Music » Local Music

In Defense of Gaga

One writer makes a case why she's the greatest pop star on the planet



"I just can't get over the fact that so many intelligent people don't get the Gaga."

My friend Hudson Marquez, the great artist, sociopolitical provocateur, TV producer (Dylan's Hard Rain), and co-creator of the famous Cadillac Ranch art project (which inspired a Bruce Springsteen song), posted those words on my Facebook page a few weeks ago during a heated discussion over this Liam Gallagher quote: "She's great! Seriously, man, we like her. She's the only one out there who's got balls. She can play instruments. She can sing. She can dance. She's weird. She's shocking people. I like the Gaga, man." This is the same Liam Gallagher, mind you, who has almost never had a kind word to say about any of his contemporaries, once referring to Jack White as looking "like Zorro on doughnuts" and even wishing AIDS on Britpop competitors Blur. Didn't matter. The haters came up with all kinds of excuses for this praise. Liam had to have been joking. Or, better yet, Oasis always sucked anyway.

It's been both entertaining and rather curious to observe so many grown adults,  some of them who should know better, get so bent out of shape over Lady Gaga's monumental success. And they get so angry that some of us seriously believe we do "get it" when it comes to the Gaga ... and actually like it. One rock critic went so far as to suggest that she is the very worst thing in all of modern culture ... which is absolutely ridiculous in a culture that's given us both the Kardashians and Donald Trump. I saw another critic admit that he reviewed the new album for a major newspaper after only listening to it once because that's all the music merited. Some observers believe this almost insane and certainly intense level of hate is because Gaga's a powerful woman ... except there seem to be as many females as men doing the hating. She is unquestionably the most divisive cultural icon to come along in decades. She must be doing something right.

In the eyes of those haters, however, the gal can't do anything right. First, the complaint was she was just "exploiting" her huge gay following with the release of her "Born This Way" anthem, using them as "props" in a money-grubbing quest. Then, the very next day, she was attacked by those same haters for canceling an exclusive promotional deal for the Born This Way album with Target stores after it came to light that the corporation had made donations to anti-gay political groups. She was, in effect, showing solidarity with those same "exploited" fans. But, no. The complaint now was she "shouldn't have made the deal with the devil in the first place."

Bruce Springsteen, working-class hero among working-class heroes, made a huge mistake and ended up with egg on his face two years ago when he did a Super Bowl tie-in with Wal-Mart. Next to Target — still one of America's top philanthropic companies, all politics aside — Wal-Mart looks like the evil empire. Yet AC/DC, Don Henley, Garth Brooks, even the Elvis Presley estate have done deals with that particular devil. The Boss apologized to his fans the week after his special edition album was already in the stores. Yet, when Gaga pulled her LP months before the album was even released, surely putting her money where her mouth is and even alerting many of us to the fact that Target isn't the right-on corporation some of us may have thought ... no, it was, at best, a publicity stunt! But then, they weren't even willing to give Gaga kudos when she went after those hateful Westboro Baptist Nazis!

Even when the new album was sold on for 99 cents on its first day of release, the haters screamed that it was just to "up" the SoundScan sales figures — it was "desperation," don't you know? — because the music isn't "even worth a buck." Um, Born This Way was already No. 1 on iTunes in more than 20 countries before Amazon even announced its one-day deal (which turned into a two-day deal when the demand kept crashing Amazon's server the first day). Did any of those half-empty-glassers consider that, just maybe, she was happy all her fans were able to afford the disc? Maybe that's not cynical enough. Nevertheless, even before the album's release, Forbes magazine had placed her at the top of its annual list of most powerful entertainment figures, knocking Oprah to second place. She has more followers on Twitter than President Obama. This is obviously not someone who has to "up" her numbers any higher than they already are.

Her cross-section of fandom is already awe-inspiring. Not just Elton John and Alice Cooper and Springsteen and all five of those gals on The View — but, interestingly, lots of old punk rockers. In fact, it was Detroit's Bootsey X who suggested to me, more than a year ago, that Lady Gaga is actually the most interesting thing happening in mainstream — and that distinction is very important — pop culture. Soon after, I saw a video of her covering Leiber & Stoller's "Stand by Me," basically the John Lennon arrangement, in concert, and then Gershwin's "Someone to Watch over Me" on The Today Show — songs that I can't imagine any other modern teen pop queen, or even Madonna, attempting — and I was hooked. I've seen Hugo Burnham, founding drummer of Gang of Four and now a college professor, defending her on Facebook ("Most of you hated ABBA and Chic, too, when we were dancing like crazy to them. In the 1970s.") Ditto L.A. punk icon Chris D of the Flesh Eaters, who was both passionate and adamant in his posts. Charles Shaar Murray, the great British rock critic, "liked" one of my Gaga FB defenses ...

