Lady Gaga Born This Way

[Interscope; 2011]

Styles: modernist epic, Gesamtkunstwerk, arena rock
Others: T.S. Eliot, Marie Lloyd

It requires some effort of analysis to understand why one person, among many who do a thing with accomplished skill, should be greater than the others; nor is it always easy to distinguish superiority from great popularity, when the two go together. I am thinking of <<LADY GAGA>>. Although I have always admired her genius I do not think that I always appreciated its uniqueness; I certainly did not expect that her latest artistic offering would strike me as the single most important event which I have had to chronicle on this website. <<LADY GAGA>> is the greatest show-woman in America: she is also the most popular. And popularity in her case is not merely evidence of her accomplishment; it is something more than success. It is evidence of the extent to which she represents and expresses that part of the nation which has perhaps the greatest vitality and interest.

Among all of that small number of performers, whose names are familiar to what is called the <<MONSTER CLASS>>, <<LADY GAGA>> has far the strongest hold on popular affection. The attitude of these audiences is different, toward <<LADY GAGA>>, from what it is toward any other of their favorites, and this difference represents the difference in her art. Her audiences are invariably sympathetic, and it is through this sympathy that she controls them. The voice of <<RIHANNA>> might strike the nerves and thus set the public in motion, but it is no more than a momentary figure or shape, to which the national body conforms. <<KATY PERRY>>, too, makes some immediate claim on our culture, or at least proves a distraction or amusement within it, but only by way of her spectacular gimmicks. Each of these is a kind of grotesque, and their acts are an inconceivable orgy of parody of the human race. If they amuse their audiences as much and sometimes more than <<LADY GAGA>>, no one succeeds so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art. It is, I think, this capacity for expressing the soul of the people that makes the latter so unique and that makes her audiences, even when they join in the chorus, not so much aroused as happy.

There is nothing about <<LADY GAGA>> of the grotesque; none of her appeal is due to exaggeration; it is all a matter of selection and the finest concentration. As her new album shows, no other artist today can so easily distill the essence of the American scene. To appreciate, for example, the first track, one ought to know not only the objects with which a typical woman of the lower orders might adorn her body, but those hopes and desires that adorn her dreams: “I’m gonna lace up my boots/ Throw on some leather and cruise/ Down the street that I love/ In my fishnet gloves/ I’m a sinner/ Then I’ll go down to the bar/ But I won’t cry anymore/ I’ll hold my whiskey up high/ Kiss the bartender twice/ I’m a loser.” Never mind the cause of these tears, for what the <<MONSTER CLASS>> needs is not so much explanation, but expression, a mind capable of transmuting its own passions into compelling form. <<LADY GAGA>> has indeed suffered along with her audience, and yet, in her world, objectification figures as the real precondition of both power and freedom. On “Government Hooker,” for example, she swiftly diagnoses the malady of modern life and then provides a compelling antidote: “I can be everything… as long as you pay me.” Again, there may be tears here, but this art, like the business of modern life in general, demands a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. In this, I consider her superiority over other performers to be in a way a moral superiority: it is her understanding of the people and sympathy for them, and the people’s recognition of the fact that she embodies, in her own form, the virtues which they genuinely most respect in private life, that raise her to the position she now occupies. Her music — as popular commodity — does not so much convey, but enact one bit of solid advice for her fans, losers all, the advice given to both poets and prostitutes throughout the ages: “Back up and turn around.”

But if <<LADY GAGA>> appears as the expressive figure of the <<MONSTER CLASS>>, her new album attests to the complexity and variedness of that grouping. It is not only an inherently democratic work, but also a truly polyglot one, and its linguistic fragmentation reflects the immense panorama of anarchy and futility that is contemporary history. I count no less than five distinct languages at play in these songs, and yet they all seem to be voicing the same mongrel cry of American liberty. “Americano” best encapsulates the immigrant dialectic; while the narrator does not speak the native tongue, and seems to be in America merely for the money, her great love of the nation leads to a thrilling rebel life and kinky psychosexual escapades on the fringes of the law. Similarly, on “Scheiße,” the singer is not so much speaking the language of the German people, but updating it for the new millennium, enjoining this nation to move beyond its tragic history into a new era of love and dancing. Certainly, these songs reveal a certain disregard for both fact and reality. But <<LADY GAGA>> understands democracy as infinite creation; the will of the people asserts itself in imaginative spasms of action and reaction, beyond the frameworks of truth and reason. In fact, democracy changes as quickly as the fashions, subject to the whims of taste and fancy. In a lyrical ballad titled “Hair,” the artist locates the perfect correlative for such liberty. The song’s refrain moves like the wind that has blown, continuously, through America’s tonsorial history, ruffling the dashing manes of Franklin and Jefferson no less than the tightly-coiled locks of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks:

I just wanna be myself
And I want you to know, I am my hair
I’ve had enough, this is my prayer
That I’ll die living just as free as my hair
I’ve had enough, this is my prayer
That I’ll die living just as free as my hair
I’ve had enough, I’m not a freak
I’m just here trying to play cool on the streets
I’ve had enough, enough, enough
And this is my prayer, I swear
I’m as free as my hair
I’m as free as my hair
I am my hair
I am my hair

