Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Resistable Rise of Lady Gaga (except it's not really about Lady Gaga)

Something has happened to pop culture. The monster that emerged in the 20th century to define the Western experience was not a planned exercise in crowd control, no matter what anybody tells you. It was the result of cross-cultural explosions, exploitation, placing bets on teen crazes, talent, egomania, madness and for a while it managed to wed the sublime with the ridiculous in equal measure. The marketplace will always be clogged up with garbage, but it also leaves a doorway open for individual expression hitherto not afforded to anyone not born into wealth. This smorgasbord of genius, money and genuine artistic merit has created works of art that range from brilliant to horrendous. Artifacts that amount to terrible lapses in taste or cheap exploitation of the most clumsy fashion have managed to acquire a huge corner of the market all their own. Ironic appreciation of bad taste and base commercialism is now so commonplace that it at times seems to constitute the majority of culture produced. Music and movies are even marketed for their awfulness, and any complaints are rendered all the more futile by the self awareness of everyone involved. "Of course it's awful, that's why we like it. Duh". Which brings me to Lady Gaga. As of now she seems like the biggest star in the world. Her picture adorns magazine covers, her videos are watched by millions and what is more, she is taken seriously by everyone from Pitchfork to music industry veterans. The feverish excitement that surrounds her though is nothing to do with the music she creates, despite the rather pathetic examinations of her songs which more often than not remind one of the music reviews in "American Psycho". No, what is being celebrated is her savvy media manipulation skills, her old fashioned showbiz values (putting on a show, dressing up for the crowd, the ability to play the piano!!!) and ultimately her creation of a brand name. I can't help feeling, however, that adoration of Lady Gaga has taken on a life of its own that goes beyond even her image creation. What is being celebrated is people's ability to recognise the media manipulation and congratulate themselves for it. In other words, Lady Gaga has become an image through which people can consume their own gestures. This idea has already been explored, most notably by Greil Marcus in regards to Michael Jackson, but before it has always rested on the assumption that the consumer was not in control, that they were being swept along with no self-awareness. Now, however, we see all around us individuals who exude a crippling self-awareness, whose gestures of admiration only make sense in regards to how they are witnessed and consumed by other people. It doesn't help that the so called alternative media (people who write about indie music / culture) have bought into this wholesale and clog up the internet with overtly high-brow readings of low-brow creations. To sum up, ironic appreciation and the intellectualisation of pop culture have conspired to create thinking people who celebrate banality and give themselves a pat on the back for being so aware. To understand how we got here, we must go back a few decades to the 50s, and the birth of pop culture as an all encompassing force.

It started with Elvis. His popularity changed Western consumer culture forever. Suddenly, marketing executives realised that not only was there money to be made exploiting teens, there was big money to be made. Huge amounts. Hitherto untapped billions of dollars. Now, this being the early days of teen exploitation, there was a certain innocence about the whole enterprise. Movies were pumped out about creatures from other worlds, from black lagoons, from, well, just about anywhere. Comic buying exploded. Records were bought by genuinely weird artists who sang about voodoo, or teen dances, or both. This was the cornerstone of modern popular culture. This marriage of innocence, weirdness, money and talent produced not only exciting music, it fueled the upcoming generation who thought they could do better. What made The Beatles, Dylan and The Beach Boys different was that they felt a calling to elevate their work into the realms of genuine Art. And in doing so created the schism that pop culture is still unable to reconcile. The question is how seriously do we take pop culture? Should it just be a mindless diversion from the monotony of our lives? Should it try and inspire us like great works of literature? Can it do both? This internal dialogue rumbled under the surface until the emergence of punk in the UK, where lines were finally drawn. On one side you had Prog, Zeppelin and other monsters who had (supposedly) lost touch with pop music’s origins, who took themselves and their works so very seriously, and who encouraged a certain divine worship from their fans. On the other side you had rough and ready punk, which soon turned into post punk and its embrace of many things scorned by the serious music head (reggae, disco, funk, electronica, pop). Think of a time when members of the group Public Image Ltd discussing how they liked disco was seen as genuinely shocking. Rockist became the ultimate put down. It reeked of macho posturing, lyrical inanity and the desire to take oneself too seriously. It also spoke of a non modern approach to pop music. Not embracing the new meant you were a misogynist, classic rock hippy to be scorned at all costs. Looking back though, this didn't really solve the problem of how seriously pop culture should take itself. NME, Melody Maker and Sounds seemed to insist that it had the right to decide who should be taken seriously and for what reasons. The reasons for the UK music press's castigation of the stodgy rock lover emerged in the 70s, thanks in large part to the ideas of one man. Brian Eno.

To understand what Eno was up against it has to be understood that most rock bands despised new sounds. Synthesizers were the work of Satan. Disco was for "faggots". Unless it was good honest rock music then it was bullshit. Eno, both with Roxy Music and solo, embraced atmospherics, quirky new sounds and androgyny. He rejected rock clichés and wanted to infuse pop with ideas from the world of arts. In doing so he opened the door for the intellectualisation of pop music that fueled post punks rejection of rock values and laid the groundwork for New Pop, the UK's alternative music attempt at subversion and stardom (as well as producing everyone from Devo, Talking Heads, DNA, The Contortions and U2, and working with Bowie on his hugely influential Berlin trilogy). Synthesizers were embraced because they annoyed rock purists. Pop and androgyny were celebrated because it went against the macho posturing of the 70's. This never really caught on in the US, whose music press viewed with suspicion those girly Brits with their make-up and electronic garbage. The US alternative press instead embraced the reassuringly macho and serious Hardcore. The UK press though has never really gotten over this rejection of rock values, and still sees the celebration of Pop music as subversive and a blow against the aging "Mojo" reader. Recently, the US has finally been given its own version of 70's NME values, in the shape of Pitchfork. Here we see all the aspects of the UK alternative press applied to US music. If you want to find a review that takes the lyrics of Lil' Wayne seriously, then this is the place (it should be noted that the UK alternative press championed rap music with a certain glee precisely because it annoyed so many rock fans). Now, all of these things are not necessarily bad per se, (well, taking Lil' Wayne's lyrics seriously is), but this embracing of all things pop and sparkly in order to strike a blow against the ponderous rock music fan has become married to another idea, and in doing so has led to a smug celebration of the self. Ladies and gentlemen, the curse of modern living: The ironic persona.

