The biggest hurdle when trying to discuss the music of Lady Gaga is divorcing opinions of her personal life from her music. Part of the blame for this is that Gaga has made her public life an act in a theater, to the point that we could call her idiosyncrasies performance art. I always joke that if Andy Warhol were alive today, he’d have a field day with her. But for all the ways we can dissect her antics, there’s no denying that they have been polarizing for most people.
I’ll admit when I first heard of Lady Gaga, I wrote her off as just another banal pop star. This was circa 2009, just around the time Katy Perry had released her faux lesbian ode “I Kissed a Girl”.I was a junior in college back then and was in that phase when I thought knew it all. I was slowly getting out of my rock obsession, but I still hadn’t warmed up to pop music. So it’s no wonder when I heard “Poker Face” all I could thinks was that it was just trash. I remember the exact moment when I first heard it. I was sitting on a black couch among a group of 20 year old women in my friend Bonnie’s sorority house, hanging out with the sisters watching TV. As we surfed through the channels we landed on MTV, where I caught the beginning of the song’s video (yes, they did play music videos back in the day). I caught a glimpse of a highly stylized shot of an attractive woman in a rubberish one-piece bathing suit stepping out of a pool to this pulsating beat, stirring within me a puzzlement of mixed curiosity. I didn’t know what the hell I was watching. But what I can say with certainty was that I wasn’t buying it. It didn’t help that I had just seen a picture of Gaga in a frog outfit in People magazine.
It’s funny how opinions change over time. Flash forward six years and I’m writing a three part article praising the genius of Lady Gaga’s music. What seemed so bizarre at the time now feels in many ways innovative and freeing. Pop music has had a dramatic mood swing in reaction to her music, embracing humor and sexuality, and paving the way for the rise of the female pop artist. But what has set her music apart from other pop artists was the buried honesty that must be sought out in her music. When she sang about hiding her emotions during sex, memories of Katy Perry force us to question whether this crazy artist is just singing for the spotlight. But beneath the irony and slick productions are buried traces of a woman’s bisexuality and emotional explorations of casual romances. It’s a rare thing to find in pop music and is easy to write off. When Lady Gaga exploded a lot of criticism focused on the shallowness of her music, that she was just another Madonna ripoff. It didn’t help that artists such as Christina Aguilera went on interviews claiming Gaga owed her success to what she had to be doing for years.
There’s this weird vibe that a lot of people have when dismissing her as an artist.They usually focus on her odd behavior and sexual frankness, framing their opinions around their tastes being too sophisticated for her music. Dig a little and there’s usually a hint of disapproval over a woman speaking her mind about sex. It’s kind of the same way people dismiss Kanye West: it’s just too hard to accept a black man speaking his own mind. If only she dressed more normal, or wrote music that didn’t challenge ingrained sexism.
Another group just outright dismisses her because of the genre she works in. You find this a lot with rock snobs, who make the argument that only music with a guitar is real music. What a narrow and boring viewpoint. It’s also anachronistic. Rock music is dead, a extinct genre that has no new lands to explore. There’s only so much you can do with three power chords. I say this as a guy who plays guitar and drums. There comes a point when you have to say playing the same old shit is boring. But this isn’t the case with pop music. Technology has proven to be a liberator for musicians. And while most pop songwriters have stuck with formulaic and studio driven dribble (as if rock songwriters haven’t been stuck in the same mode) there’s been writers such as Lady Gaga that used the formula to their advantage. By using the pop sound as a background, they’ve crafted meaningful songs that remain catchy to the ear. Pop music, along with electronics, is the new frontier of music.
I remember when it hit me that there was more to Gaga than just silly sex songs. I was in the car driving to my brother’s house. I randomly put on the pop station when “Lovegame” started playing. As the synth belted out it’s opening hook it suddenly hit me that that this was a catchy song. But what my ears really took in was the freshness of the sound. The song didn’t sound Iike any other pop song playing at the time. It had a cutting eurodisco vibe, shying away from bubblegum and hiphop and coming straight from a gay club. And yet it so fully embraced the pop aesthetic that it didn’t feel quite so alien. Indeed its deception led many to write off the song as just another pop hit, but the proof that Gaga was on to something would be her later hits.
