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I can’t believe I’m writing about Lady Gaga, either, but there is a book involved.

September 14, 2010

Lady Gaga at the optometrist's office.

Every impression I have of Lady Gaga comes from the TVs mounted at my gym, where I am helpless to change the channel. While I fall outside her demographic, I find myself watching with some small fascination. My conclusion: She’s a graduate of RuPaul’s Drag U.

Well, not really, of course, Lady Gaga having been famous before RuPaul’s Logo Channel reality show premiered last January, but still, the principles are the same. Take drag queen aesthetics, trowel them onto a “real” woman, shake well and — voila: A diva is born.

It helps, however, to have talent, charisma and the kind of drive toward fame that propelled Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest. And in the case of Lady Gaga, it’s driven her to such heights of pop fame and achievement, someone has written a full biography of her life. She’s 24.

In Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga, Maureen Callahan, a writer and editor for the New York Post, seeks to illuminate how a privileged Upper West Side private school girl who wanted to be a singer-songwriter became, among other things, Neo-Madonna.

I say “among other things” because while Gaga may owe Madge an unpayable debt for pioneering the pop queen-as-fetishized-chameleon shtick, she is more than a mimic. Not least, she’s a real musician and an accomplished pop songwriter–I don’t know the name of a single song, but sometimes I wake up  with one playing in my head.

For another, she’s a brilliant synthesist of previous and current musical styles (just like the Beatles!). She takes familiar musical tropes, video images, dance moves and makes them seem fresh and original. I mean, she’s recycling the entirety of Madonna’s first 10 years (thrift shop waif/man eater/virgin/goldigger Marilyn/omnisexual Vogueist) and people are buying it as something new!

But more than anything, Gaga is a goddess (a word not chosen lightly) of charisma. Even though she’s not conventionally beautiful, unlike Beyonce or Shakira or Nicole Sherzinger, she is, like Madonna, compulsively watchable — whether she’s striding purposefully around a pool (where would music videos be without the crossover?!), or miming some S&M fantasy, or showing up at the VMAs in a dress made of raw meat.

Her plainness, in fact, makes her much more interesting. A girl who looks like this (intelligent eyes, chipmunky cheeks) is not supposed to dress like this, act like this, act out like this. Um…can we see some more, please?

I have to pause here to ask: Don’t you find Gaga’s sexual provocations oddly harmless? I mean, if I had tween daughters I’d keep them as far from Gaga’s influence as possible.

But still, no matter what strenuously weird leathered-up bisexual fantasy she enacts in her videos, the whole thing always seems tame, like she’s a precocious little girl playing dress up. When Madonna did this kind of thing in the ’80s, it was invariably dangerous and threatening.

In fact, Gaga was prettier when she was plain little Stefani Germanotta and her main ambition was to become the next Fiona Apple or Nora Jones. Here’s a link to a pre-Gaga performance so accomplished I can only conclude she would have become famous no matter what musical genre she chose.

Alas, though Callahan combs through Stefani’s transmogrification into Gaga as best she can, she cannot quite identify how it took place, according to this USA Today review. Missing from the 50 interviews Callahan conducted for this book: any contact with Gaga.

This leaves Callahan with no recourse but to say that seeking the answer is to “search fruitlessly for the cracks between” the sensitive schoolgirl “and the glorious, demented art-freak performer on stage.”

A bit of hubris, that: I didn’t find the answer, Callahan is trying to persuade us, therefore there must not be one. That’s not to dismiss her book as unworthy of attention. It may brim with all manner of insights into Gaga’s background, personality and motivation. But it does seem to fail its own title.

Whatever the secret is, Lady Gaga is a genius at gauging the temperature of the zeitgeist and bending it in her direction. She’s so good at this, she displays such a deep, possibly instinctive understanding of all things media, I wonder if she could be persuaded to take over, say, the Tribune Co.? If anyone can save old media, I’d say it’s her.

