Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ten Questions For the Lady Gaga Apologist

Lady Gaga is getting love everywhere, from Sound Opinions to Oprah. What is going on here? I was exposed to this woman at some point during the fall of 2008, shocked by the sheer lack of good ideas in songs like "Just Dance," and yet at some point she became some sort of counter-Britney, or something, or someone who is so archly aware of her celebrity that everything she does in an extension of some reflexive need to be constantly studied or acknowledged.

But the music? It remains a sore point for me. If forced to, I would listen to any Britney or Black-Eyed Peas song before being forced to sit through those lazy goo-goo synths of "Just Dance," a song that never justifies its reason for being. There's no reason to judge an artist simply by one single, though, so I pressed on, only to find that tracks like "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance" were even worse.

I am perplexed. Here are ten questions I feel I must ask of the Lady Gaga fan:

1. I will assume you find many members of our society who so cravenly latch onto fame (reality show stars, balloon dads) to be generally ignorant and awful people. Lady Gaga's whole art shtick seems to be about the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of chasing fame. Do you believe that Gaga's awareness of her own need for attention somehow makes her music better, as opposed to artists who retain a certain amount of critical distance from the subject?

2. What, musically, do you find most interesting about Lady Gaga's songwriting? Which songs stand out, and why? How does one differentiate them from the music of pop starlets' past, in any meaningful way (I'm talking about music, so nothing about fame, crazy costumes, etc.)?

3. If you were to not have heard a Lady Gaga song on the radio, but rather through a friend, and you knew nothing of her look or her methods of performance, would you find anything remarkable about these songs? Would you go home and download them?

4. Which do you consider yourself more of a fan: Gaga-the-musician, or Gaga-the-dark mirror-of our-fascination-with-celebrity? If you like her musical skills, are you more interested in her as a singer or as a pianist, or something else? Does she actually bring anything original to the table?

5. Ms. Gaga has said in the past that she doesn't really have many real friends, and prefers to interact with her legions of fans instead. Do you find this to be healthy or worth emulating? If not, do you think it still has a place somewhere in our culture? What benefit does this woman laying her psyche on us have, really? Are you ever concerned for her, or concerned that her music may become more and more of an afterthought, with her brand being the primary focus?

6. Do you think the majority of her fans see her as some sort of alternative to the pop starlet paradigm? Do you think that she represents a positive change in this regard because she is less sexualized than her predecessors and more focused on new and bizarre fashions? Boiled down, do you think it is more healthy to be a Gaga fan than a Ke$ha fan?

7. What important points does she have to say about our society, other than vaguely artsy takes on celebrity and dehumanization? What messages of value do you find in her lyrics? Do you find the message of riding around on someone's "disco stick" anything other than idiotic and plodding?

8. Do you see her as being rooted in any sort of tradition? Do you buy the comparison to Madonna, or vaudeville punk, or whatever else? Is this good or bad?

9. At its basest level, what is Lady Gaga's music really an alternative to?

10. How would you rank her music in comparison to the rank stupidity of the Black-Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Flo Rida, half the people in American Idol, etc.?


  1. From a passive observer who likes "Just Dance":

    1-It makes her marginally different from her contemporaries, and novelty counts for enough in pop music that different is awfully close to better.

    2-"Just Dance" is, in my opinion, an EXTREMELY effective song. "Infectious" is one of the most overused words in music journalism but I believe it applies. I like how it sounds production-wise, I like that it doesn't pretend to be about anything other than dancing and getting too drunk at a club, and I like weird half-rap breakdown at song's end. Can take or leave the rest.

    3-Contingent on the song. For the most part, no. The worst of LG's singles have melodies that sound taken from decade-old house music.

    4-Neither. Neither. What she seems to bring is a willingness to Do More--wear weirder outfits, writer weirder lyrics. Novetly isn't everything but it counts for something. And for a person in her position, it is extra significant.

