By Daniel Garrett
Lady Gaga, Born This Way
“I’ve had to shout for so long because I was only given five minutes, but now I’ve got fifteen. Andy said you only needed fifteen minutes.”
Lady Gaga, who has a popular song (“The Edge of Glory”) making its way up the music charts, seems, like Madonna before her, to have commandeered her own fifteen minutes of fame and that of millions of other people. She is one of an emergent generation that has acquired great attention in the last three years or so; among them, Taio Cruz, Jason Derulo, Ke$ha, Bruno Mars, Travie McCoy, Owl City, Katy Perry, Mike Posner, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift, performers whose songs do possess a certain seduction, an energy and personality that are first irritating, then persuasive, and finally irritating again. There are distinctive and frequently fleeting qualities that one can hear in the work of youth—charm, confidence, exuberance, irreverence, sensuality—and if an artist is particularly aware, gifted, or lucky the listener can hear intelligence and moral conviction, but usually one does not hear depth, experience, or wisdom. Much of the confections that Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and those other musicians are serving are sugary and fattening, below the established standards for good nutrition, but one’s energy does spike and the resulting spastic movements can be confused with dancing. Standards do matter, even when we are inclined to ignore them; in fact, they matter most when we ignore them. Of course, there are artists in classical music, jazz, indie rock, and world music that are making very good music, such as Julia Wolfe, Awadagin Pratt, Jeremy Denk, Build, Eric Reed, Rene Marie, Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, Angelique Kidjo, Mamadou Diabate, and Vieux Farka Toure, but they get less attention. It is telling that Lady Gaga, quoting Andy Warhol on fame, gave an inexact if not incorrect interpretation: Warhol said, and is widely understood to have meant, that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes; and that, in light of the pervasive and promiscuous nature of publicity, fame may come for a good reason, any reason, or no reason, but the fame, in all probability, will be fleeting. It is not surprising that Gaga’s grasp of that should be faulty, as she often uses culture in shallow and self-serving ways, attaching provocative images to pedestrian songs, to the delight of many people who are clueless about the real sources of her images and sounds.
I love literature, film, music, painting and other arts, and prefer work that has complexity, depth, and originality. I had heard of Gaga before I heard her music, and when I heard her music, I was mystified: is that what all the fuss is about, the recycling of other people’s music? The obvious references were to the work of Madonna and Annie Lennox, but Gaga’s catalog of influences is, from Grace Jones, Prince, and Boy George to Klaus Nomi and Isabella Blow and including many others, too large a list to be documented here. It is important to remember that we all have ambition, and ambition can be infused in anything, from cake-making to singing to becoming a priest or president. It can be achieved honestly or dishonestly, or with a mix of methods. Lady Gaga is nothing more than the contrived image of an ambitious New York girl named Stefani Joanne Germanotta, the daughter of upper-middle class strivers. “Her father ran a company that installed Wi-Fi in hotels, and her mother worked for a time as a V.P. at Verizon,” reported Vanessa Grigoriadis in New York magazine, April 5, 2010. Stefani Germanotta went to a Catholic school, and was drawn to the arts, playing piano and acting in school plays; and she looked like a normal girl, healthy, sensual, and warm. She had a reputation for being nice and she worked hard, playing in clubs and collaborating with other songwriters, but when a music industry contact suggested she needed to change her look, that is what she did, dying her very dark hair blonde, with other changes to follow. She became a reader, or misreader, of Warhol, taking on his use of the term superstar. Warhol’s “superstars” seemed to have one look and limited talent, and were like the remembered images of famous actors and actresses, rather than being vibrant artists or people. The popularity of Stefani Germanotta’s self-construction as Lady Gaga is fascinating, at once a triumph of imagination and will, but also of artifice and ugliness; and her willingness to introduce ever new changes to that image, like Madonna before her, will keep a fickle, large, and tasteless public interested.
Lady Gaga is the icon of the moment, and she has her defenders, low and high. Some manage to say things about her that her actually true, though the truth does not always matter. In a June 2011 Vanity Fair profile of Katy Perry by writer Lisa Robinson, featuring lovely photographs of Perry, entertainment writer Perez Hilton is quoted as saying, “In many ways, Katy reminds me of a young Gwen Stefani. Gwen’s been away from the music scene for a while, doing the mommy thing and taking her time to make new music with No Doubt, and Katy has filled that void—much like Gaga has filled the Madonna void.” The void is not merely one of entertainment, but of money-making; and the industry requires things to sell, and Gaga, like Perry, like Rihanna, is obliging. In 2010, Gaga was reported by Rolling Stone (February 4, 2010) to have sold fifteen million digital tracks, and Time magazine (May 10, 2010) put her on its cover as one of its one-hundred most influential people. Her newest album, Born This Way, featuring a cover in which Gaga is presented as part human and part machine, a symbol that may be a confession, continues Gaga’s selling power, though some well-placed critics remarked on the confusing messages in some of the songs. Has Gaga influenced anyone but drag queens (who, really, would seem to have influenced her)? Recently, music critic Nitsuh Abebe (New York, July 18-25, 2011) argued that the self-affirmation of artists like Gaga is the political gesture of women and minorities, but almost everyone is inclined to self-affirmation, for good or ill.
Questions remain: what does that self-affirmation inspire one to do? What are the ideas and values in one’s work? What does one’s work achieve in the world? As evidence of social awareness, some may point to Gaga’s support of gay rights, which are certainly in the interest of a significant number of the people who buy her recordings. She affirmed the rhetoric of aggressive gay politics with the song “Born This Way,” though science is rarely certain when it comes to defining what human character or orientation is at birth—one reason for the long existence of the nature/nurture debate. There is something ironic to me about people attempting to achieve greater liberty by arguing that who they are is determined by biology, as most arguments for freedom are based on the desire for more choice. Yet, I suppose if you are perpetually told that what you want is not natural, you will insist that it could not be more natural. However, civilization is about choices—what we choose to be, think, and do; what we choose to create, protect, and transmit. Civilization is about the transformation of nature; and the question is, Is nature being transformed by knowledge or ignorance, in the name of life or death, and on the behalf of decency or decadence? Has the musical world or the social world been made better by giving so much attention to Madonna, and will either be made better by giving great attention to Gaga and her generation?
It was amusing to hear Ryan Seacrest on his top forty radio singles show introduce the British singer Adele’s song “Rolling in the Deep” and realize he had no trivia to add to that introduction, as he does with the work of Gaga, Perry, and Rihanna, and then to hear the Adele song itself—an eloquent song inspired by a genuine experience, full of passion, with a beautiful arrangement and thunderous rhythm—and how it made everything around it, including the work of Gaga, Perry, and Rihanna, sound silly. Hearing good music is the only standard one needs by which to judge all music, if one does not want to be intellectual about it.
One generation can pursue classical form, and another experimentation, folk, or industrial customs. One generation can pursue duty, and another pleasure; and each has its strengths and weaknesses. To be fair and prudent, I must note that it is not wise to bet against youth: those who are young now will have a lot of time in which to pursue their habits, ideas, and goals; and many people change, deepen, and grow—often unpredictably. Yet, fame, even the fame of youth appealing to youth, can be used for admirable purposes, though it is important to remember that good intentions cannot justify mediocre art. On the 9th of August, 2011, Lady Gaga with many other performers utilized their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to reach millions of people on behalf of Save the Children, to raise funds for use in East Africa. I am glad to hear that, though I would like to hear a lot less of Gaga’s music.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett wrote comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and politics, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader” and he is planning another, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which awaits publication.