Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Why Gaga Matters
Lady Gaga. The name has become synonymous with many terms: "freak", "genius", "pop star", "performance artist", etc. etc. The list goes on and on. Arguably the most famous woman in the world at this point in time, anything she touches turns to gold. She is a corporate record label's dream come true. She is an artist with an incredibly large fanbase who writes her own music, designs her own stage show, envisions her own music videos, and makes millions upon millions of dollars doing it. She is truly valuable, in the most capitalist sense of the word. Every song she has ever released as a single has immediately engraved itself into the minds of the masses with the ferocity of WWII propaganda and the gentleness of a flirty come-on. Is it the catchiness of her self-written songs that makes her the queen of the charts? Or is it the ridiculously outlandish costumes she wears that garner her so much attention and infatuation? What exactly is it that has made everyone go gaga over Gaga?
Music, and the people who make music, are very grounded in the setting (the time and place) that the music is created in. The 60's would not have been the 60's without the fantastic need for escape, peaceful existence, and psychedelic adventures that resulted from the lack of imagination and happiness in a time of war and divide. The 70's would not have been the 70's had the 60's not come directly before it, and the 80's wouldn't have been the 80's had everyone not decided they were sick of the 60's and 70's and wanted to go in a much more insane, fucked up direction than ever before. And the 90's (my personal favorite) would not have been the 90's had the previous decades not already gone in every possible direction musically, politically, and fashion-wise. The people who lived through these time periods were not always self-conscious about the fact that they were making history, but they were making it nonetheless. The ones that we remember, the bands and artists that we still talk about, are the ones that examined the commotion and culture explosion around them, and said that they wanted to carve their own path. The ones that we remember (Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, etc.) are the people who stood out in their time period. They were the ones who did things a little (or a lot) differently than anyone else at the time. They are the ones who said something with their music that needed to be said. They did something that people wanted, maybe even NEEDED, and therefore earned the credit they deserved.
The most common theme in music, if you trace it back through history, is escape. There is a constant need in the human mind for validation that there is something more to life than the immediate material world that we see around us. There is a want and a need to reach out and discover something spiritual and free inside and outside of ourselves that is completely untouched by disease, pain, politics, religion, war, and any other ailment that is exclusive to this grounded world of ours. Call it heaven or whatever you will, but humans have a desire for something beyond what they see around them. Because, truth be told, the real world is not as pretty or as ideal as we like to imagine it to be. Music has served this purpose throughout the ages. In every time period and culture, there has been a specific type of sound and feeling that has helped the common man feel validated and hopeful. This is the role that musical artists play, this is why they have an audience, and this is why we need them.
With the turn of the new millenium, not much seemed to change. Y2K didn't bring about an electronic breakdown the way people feared. Jesus didn't descend from the clouds and take all of his children back up with him. Earthquakes, floods, and plagues didn't break out to destroy all civilization. In fact, it still felt like the 90's. But one thing, not immediately noticeable, did begin to change: music. Western society had already seen it all. We had the acid-trip happy soft rock of the 60's and the slightly harder acid-trip rock of the 70's. We had the cheap thrills and larger-than-life hair, clothes, and style of the 80's. And we had already seen the comedown in the 90's, when the artists seemed to finally come down to earth, creating jam-rock, grunge, and funk that seemed like the last hope for originality. And in a way, it WAS the last hope for originality. Enter the new decade. The music industry is not run by artists, (was it ever, though?) but by greedy corporate executives. Music is no longer something that needs to be created on organic instruments. We have Pro-Tools and an ever expanding range of production technology to handle that for us. And at this point, the people who sing the music aren't even required to write the music or stand behind it in any way. If you're young and attractive enough, your record label can simply hire producers and songwriters to create music for you. And create they will. Entire songs can be put together in minutes, hours at the most. Beats and drum loops are intertwined and connected by talented engineers who get paid mucho money to create a sound that is "in", "marketable", and fits a certain demographic. Vocals don't require a good voice, all they really require is auto-tune and someone who knows how to use it. Nothing is sacred or real anymore, yet somehow, we can't get enough of it.
The world has become more convoluted than ever. The internet age has brought about a lack of privacy and a shortened attention span that has never been seen before. The disorder known as ADD is no longer a condition that only affects a few chemically-challenged brains, it is now a way of life for people living in the industrialized nations of the world. The juggernaut of YouTube, Facebook, iPhones, commercials, tabloids, reality tv shows, and everything else that defines our trashy existence in the new millenium has created a new type of lifestyle for our generation. We require constant entertainment and distraction. We require something new to occupy our minds every five seconds lest we get bored. Every artist that has come before now, those that ruled the charts in the decades preceding ours, has NO CLUE as to how to survive in this new marketplace, where even CD's don't sell well anymore.
"Escape", that's the key word. That's what we need right now. I know it, you know it, and thank God, Lady Gaga knows it.
