Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Monster Anthems

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Even if you've never seen Lady Gaga on the small screen or listened consciously to a minute of her music, you've probably gathered that she isn't just, well, Britney Spears. Nor is she Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Beyoncé, or Christina Aguilera. All these artists differ markedly in content, persona, attitude, and musical worth. But they all have more in common with each other than they do with Lady Gaga. And that's because they're all celebrities.

Obviously I'm playin' with ya here. Lady Gaga, whose Born This Way recently sold more copies in its first week than any album since 2005, is also a celebrity--by many accounts the biggest in the world. In Forbes's 2011 "Celebrity 100," in fact, she and her supposed $90 million income surpassed Oprah and her supposed $290 million income "because of her social media power." But of course the Forbes list is no less arbitrary and mind-numbing than any of the other Best/Worst/Hottest/Scuzziest/Greediest/Intriguingest countdowns with which massive media compete for stunted brainspace. As a baseball fan who has dabbled in the list business himself and a pop critic who had his life changed when Ellen Willis wrote the gorgeous and prophetic sentence "In the same sense that pop art is about commodities, Dylan's art is about celebrity," I am both appalled and abashed by these developments. The list was boyish fun, the complexity of celebrity an essential aesthetic insight. Over the decades, however, the culture industry has had its trivializing way with both.

Defying these odds, Lady Gaga is complex. She's compared to Madonna not because both emerged from dance music but because nobody since Madonna has wielded celebrity so audaciously, a failure of collective nerve for which the pop singer who looked like a movie star is partly to blame. The visualization of music that began with MTV gave us other beauty queens--the still-fine Tina Turner, the then-exquisite Whitney Houston. But as history played out, all the pop dollies named above inhabit the world Madonna made--a world in which female vocalists are obliged to be far more glamorous than the "girl singers" who rose up after the big band bubble popped. However "attractive" they were, Doris Day, Patti Page, Jo Stafford, et al. didn't have to play the sex bomb.

Since you may not have noticed "the girl who never wears pants" declining the sex bomb role, let me quote what a friend-turned-source told one of Gaga's dozen-plus biographers: "Interscope is a long, long road which actually involves a lot of people thinking she's great to have around, but"--here's the money shot--"not pretty enough to be a pop star." Universal Music flagship Interscope is Gaga's label, three separate tentacles of which have their logos on her first album, and "around" means as a songwriter, in particular for the Pussycat Dolls, Universal's attempt to create a slut group in the sense that Ponzi schemer Lou Pearlman once created boy groups. Her Italian nose too big for her narrow face, Gaga really isn't pretty enough to be a pop star in the world Madonna made. Rarely does a paparazzo catch her sipping Kristal at some restaurant where the doorman has to pass on your shoes. She calls her fans "little monsters" because unlike those other pop stars, she's Other. The most gay-identified major star since Madonna only more so, she doesn't pretend her fans are all normal. Instead, she pretends they're all abnormal.

One reason Willis's idea proved so fungible is that celebrity is such a slippery concept. Take as texts the sixth and seventh tracks on Gaga's debut album. Number six is "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich": "Bang bang / We're beautiful n' dirty rich." Number seven is the title number, "The Fame": "Doin' it for the / Fame / Cuz we wanna live the life of the rich and famous." Both are dance-derived pop songs anchored by synth riffs that lead the ear to the choruses I've quoted (although Gaga's choruses often morph slightly), so that listeners home in on those phrases, which share one word: rich. But both are explicitly fantasy rather than autobiography. Clinching "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich," which Gaga has said was inspired by the posers she hung with in her cocaine period on the Lower East Side, is the insistent tag "But we got no money"; "Fame" is nailed in a final verse that ends, "My teenage dream tonight / Yeah I'm gonna make it this time."

So while Gaga is ready--and as a come-on, eager--to be taken for a Ke$ha-style party animal, she's quick to reverse that impression for anyone who's paying the slightest attention. Nor does she conceive celebrity itself conventionally. She's said many times that "fame" is an inner quality anyone can have, particularly her monsters--a quality she had back when she was a big-nosed nobody getting noticed. A year ago she told Rolling Stone's Neil Strauss that she didn't "want to be a celebrity" and argued that she wasn't one on the grounds that her monsters cared about her music, clothes, and videos rather than who she was sleeping with. For her, apparently, a celebrity isn't a person whose inner fame has made itself felt in the great outside. It's a person whose fame has escaped her control, so that her inside is no longer her own. Bob Dylan knows what she's talking about.

Were a skeptic to object that Gaga, who plays up her bisexual impulses and rather enjoyed the absurd Internet rumor that she's a hermaphrodite, is an ex-stripper turned sexual provocateur who wants everyone to care about who she's sleeping with, Gaga could reply that the drama she conducts in the public eye is part of her art. Certainly the eye part looms large--few if any pop stars have put so much thought and effort into their visuals. Under her active direction, the Haus of Gaga brain trust devises more new fashion statements than I have the intellectual capacity or gut interest to catalogue. She uses makeup to glorify the unnatural, uglifying or prettifying herself as the occasion demands. The easiest and cheapest way to access her music is via her galaxy of increasingly extravagant videos, easily available on YouTube though for some reason they've never been collected on DVD.

