Pop's leading conservative.
There's a problem with this line of thinking, though: For all of Gaga's stage-management and "academic" interest in pop music, her songcraft offers precious little evidence of creative fine-motor control. Gaga's melodies are straightforward, and her lyrics rarely turn a lot of cartwheels. Even so, her words tend to arrive awkwardly jammed—or, rather, awk-ward-ly jam-med—into their melodies like oversize packages in a mail slot: "When he comes to me I am rea-dy," begins the first verse of her recent single "Judas"; "gar-age gla-mo-rous" clunks an especially ill-fitting line in "Paparazzi." She regularly stutters words to make them work in time; she breaks past difficult transitions with short choruses of gibberish. Sometimes, her lyrical ambitions ascend high enough to let her drop allusions. Often, though, these arch references fall to earth like wet pillows. "I want your psycho, your vertigo shtick./ I want you in my rear window," she sings in "Bad Romance"—wordplay that would be clever if Hitchcock's films about middle-aged Eisenhower-era murder, guilt trauma, and infantilizing necrophilia were specially applicable to a song about messy erotic passion. As it is, all these references really tell us is that Gaga may possess a Netflix account.
This irritating sloppiness is not, it is worth noting, quite the same as provocation. But it's been to the advantage of the Haus of Gaga to elide the boundary between those two kinds of annoyance. Gaga's musical reputation demands that we assume her reliance on cliché and genre formula is what Stefani Germanotta's reliance on the same was not: deliberate, audacious, and informed by great ironic vision. Never mind the schlock and tired tropes that underlie her songs, we're told; Gaga could write more freshly (though there's little proof of this), but she is trying to fold high camp into her songcraft. Never mind that her chameleon hues (Gaga does the Berlin clubs, Gaga does country, Gaga does south-of-the-border) seem more imitative than inventive: Her eye for spectacle casts these old forms into new and daring light. Gaga touts "my eccentricity" at every opportunity and says she aims to "revolutionize" pop. That "revolution," spectacular provocation, and the wearing of outlandish costumes have been standard pop equity since the middle 1960s is not thought to be evidence that she is anything but an original. Viewing Gaga as a radical creator rather than a conservator means, on some level, accepting she has more dexterity than her work itself suggests.
Are we offering up too much benefit of the doubt? Or, put another way: What's really so provocative about Lady Gaga, past the flank-steak frock and gravity-defying hats? Answers to this question have a way of falling backward on themselves. None of Gaga's supposed transgressions—from the near-nudity onstage to the risqué-ish lyrics ("You've got me wondering why I/ I like it rough") to the ritual oversharing—had not already been made in 1972. She is touted for her boldness in becoming an outré bisexual icon, even though David Bowie, literally old enough to be her grandfather, carried that flag in more treacherous times. If anything, Gaga's idea of impudence is tame. "I love sex," she once taunted a reporter—not, in most contexts, a radical position. "I'm a free bitch, baby," she rhapsodizes, like a saucy 13-year-old padding out her Facebook bio. Lady Gaga references her own name more, and more annoyingly, than any other musician today, rubbing listeners' noses in its mild weirdness ("Gaga, ooh là là!"). She dwells, pointedly, on words that might have seemed scandalous in the era of iceboxes ("Hooker! Yeah, you're my hooker./ Hooker! Government hooker./ Hooker! Yeah, you're my hooker./ Hooker! Government hooker"). She reports reading Rilke "every day." Despite her premises of avant-garde audacity, her provocations seem perpetually mired in a ninth-grade idea of insolence and spunk.
In an adult world, there is nothing especially radical about saying bad words and reading moody poetry. Underneath her histrionic patina, in fact, Gaga's mettle shimmers sparkly clean. When she talks about her goals of increasing autonomous pride, community acceptance, and respect for personal industry—all praiseworthy objectives, needless to say—she is setting her compass by lodestars that are conservative in all but the political sense: Tend your garden proudly and let others tend theirs as they please, her gospel might go. When she uses mass-market sounds (like Euro disco), throwback sounds (like the long-lost sax solo), and old cultural symbols (like glam-rock raiment), she is following a preservationist's creative path. Gaga's credentials as a carrier of the '70s and '80s torch are impeccable. But this is 2011. What is she doing, really, besides reaching back in time to claim a safer, more old-fashioned template for pop-star success?
Gaga is clearly aware of her precursors, and she undeniably understands the strange, distorting mechanisms of modern celebrity. Yet self-awareness isn't, in itself, a mark of artistry; understanding of this kind reflects an education, not creative acumen. Too often, Gaga's proponents confuse sophistication with ingenuity, reference with postmodern innovation, bet-hedging with art. Gaga may be jumping through hoops better, and with more hard work, than almost any other pop star today. But the hoops are safe ones, taken from an old course. The most impressive feat for someone of her ambition would be the one thing she hasn't yet done as a musician: take a creative risk.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Lady Gaga by Marina Bay Sands via Getty Images.