Clarity and Madeon’s French-house productions have seen him rack up big YouTube views. There’s an appearances from Red One, David Guetta and Will.i.am briefly but for the most part she keeps the team of producers quite lean. It’s what gives ARTPOP a fairly uniform, and occasionally repetitive, dance-pop pulse apart from diversions like the would-be hip hop number ‘Jewels and Drugs’ and Rick Rubin’s stripped back production on ‘Dope’.

Una
With R Kelly she missed the hipster boat by a few years, and T.I., Too Short and Twista’s appearances on ‘Jewels n Drugs’ are all rubbish. I have no idea why throwing in a dodgy hip hop track seemed like a good idea. Guetta and Will.i.am pop up on ‘Fashion!’ but the result sounds like something you’d come across on YouTube of a drag queen posturing as a pop star parody. The most interesting collab is with Rick Rubin, so maybe that’s something to explore. I find the people Gaga choose to work with quite strange, considering she could really get some top class producers on board – not to mention songwriters – and really go for it. Too many yes men, perhaps?

She does, however, have Madonna’s magpie skill of identifying rising stars, particularly in fashion to collaborate with. However, for every Nicola Formichetti there’s a Terry Richardson.

Super extra bonus counter argument
Conor
The songwriters coming in thing hasn’t been part of her work even when she was writing much more straightforward hits. She’s been very clear on working with a big producer / songwriter (RedOne or Rodney Jerkins for example) and placing her stamp. It works when she can hole up in a tour bus and come up with a song like ‘Bad Romance’ and then get RedOne to turn it into a gem. It’s also where she falters, if she had a Cathy Dennis or Kara DioGuardi style writer chiming in with her would the lyrics and ideas be honed a bit better? I think she picks producers that will mold and bend with her. To her credit someone like DJ White Shadow, who was a complete unknown but has obvious flair as a producer, being on board is impressive. So many popstars rely on the same people to finesse the songs, she’s reaching out to people with obvious pop-nous who are not at saturation point. Even Zedd only broke through onto the charts in the middle of this year after he’d already been involved with Gaga’s music for over a year. Madeon too has been tipped as someone to do big things in pop for years and Gaga is the first person to really work with him. Rubin is a smart choice too, and given his work with Eminem recently clearly no stranger to different ends of the pop spectrum, but I would guess that she likes producers who may be easier to shape in whatever direction she wants to go. I think in her case the yes men are afraid to get in her way because in a sense she was instrumental to how strong those big first singles were, this isn’t a Robbie Williams Guy Chambers situation.

Gaga Vs the world: the context of her contemporaries

Conor
Once ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Poker Face’ took over the charts Gaga’s run of big singles and equally big videos put her in the pop A-list, alongside established titans like Britney and Beyoncé, the ever-changing Rihanna and Katy Perry’s recent ascent. From Lorde to Rihanna, there’s an endless line of female stars the media could pit against her. The most frequently mentioned is Madonna, whose name is never far from any conversation about Gaga’s references. But of the current crop it’s Katy Perry who has been held up as the standard for Gaga to best. In a way it seems ludicrous. Sure, Perry does a good line in bubblegum and clearly has an ear for a hook. But she’s also workman like in her delivery, frequently banal and rarely looks at ease on stage. It’s telling that someone as conventional and safe as Perry is opposed against Gaga who may not always get it right but her willingness to play with imagery and her own appearance shakes up how female popstars present themselves.

Una
I actually feel sorry for female popstars post-Gaga, because everyone has to arrive on the red carpet now dressed with the contents of a nearby Forever 21 and taxidermy skip, and if anyone wears anything remotely risky it’s like “OH YOU’RE COPYING GAGA” as if interesting fashion didn’t exist before her. Tell that to Bjork’s swan dress or Grace Jones’ Philip Treacy obsession or Kylie’s hoods ‘n’ shades, or Roisin Murphy’s awesome outfits or Britney’s double denim. Actually, scrap the last one.

But how does she hold up next to her contemporaries who are really only Rihanna and Katy Perry in terms of success (I’m leaving Beyonce out of this because Beyonce is on another level… apart from the recent album screw up)? Katy Perry is boring but she has good songs even if they all kind of sound the same. ‘Roar’ is a tune that should have been Gaga-ized and on ARTPOP. Rihanna is a hit factory whom no one can really compete with in terms of output – seven albums in seven years and nearly 40 singles as a lead artist. Gaga’s position in pop is now a little muddled. Is she the dance pop queen who bangs out hit tunes? Well not if ARTPOP is anything to go by, no, because that level of hits is definitely in the past for the time being. Is she in it for the long run? Well she’ll need to improve her artistry to get to that point.

