In Defense of Gaga
One writer makes a case why she's the greatest pop star on the planet
Published: June 8, 2011
In other words, she celebrates difference. In many ways, she speaks to the same disaffected youth that would've drifted toward punk in the '70s, those ancient days before MTV and the Internet and so many other newfangled things that have been major assets in creating the whole Gaga phenomenon. The punk movement was also a refuge that allowed "ugly" people to be even uglier — celebrate it, even — and thereby be even cooler in the process. Madonna was never part of that tradition. Her thing was more narcissistic; less inclusive; less kind or nice, really — and often just a reflection of certain long-held middle-class mores. Diamonds are a girl's best friend. The ironic thing about the haters who compare her to Madonna is that they are often the same people who hated Madonna at the height of her fame. Many of her detractors haven't even really listened to the music, much like Eminem haters I've met over the years who when asked if they've heard an entire album, or even seen 8 Mile, respond: "I wouldn't waste my time on that crap." Oh, well ...
As for the molehill as mountain: Does the song "Born This Way" sound like "Express Yourself"? Well, maybe. I guess. But only in the same way that the Doors' "Hello, I Love You" sounded like the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" and probably less than the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" sounded like Mitch Ryder's "Little Latin Lupe Lu." And not as much as Gaga's "Fashion of His Love" on BTW might bring to mind Orleans' "Still the One." In all those examples, though, I thought the prototypes were better than the subsequent "rip-offs." In this case, I genuinely do prefer Gaga's anthem. But then, I never cared about Madonna, even after seeing her live twice. More interesting, to me at least, than Madonna comparisons is that the two pre-released singles — "Born This Way" and "Judas" — sound far greater in the context of the new album, which frequently is a wonderful thing, than they did individually.
I've been listening to the 17-track "special edition" version of BTW for weeks now — and at least 15 of the tracks have major, hook-filled, melodic payoffs before you reach the end of the song. Born This Way is all over the musical map in a truly outrageous manner, as she mixes classic bubblegum hooks with heavy metal riffs, '70s disco and everything in between. "Hair" is her attempt at being "Springsteen-esque" — Clarence Clemons even guests — although it probably ends up closer to Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf but with even more memorable hooks. The closing, magnificent "The Edge of Glory," again with Clemons on sax, comes closer to hitting that epic Springsteen-ish mark. "You & I" also reaches for and hits the epic zone. "Bad Kids" is Gary Numan-like post-punk. "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" is simply irresistible, some of the most gorgeous synth-pop I've ever heard. "Electric Chapel" is pure '70s arena heavy metal-meets-electronic beats, mixed over symphonic strings, with a guitar riff hook that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Blue Oyster Cult album. No coincidence that it follows a vocoder-laced new wave-ish track titled "Heavy Metal Lover."
Best of all, though, is "The Queen" — sadly only available on the "special edition" disc — a modern update of the kind of hook-y "girl pop" that NYC's Brill Building produced in the '60s, complete with a pure Ronnie Spector ending that makes it the finest Phil Spector homage in ages. It's the one that will undoubtedly make him wish he was free to produce her next album. It's that great. And for my money, BTW is possibly album of the year, certainly of summer; no other contenders thus far are even in its stratosphere. I've listened to it beside Raw Power, Billion Dollar Babies, Lesley Gore, etc., etc., as a litmus test. There has been no other mainstream pop album in recent memory that I've wanted to hear at least once a day and sometimes more. That is, I'm with Liam. But in the end, like so many great albums, this one will mean many different things to many different people, with those people taking away from it exactly what they want ... and that will include all the haters.
At her most basic and mediocre, a more apt musical comparison than Madonna is definitely ABBA. "Alejandro" and the new disc's "Americano" are both in that pop tradition, close cousins to "Fernando," although ABBA never used its music as a vehicle to comment on America's anti-immigration issue. And in the same way that Gaga understands the banality of pop stardom in all its glitz, she equally understands its power to make a statement and (I'd sure like to believe) the responsibility that power involves. She seems intent on using it as a vehicle for greater good, although that obviously depends on your view.
From my view, I loved hearing of the father who took his wife and three kids to see Gaga — the tickets were a work-related gift — at that aforementioned Grand Rapids gig. Turns out the dude is about as homophobic as they come. Believes it's simply "a choice." (Listen, if a man tells you homosexuality is "a choice," ask him if that doesn't suggest he must have wanted to suck a cock somewhere along the line but made "a choice" to not do so. After all, most of us straight non-homophobes have never had to make that "choice.") Unfortunately, dude's views still seem to be the norm in a society where gay-bashing, especially as applied to language, is tolerated in public more than any other kind of modern hate. And at the Lady Gaga show, said dad found himself sitting two rows directly behind a very flamboyant man with a porno mustache, wearing nothing but a black leather trench coat and black leather Speedo (in the dead of winter!) for the entire show. Through "Born This Way." Through "Boys, Boys, Boys." Through the whole kit and caboodle. It couldn't have been any more perfect.
So put it this way: If Lady Gaga convinces one gay kid that it's OK to be that way — "Be who you are and love who you are," she preaches — or convinces others that it is not OK to bully, then that makes her a pop star unworthy of all the hate thrown her way, even if her music did suck, even if she was the worst thing in all of modern culture — which she most certainly is not.
What? You'd prefer kids adhere to Nirvana and their battle cry of "I Hate Myself And Want to Die"?
Or in the words of another Gallagher brother, this time Noel: "I remember Nirvana had a tune called 'I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,' and I was like, 'Well, I'm not fucking having that' ... I can't have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That's fucking rubbish!"
Hate on the Gaga all you want. She may be at the edge of glory, which drives some people insane. But you can't deny that as much she is about fantasy and the artifice of pop stardom, she's also all about living life to its fullest.
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