And then there's my 81-year-old mom (who once snapped, "Who is that terrible woman singing?" when one of Rod Stewart's American Songbook tunes came on her favorite standards station one morning), who saw the Gershwin number on Today, later informing me, "You know, that girl can sing," before adding, "she really doesn't need to dress that way" ... though I think Mom's newfound Lady Gaga admiration also has a lot to do with Italian-American pride for an icon that isn't The Sopranos or Jersey Shore ... or even Madonna, for that matter. (Mom has always loved unicorns too!) And when my sister took two of her kids to the Lady Gaga show in Grand Rapids this past winter, it made me very happy that it was those kids' first concert, for the rock spectacle alone, and not something like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé.

Another pattern soon emerged in that many of my friends with genuine visual arts roots were among her strongest supporters. Not just Hudson Marquez but John Eder, a graphic artist and photographer who created some of the best concept covers for a music magazine I edited in the '90s. He was "resistant at first," until his 11-year-old daughter had him download the hits for a birthday party — and he, too, was suddenly hooked. "She's far crazier than the people she supposedly 'steals' from." (The other big defenders are parents, not just of little ones — although one woman said she became a fan after her tween niece cried until she listened — but especially of high school and college-aged kids, and even many in their late 20s and early 30s, all of whom, according to Time, make up Gaga's "little monsters" fan base.)

Rick Manore, PR director of the Detroit Music Hall who's been involved in the art scene for decades, also piped in, dropping highfalutin' names from the art world, including Marina Abramovic, Adam Curtis, Warhol, Lester Bangs and Matthew Barney alongside art-rock/glam bands such as Roxy Music — even a reference to the Residents — before concluding that "Madonna couldn't conceptualize herself out of a paper bag." Former MT writer Brian Bowe, now also a college professor (who saw and loved the Grand Rapids show), argued that as an artist, Gaga "carries the weight for serious academic inquiry" whereas none of the other teen queens (or other musical peers) of today would. Rock photographer Heather Harris, probably best known for her classic '70s shots of Iggy & the Stooges in L.A., delivered the home run, though. "The Gaga is closer to Niagara than Madonna."

But still they hate, the great irony being that I know some of these haters think KISS and even Duran Duran (both Gaga influences, by the way) constituted real "genius" once upon a time, as they argue that Gaga's phenomenal appeal isn't a plus for "game-changing" music and culture the same way that, say, (the admittedly great) Nirvana was. And sometimes end up sounding like their grandparents or even great-grandparents talking about Elvis Presley.

So what of that music? Sure, Gaga is her own greatest creation, a living art performance project unto herself, and the phenomenon is as interesting as the musical component that drives it. But, really, the music ultimately does need to be examined. And, yes, she does get compared to Madonna. A lot. Many say she's nothing more than a lame Madonna clone. But while Madge is definitely a large part of the equation, she's not the entire equation by any means.

Add some Elton John. Billy Joel. A little Queen; she took her name from one of their songs and Brian May guests on the new LP. Definitely David Bowie; in fact, I've heard prudes make the same comments about Gaga's recent TV appearances that I heard regarding Bowie's "1984 Floor Show" on Midnight Special in 1973; "If he has to look like that and do those things, he obviously can't have any real talent." And her "controversial" woman-as-motorcycle image that's on the cover of the new LP — which, of course, had the haters screaming, "It's the ugliest and most ridiculous album cover in pop history!" when first unveiled on the Internet — immediately reminded me of nothing so much as the cover of Diamond Dogs.

The front cover of the "special edition," meanwhile, is pure Alice Cooper, another major influence, because blood remains a powerful metaphor. She's made dance music and electronica beats more palatable for the pop mainstream audience than probably any performer to date. And even her "gaga" nonsensical baby talk — shades of Jan & Dean! — in her anthems has roots that stem back to doo-wop, "Tutti Fruiti" and R. Meltzer's concept of "speaking in tongues" in pop-rock. Don't be surprised when she someday releases her full-on rock 'n' roll album, with guitars and drums still delivering the sledgehammer approach she favors in her overall sound. Some of us are looking forward to the day when we can boast: "I told you so."

Sure, Madonna is definitely there. No question about it. So is Cher. But to label her just a Madonna imitator is very lazy cultural criticism, akin to saying the Beatles were nothing more than Buddy Holly or Arthur Alexander clones. As a singer, musician and songwriter, if not dancer, Stefani Germanotta smokes Ms. Ciccone in every department. (Her recent SNL date revealed she'll smoke Madge in the acting department too, should she go in that direction.) She gives great interview. Has a great sense of humor about herself and the world around her. She's far from traditionally beautiful — she talks often about how her big nose, weight and buck teeth made her the victim of bullies as a child — and doesn't go out of her way, obviously, to be so. She intentionally makes herself ugly at times, in fact. The new Rolling Stone cover is nothing as much as Marilyn Manson.

In other words, she celebrates difference. In many ways, she speaks to the same disaffected youth that would've drifted toward punk in the '70s, those ancient days before MTV and the Internet and so many other newfangled things that have been major assets in creating the whole Gaga phenomenon. The punk movement was also a refuge that allowed "ugly" people to be even uglier — celebrate it, even — and thereby be even cooler in the process. Madonna was never part of that tradition. Her thing was more narcissistic; less inclusive; less kind or nice, really — and often just a reflection of certain long-held middle-class mores. Diamonds are a girl's best friend. The ironic thing about the haters who compare her to Madonna is that they are often the same people who hated Madonna at the height of her fame. Many of her detractors haven't even really listened to the music, much like Eminem haters I've met over the years who when asked if they've heard an entire album, or even seen 8 Mile, respond: "I wouldn't waste my time on that crap." Oh, well ...

