15 Jun Why Lady Gaga Rules
Lady Gaga, my god, I had no idea who she was, only caught her in glimpses, heard her topping the charts, but what’s another pop diva in a sparkly body stocking? Out of curiosity, I looked at ALL of her gone-viral videos last night. This 24-four-year-old (nee Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) gets 20-200 million hits on each of her YouTube music videos. Her rivals get 3 million, if they’re lucky. How can anyone generate that much heat?
It seems Gaga came out of nowhere, another manufactured disco queen in wild outfits. We’ve seen many like her before. Start with Madonna, circa 1989’s “Just Like a Prayer,” stir in a little Cher circa 1998, as Cher was getting her ultra-glam Liberace-like Vegas act together (and take a listen to her techno-hit “Do You Believe in Love After Love”), add a dash of Christina Aguilera — and a dozen other platinum-blonde sex kittens — and there you have it: Lady Gaga. Or do you?
How is it that Gaga is getting ten times the video viewers that Madonna’s getting, and a hundred times the viewers that the long-lived, sexy, (and still young) vocal powerhouse Aguilera is getting? Aguilera must be sweating blood. She’s got better chops than Gaga can dream of having. But Gaga’s not about chops, the critics have made clear.Critics point to Gaga’s melodies — her hooks. I agree, Gaga’s got some good ones. But good melodies alone don’t make a star.
Lady Gaga doesn’t have great looks either. She’s a narrow-faced, skinny kid, just this side of knobby-kneed. Her ladylike derriere and always-elaborate make-up save her from looking like a waif. But a good butt and fancy face paint aren’t enough to make her crazy-famous either.
Watching Gaga’s videos, I realized I’ve heard her hits often at the gym I frequent, where the music is always pitched to the 18-20-year-olds. None of it impressed me. Really, her music is forgettable. And her early videos, I’m sorry, are shite. Cliches of a white party-girl trying to sound black. Dog turds steaming on a summer sidewalk make better entertainment.
But wait a second. Her recent videos — especially “Bad Romance,” “Telephone” and “Alejandro” — are powerful entertainment. And they make her music powerful. And they make Gaga a very appealing entertainer. Why have viewers watched her “Bad Romance” video 226, 630, 136 times? Because it’s bizarre, other-worldly, mystifying, fascinating, funny, weird, and there’s nothing else like it on the internet.
Here’s the difference between Lady Gaga (now) and every other female pop star: Gaga’s recent videos don’t worship Gaga as a sex goddess. By contrast, look at Christina Aguilera in “Not Myself Tonight,” which has earned her a paltry 3,546,969 views since its April 2010 release. It’s all about Aguilera straddling and strutting and bumping and grinding. It’s conventional fare, really, the kind of dominatrix-themed quasi-porn pop that Madonna wore out in the 1990s. The camera is always leering at Aguilera and the story, such as it is, doesn’t go any farther than this Bad Woman pinning a sweaty partner in a big bed. It’s boring. That said, I like Aguilera and think she’s really talented (much more so than her former Disney-kids peer Brittany Spears). But Aguilera, like most women in pop music, is trapped in a one-pony sideshow. When that pony gets old, the show folds.
Girlish Gaga can’t compete in the same tent. She’ll never be a bombshell. I suspect that’s why her videos have changed. Look at Gaga in her newest video, “Alejandro,” which has earned her since its June 8, 2010 release — that’s one week ago. The video doesn’t start with Gaga herself, it starts with storm troopers in a mystifying, timeless, menacing place. The choreography isn’t particularly novel — Michael Jackson set the standard for ensemble steps like these back in the early 1980s — but the dancing is different enough, with its awkward squats and mincing marches and ersatz-Egyptian snakiness. The odd dancing suits Gaga because she’s like a kid at play. She’s not exactly a woman in these videos and, unlike Madonna et al., she’s never clearly defined as a sexual predator. The main thing is this: she’s always part of an ensemble. And she’s always in disguise. Her look morphs wildly in these videos. The message is clearly about performance — we enjoy watching Gaga play with these wild costumes and sets.
You’ll notice that Gaga’s recent videos are long — the longest clocks in at nearly 9 minutes. These are far more than songs, these are mini-movies. They seem to have introductions and epilogues. They do not try to make sense, though they do adhere roughly to thematic strands, as in “Alejandro,” with its storm troopers and dark Nazi other-world. Yes, we see Gaga stripped down and wrestling with muscled men on beds in this video but it’s not the main event and, in any case, it’s not particularly sexy. It’s mostly good choreography, pretty dancing, a good show — that’s the attraction. These videos are entertaining film and Gaga is nothing more and nothing less than the main actor in each. In other words, the story is far larger than the CFM fantasies that other women singers offer.
There’s one other element that seems to account for the unprecedented appeal of Gaga’s act. In these videos, Gaga assumes a martyred-outcast-heroic role (starting with “Paparazzi”). In “Alejandro,’ she’s asking to leave a relationship. As she puts it, “Don’t call my name [any more], Alejandro” The visuals suggest things the song never does, that Alejandro is a fascist lover, unforgiving and unrelenting. And Gaga is beseiged and conflicted by her need to get away from him. So, yes, she’s a victim of love but more than that. Her first wild costume makes her look like the princess of some snowy, high-tech, Tim Burton future-world. And she seems to get the upper hand (and dominant position) in many scenes. The suggestion, finally, is that this young woman prevails somehow against great odds and adversaries or, if nothing else, puts up a good fight, even as she is doomed. In other words, there is a vulnerability here that we don’t see in other women’s videos. There’s nothing vulnerable about Christina Aguilera wielding a riding crop, for instance.
Gaga herself isn’t a particularly strong presence in any of these videos and that’s a bonus because the production absorbs her in ways that productions do not, cannot, absorb stronger women, like Madonna. This too makes Gaga vulnerable and appealing. It seems Gaga knows that she is strongest when she lets herself be swallowed by costume and cast. In sum, it comes down to this: she owes a lot to her creative team, those who dream up and direct and choreograph and costume her recent wild and wonderful videos. And, yes, Gaga gets some credit too. In two short years, riding a rocket of fame, she has made and re-made herself. It’s a promising beginning and an act worth watching.