36 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    September 14, 2010 12:29 pm

    One person comes to mind…Alice Cooper.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 12:39 pm

      Yes, Alice Cooper is an excellent example, thanks. Dead babies still can’t take care of themselves, I believe. Could he be persuaded to take over the Tribune Co.? Or is he too busy playing golf?

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 14, 2010 1:00 pm

    If you say so…..

  3. Sean permalink
    September 14, 2010 2:09 pm

    I am cracking up at the image of you on the treadmill and Lady Gaga locked on your gym TV. Submit!

    She really is all that. And a scary-fast learner. I saw her at a Fort Lauderdale club not too long ago – everything’s happening quickly with her – and it was kind of a dry run for the bigger gigs she clearly anticipated playing. There was almost a ‘Stonehenge’ moment when I wondered if she would escape this bulbous, fractal pod thing that enclosed her and slowly, awkwardly popped open while she sang. But maybe that was the point – will “the fame” eat her up? You could tell she was working some production ideas out in rough-draft form, but even then she and her theater were as you say very watchable.

    Madonna and Alice Cooper are definite antecedents; I also detect a bit of Marilyn Manson: There’s a serpentine quality to how both move and carry themselves in their weird, sexually amorphous, skin-baring costumes. (Gaga is a better songwriter.) Must add David Bowie: She’s got his quick-change artistry and seems to shape-shift on demand, as if she’s made of plasticene. (Madonna’s reinventions tend to be prepped, rolled out and maintained like aircraft carriers.)

    That oddly harmless quality you describe in her visual escapades – maybe that’s a function of the hazy sexuality? The imagery is charged. But it’s not, like, hot. It’s denatured.
    The cold fusion coupled with the non-endorsement of traditional gender roles should in theory create a sense of threat. But her targets, if she really has any, seem nonspecific. Her beef is with existence. And I don’t have any sense that she’s been assailed in any serious, sustained way by our guardians of virtue (who, granted, are busy with Obama).

    The precocious kid playing dress up is exactly right. That may also make her somewhat endearing – like she’s leaving us just a little room to say “Well, bless her heart!” So she’s arming and disarming. Genius.

    One essay (Time or Newsweek, I can’t remember which) said she’s systematically upending showbiz tropes and laying waste to any remaining taboos. I’m more inclined to think she’s demonstrating that taboos no longer exist. But in any case you’ve gotta believe she’s thinking at least a few moves ahead, and there’s an arc carrying the spot improvisations and performance art and the whole reality-through-the-mirror project.

    And in conclusion … Lady Gaga will keep adding and subtracting skins (and meat!) and if she doesn’t pull a disappearing act as a finale – leave ’em talking – there could be a me-as-I-truly-am moment. I can picture some crazed variation on MTV Unplugged and a solo acoustic album (if those things haven’t already happened at the rapid pace she assimilates – I can’t keep track), wherein she reverts to her nascent Fiona-Norah singer-songwriter form – and takes her clothes off, as if returning to the act of her creation.

    And then she’ll write her own autobio. I’m not surprised she didn’t cooperate with the Post correspondent. Lady Gaga doesn’t want anybody else writing her narrative. She is a media combine, so she could probably run one, too.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 3:01 pm

      Thanks, Sean, great commentary. I wish I had time to explore this more deeply, because I think Gaga’s cultural, artistic and even moral significance is bigger and deeper than almost anyone realizes. For example, I’m pretty sure she could have soared as a self-important singer-songwriter artiste, ala Fiona Apple. Instead she has opted for the transparent transience of throw-away pop, making her entire existence a kind of dada art experiment. It’s an act of honesty, because all art nowdays is indistinguishable from commerce, from the making and selling of “chiclets,” as Jonathan Franzen says in one of the better passages of his novel, Freedom. One of the three main characters is an indie rock musician with certain similarities to Paul Westerberg, and he lights into the shallowness and hypocrisy of rock music. And then feels shallow and guilty about his own naivete. Priceless. Gaga, at 24, is so far beyond all that it’s actually quite breathtaking. (Still, I’d rather have Wilco on the turntable).