So just what is it that sets Lady Gaga apart from her contemporaries? To a casual listener, and especially to those that look down upon pop music, not much. She’s just another artist singing about sex to the accompaniment of studio produced beat. Never mind that it’s easy to write off pop musicians, just as it’s easy to write off a rock musician. Music has a funny way of sharply dividing people over genres, as if there can only be one true style of music. But let’s get back on track. Whatever you think about her music, Lady Gaga made a huge splash in the pop music scene when her album The Fame spawned a slew of hits, most notable of these being Lovegame and Poker Face. While there had been many female artists before her that sang about sex and dressed provocatively–Madonna comes to mind–Gaga’s music felt invigorating and even resonating on a personal level. The gay community immediately became her champion, blaring her music in the dance clubs across the country. Personally, the avant garde pop artist act was ultimately hooked me. Here was an artist that had a touch of irony as she did everything but wink to the audience, inviting us in on the big joke. Looking back, being ironic is the only real way to take yourself seriously as a pop artist, because ultimately your genre is treated like a product. Many since 2009 have gone down the shock and spectacle route, but it was Gaga that really made it the en vogue thing to do.
But really, what really sets Gaga apart is the music itself. Infectiously catchy, she does the rare balancing act of being entertaining and meaningful, and in the copycat pop genre, being distinct. To really focus on her early success, I’d like to look at her first two albums. I like to group them together because of how they compliment each other, as well as the period of her career that they were released during. We’ll see as as we go how quickly she matured as a songwriter between albums, seamlessly changing from catchy pop lyrics to more meaningful themes to chew on. But above all else, we’ll revisit some great music.
In the first part of this series articles I discussed Gaga’s song writing for other artists. Over the course of a few years she had slowly honed her image and sound, transforming for an aspiring rock singer into a full fledged pop diva. She started donning outlandish outfits and began making a stir at local clubs. She even sang at Lollapalooza in 2007.
You can actually find a supposed set list from that concert here. [http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/lady-gaga/2007/grant-park-chicago-il-63cd86db.html] You can hear her themes of playfulness and flirtations that would later make up her debut album. There’s also shades of glam rock and disco that influenced her early music. One song that really sticks out is “Disco Heaven”. The video on the site can’t be played, but can be found on YouTube.
The song is a retro tune set to a driving dance beat that could easily come out of the 70s. It’s also very aware, with the title tilting it’s hat to the genre. There’s nothing innovative or deep about the song. It’s pure fluff but nonetheless listenable. What I really find noteworthy is that it shows the breadth of influence in Gaga’s music. Her music has shown shades of heavy metal, pop, glam, hip hop, and experimental music, but it was her early music that really embraced the dance genre.
More importantly, her music had really become full fledged pop songs with catches and hooks, a major step up from her first EP. She had finally become comfortable with her genre and look and was just waiting for her big break. Fortunately, it would only take another year for The Fame to drop.
- The Fame
Everyone knows the story of how she escaped from scrapped artist to international artist. In 2007, Gaga was discovered by Akon, who had heard her sing on a reference vocal for a song. He convinced Interscope CEO Jimmy Iovine to sign her up to his own label Kon Live. Looking back it’s a weird pairing, as Akon’s music is so different from Lady Gaga’s, but nonetheless his discovery of her proved pivotal. Gaga was teamed up with RedOne to produce songs, and was well on her way to creating her debut album.
The Fame was released on August 19, 2008 and would be a sleeper hit. In hindsight it’s clear that the album was a weird mix of dance and electronic music with racy lyrics. While it was definitely pop oriented, it had distinct sound from anything else being played on the radio. Now we constantly hear music inspired by 80s dance music, but in 2008 this was still a relatively new sound. What really buoyed Gaga was her performances in gay clubs to promote her album. Before anyone else, it was the gay community that embraced her odd music, celebrating Gaga’s own bisexuality and liberating music. What made The Fame so infectious was the album’s invitation for anyone to enjoy the pleasure that fame had to provide. Gaga has gone on record as calling The Fame a concept album, which itself is different for a pop album. And as it would ultimately prove, a huge success.
