Monday, December 19, 2011

Gaga's Problem Identified

One of the most illuminating pieces about Gaga from her Fame/Fame Monster, 2010 prime was Overkiller Queen by David Schmader. Schmader's best point comes late in the article:
Much is made of Gaga's extensive plundering of Madonna, but not enough is made of the speed and intensity with which this plundering has occurred. It took Madonna six years to get from dance-floor diva to international hit-maker to high-art pop icon; it took Gaga four singles, all culled from her debut album. Much like Bo Diddley sped up the blues to make rock 'n' roll, Stefani Germanotta sped up the pop machine that made Madonna to make Lady Gaga.
In the light of all of the singles from Born This Way, this now seems even more right to me than it did in 2010 only with a darker twist. Yes, Gaga leapt directly from Holiday to Like a Prayer/Vogue/Justify My Love/Deeper and Deeper (take your pick), i.e., to the Madonna of Cultural Studies departments. But that's a problem: while there are obvious high-points from that more conceptual, overexposing 1989-1992 Madonna (esp. the tracks I just mentioned), that's a period in which Madonna's music feels secondary to exhibitionism, cultural provocation and domination for its own sake. During that period Madonna burned through a lot of the good will she'd accumulated from her first three, pretty immaculate albums, and she just plain wore out her welcome with a lot of people. Madonna the self-conscious media artist/student of her own image had its moments, but taken as a whole it was too much, too calculating, and ultimately just tiring and boring (in the special way that only the over-wrought and over-stimulating risks - 'Oh, you again. Always with the wanting of attention. Go away!').

It's mildly heretical to say it, but that middle period Madonna, while superficially triumphant was actually a bit toxic. Madonna had to go away for while after it and come back with a more self-contained, more musical focus. Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, and Music were the result of that pulling back from excess, and they jointly constitute the second great career peak for M. after her initial not-putting-a-foot-wrong/breakthrough period that continued up through the True Blue album. (I count Confessions on a Dancefloor and its tour as M's much lonelier third career peak - five years later we're still waiting to see whether that's all she wrote for M. at pop's top-table - she'll have lasted longer than anyone else if it is.)

Again, heretical though it is to say it, the 'Madonna Studies' period of M. that Gaga has indeed fast-forwarded to, while impressive in certain ways was also obnoxious and unconvincing, and with the perspective of distance was a kind of creative low for M. (notwithstanding its special resonances with certain sub-cultures).

Gaga is currently only superficially triumphant: all of the Born This Way singles have been tiring and boring, hectoring, un-musical attention events. They may deepen Gaga's connections with certain core fans and true believers, but for a wider public it's a disastrous turn. Madonna had all the cultural political capital gained from her first three albums to spend down, whereas Gaga's obnoxious and exhausting phase has to be 'funded' out of only the handful of broadly appealing singles up to Bad Romance. That's a problem. Schmader (and others) called the phenomenon right back in 2010 but they didn't see the problem that posed for Gaga and for the public alike.

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