At first, the woman seemed to be just another pop star, singing about deep things like disco sticks and poker faces over catchy hip-hop influenced dance-pop beats. Other than an actual intellect and a penchant for wearing strange things, the world didn't quite differentiate her from the other young, attractive blonde girls that got paid millions to release catchy tunes. But as time has gone on, the costumes got more and more bizarre. The music has gotten better and better. And the fanbase has gotten larger and larger. The word of mouth (well, really, the media's large mouth) has spread that she is a REAL talent, a woman with a good voice who writes her own music. How strange in this day and age, that an attractive young pop artist should write her own music?!
The reason why Gaga stands out from the crowd so much is simple: she is conscious of her role. And for better or worse, she decided, upon getting a record deal, that she would choose her role carefully and responsibly. Unlike any other artist that is making music right now, Gaga knows EXACTLY what the world needs. Her unique viewpoint on music and performance art is brought about by the fact that she really is one of us. Underneath the masks, sunglasses, and outfits, she is an extremely intelligent 24 year old who cares about art and music more than anything else. She saw the death of originality that the end of the 90's brought about. She is acutely aware of the fact that every type of musical style that can be invented has already been invented. She knows that we, as fans and as art-starved humans, need constant flow from our musical artists if we are to show them any attention at all. And most of all, we need something REAL. Gaga decided to do something that has rarely been done in the past ten years: make REAL pop music. Funny, that the one woman who is heralded as being one of the most creative voices of our generation should invest so much of her time and effort into a genre that is known as being controlled, corporate, and thoroughly un-original. But she wouldn't have been relevant any other way, would she? In planning her rise to fame, Gaga realized that the only way to TRULY matter is to turn the industry on its head. All those bands in the 90's would still be waving their flags and refusing to give in to corporate pressure, but this isn't the 90's now, is it? The only way to truly make a difference at this point is to fully inject yourself into the machine, abandoning any doubt or fears in the process. And inject herself, she did.
At first, the music seemed original, but vaguely, as if it could be a hoax. She created a small fan-base, people who loved electronic music but also despised the stupidity with which it is often associated with. Finally, the people of the world had an INTELLECTUAL pop star, someone that made herself seem more lovable and intelligent with every interview. Not only did she write her own music, but when she sat down at that piano and played, GOD could she sing! The art-starved masses finally had a glimpse of something substantial, something that might be all they've been looking for this entire millenium. But the doubts were still there. Aside from a few songs that had double-entendres, most of the songs off of her debut album were shallow club anthems, though with very clever lyrics. Still, the hope remained for everyone that was starting to notice her: maybe she IS what we've been waiting for. Maybe she has something deeper and better to say, maybe if we just wait, she'll save us from the death of music.
That hope got fulfilled with her second album. With most artists, as fame and popularity seeps in, so does greed and loss of artistic value. But, as I've said before, Gaga is VERY conscious of her role. She knows exactly what lines not to cross. So as more and more people downloaded her music, bought her albums, and got exposed to her new empire, she went more and more off the deep end. Designing stage performances and music videos that became increasingly more complex and bizarre, she went in the opposite direction of everything that she is expected to do. Her art requires thought, analyzation, and actual interpretation. Her music, while retaining it's radio-friendly dance-pop vibe, consists of lyrics that actually mean something to her and her fans. And instead of letting fame get to her, she has very honorably taken on the role that this generation needs: that of an escape artist. Like Madonna, David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, and every other icon that has come before her, she has created a space for her fans where the imagination is the most important moral. Art is the only real aspiration, and money and hatred have no place in her world. By letting the current music industry market her and sell her as they will, while still not releasing a single song or project that is not wholly and completely her own, she has reminded everyone of why we care about music, art, and fashion in the first place. She decided, only a few years ago, when she adopted her new name of Lady Gaga, that she would kill herself into art. The point of Lady Gaga, why she matters so much, is not because of the insane celebrity-worship culture we and the media have built. It's the opposite. The masks, the costumes and outfits, the layers of make-up, are constantly reminding us of one thing: this could be anyone. We're not infatuated with Lady Gaga because we are obsessed with her, we're infatuated because we're obsessed with what she represents. She has become a symbol for art. She gave herself one label from the very beginning, from the very earliest interviews, and that label was "performance artist". She doesn't want you to look at her the way you do Beyonce and Britney Spears. She doesn't want you to envy her or wish you were her. She wants you to see her as a living, breathing art project. She is a flag for everyone to wave, a reminder that there is hope for music, that there are people out there (and many of them, judging by her ever-expanding fanbase) that do care about art more than money, love more than prejudice, and music more than monotony. She has decided that her role, in this new millenium, is that of the Renaissance Man. If she can do anything and be anything that her heart desires, then we can too. The odds were no more in her favor than they are in ours. All you need is a little bit of heart. She is inviting us all to abandon boredom and insecurity and to find our place in the escape that art provides. And most of us are happy to go along for the ride.
Oh, and the music's good too.