The album starts off with frivolous fun, a throway hit intended to introduce this star to the public via a song shared with generic male singers, them being Akon and the white dude. It’s a safe hit, with part of the allure being the processed vocals. In honest, this is probably the biggest reason why I like the whole album so much. To me this was the pinaccle and the start of subtle processed vocals, most likely run thru auto tunes but maybe something beyond my own limited knowledge of music recording.
I blame it on the Cher affect, that being a sound thats so alluring its impossible to nail down. It all boils down to the artificialilty of the music, a nod to the irony that is intended but so often wrongly overlooked with her music in popular criticism.
Everything is seen in a faux hedonistic viewpoint, punctuated by men intruding on the true star of the song. The question then becomes what is the point of the artificialness?
This is where my intellect gets stirred by such a frivolous and throwaway pop album. Gaga has stated the point of the album was to make people feel what fame is like, but the reality is it becomes a bigger comment on the artificiality of pop music in general, witht this song being the intro to a much more satisfying meal to come.
Is she lying or does she really expect this man to fall for a game over whether she wants to fuck him?
The question is who is the narrator singing to? It’s obviously not the man [lover?} in question, because the narration comes off as an inner dialogue in her head, trying to to make herself feel detached from any emotions to the potential suitor.
Again, the song provides a red herring with the use of the term “disco stick”, an obviously kinky reference to a penis meant to seem to be another throway line and yet preative creative if you really think about it. It’s an alluring metaphor that is an intimate request for sex, leaving this guy to question whether she’s really being serious or not.
But that avoids the real heart of the song, which is that she’s not trying to provide a poker face to the potential suitor but to herself. She’s trying to deny she has feelings for this lover, signalled by the opening lyrics “I wanna kiss you/ but I might miss you ya”. The only way to interpret these lines is to argue she’s trying to convince herself that she’s fooling him when she’s only fooling herself. She loves him.
As if to answer her own heart, this song immediately follows with an admission that she’ll chase down this suitor until he loves her. She’s clearly only trying to pull a joke on herself in denying her own heart.
Interestingly enough, this song is another diary entry in the way the narrator seems to be addressing no one but herself, unless she is bold enough to truly tell this suitor that she’s going to chase him down until he loves her.
Next comes my favorite song on the album, an allure of euro techno pop synth drivel that comes off as plastic and yet couldn’t be anymore serious.
The intro again references a love game, again after a potentially same suitor, again with an invite with her to turn this man on while trying to deny her own heart to this person. The inner dialog narration continues, with a writer admitting to herself that he can’t read her own poker face.
My own theory tho is that while she’s stating “he” can’t read her poker face, the reality is she’s still in denial that she wants to see him as more than a penis for sexual gratification. This disco stick must have been one hell of a man.
Props also go out to whoever wrote the deliciously kinky as hell lines “‘Cause I’m bluffing with my muffin / I’m not lying I’m just stunning with my love glue gunnin’”. Whoever came up with the idea of love glue is a dirty perverted genius of wordsmiths, one i hope is her but probably wasn’t. Oh well, a guy can only try to put himself in the mind of a ironically artificial bitch.
And now I just get to the damn point of the article
The whole concept of the album is to be a hypnotic allure in artificiality when the narrator is clearly torn by her own commitment to a facade of fame. Yes, fame is shallow and yet deeper once we get past the irony and humor of a woman is so horny she is literally telling a man she wants to fuck his disco stick. Damn if that ain’t hot tho.
It starts off with a throway hit and slowly reveals itself to be a genuinelly sweet album by the end, allowing the listener to see thru the poker face that is worn by this narrator who is obviously torn by her own heart and fear of commiting to love and not a one night stand.
And damn those processed vocals are alluring.