  4. September 14, 2010 2:31 pm

    Sean’s articulate comments blow me away, and yet I’m still in limbo when it comes to the appeal Ms. Gaga has. But then again, I could never figure out Madonna’s appeal either. Geesh, I feel old.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 2:54 pm

      Every dog has it’s day, Duff, and while you aren’t really old in literary years, musically it’s Lady Gaga’s day right now.

    • RA Rycraft permalink
      September 15, 2010 9:22 pm

      Ha! One of my students chose Lady Gaga as his subject for an essay on American icons. Duff you feel old? I had no idea who she was and had to Google her in order to grade the student essay. :-/ He argued that Gaga was a musical genius. I don’t know. I think Sean’s on the right track, though – taboos no longer exist. And just so you know – I’m preparing to teach Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, so this Gaga conversation has started some really weird shit to start floating around my brain.

      • Sean permalink
        September 17, 2010 8:34 am

        RA, how did your student do on the essay?

  5. Sean permalink
    September 14, 2010 3:14 pm

    Jonathan Franzen mentioned chick lit? Oh, wait, chiclets. Never mind.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 4:41 pm

      Very clever, Sean.

  6. Sean permalink
    September 14, 2010 3:29 pm

    Duff, I feel you. Like Chauncey I can marvel at what she’s doing and give her her due as a musician, but at a remove partly because I’m not a pop/disco fan by default, and also because I know she’s not trying to reach me. She’s talking to people who’ve grown up in the same content-recycling, hyper-commercial mediaverse as her. So I’m going to watch her but go listen to Gram Parsons. (And Wilco!)

    “I’m pretty sure she could have soared as a self-important singer-songwriter artiste, ala Fiona Apple. Instead she has opted for the transparent transience of throw-away pop, making her entire existence a kind of dada art experiment. It’s an act of honesty … .”

    I bet there’s nothing that interesting in Callahan’s book.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 4:29 pm

      It’s so kind of you to say so.

    • September 14, 2010 8:37 pm

      Sean, the light went on when you said “dada art experiment.” Finally, I think I’m getting it. Thanks, my good man.

      Chauncey, this has been one hell of an interesting blog.

  7. Sean permalink
    September 14, 2010 3:40 pm

    Last thought and I’ll shut up. Given your point about the choice she made to trade “real” art for post-post-everything art, she might make it impossible in the future for anyone to take singer-songwriters seriously. So if she were to revisit her Fiona moment, it might have to be in satirical form.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 4:30 pm

      I would not bet against her chances of pulling it off. Besides, we’re past the point of rescue, as a culture, on the irony front. I mean, wasn’t there always something ironic and faintly self-satirical about Fiona?

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 14, 2010 4:34 pm

    I can’t help but note that everyone commenting on this post about a 24-year-old pop diva phenom, both here and over on Facebook, where I’ve linked up, is a verifiable old fart.

    • RA Rycraft permalink
      September 16, 2010 8:47 pm

      Not me. 😉

    • Sean permalink
      September 17, 2010 8:36 am

      I resemble that remark.

  9. September 14, 2010 5:08 pm

    I can’t get past the fact that an author wrote a biography without speaking to the subject. I am sure it happens often, but Callahan seemed to have a goal that could not be achieved without interviewing Lady Gaga.

    And btw, I like her songs. I can’t help it. And I blame Urban Rebounding. They are great to work out to.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 14, 2010 8:48 pm

      The fact I consider Gaga’s songs disposable doesn’t make them any less adroit or catchy. All pop is disposable, but some of it turns out to have lasting popularity. So no need to apologize for your taste.

