I know what you’re thinking, “Not another essay on Lady Gaga!” Bear with me here as I’ll try not to bore you much with what has become increasingly boring subject matter. Namely, Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga’s new album, Born This Way, leaked last night. I haven’t heard it yet. I really don’t know when I’ll get around to listening to it. Maybe some time next week, maybe next month, maybe next year. For someone with as much buzz, so much critical fanfare, so much fan support, why am I so indifferent to listening to this new Lady Gaga music?
Because it sucks.
For all the hype, the pyrotechnics, the glossy production, most of these new Lady Gaga songs— “Born This Way,” “Hair,” and “Judas,” in particular— have really not moved me in any way. Maybe Gaga has transcended that point in an artist’s career where they need a surefire hit record to make people care about them, but I’ve always believed in two types of music— good and bad. Good? I’ll listen. Bad? I’ll pass. Everything else— the color, the backstory, the message behind it, blah blah blah— just something that sweetens the deal and provides added context to what is a purely visceral experience. That shit means nothing if there isn’t something to make me want to listen in the first place. We’re talking pop music here, not experimental jazz.
Everything about these new records is so busy, so all over the place, so “trying to do everything all at once,” that they lack any flow. They feel like they have a nice rhythm going, then they explode, then explode some more, come back to a little rhythm for 2 seconds, then explode again, only this time bigger and more explosive. She’s like the Michael Bay of music right now. What gives? The lone song that is listenable, “Edge Of Glory,” is the only one of the bunch that doesn’t feel like it’s doing too much. It’s a mish-mash of progressive house, glam rock and an oddly-placed Clarence Clemons saxophone solo at the end that gets seemingly drowned out by the production fireworks. Still, it’s tolerable.
While it may seem like these songs are popular, a lot of that can be attributed to Gaga’s diehard fanbase. Even if the music was god awful, they would still support. In this day and age, that’s a beautiful thing. As an artist, I think you want to eventually make it to that point where you can be daring and take some risks and not have to make a cookie cutter pop tune to have people listen to you. What happens though, is as the music gets worse, over time that fan base starts to wither, as it collectively questions and further realizes how not so awesome the music actually is.
There’s no debating how big of a fanbase the Wu-Tang Clan has. They are hip-hop’s answer to The Beatles. They will tour the world for the rest of their lives and continue to make money so long as they have vocal cords that allow them to rip microphones on stages. But have you been to a Wu-Tang concert in the past five years? They largely perform material from the early to mid-90s. Maybe a few stray songs from some solo projects in the 2000s. But it’s pretty safe to say that their fan base, while still overly dedicated to the group, withered once they began putting out subpar material. What’s more, there were other acts that came along and diverted the attention spans of those fans. The Wu had gone too far left, too far into pleasing their own audience, that they actually curbed their growth. It would be like Google, if Google only created a search engine. Their would be no gmail, no google reader, i.e. nothing to keep you really interested and nothing to attract new interest.
In the 90s and a good portion of the aughts, it would take years for you to really notice the waning influence of a musical act. Things moved slower then. There was less music. Less clutter in the marketplace. We sat around and waited for albums to drop on Tuesdays. We purchased them. We spent money on them, so we were in some ways forced to listen and at least try to like them. Now? Not so much. In the blink of an eye, or rather, a drag of a file to the recycle bin, you’re practically gone. That’s not to say that you won’t have your fan base, but as far as growth, it sort of stops at a certain point very quickly. Namely, when the hits dry up.
Gaga is such a machine that there would be no way all these songs from Born This Way don’t make it onto the charts. Those singles will be rammed down your throat if you so happen to listen to the radio, and she’ll be inescapable on other media as well. You’re not going to sit through an episode of “Glee” without seeing or hearing Gaga (not entirely sure you’d want to sit through an episode regardless, but that’s neither here nor there). That’s the major label marketing muscle putting itself to work. In an era where there are fewer stars than ever, Gaga is one. And so she will be the biggest and baddest and the one that breadwins for practically the entire music industry. It’s the 1980s all over again. Gaga is going to save Interscope (if Eminem didn’t already).
But are these songs good? To me, no.
There’s that point where an act goes from cool and cutting edge to just flat out doing shit for the sake of doing it. And that’s boring. Because you want to talk about things because they’re genuinely good. Regardless of my personal tastes, MIA was all the rage a few years back. Then her music
always sucked started to suck. No longer all the rage. No coincidence here. Music either hits you or it doesn’t. That scathing Lynn Hirschberg profile on MIA that everyone seems to think brought her down? Less consequential than you think. Sure, it made people pause for a second and ask themselves how seriously they took MIA, but would it have mattered if MIA had a genuinely awesome record? Probably not that much. Look, nobody is thinking about a New York Times profile when a song is playing at max volume in a nightclub and you’re trying to cut something. “Paper Planes” made people feel a way. Because it was genuinely good. The minute I heard that song, I said, “What the fuck is that?” I remember that day like it was yesterday. Sure enough, 6 months later it was a hit.