You've seen them. You've heard them. They revel in bad taste. They like themselves. They like talking about what they like and what it implies about them. They spend their days consuming the idea of themselves. The ironic persona is the death of the intellect. From what hell did this emerge from? The ironic persona seems for the most part an American creation. It came about when America started celebrating its own kitsch. Bad 50's monster movies were enjoyed for just how bad they were by snotty suburban kids in the 70's. Suburbia was pristine so what else was there to do but celebrate the trash of American pop culture? The Cramps and the B52's each in their own way reveled in B movie junk and what it said about America. John Waters took bad taste to new levels. These examples though are merely pointers to a larger trend, that America in the late 70's was celebrating its own past, its own childhood with its bad movies and TV. Trash culture was representative of what America stood for in some way. Bad taste was intellectualised. (In this sense it started with Andy Warhol, who made pop art reproductions for snobs who couldn't appreciate the pop culture Andy Warhol took from unless it was framed and discussed in a highbrow manner. From this came the championing of trash because it represented consumer culture and by extension America. This in turn popularised the idea that bad art was the true American art form, and that we should all revel in it rather than escape the murk). From these beginnings the ironic persona took hold. Soon new generations emerged that loved bad horror movies, bad TV shows from their youth (can we stop discussing "Saved by the Bell" now?), and made a great show of their love for all things crass. It meant you were self aware. It meant that you didn't take yourself too seriously (though nothing could be further from the truth). It meant you were superior to the trash culture around you. And it meant that your tastes never needed to be defended because it was all done with a knowing gleam in your eye.

Somehow, these two strains of thought have combined to create human beings who celebrate shiny, gaudy pop in an ironic way that is meant to say more about them and their personality than the thing they are enjoying (I will resist the desire to blame Facebook and people's desire to create a living, breathing quirky character assessment of themselves in easily digestible form to appeal to those around them. For now). The result being that critical thought is all but dead in the water, because there is nothing to discuss. Also, worth noting too is that because there exists an alternative culture of some kind, then all sorts of hugely popular activities are seen as rebellious. Enjoying mainstream pop could only ever be seen as subversive when placed in the context of indie culture. Otherwise, it's simply what most people do. It bears comparison with so called angry comedians claiming some kind of rebellion for smoking and eating meat, simply because anti-smoking campaigns and vegetarians exist. It also bears comparison with the right-wing media's championing of Sarah Palin. She is going rogue. Why? Because she doesn't agree with certain left wing media ideas. Outside of that context she is simply doing exactly what Americans are expected to do by capitalist institutions. At this point almost anything can be seen as rebellious because there exist some people who do not engage in that activity. Actions become representations of some kind of illusory persona. This makes me wonder if the ironic persona is just the brain’s way of dealing with its capitulation to mainstream tastes. That criticisms of successful performers are met with touchy responses ("You're just jealous", "It's just a song" or "It's just fun", as if because something were supposedly fun it was beyond criticism) is indicative of some kind of cognitive dissonance in regards to the person's choices.

Which brings us all the way back to Lady Gaga. The fandom surrounding her seems the perfect distillation of the tendencies described above. People enjoy talking about Lady Gaga. They enjoy the feeling of talking about her, what it says about them. Those with a more intellectual bent will discuss her savvy media skills, her way of gaining publicity, the fact that she can really play piano (yes, I said it again), the significance of her videos. There is clearly a thrill involved. (I know that by talking about her some will claim I am giving her a victory. After all, it's all about the publicity, and no publicity is bad publicity, and she plans every aspect of controversy that surrounds her, etc. I view this tactic as the rhetorical equivalent of "I'm made of rubber, you're made of glue"). Her music though remains awful. Clunky and awkward, her last song "Telephone" was so truly, unaccountably terrible that it defied belief, but it mattered not a jot. Her video was seen as clever (apparently out of date Tarantino references are now on the cutting edge of pop culture) and sexy. Liking Lady Gaga is not really about listening to her music, it is about what liking Lady Gaga says about you. You are knowingly shallow in all the most adorable ways. At what point does it stop being ironic though, and does it become just you? When people saw women on Jerry Springer yell "You go girl", they thought it would be funny to say "You go girl" to friends, because they saw it as dumb and funny. Except they felt superior to the people who said it on Jerry Springer. So now we have people who say condescendingly ironic things all the time (borrowed mostly from black American vernacular), and listen to music for ironic reasons, and watch movies for ironic reasons. I'd like to know if people love things for genuine reasons that they could defend and not get touchy about. I realise that I am committing the worst cultural crime imaginable right now, which is judging people's tastes (I mean who do I think I am?) but as culture becomes more brain numbing it seems to me the only way out is through critical thought, questioning ourselves, and questioning others. We have a right to criticise, and I'd like to see an end to this self-congratulatory persona mongering that passes for character these days. As I finish though, I suddenly remember that things have been quiet on the Lady Gaga front of late. Has her moment passed? Is this essay as passé as a Tarantino reference? I'd like to think so. Something tells me though that she's just taking a breather before a new media onslaught. After all, you have to know how to play this media game just right. How clever of her.

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