Pop's leading conservative.
Recently, Lady Gaga took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards dressed in drag, her hair smoothed back into a greaser's coif and her mien recast into the swagger of a Sicilian tough. She was there to promote her new single, "Yoü and I," the country-flavored number on the recent album Born This Way, but viewers could be forgiven for missing the musical sales pitch. Lady Gaga used the first four minutes of her time onstage to descant on another subject entirely, which was Lady Gaga. "She's such a star, a big, beautiful star in the sky," her male persona ruminated. "She's f------g crazy, too, right?" He continued, a bit more insistently, "I mean, she's f-----g crazy!"
Since Lady Gaga first exploded into public consciousness with her 2008 album, The Fame, no other star has rivaled her enormous, flaming ball of industry and histrionic style. Mostly, this is because no other object in this galaxy has worked up a matching velocity. Gaga is by all evidence the proverbial hardest-working person in show business, following a punishing tour schedule; micromanaging her wardrobe and stage act; and singing so much, and with such gusto, her speaking voice has taken on a chronic huskiness. In return for these exertions, she's won tens of awards, legions of fans, and a reputation as the industry's foremost provocateur. It's the last of these pop-culture laurels, the outlandish notoriety, that's most crucial to her public standing. Yet it's also the role that she least deserves. For all of her attention-getting gambits, gnomic utterances ("People take me both too seriously and not seriously enough"), and innovations in Xena: Warrior Princess-type lingerie, Gaga is basically a totem of the cultural establishment, an agent of the reliable old forms more than radical new ones. She claims to be a "monster," but she's in fact pop's leading conservative talent.
People enjoy pointing out that before Lady Gaga was famous, she was unfamous. She was, in fact, a college act. Gaga grew up as Stefani Germanotta, the product of Manhattan prep schools, and was performing her own songs by the time she entered Tisch, NYU's art academy. She used to pretend to be her own publicist, calling up bookers and praising herself. In speaking of this period and the years that followed, Gaga and her procurators take up a story line dating from the era of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith. "On Saturdays we would sit on the floor of her bare Lower East Side apartment, drinking wine from pint glasses," wrote Brendan Sullivan, her DJ from this era. Gaga herself has elaborated: "They always used to tell me, 'You will never be the main star, because you're too ethnic.' " By this, she meant growing up with an Italian name in Giuliani-era New York. "I used to pray every night that God would make me crazy," she once toldVanity Fair, "that he would instill in me a creativity and a strangeness that all of those people that I loved and respected had."
That iconoclastic strangeness was not Germanotta's native mode. At the piano, she was ironic and coy, a small-scale entertainer given to sweet but relatively generic bluesy ballads and indie plaints—songs, essentially, in the mold of established hits. (This wistful, lyrical temper, as well as Germanotta's high-strung vocal style, carried into "Summerboy," a little parcel of sunshine on Gaga's debut album.) "I'm a true academic when it comes to music," Gaga once observed; and this academicism, far from showing up as high-concept distance or performative illusion, guided Germanotta toward an approach that was essentially nostalgic, conservative in the literal sense of the term: Before Gaga was Gaga, she was trying to honor and preserve a style of music recognized as having widespread public value.
It's a mission that she never totally moved past. Today, Gaga's sound is influenced most directly by the dance pop of the European clubs—which is to say, by an international music market straining back toward the American mainstream. As with many things Gaga, there's a charitable way and a less charitable way of looking at this tendency. The charitable interpretation says a message lies behind Gaga's Euro stylings: By quoting the sounds of the international airwaves, she's making reference to the strange pop-culture Esperanto of our time, the feedback loop by which American artists become international celebrities. The less charitable interpretation says Gaga is trying to lay claim to the widest-possible market by imitating the dilute, culturally nonspecific sounds that perform well in global distribution. Songs like "Scheiße," which quotes the soundscape of the Mitteleuropean dance floor and shuttles between languages like a Fellini film, seem custom-tailored to an international audience. Her lyrics at times adopt a strange, tin-eared unsuppleness, as if they'd been composed by a small focus group of Germans. "If you love me, we can marry on the West Coast," she pronounces in "Americano," one of the genre tracks on Born This Way. "I will fight for, I have fought for, how I love you." It's hard, at times, to shake the suspicion that Gaga is writing with an ear to the loudspeakers at your local H&M.
Why would an American with hipster-circuit credentials write in the electro-pop equivalent of Basic English? (Gaga's flat, off-kilter idiom isn't resigned to the foreignese of "Americano"; lines from the anthemic "The Edge of Glory," for example—"I got a reason that you're who should take me home tonight.// I need a man that thinks it's right when it's so wrong"—are a virtually illiterate pastiche of disco-era platitudes.) The general thinking is that by writing downward like this, Gaga is actually writing up. Rolling Stone, touting her creative innovations, described Gaga's music as being "constructed with the same cheeky verve as her outfits"; The New Yorker, lauding her shrewdness in proliferating an appealing style, pronounced Gaga "as smart as she repeatedly claims to be." In interviews, the singer cites Warhol and other touch points of celebrity self-knowledge. Praise for Gaga's work tends to assume that this artistic awareness runs all the way through, that Gaga's deliberate, highly controlled "performance art" exterior reflects conceptual control hard-wired into her music itself.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Lady Gaga by Marina Bay Sands via Getty Images.