Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Oops!...I did it again (Motown, Warhol and yet more Lady Gaga)

I’d like to begin by contrasting the critical appreciation of two artists who emerged in the 60’s. The work of one is almost universally adored while he himself remained firmly in the background; the other used his work to propel himself to the centre stage. One created a modern business so successful that our lives would seem the lesser without its presence and influence; the others work is of almost no real importance, with even admirers knowing only a smattering of his output, preferring instead to discuss the man himself, the concepts behind his work, and what he represented. One shaped and influenced culture, enriching people’s lives in the process; the other merely had an ability to exploit people and images for his own purposes and went along with cultural currents that were strong enough to guarantee the fame he so obviously craved. These two men are Berry Gordy and Andy Warhol. It’s a sad comment on our culture that many at this point have no idea who Berry Gordy is, while Andy Warhol’s name gets immediate recognition.

Gordy not only founded Motown records, he also wrote or co-wrote many of its most iconic songs; “Shop Around”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Do You Love Me”, “I’ll Be There”, “I Want You Back” and “ABC” to name a few. The founding of Motown was helped by the success of the Jackie Wilson single “Reet Petite” which Gordy co-wrote. Where would modern music be without Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson? Motown records altered the fabric of America, inciting cultural changes that went beyond music, helping Civil Rights and Black Pride. First wave British invasion groups were in awe of Motown, and its influence is all over early Beatles and Stones records. Who in their heart does not rejoice upon hearing “I Can’t Help Myself” blasting out of the radio? Berry Gordy’s name should be honoured by all who love music, and all who claim a love of pop culture. Without his talent, tenacity and ability to foster and encourage genius in others there would be an unfathomable black hole in our world. Yet who ultimately cares who Berry Gordy is? And how honoured is his name when compared to our other personality mentioned above?

Andy Warhol is seen as important, controversial, visionary, a mirror of our times, but why? He recontextualised iconic images. He helped create Pop Art (a phrase invented so cultural puritans could don latex gloves and delve into the murky world of commercialism and still come up smelling like academics). His work was vampiric, feeding on others, exploiting them, and disposing of them when necessary. So why is his work taken so seriously? Conceptualising. Warhol was obsessed by fame, but so was America, so Warhol’s work represented all of America’s base commercialism and spirit crushing Hollywood dreams. Warhol helped foster these very ideas, and half-witted cultural critics ran with it. Didn’t everyone see? Warhol contained all the glamour and artificiality of America itself. His flaws were Americas flaws, his inconsistencies and shortcomings (which constituted his entire output) became “complexities”, and to accept these complexities was to come to terms with America in all its plastic glory. This pyrrhic victory of Concept over content all but destroyed modern art, as “iconoclasts” multiplied, all determined to conceptualise their work into museums, along the way trampling on such (so called) bourgeois notions as talent, work ethic and morality. This was the biggest victory party yet for intellectualised banality and if you care to take a look at any art magazine or modern museum, you’ll see it’s still going on.

Now, let us return to the main thrust of this essay, which is; why is Lady Gaga’s music so awful? I know that all things are a matter of taste and that ultimately my dislike is subjective, but I can certainly point to aspects of her music which I think make it a poor piece of work. Namely all of it. First though, let us go back to the birth of modern dance music. It all started with that much maligned genre disco, which was really a minority backlash against both mainstream societies and counterculture rock’s rejection of the hedonistic joys of dancing. Instead of letting it all hang out though, people who danced to disco got dressed up, and for a few hours lost themselves on the dance floor. Women were as important as men to the disco scene. Not confined to the role of groupie or expressing freedom through exposing their breasts, women had power on the dance floor. They could accept or reject suitors, and men were expected to do their best to impress, through their clothes and through their dance moves. Disco was hugely popular in the gay subculture, as well as in black and Latino communities. For this reason it was not unusual for it to be dismissed using both homophobic and racist epithets. As for the music itself, at its best it represented a glorious seduction, a sirens call to let go of your cares and live for the moment. Disco songs exuded a condensed euphoria, taking the most pop elements of funk and soul and making them dance floor ready, replete with soaring strings, latin rhythms and a dominant bass high in the mix. “Young Hearts Run Free” by Candi Staton, “Night Fever” by The Bee Gees, “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer, “Le Freak” by Chic and “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson all exemplified the brilliance of disco. Seductive and sensual, the songs were not aimed at the intellect. For this reason they were often thought of as being stupid. Stupidity though implies a failed intelligence, or an oafish slow-wittedness. Disco was neither. Its arrow aimed for the heart, its grooves for the body. It did not need to be intellectualised (though that didn’t stop people), simply enjoyed. Rock’s bully boy thuggery and incitement to prejudice however, soon turned into a cultural backlash so strong that 90,000 people turned up at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12th 1979 with the express purpose of smashing disco records. Disco wasn’t really dead though, it merely changed its form. In fact, by ’79 it was moving in an exciting new direction.

