Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Getting into Gaga: An Old Fart’s Guide to Loving the Lady

GagaThe Lady Gaga phenomenon sadly passed me by. I don’t know why or when or even what I was doing at the time. I was possibly clipping my toenails or buying new underpants and I just didn’t notice the world go crazy about this supremely gifted young woman and her music.

Now I think about it, I do recall seeing some pictures of her in the nude, though I don’t remember why I was nude. Probably something to do with my needing new underpants… I was, however, struck by her unusual fashion sense. In days of bland talent, Gaga seemed particularly spikey, though that was in no small part due to the enormous spikes she was wearing at the time, along with a bin bag, rubber talons, and fetishist’s rider’s crop with feather tickler.

That was as far as my interest went until now... The imminent release of Gaga’s new album, Popart, means that I finally have chance and reason to catch up with the rest of the world in appreciating this unique talent. I expect I’m not alone. There must be many of you out there in similar positions: intrigued by the enigma, wanting to know more, but unsure where to start. Well, worry no longer, my friends. I’m here to help. Grab my muscular arm (not the withered one!) and let me bring you up to speed on the phenomenon known affectionately to her fans as ‘the velvet aardvark’.

Let me just preface the following by saying that before I did my extensive research, I knew almost nothing about Lady Gaga. Thankfully, the internet came to my rescue. I now consider myself an expert in all things Gaga based on that impeccable source of information.

So, let’s begin our story at the beginning. It was March 28, 1986, one month before Chernobyl let off its radioactive poison cloud, when Lady Gaga was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in the back of a high class New York taxi cab. Her initials SJAG, honour the S-type Jag in which she took her first lungful of air and let out a caterwaul. Like Chernobyl, little is known about her life for the next eighteen years but she did attend Catholic school which inevitably led to her career as a barroom stripper. Working in burlesque, the young Gaga was exposed to many musical influences. Her precise dance moves she often attributes to the years she spent learning to kick her knickers across a crowded room without taking out somebody's eye. It was in the strip joint that she was first taught to play the harmonica by a one-eyed table dancer call Chloe. It was there that she wrote her first song ‘Poker Face’ about an old tassel hoofer whose facial nerves had withered after losing a bet in an illicit lemon sucking den in Harlem. Yet the event that changed her life and the course of human history happened one night in 2007. During a particularly nimble strip, her right suspender got stuck. Filling the time as she tried to unhook the clasp, she started to sing and that’s when famed record producer, Herb Spanish, heard her powerful baritone for the very first time. ‘It was like a visit to my proctologist,’ he later said. ‘That voice was both familiar and yet so very strange. I couldn’t sit down for a week after hearing it.’

A record contract soon followed and the Lady Gaga phenomenon quickly spread further than she could kick off her underwear, which is to say, a pretty long way.

But that was nearly seven long years ago. We are now about to embark on the next phase of her musical journey and her newest song provides some hints as to what we can expect. It’s called ‘Applause’ and the cover of the single is a certain giveaway as to this new direction.

[caption id="attachment_2800" align="alignright" width="361"]Clowns Click to enlarge[/caption]

The cover depicts Lady Gaga dressed as a clown whose makeup has run after what looks like a professional egging. However this modern take on the traditional commedia dell'Arte figure of Pierrot is Gaga’s way paying her debts to other musicians. Here she is clearly imitating the not-disturbing-in-the-slightest-way cover of the classic album, ‘Circus in Town’, by Merle Evans and his Circus Band. The direct gaze is reminiscent of Charlie Mingus’s clown album, whilst, perhaps the greatest debt of all is to Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits in which the great man appears on the cover striking a gong that has been cunningly disguised as a big bass drum.

In this sense, ‘Applause’ may be Gaga’s most intensely personal songs. Her debt to Pavarotti is obvious from the first line which strikes a powerful note.

‘I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong’.

