In Defense of Gaga
One writer makes a case why she's the greatest pop star on the planet
Published: June 8, 2011
And then there's my 81-year-old mom (who once snapped, "Who is that terrible woman singing?" when one of Rod Stewart's American Songbook tunes came on her favorite standards station one morning), who saw the Gershwin number on Today, later informing me, "You know, that girl can sing," before adding, "she really doesn't need to dress that way" ... though I think Mom's newfound Lady Gaga admiration also has a lot to do with Italian-American pride for an icon that isn't The Sopranos or Jersey Shore ... or even Madonna, for that matter. (Mom has always loved unicorns too!) And when my sister took two of her kids to the Lady Gaga show in Grand Rapids this past winter, it made me very happy that it was those kids' first concert, for the rock spectacle alone, and not something like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé.
Another pattern soon emerged in that many of my friends with genuine visual arts roots were among her strongest supporters. Not just Hudson Marquez but John Eder, a graphic artist and photographer who created some of the best concept covers for a music magazine I edited in the '90s. He was "resistant at first," until his 11-year-old daughter had him download the hits for a birthday party — and he, too, was suddenly hooked. "She's far crazier than the people she supposedly 'steals' from." (The other big defenders are parents, not just of little ones — although one woman said she became a fan after her tween niece cried until she listened — but especially of high school and college-aged kids, and even many in their late 20s and early 30s, all of whom, according to Time, make up Gaga's "little monsters" fan base.)
Rick Manore, PR director of the Detroit Music Hall who's been involved in the art scene for decades, also piped in, dropping highfalutin' names from the art world, including Marina Abramovic, Adam Curtis, Warhol, Lester Bangs and Matthew Barney alongside art-rock/glam bands such as Roxy Music — even a reference to the Residents — before concluding that "Madonna couldn't conceptualize herself out of a paper bag." Former MT writer Brian Bowe, now also a college professor (who saw and loved the Grand Rapids show), argued that as an artist, Gaga "carries the weight for serious academic inquiry" whereas none of the other teen queens (or other musical peers) of today would. Rock photographer Heather Harris, probably best known for her classic '70s shots of Iggy & the Stooges in L.A., delivered the home run, though. "The Gaga is closer to Niagara than Madonna."
But still they hate, the great irony being that I know some of these haters think KISS and even Duran Duran (both Gaga influences, by the way) constituted real "genius" once upon a time, as they argue that Gaga's phenomenal appeal isn't a plus for "game-changing" music and culture the same way that, say, (the admittedly great) Nirvana was. And sometimes end up sounding like their grandparents or even great-grandparents talking about Elvis Presley.
So what of that music? Sure, Gaga is her own greatest creation, a living art performance project unto herself, and the phenomenon is as interesting as the musical component that drives it. But, really, the music ultimately does need to be examined. And, yes, she does get compared to Madonna. A lot. Many say she's nothing more than a lame Madonna clone. But while Madge is definitely a large part of the equation, she's not the entire equation by any means.
Add some Elton John. Billy Joel. A little Queen; she took her name from one of their songs and Brian May guests on the new LP. Definitely David Bowie; in fact, I've heard prudes make the same comments about Gaga's recent TV appearances that I heard regarding Bowie's "1984 Floor Show" on Midnight Special in 1973; "If he has to look like that and do those things, he obviously can't have any real talent." And her "controversial" woman-as-motorcycle image that's on the cover of the new LP — which, of course, had the haters screaming, "It's the ugliest and most ridiculous album cover in pop history!" when first unveiled on the Internet — immediately reminded me of nothing so much as the cover of Diamond Dogs.
The front cover of the "special edition," meanwhile, is pure Alice Cooper, another major influence, because blood remains a powerful metaphor. She's made dance music and electronica beats more palatable for the pop mainstream audience than probably any performer to date. And even her "gaga" nonsensical baby talk — shades of Jan & Dean! — in her anthems has roots that stem back to doo-wop, "Tutti Fruiti" and R. Meltzer's concept of "speaking in tongues" in pop-rock. Don't be surprised when she someday releases her full-on rock 'n' roll album, with guitars and drums still delivering the sledgehammer approach she favors in her overall sound. Some of us are looking forward to the day when we can boast: "I told you so."
Sure, Madonna is definitely there. No question about it. So is Cher. But to label her just a Madonna imitator is very lazy cultural criticism, akin to saying the Beatles were nothing more than Buddy Holly or Arthur Alexander clones. As a singer, musician and songwriter, if not dancer, Stefani Germanotta smokes Ms. Ciccone in every department. (Her recent SNL date revealed she'll smoke Madge in the acting department too, should she go in that direction.) She gives great interview. Has a great sense of humor about herself and the world around her. She's far from traditionally beautiful — she talks often about how her big nose, weight and buck teeth made her the victim of bullies as a child — and doesn't go out of her way, obviously, to be so. She intentionally makes herself ugly at times, in fact. The new Rolling Stone cover is nothing as much as Marilyn Manson.
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