    5-No, but it seems a reasonable outcome of success/fame. One wonders how many genuine friendships a person of her status could maintain. Also, she might be lying. Is "laying her psyche" too generous? Superficiality seems to be LG's bread and butter. Incidentally: isn't the acendance of one's brand over one's music just a part of pop stardom?

    6-Yes, probably. Yes? LG seems willing to objectify herself, at least to a point, part of why it's interesting that she doesn't seem to be widely thought of as an object of desire by her fanbase. (Important to note also that rarely has a heterosexual artist accumulated so much gay fan support so quickly.) No.

    7-Few to none. Part of my fondness for "Just Dance" comes from its lack of pretention, which might make it somewhat of an outlier in the Gaga catalogue. Gaga seems to signify meaning in her music/videos rather than provide actual critiques of anything. Totally fair to criticize her on this ground, but I think its a practice most musicians are complicit in.

    8-Can you think of an artist that genuinely isn't? (Is danceable pop music too unspecific a tradition?) The Lady Gaga phenom does bother me in one very specific area: lazy journalists and interviewers often fall back on comparisons to Bowie and Warhol/Factory. These are (dubious) comparisons that Gaga herself first put out and has since actively courted. The process reminds me of the mainstream press' tendency during the Bush Administration to adopt rhetoric used strategically by George W. Bush and employ said rhetoric in a supposedly agenda-free manner.

    9-Nothing, or everything else on pop radio, depending on how you look at it. She's at least much better than Britney Spears at suggesting that her music has substance.

    10-I also think "Hot and Cold" is fun and catchy.


  2. The song is called "Just Dance," not "Let's Dance."

    Also...I think it's silly to have someone list reasons why they like a particular artist. Sometimes you hear music and you just like it. You're taking this far too seriously. Her music is fun and fun to dance to! I don't think anyone listens to her music for complex songwriting or lyrics or any bullshit like that. A better question for you is, "Why do you think that all music has to have some sort of message, or challenge the listener?" Her beats are hot, the end.

  3. On a related note:

    Cross-apply all these questions to your love of Drake/Lil Wayne/etc. For example, what valuable messages are they conveying when they say they want to fuck every girl in the world? What is Young Money doing that's slightly original? What's so great about that Maxwell song you listen to?

    It's one thing to not like an artist; I get that you don't like Lady Gaga. I'm not even a Lady Gaga fan, but I think it's horse shit that you're going on and on about these supposed standards that you have for the music you listen to when nobody, not even yourself, really thinks about that when it comes to musical taste.

    I dont mean to come at you, but I'm saying, let's be real about it.

  4. I am not interested in having the same conversation over again. Suffice to say if her beats were indeed "hot," I would not care. I care about the severe lack of quality of her music, which is sub-Cyrus for me.

    Next time you want to complain that I am being too analytical or whatever, please read the following post and save everyone a lot of trouble:

  5. My favorite blogger used that quote too:

  6. Nathan, I just said I wasn't trying to come at you on this post, but I think that you are reading too much into Lady Gaga. But now that you post that link, I have to say that it's something different when you're analyzing a work of art and analyzing *taste* as you seem to be doing with this.

    I am all for analyzing art. But analyzing taste is pointless. I don't like peanut butter, but I can't explain to people who like that shit why it's nasty as hell to me. The same thing goes with music. For you to pose questions to a Lady Gaga fan on what lifestyle choices she's advocating with her music is to completely miss the point of her popularity: As far as I know, Lady Gaga is a pop star who embraces the inane and the completely ridiculous. Your analytical breakdown is irrelevant to why people would like her. Why does someone have to find a song musically "interesting" in order to like it? No shit she doesn't have "messages of value" in her lyrics, but again I ask, what the fuck is Lil Wayne saying that you find so intellectually compelling?

