Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Law of GaGa

Happy new year! My semester starts next week; time to get back on the blogging train, no?

One of the more interesting end-of-year/end-of-decade reviews was Ann Powers's piece "Authenticity Takes a Holiday." Her argument, with which I basically agree, is that unlike the 1990s (or at least the first half of the 90s), the 2000s were marked by a decline in the discourse of authenticity. For those of you who don't do pop music studies, this is the omnipresent discourse in which good music is music that is "real," that speaks truths about the one who makes it.

That's the philosophy behind the concept, at least. In practice, authenticity comes to mean very particular aesthetic judgments. When I have authenticity day in my classes, I try to tease it out by first brainstorm with the class a list of artists or songs they find "authentic." Working from that, we then try to figure out what musical qualities are shared by these songs, and often find that those qualities are remarkably similar in a lot of genres--simpler instrumentation, biographical details in the lyrics, "live-sounding recording" (which I put in scare quotes since the work of an authenticist like Steve Albini is just as much a creation of the studio, and what is really meant is a certain style of mic placement), etc.

Obviously these sonic traits can quite easily be separated from their context and used wily-nily. That's why certain self-consciously primitive recording approaches of the last decade--the White Stripes and Amy Winehouse come to mind--can be used in a manner that disrupts any sense of authenticity. The White Stripes might be recording bluesy stripped down rock (authentic!) on old-fashioned magnetic tape recorders (authentic!), but when you're doing it dressed only in red and white...well, Eric Clapton would not approve.

The persistent presence of authenticist effects, however, is why I think it is a little more useful to put the ideological opposition the way Phil Auslander does in his great book on such issues: an opposition between authenticity and "inauthentic authenticity," that is, a discourse that is aware and proud of its inauthenticity--David Bowie is Auslander's prime example. The counterexample would be Milli Vanilli, who attempted to mask, rather than revel in, their inauthenticity. Lost yet? And don't forget, this is very clearly about discursive formulations, not some ontological judgment about what is actually authentic.

Anyways, I definitely agree with Powers that in the past year we have started to see foment in this discourse. Unlike Powers, however, I think Lady GaGa is very much the beginning of a new wave. Sure, when "Just Dance" came out, it seemed like she was just another dance-pop diva in a vaguely Kylie Minogue-esque vain. But as her success grew, and presumably (hopefully?) she gained more creative control, GaGa started to move in fascinating and wonderful directions. There was the video for "Paparazzi" and subsequent performance at the VMAs, which is probably one of the more pleasurably-disturbing things I have seen on MTV this side of Jersey Shore.

Not for the faint of heart (and apologies for the preceding commercial):

So on the one hand you've got classic shock-the-bourgeois sort of thing going on. But the shock isn't of the titillating, ooh-let-me-kiss-Madonna variety we might expect from a pop diva, it's a pretty well-thought out spectacle of modernist primitivism, no? With the blood, and the crutches? Man, lots to say about that, but regardless there is some serious intellectual substance there. I mean, the woman doesn't just wear crazy clothes, she wears a hat designed by Frank Gehry! (And how much do you love the look on P. Diddy's face?!)

And the virtuosic provocation is paired with musical talents that while not perhaps incredibly virtuosic (not yet, at least) are nevertheless real: Lady GaGa is becoming more and more famous, and increasingly hailed, as the pop diva who actually sings live. And while there has always been space for pop divas with musical talent (c.f. Christina Aguilera), it has been fairly uncommon in recent years, and YouTube clips of her singing and accompanying herself on the piano have abounded. On the Ellen Degeneres show:

Pretty great, right? Did you see how she counted in her band with a snap? I don't mean to be too condescending, but literally there are not that many pop singers at the moment who have the musical confidence to count in other musicians. And GaGa isn't shy about her abilities either--when Ellen remarks upon her ability to "actually sing," GaGa responded in mock belief, "I always think that's funny...aren't we supposed to sing? Isn't that part of the gig?"

(It's a fascinating interview in many ways, including that she elaborates on her own experiences of difference. It would be worth teasing that out more, especially given her visible support for the rather assimilationist wings of contemporary gay politics.)

At the same time, the modernist provocations keep her out of the singer-songwriter category, and her phenomenal popularity keeps her out of the realm of a more subcultural sister like Amanda Palmer. GaGa is still pop, and gloriously so. Her proper company can be found with the other great pop singers of 2009 who like GaGa are playing with the boundaries of authenticity--Adam Lambert and Taylor Swift for instance.

Anyways, we're going to watch the "Paparazzi" video on the first day of my "Gender and Sexuality in Music" class next Thursday--stay tuned!

Hat tip to Kariann for telling me about the "Law of GaGa" pictured at top, and apologies to whoever made this image--I can't figure out who you are.


cpo said...

I really like this YouTube video of Lady GaGa aka Stefani Germanotta:

But man, I like her a lot better when she's doing dance music.

rebecca said...

Thanks for the post, Phil! I'm really quite impressed with the "Speechless" clip for a number of reasons, not the least of which is she channels Elton John and Joni Mitchell, two of the most authentic musicians to have ever walked the earth (in my opinion). What I think is most "authentic" here is her ability to take what I found to be a rather dull song (harmonically, melodically, etc) and pull me in with her commitment to it. She has a lot of quality voices packed in there, and we don't necessarily get to hear that in her dance music. But what really struck me is the very last second--the emotional release right before she re-engages with the audience. It was longer than I usually see with pop stars, and I think it lent even more credibility to the performance. It is hard to fake that shift, to step over the performance threshold back into the "real world".