What gong, you ask? The gong of public opinion, I reply. Like Pavarotti before her, Ms Gaga is using the gong-banging metaphor as a clarion call to modern youth, among whom gongs are apparently very popular since the worldwide Korean hit, Gongem Style in 2012. Go into any park on a weekend and you’ll see the youth standing around their newest gongs, made by fashionable gong companies such as Beats, Bangs, and Bongs. Yet to Gaga, the gongs are symbolic of talent shows where artists are cruelly judged on their musical ability.

‘To crash the critic saying, "is it right or is it wrong?"’

There’s no beating about the bush or, indeed, about the gong! We’re straight into the moral relativism that’s so clearly close to the Gaga heart. It reminds me of Nietzsche who first asked what is beyond good and evil? Well, Gaga is here to tell you…

‘If only fame had an IV, baby could I bear
Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here’

What lies beyond good evil? Now you know. It’s contorted syntax and half-rhymes. But let’s try to unwrap this wayward beast of a line and see what Gaga is really saying because she certainly doesn’t mean that fame itself would take its nutrients through a vein. Rather, she’s saying that she wishes that fame could be applied intravenously, because, if it could, she would plunge it into her arm so she wouldn’t need to go to the effort of entertaining people to make them laud her.

It is, I admit, a chilling confession, brought into sharp focus by the lyrics of the chorus.

‘I live for the applause, applause, applause […]
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me’.

What we have here is old school narcissism and it’s admirable that her Ladyship should share this with the world. It’s rare that people are honest enough to reveal their darker sides, even at the risk of their appearing utterly dislikeable. However, Gaga is apparently confessing the grubby truth that her art is less important than the fame. The music is merely the means to an end and she will do anything to get the affirmation of her adoring crowd.

Let’s skip a few lines which repeat the same things and look at the second verse. What psychological horrors honesty might that reveal?

‘I've overheard your theory / "Nostalgia's for geeks"’

I’ll be honest and admit that this takes the ring round around my comprehension. Why might nostalgia be for geeks? Aren’t geeks forward looking and excited by the future? Unless Gaga is hereby offering a new geekdom! Ah, perhaps that’s what it is… We’re not just looking beyond good and evil. We’re looking beyond geekdom too! She has become the Übergeek! The geek of all geeks!

‘I guess sir, if you say so / Some of us just like to read’.

It’s admirable that she’s promoting literacy give her evident difficulties with the written word…

‘One second I'm a kunst’

A ‘kunst’?

‘Then suddenly the kunst is me’

Like some staggering bilious drunk emerging suddenly from the gloom, the meaning now becomes clear! She does indeed love to read and having read the German word for ‘art’, she has also spotted an elaborate pun too filthy to explain. However, this is taking us straight into the meat of this ugly business…

‘Pop culture was in art
Now, art's in pop culture in me’.

It’s a magnificent observation, contracting all the themes of the song into one memorably image. Where previously pop culture had made inroads into the world of art, art is now a subset of pop culture. Yet Gaga also realises that the entirety of pop culture is represented by Lady Gaga herself. She might as well cry, ‘my name is Legion: for we are many’! Lady Gaga is pop culture but, moreover, all art is raised in her image and to glorify her being.

Is there no clearer meaning behind this song? In her pursuit of fame and applause, Lady Gaga no longer cares about the music. The arrangement of programmed beats and autotuned vocal meddling are a brilliant way of conveying the attitude of a singer completely indifferent to the business of making meaningful art. What we have, then, is merely an audio jingle for the cloth eared. It is music made by an already jaundiced system where expensive promotion can still indoctrinate shallow youth with a message that takes sexuality and turns it into a form of camp theatre, art into faux outrage, and fame into gaudy bubble, expensive to view but ultimately a shell encompassing the sheer banality of nothing.

Here, then, you have understanding. You have now graduated with honours in Gaga. Look forward to the album with this new knowledge. If you can, send her money without even buying the album. It’s what she’d prefer. Then laud her but don’t make her have to do anything.

Laud her loudly and long because, don’t you know, she lives for your applause.

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