From a long view of pop culture, there’s something rather inspiring about Lady Gaga’s coronation as Queen of Pop. The last time I wrote about her, I pointed out that every one of her singles prior to “Bad Romance” took its time rising up the charts. Her success was built one track at a time, a concept that seems almost comically antiquated in the post-Britney era where our pop icons are built to shine or rust on that first blockbuster song alone.
Moreover, she’s managed to achieve her success so while becoming increasingly non-conformist and disruptive. The emergence of Gaga’s “vision” in her work – a twisted pop mashup of sex, murder and electro-clash – has only further accelerated her transition from artist to icon.
But first, she played the game. And in some ways, she’s still playing it.
The video for “Telephone,” Gaga’s second single from her eight-track expansion pack The Fame Monster, and which features fellow pop diva Beyonce, was released last week with the kind of anticipation generally reserved for Apple product launches and gift-related holidays. Watching the fervor, I was struck by the realization that it’s been a really long time since an artist held our collective attention span so tightly. The 2000s really only produced three pop icons – Eminem, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake (with Beyonce a distant fourth) – and none felt like they had this strong a grasp on their moment in time.
A few quick theories as to why this is the case (beyond the obvious “she writes catchy songs”). One, Gaga’s music feels like it’s tapping into a larger sonic zeitgeist. Electronic music has been sneaking its way into hip hop for a few years now, and it was only a matter of time before it hit the pop landscape as well (especially considering hip hop’s hold over it during the past decade). Gaga was the ideal guide for that journey, leading listeners from the beat-heavy “Just Dance” to the weirder, keyboard-synth sound of her more recent work.
Second, she’s emerging at the end of the American Idol decade, where a good deal of pop music discourse was taken over by Middle American motifs. Idol’s manufactured democracy blurred out difference or oddity and valued populist personalities over vision. Though only a few idol contestants were truly successful – the fundamental flaw of a process where the show, not the music, is the star – the show’s influence on the larger pop landscape was stifling, leaving hip hop unchallenged at the throne of cool for far too long. Gaga’s strangeness feels strangely like freedom, breaking us collectively out from Taylor Swift-itis on the Billboard Hot 100.
Thirdly – and this is the point I want to delve into in more detail – I think Gaga acts as a proxy for our evolving attitude towards corporate institutions.
It’s funny now to watch the videos for “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” and then skip ahead to “Telephone.” The first two contain only hints of the costume-wearing, gender-twisting Gaga we’d come to know; heck, aside from a couple of weird costumes, there’s not really much to separate “Just Dance” from, say, a Ke$ha video. Even “Poker Face” feels formulaic outside of its costumes: throw in some dancers, some close-ups, a shitload of smoke and voila! Video!
But when those songs became huge, things began to change. You have the emergence of the “Haus of Gaga” motif and some gender-twisting sexuality in the video for “Lovegame.” Then you have the rather brilliant murder opus of “Paparazzi,” with one of her most bizarre visuals to date (the unnerving robotic crutches). And then, of course, “Bad Romance” feels like her apex; a pop video every bit as iconic and artful as the decade’s best.
But as the budgets and spectacle increased, so too did the product placements. From a car and some vodka in “Lovegame,” Gaga’s videos have started to be filled with all sorts of products clearly inserted to increase the video’s budget. Though they’ve sometimes been a bit hidden – “hey wait, was that a Wii nunchuk in “Bad Romance?” – in “Telephone” they stop being remotely subtle. From the ugly-as-sin Virgin Mobile logo placed on Gaga’s phone to the three-second hold on a laptop featuring “Plenty of Fish,” there’s no less than 11 different product placements.
Regardless of the video’s merits – I’m not convinced that there’s much artistry going on behind “Telephone’s” trash, even if I admire its brazen visual schizophrenia and unbridled excess – the barrage of logos was rather off-putting, especially to a child of the 1990s such as myself. Our relationship with the corporate world was always a bit awkward; though many of our favourite bands ended up on major labels in the Great Alternative Raid post-Nirvana, the indie-rock ethos of authenticity still held king. As such, bands could take a label’s money but the moment the relationship became a bit more insidious – from selling music to commercials or shilling products – we backlashed with that oft-utilized rally cry of “sellout.”
I can’t help but think that things have changed today. It’s more than the fact that it’s now increasingly acceptable for indie rock bands to sell their songs to commercials. There’s something larger going on here, as if youth culture’s entire relationship with the corporate world has shifted from opposition to infiltration. Maybe today’s kids still have a Marxist phase, but it feels like rather than reject the corporate world, our new mindset is to accept its dominance but figure out ways to twist it in our own image. We’ve abandoned dogmatic No Logo, but we’re not really pro-logo either. We just want logos that look and sound the way we want them to.
On my part, I feel like the product placement in “Telephone” goes too far – it’s too broad for my tastes, even if it’s self-aware and semi-satiric. But the fact remains that these brands are supporting a vision that’s dark, twisted, biting and pretty far removed from any of their normal brand identities. The artistic compromises Gaga needs to make for these companies to support her big-budget vision are minimal, while these companies, desperate to ride the coat-tails of Gaga’s bizarre rollercoaster, bankroll a creation that feels aggressively counter-culture even though it’s entirely been made within the traditional system.
I think that “Telephone” got made at all is key to Gaga’s appeal. So many of the reactions I’ve seen on Twitter, Facebook and various blogs express a state of inspired bewilderment and astounded befuddlement. To a generation who’s lost faith that we can ever tear down the superstructures that restrict us, Gaga offers hope that we can still find identity, vision and oddity from within. Even if it takes a “Just Dance” to get there, and a few bottles of vodka to keep it sustained, her success suggests that our systems are more flexible and malleable than they initially appear, that we can change our world instead of tearing it down and starting anew.
And that when we do, we can be as weird as we want to be.