Disco’s reining queen Donna Summer had already made waves with her orgasmic moans in “Love to Love You Baby”, but in ’77 the songs co-writer and electronic visionary Giorgio Moroder propelled her to greater heights with “I Feel Love”. Instead of orgasmic groans, the song instead sounded like a continuously building musical orgasm. Waves of electronic noise washed over the listener repeatedly as Summer harmonised with herself. In a stroke, disco cut loose from its previous reliance on traditional instrumentation and embraced electronic sounds. By ’78, under the influence of Bowie and Eno, British post-punk bands were exploring electronic sounds (Kraftwerk being the band to name check), with even Public Image Ltd endorsing disco (though their reasoning felt a little pseudo-intellectual, describing it as “functional”). Gary Numan, Ultravox! and Depeche Mode took synth-pop into the charts. Disco though, had gone underground and suddenly found that its spiritual homeland was Europe. Embracing electronica and futuristic themes, italo disco produced an astounding magnitude of dance floor favourites, with Klein & MBO’s “Dirty Talk” achieving the status of underground classic (and inspiring New Order to write “Blue Monday”). It was in Europe that the pop and thrill seeking aspect were really kept alive. In America things took a slightly darker turn, with Detroit Techno artists exploring darker soundscapes that married funk with synth (influenced by British synth bands, Kraftwerk and Funkadelic), and Chicago House more influenced by r n’ b and funk than pop. Both, though, had roots in disco and italo disco and as these tracks went overground they did contain a certain let loose on the dance floor disco spirit, with both “Your Love” by Jamie Principle and Rythim Is Rythim’s “Strings of Life” sounding euphoric and anthemic. The early 80’s also saw the emergence of Hi-NRG. This was dance music stripped of its black roots and featuring a relentless pop beat that all but coerced the listener into joining the dance floor party. What saved it from banality was an often irresistible pop touch that kept it just the right side of catchy without quite driving everyone crazy (“You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” being a fine example). This European “everybody on the floor” dance at its most frivolous was to prove very influential, as different dance genres began to influence one another and dance culture itself began to regroup, never quite reaching the all encompassing embrace of disco, but nevertheless always showing traces of its roots. As dance music achieved new levels of popularity and credibility, a bomb dropped on the dance scene. Ecstasy.

By 1987 House music was taking off in Britain and mainland Europe, but as always morphing from its original Chicago source. Clubs catered more and more to people’s desire to dance uninterrupted for hours at a time. By coincidence, it was around this time that Ecstasy became readily available to clubbers. Inducing a trance-like state of euphoria in the user, it also changed dance music forever. Though drugs were always part of clubbing, the whispered highs of E tempted many to late night clubs, the very people who, a decade earlier, would probably have rejected disco as too girly. All night raves appeared all over Britain and Europe, and though Ecstasy’s first wave produced historic nights for many, it soon had a detrimental affect on the music. Many of dance music’s subtleties got lost as ravers only wanted to dance to the most basic of beats, and for as long as possible. Elements of funk or soul gave way to outright monotony, with dancers caring little for what they heard other than the beat. House and techno overtook Hi-NRG in terms of its unrelenting devotion to an overpowering beat devoid of American influence. You can hear the change in terms of the biggest mainstream dance hits of the day. Consider the 1989 club smash “Pump up The Jam” by Technotronic. Not the most subtle piece of music ever created, but it still had a certain swing, an unmistakable groove to get lost in. A mere 4 years later the Euro dance scene was dominated by “No Limit” by 2 Unlimited. This was dance at its most charmless and dull. With enough humour and alcohol / drugs one could certainly do damage to it on the dance floor, but it was apparent that something was lost. Another low point was “Raving, I’m Raving” by Shut Up and Dance, which gave Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” a rave friendly make-over. The Hi-NRG crowd had always reveled in a certain defiant trashiness, and now the ravers were gobbling up anything that could be moved to. The results, from a musical perspective, were a disaster. That everyone was having a good time on the dance floor can perhaps be believed, but that did not justify the awful mediocrity that many took refuge in.