Where Gaga is in her career, on this pedestal that seems to only have enough space for one person, it’s probably not by choice. Do I have any doubt that she wants to be the biggest star on the planet? No. I think she does. But she couldn’t have foretold just how fast she would rise, how iconic she would become. But beyond that, everything else is done for shock and awe purposes because it needs to be shock and awe for anyone to even care. Look, Ke$ha has had a string of HUGE records over the past year, and while she may eventually be a big star, she’s barely on the radar when it comes to Gaga. Where Gaga’s life as performance art project comes off as artistic and daring, Ke$ha lacks that story, lacks that depth, and ultimately lacks Gaga’s appeal. I don’t think they’re in it for the same reasons, and had Ke$ha preceded Gaga, maybe Ke$ha would be doing what Gaga is doing now. Who knows. But I think we’ve hit that point now with Gaga where it’s like, cool, here’s the story, now where the fuck are the songs? She’s clearly making them. They’re just not great.
What was my point? Maybe I didn’t have one. Or maybe it was just that it’s disheartening (I know, poor idealist) to see the story— bear witness to this elaborate profile in The Guardian— touted above the music. So much conversation about the religiosity of the lyrics, the imagery in the videos, the outfits. Judas, Juda-a-as. Fuck, is the melody great? Do the drums hit? Does it elicit a visceral reaction from you? If not, get that shit the fuck out of here. Basically.
The image above is so telling. Last July, Prince told the UK’s Daily Mirror that the internet was finished.
“The Internet’s completely over,” he said. “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it, and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”
He compared it to MTV, that bastion of tastemaking that long ago kissed music programming goodbye in favor of reality shows, docu-style TV and now scripted programming. Too bad Prince was wrong. And so is everyone else who says anything is over. Nothing is over.
The internet is just the most obvious example to use to make that point, because on the internet, everything seems to be over before it even starts. What’s the shelf-life of any piece of content online? Unless it goes viral and makes its way to soccer moms in flyover states and little Kim and Nicky start sharing it with their Twilight-watching friends, most things online die within a few hours. A good friend and colleague of mine who runs one of the most popular websites for the 18-35 year old “cool” kid demographic once told me that working on that particular media brand’s website was like closing a magazine …. every single day. Which means you’ve got to keep your site stocked with fresh content every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is virtually impossible, but everyone does the best they can. It’s only within recent years that people seemed to realize, “hey, this internet thing doesn’t have an ‘off’ button.” But that’s neither here nor there.
The reality is, when you’re pressed for new content every 30 minutes, the content-cycle moves very fast, and thus logic would predict that only the cream would rise to the top. But that’s not really how it works. Are cat videos the cream of the crop? Not necessarily. Yet they’re universally seen as the type of content that draws massive amounts of views on Youtube. Most of them are shoddy camera phone-shot videos that capture some short moment of cuteness that you just have to watch to brighten up your life.
Now I’m not saying the entire summation of Youtube or online content comes down to cat videos >>> everything else. VEVO, for example, has trounced many things on Youtube with its pre-roll ad-supported major label videos to the tune of billions of views between Gaga, Eminem and Justin Bieber. Sometimes looking at the view counts on their videos is a mindfuck. Like wow, 378 million people watched the video for “Bad Romance?” That’s more people than the entire United States population. Now that Youtube has launched their top 100 chart, it may be even easier to see the discrepancy between professionally-produced content and that of the DIY filmmakers who upload their stuff hoping it may have the slight chance of being seen by one person, or— gasp!— going viral. Charts make a big difference.
Still, that doesn’t mean that things that don’t chart well don’t exist. And that is ultimately the salient point that I’m trying to make here (although admittedly, I think I did a terrible job at it). It’s this idea that because one thing has 378 million plays, another thing isn’t totally cool with its paltry 1 million. Fuck man, that’s still 1 million people watching. Do you realize how many people is 1 million? That’s a lot of faces. It would probably take you a month to personally introduce yourself and shake hands individually with 1 million different people.
So we always hear of business models being dead, things not working anymore, so on and so forth, but the reality of it is, nothing ever dies completely. That’s not to say that something is still effective or that it makes much sense. I always use the bicycle as an example of this. Say you were making bicycles in the early 1900s. By around 1920, you were basically fucked. Because not as many people wanted bikes anymore. People wanted cars. I’m sure bike production was still high and that bikes still sold, but the automobile industry was certainly on the rise. It’s like that with music, with publishing, with anything really. New models come in, the business evolves and whatever it was you were doing starts to look like it has less of an upside.
The Clash said it best though, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”
That depends on your goals. If you were a manufacturer of vinyl records, you probably would have bailed that business long ago. But here we are in 2011, and sales of vinyl records are up more than 300% since the early 90s, when the compact disc became en vogue. These aren’t boom times for vinyl, but someone somewhere is making money off of them.
Which is all just to say, trends change. Things are cool and then they’re not cool. Like stocks. Stuff gets hot, stuff gets cold. Are you riding the hype looking for a quick buck or are you gonna be the Warren Buffet type, buy and hold? The internet isn’t dead, just like MTV isn’t dead. Just because you don’t buy records in a record store doesn’t mean a whole bunch of people are the same way. Every week soundscan numbers come out, and every week evidence is there to support the fact that someone is plunking down their cash on a physical CD. Are the numbers shrinking? Of course. Just like the numbers of bicycles sold after the automobile was introduced most likely did (don’t have any hard statistics on this handy). But bicycles are still selling. Maybe their use has changed. Maybe they’re a novelty item. Maybe they’re for specialists. But to suggest something is dead just silly. And nobody in their right mind who calls themselves a business person takes a product off the shelf if people are still offering their money for it week after week.
Wanna see the best example of this? AOL. Yes, some people still pay for dial up. Less relevant? Certainly. Dead? Definitely not.