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Bet this hand, ’cause I’m marvelous

May 6, 2009


Friends, the unthinkable has happened. Innocently stumbling around the interwebs one evening, I came across a lady who I had heard of, but otherwise had passed by my personal cultural radar. First, I was laughing, then I was strangely drawn to see more. I couldn’t stop watching videos, and spent the rest of my work day with her songs on a demented loop in my head. Lady Gaga confounds my powers of critical analysis, and I believe that’s her dastardly plan.

Two videos in particular have captured my interest: “Love Game”, in which Gaga struts around a New York subway clone, getting Fosse-trained street punks to dance with her, and “Poker Face”, where Gaga attends a poolside strip poker game, hangs out with Great Danes, and does a dance number in a deconstructed Power Rangers suit (Blue Ranger, go!).

Gaga has stated that her music is about how “anyone can be famous”. I get the conceit – Gaga does the pop music/dance thing – and wears/does increasingly strange things, as a larger comment to pop culture and fashion. It’s been done, but the fact that’s she making people pay attention in quite a loud and messy media environment, that I can give her credit for. Her pop songs seem to have been grown in a lab, designed expressly to get stuck in your head. But is she anything more than this month’s next big thing? Rich at fourfour thinks so, especially after her American Idol performance:

When I watch that video (as I have frequently over the past few days), I know I’m watching a highly evolved pop star, someone who puts as much time and craft into existing as she does creating music and performing and tongue-in-cheek bantering. It’s clear that she’s in the youth of her stardom — there’s a sense of abandon often found in those who aren’t yet mature enough to realize that they’re mortal. At the same time, I wonder if it isn’t a social experiment, a way to test just how much the obviously rapt masses will tolerate.

He’s talking about Gaga’s performance where she started “Poker Face” acoustically and threw in a bit of jazz piano before she gets up and does the electronic-pop dance bit for the audience that has deemed it a #1 single. Rich calls the performance subversive, and by definition it does subvert expectation, especially if you’d only seen Gaga’s music videos. The grandstanding intro was also done for her performance on the Paul O’Grady show. Have a look:

I have a soft spot for ridiculously attired musicians, especially if they at least attempt some creativity (i.e. No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani, M.I.A., Bowie), but there’s something that’s been bothering me about Gaga. It crystallized when I realized there is significant product placement in both the Love Game and Poker Face videos. They’re blurred out on MTV networks as per their no logo policy (comically mismatched with the channel’s product heavy reality game shows), but very clear in any other versions on YouTube (Internet reality check time: 13 million views for “Poker Face” on the Lady Gaga official account). I’m not criticizing the product placement per se (although I certainly rankle at it), but whether or not if it was a GaGa approved decision.

Quite simply: Is Lady Gaga in charge of her own hustle?

Hustle, not in the con-artist sense, but in the “We all have to have our hustle” sense. (Mine is writing.) Gaga seems particularly suited (and enjoying! perish the thought!) her hustle. She knows how to grab and keep attention, she’s a performer first, and I can’t imagine her current trajectory was 100% record label approved. But when a top-shelf liquor, a hyper-expensive plastic watch, and online poker site get significant screen time in her videos, who put these in there? Is this a Haus of Gaga idea on capitalizing on the trappings of fame or something Interscope required in order to finance the making of the video? It seems silly, but it’s crucial to my enjoyment of GaGa. I can respect a Warholian grab for fame, I can respect selling millions of records to an American Idol audience and then not giving them the performance promised, but I cannot respect subversion which serves a different master than it’s creator.

If Lady Gaga is cashing in hard from product placement in her music videos or any other creative decisions, she is a mad cap genius and deserves every record sale, but if not, she deserves to burn out as fast as pop stars have in the past decade.

(A good sign: Before making her way into singing full-time, Lady Gaga was a songwriter for acts like the Pussycat Dolls. So she’s already made the jump between behind the scenes and way way in front of them.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 6, 2009 11:19 pm

    I know this sounds, I don’t know, trite, but I’ve always thought Lady Gaga was the personification of hipster pop music – she’s a performance artist.

    Because in its way, all pop music is performance art, but it’s almost – it’s almost like Gaga (the Lady? I never know) is acutely aware of that, or even that that’s the entire point. I know that she has history with the avant garde NY music/art scene (there was an Overheard piece in, I think it was New York Mag?). Unlike like some pop stars, she has no business being frank that she’s creating a persona. She’s Heidi and Spencer, except I give a shit. Or something?

    (Which is to say, you should watch that MTV docu [as a concept such as this even exists] on Britney Spears that aired right around the time of her ~comeback~. It has the freakest dimensions of real/unreal/persona/fourth wall going on that you would not even believe.)

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