Mainstream dance continued in this vein, with vacuous ditties like “We Like to Party” by Vengaboys reminding everyone that catering to the lowest common denominator was still what Eurodance was about. Clubs were huge booming businesses with thousands of people turning up drugged or drunk and ready to dance to just about anything. Now, I know what you’re thinking; why drag up all of Dance music’s lows? Why no mention of The Prodigy, The KLF, The Orb, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, Orbital, Basement Jaxx etc? Why no exploration of DJ culture and its influence on the American dance scene? Why overlook Hip-Hop? Let me remind you, and I understand why you may have forgotten, that this essay concerns Lady Gaga and why I think her music is terrible. I put it to you that her music is the spiritual offspring of this descent into crowd pleasing banality that Euro dance became in the 90’s. Hi-NRG without the pop thrill, any r & b elements that may exist in her music are the whitewashed Britneyisms that manage to reduce any implied sexuality into auto-tuned sterility. If anything lies beneath the shiny surface it is dreadful MOR songwriting at its worst (she did co-write a song on the most recent Michael Bolton album), with the chorus of “Paparazzi” managing at once to sound like Euro dance banality and a “Raving I’m Raving” style reworking of “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin. “Poker Face” could be Vengaboys with a Britney makeover to appeal to a new generation of teens. “Bad Romance” is a “Poker Face” rewrite. It goes on. Everything she does has an air of familiarity. Everything is drowned in overproduction and auto tune. Created for maximum impact, the songs come across as sexless club anthems, with pop being misunderstood as an asinine catchiness. On a larger scale her image seems ready made for a sizable clientele of clubbers who revel in pop trash, diva antics and showbiz pizazz. That her tactics succeeded is no surprise. That her cause has been taken up by those who supposedly favour a more intellectual approach is a little more surprising, though nonetheless still predictable given the names she drops and references she makes.

She claims Madonna as an idol, and immediately the game is up. Gaga not only seeks Madonna’s fame, but also the weighty post-feminist theorising that followed in her wake. Throw a pseudo-intellectual a Foucault reference and they’ll slobber over it like the most well trained Alsatian. Before you know it lots of intellectuals who feel, in some vague way, that they’re part of some post-Marxist tradition will begin using phrases like “the mechanics of the song” or “the sublimated desires of marketplace politics”. Imagine if you will an essay that explored “Mr. Vain” by Culture Beat by name checking Erich Fromm, “Breathless” and Guy Debord. The fact that this is within the realms of possibility is an indication of just how much we have let our culture be swamped with smug theorising and one-upmanship name checking. Simply saying the name Rilke now provides an artist’s work with an intellectual context hitherto unguessed at. The usual line of thought with Lady Gaga is that she is skillfully using the dance pop genre to subvert the mainstream and comment on commodity culture in America, thereby helping her achieve a fame which she nevertheless craves despite being aware of its emptiness (complex, right?). So if her music is a façade to expose celebrity culture and commodity fetishism from within, then her lyrics must be pretty subtle and intelligent? You would think wouldn’t you? Except her lyrics are no different from any other teen oriented fluff. In fact they're worse. It isn’t even worth quoting any of them to prove their stupidity because it would be too easy. That’s quite an act of subversion; critiquing the mainstream by writing mainstream songs with brain dead lyrics that appeal to the masses while becoming rich in the process. Clearly this is a brave act which we should all applaud. Wait! What’s that you say? Her image? This is perhaps the key to her subversion? So let’s look at her image. Apparently a toned down Peaches persona represents some kind of act of subversion? She hints at a dark sexuality, and this is good because……well, don’t question it, just accept that it’s subversive, because God knows no mainstream female artist has ever explored her (kinky) sexuality in public, caused controversy with shockingly graphic images mixed with religious symbolism or stirred gossip columns with proclamations of bisexuality. No, this is all shocking, new and utterly subversive.