Gaga’s Lyrics
Conor

Most pop music works off of simplicity when it comes to lyrics be it good or bad. In the case of Gaga for every killer phrase there are plenty of fumbles. ‘Applause’’s attempt to crowbar references to Koons and “art in pop culture” are certainly noble but sound somewhat ungainly. But then there’s her way of mixing the party pop staples with a bit more bite such as ‘Do What U Want’ (discussed above) or the wink wink fashion talk of ‘Donatella’ which is gleefully camp and shows off her surprising sense of humour. Unlike Katy Perry, Gaga has avoided the self-help book platitudes this time and ARTPOP has plenty of lines that raises eyebrows for both and good bad reasons.

Una
Lyrically ARTPOP is kind of laughable, but it’s also quite sterile and removed. I get what Conor is saying about the self-help cliches being absent, but maybe they were what actually gave the tunes heart? Again, lyrically the best song is the simplest one – ‘Dope’.

Gaga as the Underdog
Conor
With the release of ARTPOP, plenty are claiming that Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ has reminded us of her chart dominace, her straightforward candy coated pop seen as a safer bet than the pomp and pageantry of Lady Gaga. In a sense this mirrors the battle Gaga had to have a hit even when she was a part of the major label system in 2008. ‘Just Dance’ was first released in the spring of 2008 in the US but wouldn’t reach the summit of the chart there until January 2009 just as the song did the same here and in the UK. While Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ turned her into a instant star in 2008, Gaga spent much of that year convincing radio stations to take a chance on someone who looked a bit different and wasn’t a proven hitmaker. Sure, every new artist has to hustle even when they’re with a major label but Gaga was doing it all. She was filming elaborate videos, performing on every single TV show that would have her worldwide, supporting New Kids on The Block (!) on tour and frequently doing club gigs the same night all while personally visiting the numerous US radio stations she’d need to break her, just as her music took off in Europe and Australia. That sense of pop oddball triumphing with a slew of killer songs propelled the early stages of the Lady Gaga story and in a way, having her back in this position now feels fitting for someone who was threatening to disappear up their own success around the time of her last album release.

Una
Being the pop oddball was a great place to start, but it’s hard to return to that when you’ve become a big star. That said, the underdog status suits Gaga, because she has committed fans. And fans stick with you when they’ve bought into Gaga as a star who wears meat dresses and hangs out with performance artists. The cautionary tale is of course Madonna’s latter career, which has struggled because the material simply isn’t there. No one wants to go to a Madonna concert to hear her play the bulk of a dodgy new album, and no one will want to go to see Gaga just play ARTPOP. Underdog status is ok when you’re niche, but Gaga stopped being niche around the time she sold millions of records. She might be comfortable with being an underdog for longevity’s sake, but it’s not good business.

Lady Gaga has run out of ideas
Conor
I think it’s fair to say Gaga has already covered a lot of ground and moments like this year’s VMA’s performance where she looked at her own “Eras” in the space of a short time on stage may have seen a bit worrying for someone only a bit into their career. Certainly she’s playing with familiar themes but her darker stage show for this year’s iTunes festival, her work with Jeff Koons on the ARTPOP album cover and the planned “ARTRAVE” for the album launch all show that’s adept at creating new ways to bring her pop ideas to the masses.

Una
That’s what it felt like in the run up to the record, anyway. I would have seen the ARTPOP title as almost a Gaga parody. After creating herself as a walking dancing piece of art, the natural thing would be to strip it all back, which she has done; nude make-up and nude nudeness. Unfortunately, the interesting thing about Gaga was actually the bells and whistles as ridiculous as they all were. As my friend Anthony said on Twitter “she’s lost the run of herself.” That might sound like Anthony is your granny, but there is a ring of truth to it: that she used up so many ideas and identities and alter egos so rapidly that there wasn’t much left to explore. Maybe she needs a reset button, or at least a lot of time out. Mind you, the Jeff Koons coverart is fantastic. A classic album cover.

Gaga has recycled a lot of ideas from other sources – as everyone does – but nothing is as cynical as the imagery she was producing in the run up to the album’s release which was purposefully anti-thematic, and therefore, you’d have to think, doesn’t mean anything at all, just a bunch of pretty pictures. That’s grand, but stop attaching greater meanings to stuff then.

 

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