18 June, 2009

Pop music, or pop art?

Girl at school:
Yeah, they were playing M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" at that party last night, and then all of a sudden it changed to Lady Gaga. It was like 'cha-ching'...'I want to take a ride on your disco stick!'

(pause to eat a forkful of tater tots)
Who's Lady Gaga?

...and that was how I was introduced to the latest and most viral reincarnation of 1980's synthPOP (and the pop should most definitely be capitalized) in the vein of Madonna's "Vogue" with just the right amount of glam rock tossed in the mix to make something with a little edge. After that barely conversation, I forgot about Lady Gaga until last Friday when I was riding around town with some friends and the song "Poker Face" came on the radio. I revisited that morning in the dining commons with a repeated moment of ignorance:

Is this P!nk?

Nooo...it's Lady Gaga...

Again, I would have left myself in blissful ignorance, had it not been for the overwhelming factors that have forced me to cultivate an emotional response to this latest musical craze. In other worlds, this girl is following me around!

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a good friend about how her coworker is both a huge Phoenix fan and one of those Lady Gaga fans who rocks out with glow sticks, bejeweled and face-painted, in the front row (actually, that is unfair. I am not sure that he does any such thing, that just happened to be the image my mind concocted mid-conversation). This morning, I was on Slate and I found this article: How smart is Lady Gaga? by Jonah Weiner. It was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.

Here is the section that did it for me (from the article linked above):

Lady Gaga is something of an anomaly: a pretentious pop starlet. To hear her tell it, she isn't the anonymous hookup facilitator you might assume from her robotically decadent techno hits but, rather, a savvy media manipulator engaged in an elaborate, Warholian pop-art project. She sprinkles interviews with references to Warhol's "deeply shallow" aphorism, David Bowie, Leigh Bowery, and The Night Porter. Her outlandish, architectural outfits are meant to evoke the avant-garde designs of Thierry Mugler and Hussein Chalayan. She even has her own Factory-style crew of collaborators, which she calls the Haus of Gaga. That none of this is readily apparent in her actual songs might be part of the point. Her pretentiousness—the heady name-dropping, the high-concept video, the wild get-ups—hangs halolike around her music, encouraging us to consider the songs in a different and more radiant light.

You have to wade through the name-dropping (any hints here that Lady Gaga could be pretentious?) and the hyperbolic - *cough cough* beautifully ironic - descriptions of the superstar creation process to find the references to the actual music - and that seems to be the point here. If she is as intelligent as Jonah Weiner is implying in his article, if she is not only a pop starlet, but a savvy businesswoman and "artist" to boot, then she is bullshitting in a style that is absolutely Andy Warhol. My question is: what is the point?

I am not trying to dis the proprietor of "pop art," but, well I guess I kind of am. Maybe you lovely readers can guess that I am not the biggest fan of Warhol as an artist, and my reasons for disliking his art are basically all of the reasons why they are considered art. The point of his work was to be superficial, commercial, insubstantial in many ways, and also to make money. He achieved all of these goals in some sense. Now, some people will argue that his work was social commentary, but I argue back that if you look at the ways in which he lived his life, he was not being particularly sarcastic or ironic. He did like "plastic people," or he certainly spent a lot of time around them if he did not enjoy their company. He was a rampant consumer, and both pretentious and superficial in his actions and words.

Back to Lady Gaga. If she is attempting to make music that embraces the Warholian aesthetic, then she is succeeding in many ways. Embracing fame, money, and superficiality in her music, she has grown in popularity by assuming some features of pop music that have succeeded through the years (disco, synth, glam rock) while bringing in aspects of today's most popular sounds. She carries the brokenness, bitterness, and sauciness of P!nk into "Poker Face" (and I am not just trying to make myself sound less musically ignorant. Listen closely, and you will hear it as well). She also plays up the edge that Katy Perry and Britney Spears cultivate with their hits ("I Kissed A Girl" and "If U Seek Amy" respectively). This is an intelligent thing for a businesswoman to do, and if you subscribe to Warhol's belief that business is the greatest manifestation of art, then you can consider The Fame and all of its subsequent hype a great manifestation of art.

There is a key difference between Lady Gaga and Warhol, and it leads me to the central point of this entire post. It is this: Lady Gaga - even with all of her musical and artistic references - is very much a creature of 2009. Part of the reason she has succeeded in creating interest in her own masturbatory explorations of fame and fortune is that she does have that business intelligence that can be traced back to Warhol, along with an ironic attachment to seemingly deeper themes (as Weiner points out in the article above, she compares love to the exploitative relationships between stars and paparazzi in the song "Paparazzi." What he fails to mention is that she does this while exploiting the relationship between fan and star). Still, I trace her origins and aesthetic to a kind of "pop art" that has really exploded in our Internet Age: pornography. All of those artistic characteristics that can be tied to Warhol, can also be tied to pornography - and I would argue that it is far more monetarily successful (and therefore more artistically successful in Warhol's terms) than Warhol's pop art. In this way, Lady Gaga may outplay Warhol in his own game - by personifying and playing up the most exploitative, superficial, and above all popular "pop art" now in existence.

Someone commented that the beginning of this video for "Paparazzi" reminds them of "soft-core porn." I would argue that Lady Gaga's entire aesthetic rests on a pornographic foundation, and that this is only an appropriately graphic extension of that theme.

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