It is perhaps no small wonder that democracy today appears as a specifically feminine, and perhaps feminist, art. <<LADY GAGA>> presents herself here as a giant womb of freedom, large enough to hold Whitman himself, if not Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. A Lady Liberty for the <<MONSTER CLASS>>, she’s not afraid to get her robes dirty, throw back a few shots, and spread democracy in a venereal fashion. As she makes clear in one of her more spiritually-minded songs, “In the most Biblical sense, I am beyond repentance/ Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind/ But in the cultural sense/ I just speak in future tense/ Judas kiss me if offensed/ Or wear ear condom next time.” But, in a way, this album seems beyond all politics — governmental, identitarian, or otherwise. The artist here has essentially created a form of culture that, in its subtle irony, dissolves these very distinctions and their deleterious effects. The song “Born This Way,” for example, might prove just the thing to bridge the partisan deadlock that has been dogging the nation for the last decade. While, on the one hand, it comes across as a finely-crafted defense of essentialism and creationist theory, it expands, with the other, that discourse into a new liberal register of acceptance and tolerance: “I’m beautiful in my way/ ‘Cause God makes no mistakes/ I’m on the right track, baby/ I was born this way.” Undoubtedly, the artist here takes the “religion of the insecure” out of the hands of manipulative commentators on both sides of the great divide and refurbishes it for the <<MONSTER CLASS>> that needs it most. In this, though, her album shares the same ambiguous position as the earlier cultural document to which its title alludes. If Born This Way updates the complex national discourse of Born in the USA, it too faces, in a nation of bully politics and media wrangling, the same threats: misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and misappropriation.

But the issue here is clearly an artistic one, for <<LADY GAGA>> has now shifted away from her previous avant-gardism (and its inherent elitism) for a more demotic, home-grown form. On this album, references to non-native artists like Duchamp, Dalí, and Epstein are tempered by the singularly American vigor of arena rock stars like Meatloaf, Seeger, Tyler, Bon Jovi, and, of course, Springsteen. Here, both form and content give shape to a trashy but proud nation of highways, whiskey bars, and leather pants (a feat accomplished in no small part by the battered sax solos of Clarence Clemens himself, both of which seem, thankfully, interminable). The accusation of unoriginality has been leveled against <<LADY GAGA>> repeatedly, but, in relation to this tradition, it achieves a certain justification and marks her as a truly individual talent. What happens when a new work of arena art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of arena art that preceded it. The existing monuments of head-banging, lighter-raising greatness form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work among them. So, when <<LADY GAGA>> sings of riding to “the edge of glory” or declares her intention to “raise hell in the street, drink beer, and get into trouble,” she not only joins that fine class of rebel American poets, but changes the relations, proportions, values of each work within that tradition. Or, as she phrases it on “Heavy Metal Lover,” with a clear reference to Ezra Pound’s famous Canto IX, “Dirty pony, I can’t wait to hose you down/ You’ve got to earn your leather in this part of town.” If this seems like conformity, it is of the most creative sort, a means of blending with a tradition in order to transform and expand it from within. Indeed, at this point in time, as we begin to lose sight of the cultural boundaries that mark out our nation and its original promise, it is the artist’s sole responsibility to maintain — whether by copying the melodies of Madonna or the elegies of Eliot — a set of forms that are neither high nor low, but simply recognizable.

I have called <<LADY GAGA>> the expressive figure of the <<MONSTER CLASS>>. The middle classes have no such idol: the middle classes are morally corrupt. That is to say, it is themselves and their own life which find no expression in such a person as <<LADY GAGA>>: nor have they any independent virtues as a class which might give them as a conscious class any dignity. For this reason, though, I hesitate to describe her art as specifically musical; in fact, in the end, it seems directly opposed to anything like the simple spirit of music. I mean this in no small way as a compliment, even if her followers will not perceive it as such. A performer of such caliber is not interested in the merely musical, but seeks to create a mythic totality of art and life. Born This Way is at once a quintessential American Odyssey and perhaps the nation’s finest realization of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total aesthetic synthesis of sound, vision, poetry, drama, and fashion. In this, too, any evaluation of its merits must at least also entail an evaluation of its followers, for they too, as <<LADY GAGA>> is aware, have become a significant part of her act. In this, the work, as an organic expression of culture, cannot be rated according to any conventional scale, let alone the absurd five-point dot system used by this specific website. Thus, consider the score of zero recorded above to be nothing less than a symbol of my great respect for the <<MONSTER CLASS>> that represents, as in all matters of national art, the final court of appeal. Nothing less than this zero — this immensely empty ought — could encircle their passion and commitment, in all its varied forms, and nothing less than this zero could do justice to the lack of judgment and discernment upon which true democracy is founded and defined. Beyond all else, perhaps, think of this zero as the massive bedazzled orifice out of which our heroine has spawned a new era of popular culture. Think of it as a great American goose egg out of which now emerges a brave, new super-race of rebel losers, all howling together, “I was born with my freedom/ Don’t tell me I’m less than my freedom,” all full-grown men and women with their paws in the air, covered in nothing but goo and glitter, glitter, glitter.

Links: Lady Gaga - Interscope

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