The Music Club

A Defense of Lady Gaga
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 9 2009 5:33 PM

The Music Club

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Oh guys,

I just don't feel ready for this. I recoil from making year-end lists, my revulsion rooted deep in insecurities about my own taste. But it's not just the annual existential crisis that's got me worried. It's the call to pause, to step out of the jet stream of new sounds, sensations, arguments, and fast-food information that constitutes every day of a media-centric life.

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Wait, I have to go tweet that link.

Carl is right to trend minimalist when it comes to naming the past decade, but the "Singles" almost seems too solid a term—frankly, these days I'm impressed when any music lover even makes it through a song. When choosing musical metaphors to define this hyperlink-heavy decade, let's not forget the mashup, which not only showed one way for hip-hop to morph instead of die but taught us all the pleasure of listening to more than one song at once.

Could we call the era the Bytes, in honor of the bleeps of thought and image that pour like so many trans-fat-free french fries onto the screens that absorb us all day? Also, as Jonah noted, for many workers worldwide—including cultural workers like critics and musicians—this decade bit. (To Blender, the many other fine publications we've lost, and my laid-off colleagues: You are missed.)

I love pop and still practice poptimism, but even as I celebrate what I previously dubbed "the permanent state of Gaga," I have to admit that sometimes the deluge seems wholly intended to distract us from the serious matters affecting our daily lives. Like corporate malfeasance. And a couple of too-long wars.

OK, bummer! Back to Gaga. I'm a relatively late but now ardent convert to her shtick, which does qualify as art in my humble opinion, and not only because the lady is so besotted with Andy Warhol. Let me be the one who stands up for her actual songs, the Everlasting Gobstoppers of current candy pop. They don't go away, and reveal different flavors with every lick.

So many of Gaga's hits play upon ancient anxieties about feminine desire—"Poker Face," about faking it in bed; "Just Dance," about having seriously too much fun; "Speechless," about the messy love a daughter feels for her father; "Bad Romance," about her unhealthy fascination with Marilyn Manson. (Just kidding!)

In her videos, Gaga updates the mythical elements of sexism by rewriting them as science fiction, wrapping them in transgender glam, white gothic latex, and red ribbons of plasma-screen blood. And though it's not as obvious, she's working toward a similar synthesis in her music.

She and her studio soul mate, the Moroccan-born, Swedish-trained producer RedOne, are striving for a sound that's both as warm as classic disco and as chilly as Goth, as aggressive as heavy metal and as submissive as a torch song. I think she gets there on "Speechless," the piano-bar ballad she wrote for her dad and her drag queens; and "Dance in the Dark," an update of Madonna's "Vogue" that she told me (in an interview soon to be featured at my home publication, keep checking latimes.com!) was about not wanting to have sex with the lights on. Gaga's no dummy; she sold herself as a dream at first. But increasingly, she's our nightmare. And that's exactly what pop needs right now.

Speaking of nightmares, I share Jody's admiration for "Rated R," Rihanna's Bond-girl reclamation of strength after her double humiliation at the hands of her abuser, Chris Brown, and the tabloid media. The album's not selling as well as I'd hoped, but I believe it's a grower, a career high mark from an artist wrongly assumed to be vacuous because she's pretty and knows how to pose. "Rated R" is another example of how the high-art/middlebrow fluff split in which many indie types believed back in the authenticity-obsessed '90s has broken down, along with the boundaries between musical genres and the very idea of authenticity.

Which leads me to Carl's final request. I don't feel qualified to pronounce on the state of hip-hop, because it's not my home genre and, like indie rock, it's a preserve whose protectors don't suffer casual fools. But allow me to repeat something I've said before, and which Simon R. suggests near the end of the essay Jonah mentioned. Isn't it possible that hip-hop has simply evolved to become a hybrid creature, inseparable from R&B? If so, I declare Beyoncé the most important hip hop artist of the Bytes. Like she needed more kudos. All hail Queen B!

I want to wrap up, and let you boys rip into some new issues, but I'll quickly mention (in the spirit of five-windows-open-at-a-time cyberdistraction) that I fully intended to write about other things in this post. So I hope to get at the following the next time my turn comes around: the importance of pop personality and its physical manifestation, the Voice, in this year of startling singers; the beauty of a perfect lyric as crafted by Neko Case; the return of Maxwell and other unflashy pleasures; the tragic retreat of Kanye West, in relation to but also beyond the incident at the VMAs; and the rise of the drama-club kid via my beloved Adam Lambert and Glee. Oh, and Jody, if you want, I can explain Susan Boyle to you. She's all about relief from distraction. But right now I gotta go check my Gmail.

Oh la la,
Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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