[FYI: For those not so versed in the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof as I—who used to watch it, in its 2+ hour entirety, every time I was sick—I’m referring here to the infamous Tevye-rejects-Chava scene.]
My dilemma, dear Reader, is this: I should, by all rights, love Lady Gaga, with her daring costumes, her simultaneous strangeness & success, the Rilke quote on her arm & the Bowie homage on her face—but, for some reason, she irritates me to no end.
As I send my mom feedback for her New York Times piece on the Lady’s place in feminist philosophy (which is going to be brilliant, so keep an eye out), I’ve been forced to revisit this taste-anomaly of mine & finally give it a good parsing. Here is an attempt to understand my inner workings.
On the one hand: She is unusual.
As far as pop music goes, my opinion is best described thusly: if it is good, I will like it, often begrudgingly. Though I’m now secure enough in my music taste not to categorically reject songs based on their creators’ evident suck-factor (e.g., that cello-ridden, "—damn door" song by Panic! At the Disco, which lives happily on my iPod), I still harbor some fairly potent distaste for the Music Industry Machine, in which an “artist” is often no more than a dolled-up mouthpiece, & “pop punk” is a thing that’s allowed to exist. (Read: it’s a contradiction in terms—except, apparently, when marketing Weezer to Delia’s customers.)
This is not to say that there are no talented people working within the pop idiom: for example, Beyoncé Knowles, glamazon-of-all-trades, is an undeniable pop-music powerhouse & deserves to be recognized as such. However, for every Beyoncé, there is a Miley Cyrus, a Ke$ha, a Taylor Swift, & a Jonas brother (didn’t one of them go solo?), each of whom I would have no problem personally putting through The Machine from The Princess Bride (especially if I get to sport Christopher Guest’s dashing coif)—or better yet, Ludovico treatment set to their own painfully plastic music.
For these reasons alone, I should welcome, even applaud the success of such an intentionally strange, controversial performer as Gaga, with her fuck-the-norm wardrobe & attitude & all-around (figurative—it’s been confirmed) balls. I should warm to her schtick especially because she is consciously paying tribute to my absolute favorite performer of all time, David Bowie (& his glam contemporaries) by making fame, artifice, & style a crucial part of her act.
On the other hand: She’s not doing it quite right.
There are many things that are a little off about Gaga—& I mean this in a near-opposite way from the snarky, spray-tanned commentators, when they talk about her “just plain wacky clothes!” I love that she thinks tomato-red medieval latex is the best getup in which to meet the Queen of England. I think that’s fantastic. What I don’t like is that she has adopted this bizarre mirror-within-a-mirror approach to female sexuality—especially female popstar sexuality—that is just not conducted skillfully enough to be compelling, &, in that way, is disgraceful to her glam predecessors, who offered their listeners a good deal of sexual/gender liberation.
Take her latest video, the lagging & lengthy “Telephone”:
Hair now bright yellow like a Lichtenstein painting, still hyper-thin but now far less clothed, Gaga has rendered herself a bizarre go-between, parodying hyper-feminine standards by becoming them, which is a tightrope-walk on razorwire at best. Sloppily appropriating from (one of my all-time favorite books) James St. James's Disco Bloodbath: there is only so long you can do something in jest before it becomes just what you do—or, in Gaga’s case, what you are. Rather than comment on the American tendency toward pulp & exploitation (see: the dusty diner setting, the behavior of the female prisoners, Tarantino’s Pussywagon), the video itself simply becomes exploitative, rendering it redundant in a world of "Slave 4 U"s & "Dirrrty"s. (I mean, I could get more specific, but, really? Just jump to the totally unnecessary cutaway shot of Beyoncé’s cleavage at 5:58.)
(Okay, there is that one fantastic John Waters-esque moment when Gaga first gets into the car & Beyoncé utters the deliciously guttural “very, very, bad, bad girl, Gaga” before feeding her some gas station pastry. That’s phenomenal. But really, the rest—including the painfully stupid dialogue moments later—I could do without, please.)
This trend of super-no-clothes began, of course, with “Bad Romance,” which features Gaga as a prostitute in a Russian bathhouse who is sold to a cyborg Mafioso & ultimately crisps him with her sparking chestplate:
However, I find this video far more excellent, & here’s why: though there are exploitative images & near-nudity practically throughout, it is in service of a storyline (while no prison that I know of issues leather thong bikinis to is inmates)—&, moreover, that storyline reflects on the song in ways that are interesting & relevant. Ultimately, both video & song become an allegory for ascension in the Music Industry Machine: “I want your love & I want your revenge,” Gaga implores us, while screens show she’s worth “1,000,000 SOLD”—the same phrase that denotes a platinum album. Thus, the Mafioso (as I see it) represents industry standards, to whom any beginning artist must prostitute herself; the (literally) wide-eyed, music-listening ingénue is forced to bare all, to go through his back-up-dancer-ed traditional sexiness before emerging, phoenix from the flames, as the fully-formed, giant-spined Fame Monster—the “free bitch, baby”—of her second album.