As for the molehill as mountain: Does the song "Born This Way" sound like "Express Yourself"? Well, maybe. I guess. But only in the same way that the Doors' "Hello, I Love You" sounded like the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" and probably less than the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" sounded like Mitch Ryder's "Little Latin Lupe Lu." And not as much as Gaga's "Fashion of His Love" on BTW might bring to mind Orleans' "Still the One." In all those examples, though, I thought the prototypes were better than the subsequent "rip-offs." In this case, I genuinely do prefer Gaga's anthem. But then, I never cared about Madonna, even after seeing her live twice. More interesting, to me at least, than Madonna comparisons is that the two pre-released singles — "Born This Way" and "Judas" — sound far greater in the context of the new album, which frequently is a wonderful thing, than they did individually.

I've been listening to the 17-track "special edition" version of BTW for weeks now — and at least 15 of the tracks have major, hook-filled, melodic payoffs before you reach the end of the song. Born This Way is all over the musical map in a truly outrageous manner, as she mixes classic bubblegum hooks with heavy metal riffs, '70s disco and everything in between. "Hair" is her attempt at being "Springsteen-esque" — Clarence Clemons even guests — although it probably ends up closer to Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf but with even more memorable hooks. The closing, magnificent "The Edge of Glory," again with Clemons on sax, comes closer to hitting that epic Springsteen-ish mark. "You & I" also reaches for and hits the epic zone. "Bad Kids" is Gary Numan-like post-punk. "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)" is simply irresistible, some of the most gorgeous synth-pop I've ever heard. "Electric Chapel" is pure '70s arena heavy metal-meets-electronic beats, mixed over symphonic strings, with a guitar riff hook that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Blue Oyster Cult album. No coincidence that it follows a vocoder-laced new wave-ish track titled "Heavy Metal Lover."

Best of all, though, is "The Queen" — sadly only available on the "special edition" disc — a modern update of the kind of hook-y "girl pop" that NYC's Brill Building produced in the '60s, complete with a pure Ronnie Spector ending that makes it the finest Phil Spector homage in ages. It's the one that will undoubtedly make him wish he was free to produce her next album. It's that great. And for my money, BTW is possibly album of the year, certainly of summer; no other contenders thus far are even in its stratosphere. I've listened to it beside Raw Power, Billion Dollar Babies, Lesley Gore, etc., etc., as a litmus test. There has been no other mainstream pop album in recent memory that I've wanted to hear at least once a day and sometimes more. That is, I'm with Liam. But in the end, like so many great albums, this one will mean many different things to many different people, with those people taking away from it exactly what they want ... and that will include all the haters.

At her most basic and mediocre, a more apt musical comparison than Madonna is definitely ABBA. "Alejandro" and the new disc's "Americano" are both in that pop tradition, close cousins to "Fernando," although ABBA never used its music as a vehicle to comment on America's anti-immigration issue. And in the same way that Gaga understands the banality of pop stardom in all its glitz, she equally understands its power to make a statement and (I'd sure like to believe) the responsibility that power involves. She seems intent on using it as a vehicle for greater good, although that obviously depends on your view.

From my view, I loved hearing of the father who took his wife and three kids to see Gaga — the tickets were a work-related gift — at that aforementioned Grand Rapids gig. Turns out the dude is about as homophobic as they come. Believes it's simply "a choice." (Listen, if a man tells you homosexuality is "a choice," ask him if that doesn't suggest he must have wanted to suck a cock somewhere along the line but made "a choice" to not do so. After all, most of us straight non-homophobes have never had to make that "choice.") Unfortunately, dude's views still seem to be the norm in a society where gay-bashing, especially as applied to language, is tolerated in public more than any other kind of modern hate. And at the Lady Gaga show, said dad found himself sitting two rows directly behind a very flamboyant man with a porno mustache, wearing nothing but a black leather trench coat and black leather Speedo (in the dead of winter!) for the entire show. Through "Born This Way." Through "Boys, Boys, Boys." Through the whole kit and caboodle. It couldn't have been any more perfect.

So put it this way: If Lady Gaga convinces one gay kid that it's OK to be that way — "Be who you are and love who you are," she preaches — or convinces others that it is not OK to bully, then that makes her a pop star unworthy of all the hate thrown her way, even if her music did suck, even if she was the worst thing in all of modern culture — which she most certainly is not.

What? You'd prefer kids adhere to Nirvana and their battle cry of "I Hate Myself And Want to Die"?

Or in the words of another Gallagher brother, this time Noel: "I remember Nirvana had a tune called 'I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,' and I was like, 'Well, I'm not fucking having that' ... I can't have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That's fucking rubbish!"

Hate on the Gaga all you want. She may be at the edge of glory, which drives some people insane. But you can't deny that as much she is about fantasy and the artifice of pop stardom, she's also all about living life to its fullest.

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