Did we expect this cultural roller-coaster when Just Dance crashed into the ‘pop charts’ with a slightly crazy, party-animal video? It was a visible shock when Pokerface landed; a full-on art-school collage of glossy slow motion, bonkers choreography and filthy lyrics.
Surely GaGa has gone as far as she can acceptably go? You have to wonder where the next shock can come from; she’s already worn nothing but police tape, committing lesbianism and mass-murder in Telephone; sung the single-entendre lyrics of Disco Stick; dressed as a bondage-nun in Alejandro and taken her clothes off for various magazines…
Unfortunately the drive to shock and the artistic ambition of her ‘House of GaGa’ team frequently tips over into the absurd. From the Man Who Fell to Earth, alien-landing of Pokerface, the sub-Tarantino pastiche (if that’s even possible)of Telephone, with it’s ridiculous costumes and risible dialog, to the nun’s habit in Alejandro – perhaps somebody should have drawn the line at the Nazi/Republican Guard dancers in the Alejandro video. The armoured bodice and crutches in Paparazzi (shades of Metropolis?) overloaded a pop-video that completely undermined a well-crafted narrative ballad. I can’t even think where to begin with the deluge of androgyny and vodoo make-up in Born this Way, although to be honest, the whole of Born this Way is a multiple pile-up of record production that drowns just about everything.
But are we forgetting the impact when Madonna dared to use the word virgin in a song title, show us her underwear and less? Born this Way certainly reminded me of middle period Madonna, mashing up Vogue and Express Yourself. Surely we’ve seen this all before; iconoclasm, pastiche and ultimately kitsch; faux-lesbianism and nudity to elicit Protestant and Catholic outrage in the mass media, all to flog a few music downloads?
She does it quite successfully. More provocative than Christina in Dirrty, less dressed than Rihanna or Britney, all the energy of Pink and filthier than any of them.
Yet somehow GaGa has also laid claim to the position of champion of the disaffected, embracing her fans – her ‘Little Monsters’, who now have their very own signature clawed hand gesture. There is a professed agenda, a genuine, if warped, artistic vision and repeated vows of loyalty to the fans. Be more than society’s expectations, re-invent yourself, defy convention, rules and social norms. Despite the early signs, its not about selling with sex. GaGa’s image is a collection of masks and persona’s, at least half of them androgynous, or freak shows or both. GaGa is the cover girl of outrage, not sexy.
There is undoubted talent there. GaGa’s solo acoustic performance for Jo Wiley last year was a tour-de-force of just GaGa and a piano in a studio. The BBC Big Weekend headline set showed she is quite capable of barn-storming it with the big disco numbers sandwiching a hard-core jazz and torch-song set of mid-tempo and ballads. It is a full-on Jacques Brell and Kurt Weill experience, as delivered by Nina Simone on uppers. Gaga has huge stage presence and she can sing. Pink, Ri-Ri and Christina watch out.
Commercially, she makes it work, too. Most artists release records that go hook, verse, chorus, middle-eight, verse, chorus. This is too conventional for GaGa, where each production number seems to model itself hook, another hook, chorus, shouty-break, chorus, another hook, chorus, mumble, hook, chorus. It makes for compelling pop records where there’s a catchy line or riff every twenty seconds that stands out from the crowd of identi-kit electro-beats, samples and rap.
It took Madonna a good ten years to get to the cultural status as GaGa now. The music industry chews up and spits out its stars ever faster. It’s a distressing thought that GaGa might be touring Fame/ Monster in a decade’s time, but you can bet that GaGa won’t be doing that unless she blows the rumoured $150 mill she made the last twelve months. Stephanie Germanotta, alias GaGa, may well be the queen of re-invention. Want to bet on a torch-song pop-opera? A bit of stadium disco-Brecht? The stage musical of Mary Magdalene called ‘the Last Crucifiction’? No. Nothing so ordinary. AJS