Of course, there is one small point left to note: that when Gaga fries her metal-jawed oppressor, it is, film-literally, with a shot of her back & backside—white-thong-clad & impossibly hourglass. The flames, in fact, have no source—except, if you’ll pardon the pun, her smokin’ hot bod (which is viewed from behind only). The implication is that Gaga brings down those that threaten her with her raw sexuality—& not the status-quo-challenging, arthouse sexuality that’s won her praise, but centerfold, conventional T&A.
In both “Telephone” & “Bad Romance,” then, caricatures of female sexuality exert deadly force against problematic men. “Huzzah!” yell the lipstick feminists, because Gaga has proven their point: an ideal woman is not only powerful & sexy, but powerful because she’s sexy. My problem is this: in this system, you (the lady) are never in control of your own image. Sure, you could walk away & give the frat boy you’re blowing blueballs, & yes, all the men at the strip club are reduced to drooling putty in your presence—but your power is gone if they decide not to drool. If your skirt isn’t short enough, face enough obscured by paints & glitters, how will the Kappa boys know you’re game to go to the back room? In order to have power “because you’re sexy,” someone first has to think you’re sexy; you have to meet someone else’s standards—male or female. &, unlike “smart” or “confident” or even “beautiful,” “sexy” requires someone else’s opinion—if only because sex requires someone else.
So this is my problem—because I’m so irked by lipstick feminism & its faux-empowerment, which Lady Gaga seems to champion.
On the other hand: Image aside, her songs aren’t half bad.
... as she is a musician, first & foremost, no matter how much she emphasizes her image. & there is no denying that she is musically talented. If you need convincing beyond the fact that all five of her singles have been smash-explosion-#1 hits, see the acoustic version of Paparazzi that finally won me over. & yes, it was more than just the pirate-lady-who-lunches hat, I promise: she’s striking that Girl With a Piano chord (b-dum-chhh) I’m prone to love—e.g., Nellie McKay, Tori Amos, Amanda Palmer—& the song is certainly witty enough, complex enough, & catchy in spades. In fact, the choruses of all her songs (& the verses—I’m looking at you, “Bad Romance”) are often impossible to remove from your head, nary with hacksaw nor "Sweet Dreams" supplanting. Most importantly, though, her music is far superior to, say, an unfocused, vulgar exercise in remixing Garage Band presets, in which promiscuity = individuality = being a giant bird-creature who’s missing one of her thigh-highs—to name a wide, unspecific category.
On the other hand: Oh, wait, some of her songs are terrible.
Again, we return to the butt-ugly duckling that is “Telephone,” whose vampish pictures are apparently only worth a few lackluster words. For example, this ditty includes, among other lyrical brainfarts, the non-rhyme:
“Just a second, it’s my favorite song they’re gonna play / & I cannot text you with a drink in my hand, ay.”
In case you didn’t catch that, she literally creates a rhyme by shoving the necessary syllable, solo, onto the end of the line she wants to use. Other times when this could have happened but didn’t:
“As long as men can read & eyes can see / you’ll be immortal in this sonnet, ee.”
It’s that egregious.
Moreover, there are some lines that just seem thrown together with neither rhyme nor reason, simply for the sake of filling allotted verse time:
“Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station. / Tonight I’m not takin’ no calls ‘cause I’ll be dancin’.”
Am I missing something? (Besides the fact that “station” & “dancin’” now rhyme, apparently.) Is there a phone bank buried somewhere in Grand Central that I don’t know about? Or does that line actually make no sense whatsoever? (I really want to know; please, someone, affirm or disillusion.)
I mean, yes, the song is damn catchy—& it produces pure sonic bliss when mashed with Metallica—but at the end of the day, it’s just too braindead, too graceless to abide.
On the other hand: Maybe we’re all dupes.
There is a chance—a chance, I whine, last straws slipping through my fingertips—that Gaga is aware that “Telephone” was really, really awful in most every way possible. The fact that she chose to collaborate with Beyoncé, goddess of lady-pop (whom I think outshone her with room to spare in both "-phone" videos, but that’s just me), while simultaneously amping up her self-stereotyping to insane levels & choosing a pulp-Americana theme to blow it all far too far over the top—maybe she’s daring us to like a song/video that is the culmination of everything annoying & ridiculous about Pop. Maybe this is one of the greatest instances of secret satire since Lonelygirl15—or that Miranda chick.
On the other hand: Probably not.
& even if this is all a big psych-out, a postmodern crap-endurance test, the James-Franco-on-General-Hospital of music... That’s kind of lame. I mean, yes, it’s an interesting concept, but an ironic career? Have we really descended that far into the artless abyss? In the words of one belabored father, "If I bend that far, I'll break."
On the other hand…
THERE IS NO OTHER HAND.
*Da da da, dum, da-da-da-da-da...*