One even hears it said, in fact, that Gaga's songs are mere occasions for the overdetermined videos and nonstop costumery that are the true loci of her originality. Having first taken her for a dance diva whose album I had to make sense of, I believe this undervalues a lifelong musician whose hook sense and vocal muscle were manifest well before her fame went public. In fact, I'm no special fan of her visuals. Shoulder pads and weaponized brassieres just don't turn me on, not sexually and not semiotically, and music video's genre-surfing junk surrealism is seldom improved by the kind of money Gaga throws at it, though when I knuckled down and watched some clips I often found them wittier and less grotesque than the stills suggested. Start with "Telephone." Avoid "Judas."

For Gaga and her monsters, of course, grotesque is good. That became all too clear at Madison Square Garden February 22nd, where my conversion experience was undercut by overkill. The gargantuan sets and painful-looking vinyl/plastic/foil/elastic/rubber/crinoline/lace ensembles, the corny searching-for-the-monster-ball "plot" and cornier "Someday you'll be standing here and I'll be in the bleachers cheering you" lies--in practice these were momentum killers. Barnstorming the arenas, Gaga has poured workaholic effort and profligate capital into the spectacle she believes her monsters crave and deserve. But that's a major reason her music is undervalued.

It's worth remembering that twenty years ago the same guff was talked about Madonna herself, and not just by rockist dinosaurs. Cultural studies wonks out to get tenure for watching television creamed over her videos and declared her music unparsable, irrelevant, or both. Little did they suspect that a decade later Madonna's 1990 best-of, The Immaculate Collection, would be remembered as a masterpiece--named by the poptastic Blender, in fact, as the greatest American album of all time. Since I think it's pretty nifty myself, I thought it would make a convenient benchmark.

Reaching back to pre-CD times, The Immaculate Collection culled fifteen songs from the forty-three relevant ones on six albums that included two soundtracks and spanned seven years, adding two bonus tracks. Madonna had some sort of composer credit on eleven of its selections and was thirty-two when it appeared. Gaga turned twenty-five in March. Born This Way is considered her second album because 2009's The Fame Monster, although eight songs long like Madonna's debut, counts as an EP. Since The Fame appeared in the fall of 2008, she has released thirty-nine relevant songs, with composer credit on every one. That is, Gaga generated about as much music in well under half the time, completing this phase of her recording career at the age Madonna began hers. Quantity isn't quality. But that's certainly worth noting.

For two gay-friendly Italian-American bottle blondes specializing in dance-derived pop, Gaga and Madonna are rather dissimilar musically, even if "Born This Way" does cop its tune from "Express Yourself." Madonna's pop is more pop--it's smoother, calmer, more controlled. While both women's Eurobeats are remarkably d'void of funk, Gaga's are bigger and broader, because hip-hop and techno have bum-rushed dance music since 1990 and also because she's at root a rock chick--the new album favors an old-fashioned disco thump so unrelenting it shades toward Springsteen and Meat Loaf. Also, her voice is bigger than Madonna's--bigger than that of any rival except Xtina and conceivably Beyoncé. Where Madonna has always favored cool, allusive, cannily ambiguous lyrics, Gaga's themes are like her voice--hot and emphatically all over the place.

Lady Gaga is an upper-middle-class NYU dropout who's better educated than Madonna or her rival normals and has been known to brag about how smart she is. But you have to be pretty dumb to expect intellectual coherence from a pop star. Instead you get the spiritual coherence of a relatable persona. So who is the Lady Gaga you needn't be a monster to enjoy? Impulsive and willing to make mistakes, she uses her big ego and bigger emotions for good--to work herself hard and make waves. She campaigned outspokenly against don't-ask-don't-tell and shovels money to homeless LGBT youth. She never appears in public out of character and she never acts the diva offstage. She spends more on her shows and videos than a shrewd capitalist would. She's funnier than her putative peers, with an absurdist streak that reflects her downtown history. And none of this would mean a thing if she hadn't learned how to deploy her hook sense and vocal muscle in mammoth anthems that began with one called "Just Dance" and never stopped coming.

It would be nice to pretend that all these anthems and the keeper tracks in between firm up our connection to the artist's persona, her "vision." But within certain parameters we don't care. I do hope she doesn't really want her ex's leather-studded, metal-drumming revenge. But that's "Bad Romance," on a brute level my favorite Gaga song, and rather than going along with it psychologically or ideologically, as a pop fan I'm free to simply be blown away by her skill, her energy, her extravagance, and her luck. Even way back when, the Madonna experience was mellower--an almost Apollonian satisfaction in how she controlled the pleasure spigots.

I've wondered whether it might be possible to compile some sort of Gaga Bloody Gaga from Gaga's thirty-nine relevant songs--nothing immaculate, mess is her metier, just equally unfailing and representative. There might be enough songs there--her first two records are stronger than Madonna's were. But that kind of consistent use value can only prove itself over more time than we've had with her. We just don't know yet. If on the one hand Born This Way suggests the possibility that workaholism has blurred her distance vision or compromised her quality controls, on the other it could signal that she's more a rock chick than anyone so gay-identified is supposed to be. Which might be cool and even liberating in a way. If anybody can lead a rock and roll revival, it's somebody wielding her celebrity like a scimitar or a bludgeon or, for that matter, a disco stick.

Barnes & Noble Review, June 22, 2011