Liberal intellectuals of a certain mindset will always want to have theories that attempt to explain what is happening in Western capitalist culture. It gives the impression that they know exactly what’s going on, that they “get it”. Which brings us back to Andy Warhol. Here we see intellectualised banality in all its dim-witted splendor. The mode of thinking that accompanied Warhol’s rise to fame is so depressingly prevalent that it seems almost inescapable. It is the same mode of thinking that leads Lady Gaga to be championed among those left leaning intellectuals who have managed to acquire a smattering of knowledge about Marxism, about post-modernism, about the various fanciful theories of Baudrillard or Derrida (who discovered the very important truth that if you stuff your works with enough out of context scientific terminology, multi-syllable words and numerous references to other authors who share your penchant for out of context scientific terminology, multi-syllable words and referencing similar authors, then people will be so befuddled that they will assume that there is some profound truth behind these willful acts of arrogant obscuritanism), and who feel the need to use these ideas to imply a deeper understanding of the way in which peoples sense of reality and sexuality is affected by the market place. It is the desperate sound of individuals who feel the need to provide an intellectual context for their dealings with commercial endeavors. While doing their best to show that they are not cultural snobs by enjoying a pop song, they overload their defence, never truly understanding that a pop song can be enjoyed for what it is, a catchy pop song. Motown filled the charts with pop songs; brilliant, effervescent, heartbreaking, danceable pop songs. This was real pop. But to many, the most important artistic achievement of the 60’s was when an ex advertising employee put a frame round iconic images and “challenged” the art world, leading to a debate about what art really was. With the safety of an “intellectual” context, academics were now free to theorise to their hearts content about commercialism and commodities. Meanwhile ordinary people had their lives enhanced by pop music, far away from the impotent debates that rage to this day (Of note is the fact that Warhol has joined those select few artists who have had a piece sell for more than $100 million. The piece in question is “Eight Elvises”. I wonder if the buyer listens to Elvis much. I’ll bet they “get” what the image represents about celebrity and commodification though).

Lady Gaga is pop in the worst sense. Bland, unsatisfying slabs of irritatingly banal mindlessness, I would lay a bet that sometime soon she will “mature” into piano MOR boredom and / or become a Linda Perryesque songwriter for hire to major labels. Let’s see if she’s working with Miley Cyrus anytime soon. If she falls from grace with the culture studies crowd I’m sure they’ll find a new artist to champion, and come up with brand new scholarly treatises that attempt to sublimate the worst elements of our society so that even intellectuals can “enjoy” pop culture while simultaneously feeling above it. The fact that these theories are almost always fueled by an accentuated desire to prove that the writer is not weighed down by a perceived middle-class revulsion to commercial art renders the whole exercise even more worthless (we should embrace commercial art because it is often despised by the bourgeoisie, those gatekeepers of high culture so detested by Marx, the same Marx who decried the way that modern industries filled peoples lives with base commodities like, say, commercial art). It seems like all modern artists and (liberal) cultural commentators are most keen to get across one thing; they reject middle class mores and will do anything to prove that they have not been infected with the virus. In doing so they have reduced art to its most superficial level, making it a playground for anyone reveling in pseudo-semiotics, while also making the job of the marketing executive all the easier. Warhol’s victory was making his fans enjoy banality, and Lady Gaga’s defenders are championing the same cause. I suggest we end this capitulation to the commonplace in the name of theory and trust our senses to tell us how much we enjoy a piece of art and how important a place it should take in our lives. Until then we will remain hopelessly cut off from our real emotional responses, forever looking for an intellectual context or persona induced justification for our choices and tastes, thereby turning what should be internal pleasures into public displays of capitulation to cultural ideologies or self-celebrating identity props. That does not mean our lives should be filled up with only the most erudite of art and literature, but simply that we accept with good grace the different merits of the things we enjoy, and that ultimately art should be judged for what it is, not what it stands for.

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I apologise for my truncated history of dance music. I tried to keep it to the elements that were most pertinent to my essay. For those who may not have heard all the songs mentioned, I have provided links to many below so that you may enjoy them, for good or bad.

Candi Staton "Young Hearts Run Free" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3G5IWESfqg
The Bee Gees "Night Fever" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-NEA3ud2YA&feature=fvst
Donna Summer "Love to Love You Baby" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAD9DdtnKoQ
Chic "Le Freak" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TBublGERS4
Michael Jackson "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yURRmWtbTbo
Donna Summer "I Feel Love" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8TBmeK9Abg
Klein & MBO "Dirty Talk" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTbKuU59KF8
Jamie Principle "Your Love" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu8hVn_0Lq4
Rhythim is Rhythim "Strings of Life" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcVdg3aZjGE
Dead or Alive "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJv5qLsLYoo
Technotronic "Pump Up The Jam" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K7fL5s_1ac
2 Unlimited "No Limit" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFd5Cci_pE4
Shut Up and Dance "Raving I'm Raving" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0drSzhnMbJg
Vengaboys "We Like to Party" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zbi0XmGtMw
Culture Beat "Mr Vain" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvgUdrzGNys

You can find all of Lady Gaga's songs easily on youtube. That you have to work for.

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