    I get what you're attempting to do with this post, and again I have to say I AM NOT TRYING TO COME AT YOU. But I'm saying, as a pop culture critic myself, this is always going to be a losing battle. Another difference between what this post is doing and the behavior the link you posted criticizes is that by dismissing Lady Gaga off the bat, you also devalue her music/persona as an art form, thus making the argument more about you voicing and reiterating your opinion that you don't like her. That's worthless to me. You're not calling into question what her body of work means, you're just pretty much writing a bunch of bulletpoints about why you don't like her. Which is fine, but I think it's a dick move that a lot of music critics make. And then when people address the questions (like I have; like Greg has) you just use that to continue to make your points about how bogus her music is. That's fine too, but it's better to call it what it is than to try to front like you're trying to flip the music criticism game, when this particular post is just self-masturbatory and condescending.

    Again, I really have to reiterate that this is the only misstep in music criticism that I have seen on this blog, or coming from you in print, Nathan. For the most part, you have a keen sensibility and I love reading what you write. But seriously, this kind of tone is just ridiculous. You can't be so closed-minded and seemingly unaware of why people like what they like, or why it persists.

  7. 6 comments! Now I know why legitimate media outlets run so many Gaga articles.

    Juell, I disagree that taste shouldn’t be studied, and would recommend Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love,” which argues very powerfully that taste is neither inscrutable nor arbitrary, but in fact a key to very powerful social truths. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the post’s tone, and was surprised with how genuine it seemed in trying to understand Gaga. There were no low blows (hermaphroditism etc.)

    As for Gaga’s music, I can’t stand “Just Dance” (sorry Greg). The only single of hers I have any fondness for is “Paparrazi,” which has a nice chorus. Of the others, only “Bad Romance,” while not a good song, has the enormity that befits the sort of artist/cultural figure that Gaga pretends to be/is.

    That said, I’m certain that music isn’t the only part of her appeal. THAT said, “Hot And Cold” is a true jam.

  8. oh btw, nathan were you referring to that slate article about the vaudeville star? (her name escapes me)

    i thought it was interesting but am tired of hearing people who never made punk rock/even lived to see it/influenced the people who did create it in any way discussed as "the first punk"

    anyways the ever-wise carl wilson had some interesting thoughts

  9. There's a difference between actually studying taste-- which, I agree, is important to understanding societies-- and seemingly denegrating people for what one person perceives as "bad" taste, which is obviously exactly what Nathan is doing here.

    Maybe it's unfair of me to speak on this because I'm not only speaking from the tone of the post but from having the pleasure of knowing the author in real life and having many conversations with him on the matter, so my critique is slightly out of context. But I will go back to my original question (which I hope is addressed at some point in the form of a post by Nathan!): What is the difference between Lady Gaga and Young Money as "low-brow" pop music? It seems to me that such a matter can only be boiled down to personal preference-- just because you don't like a particular artist doesn't mean that everyone else who likes them is somehow deficient in common sense; there are many discrepancies in taste. Even though you don't like Lady Gaga and find her lyrics inane, somehow you still like Drake/Weezy/fucking Wu Tang who only talk about stupid bullshit like fucking women/being violent/having money-- the same kind of superficial lyrical content that you profess to abhor about Lady Gaga. What's the difference? I call extreme bullshit. Nathan has written on this very blog about liking everything from the musically/lyrically complex to the very simple. Nobody adheres to one set of criteria for the music they like. I mean, I would really like this issue to be addressed; I think it would be interesting to know your thoughts on the matter.

    As a pedantic insult to/indictment of Lady Gaga fans, this post's tone was spot-on (See: Bulletpoint #10 for the pinnacle in condescension). But as a genuine attempt at understanding the woman as a phenomenon, I personally think it falls outrageously short.

    As for Nathan trying to say "fuck you" to me on the comments section because I take issue with one thing-- I say, that's part of being a writer/blogger. People are going to disagree with things you say and it's up to you to either defend your words or evolve with them, no matter who is criticizing you. I would think that engaging in conversation is the goal of having a blog (it is for me anyway) and shutting down people who dare to disagree with you is pretty ridiculous. You're lucky if people care enough about what you're saying to challenge you, rather than dismissing what you have to say right out of the gate! You should consider that to be a compliment.