  10. September 15, 2010 8:23 am

    I never got Madonna. She didn’t interest me in the least though I was somewhat able to understand others’ fascination. Actually, same with all pop stars. Never cared for Michael Jackson. In fact, my zumba teacher had us dancing to “Billy Jean” the other day and it was excrutiating. But Lady Gaga–another matter entirely. I love her “bad romance” video and I could dance to her music all day (okay, maybe not more than an hour but still . . .). She’s great. Not interested in the book tho. Who cares? She’s there on the screen in your gym or in that youtube link you sent to a friend or blaring thru the speaker in a zumba class. It’s a moment. Revel in it.
    Love that dada art comparison, Chauncey, wish I’d thought of something that smart.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 15, 2010 9:35 am

      Thanks, Pat. See, this is why I think all or at least most of the intellectual underpinnings some of us see in Gaga’s work is intentional. Consider her stage name: Gaga. Doesn’t it seem a smart conflation of Dada and a baby’s nonsensical gurgling, goo-goo? I think in some ways she may owe more to Warhol and Duchamp than Madonna or Elton.

  11. September 15, 2010 12:05 pm

    Did you just call me an old fart? Damn, you’re right. I don’t get her. When I see Gaga all I think is Madonna-satire run off the rails.

    As for the name, to me it translates literally: crazy, foolishly infatuated. And if the word is true to its alleged French roots indicating imitative origin, the satire is even more trenchant.

    • September 15, 2010 12:08 pm

      Oh, and I don’t find her particularly interesting, but your commentary certainly was.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        September 16, 2010 12:25 am

        Thank you, ma’am. Like Gaga, I aim to entertain.

    • Sean permalink
      September 17, 2010 8:51 am

      “And if the word is true to its alleged French roots indicating imitative origin, the satire is even more trenchant.”

      Liane, that’s a great deconstruction. I wonder if LG knew as much on account of her private-school background. The story of how Gaga got her name as I read it someplace is fairly straightforward – a buddy of hers supposedly said one day that she and her music reminded him of an old Queen song, ‘Radio Gaga,’ and the label stuck. It’s probably too much to say she even had the word’s lineage covered when she adopted the name, but in any case it does seem to fit right down to its French roots.

  12. Tommy Smart permalink
    September 15, 2010 1:11 pm

    Dale Bozzio, Grace Slick, Bjork are some more women who have paved the way for the Lady. Some have described her music and persona as Avant-Garde, I would disagree. Lady Gaga fits these times perfectly. I mean to say the music is superficial, obsessed with gloss, sexually disturbed and beyond redemption. Maybe Lady Gaga’s success makes possible the reemergence of dancing plagues. I am intrigued by the gaga for Gaga phenomenon, yet mainly I believe most of her fans are suffering from fecalphilia.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 16, 2010 12:24 am

      You kiss you mama with that mouth, Tommy?

    • Sean permalink
      September 17, 2010 8:39 am

      She’s using raw-material Avant Garde but, uh, processing it for mainstream, uh, consumption. Ack! Now I can’t get your kicker out of my head!

  13. Karen permalink
    September 15, 2010 3:42 pm

    You are so right about the Dada link! I can take it one step further –Dada meets Andy Warhol’s 5 minutes of fame. Thinking in those terms, I wonder why I was ever surprised by any of Gaga’s antics, on or off stage. Her (or someone like her) whole rise to stardom becomes almost inevitable.

  14. September 15, 2010 9:19 pm

    Chauncey, this topic has me addicted. Please write on someone else. Tommy Smart and Sean are so SMART I’m intimidated. Clever clever comments. I sit here smiling. Laughing outloutd: (fecalphilia)? I have to steal that one, Tommy.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 16, 2010 12:27 am

      In all respect to Tommy, which is to say a lot, I believe the actual term is “coprophilia.” Though I’ll admit “fecalphilia” is a potent coinage that may have stronger currency with contemporary readers.

  15. September 16, 2010 10:53 am

    This is why I keep tuning in, Chaunce.

  16. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 16, 2010 11:23 am

    Because sooner or later the discussion will turn to coprophilia?

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