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.