Growing pains and Lady Gaga

It's kind of embarrassing for me to admit that it took so long for me to get into Joanna Newsom. I'd like to think I'm above being weeded out by such petty nuances as vocals, but when I hear someone belting out lyrics in the key of cat claws-on-chalkboards, I tend to turn the opposite direction. And it's for that reason that I waited so long to grab her latest, the three-disc opus Have One on Me.

But more important than my ability to digest certain vocal chords is the nature behind these growing pains themselves. Newsom struggled to peddle what was ostensibly a less-than-accessible masterpiece in Y's, but Europe's best-selling hooligans Arctic Monkeys showed their awkward maturation phase by recording an underdeveloped LP that still reached a top-5 chart position in eight different countries. There's clearly something that fills some people's puberty with acne, braces and squeaky voices while others suffer through little more than a big nose and wiry frames.

A recent article at Pitchfork (which I briefly touched on here) paired J Newsom with Lady Gaga because of the two's penchants for dividing fans of seemingly similar dispositions. But in reality that's probably a more superficial distinction than it seems. And while I still hold that Parenthetical Girls form a convincing fulcrum between nearly all contradicting norms (modern and classic, pretentious and apprehensive, approachable and shielded, grandiose and subtle, palatable and putrid), making them the midpoint between the two accentuates the misguided attribution. By drawing the line from Newsom to Gaga we're losing sight of the roots behind the style and gestures. Eccentricities are not all born equal.

Newsom's true counterpoint is probably Regina Spektor, who is less divisive than either of the others, but who takes on Newsom's same posture. The difference is that, while Newsom experiences growing pains by stretching the boundaries of soft-spoken Margaret Atwood-centric pop, Spektor parks her piano squat beneath the foliage canopy. So while Spektor fans debate whether she's written songs worth hearing, Newsom demands conversations of whether or not she has yet synthesized pop music, whether she's transcended the boundaries and supplanted the genre to another phase of Being outside folk music's three-ring circus. Of course, that doesn't negate any significance Spektor might have; and actually that's where Arctic Monkeys re-enter the fold. Their first album took off because it was such a complete entity, taking full advantage of all their resources—not least of all being their youthful cunning. But when their third album fell short it didn't demand much conversation. They wrote a new kind of song and it didn't pan out as well. But the point behind that is that they were never fording new waters; they were reducing, reusing and recycling conventions to fit their own aesthetic, and that's why it didn't matter as much. We've seen it all before, just assembled in a different manner. And that's what happens when a genre settles down. There's no such thing as a noble effort because everything is confined inside the same tent. Their new direction was only "new" in a relative sense. And while certain bands who fail to put it together at first still gain acclaim (the most immediate recent examples being We Were Promised Jetpacks, Local Natives and Hockey), it's for their potential to evoke a nostalgic masterpiece, not because we think they'll reinvent the wheel. But those groups demand more skeptical standards placed upon them because, in reality, they're not doing anything new and don't deserve the same credence as an artist knocking down proverbial walls (a la Newsom).

When MGMT are good, it's because they've married David Bowie and nu wave. When they're bad, it's because they've missed Bowie's point. Nothing about it concerns their ability to create anything new or even write a catchy song. You can listen until your ears bleed and argue until you're red in the face, but nothing MGMT has done has broken any boundaries or synthesized anything new. They made pop songs with established pop conventions. If you want to draw a story from their priviledged upbringing, draw it from the ease with which they could obtain Bowie records, not their disenchanted perspectives on life. On the other hand is Diamond Rings. He inhabits the same canopy, but he's in the periphery, lunging through the same walls Bowie stretched, while MGMT take center stage; and that's how we know we can expect more from his debut than anything MGMT will ever do (and that's why a flat Congratulations should be no surprise). Sporting a tattered neckline is better than screwing around in an oversized t-shirt.

But what's especially bothersome is how pompous these people wear these oversized t-shirts—and even moreso, how tight-fitting these same shirts can get. Add Vampire Weekend to MGMT and we get the same phenomenon. These bands are in control of their own craft only as far as they are masters of others' already-established crafts. MGMT's handle on Bowie always seemed suspect, and the relatively flat Congratulations is the proof. Vampire Weekend'sunsubstantiated zeal falls flat for the same reasons. Songs like "Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel" (and, hell, "I Stand Corrected," even "Walcott" if you twist my arm about it) are a double-edged sword in that they pick and choose so perfectly from their influences that the oversized t-shirt starts to resemble a natural fit, not to mention when bands' egos start to resemble the part. That's when critics crown their asses, only to get burnt when it turns out they're merely hermit crabs inhabiting and reaping the benefits from someone else's shell.

And I guess that's what brings us back to Gaga. At a New Year's Eve party a friend tried to convert me (I should clarify: I disdain Lady Gaga) by explaining Gaga as Andy Warhol 2.0. She allegedly got her Ph.D in modern art, and she's exploiting every facet of it to assume maximum acclaim. And that's a valid point insofar as her fashion sense re-applies many of Warhol's tenets. She wears outlandish pieces that often integrate popular culture into her dress, and where it doesn't we can still call it modern art because we have to assume that she (as a musician and therefore an expressive artist) intends more meaning be derived than Dadaism would necessitate. If she's not stretching our conceptions of product placement she's at least stretching our norms of typical posture and behavior. But the problem is that she's trying to advance a very multilateral persona in a very unilateral way. And that's what makes the delineation between Newsom and Gaga clear: They're both divisive, but for opposite reasons.

We've already seen Bjork wear Gaga-like outfits (or, rather, Gaga wear Bjork-like outfits), but we've also seen Bjork write existential songs that inhabit a realm of thought that matches her realm of dress.

Gaga is eccentric too, but only insofar as her persona allows. And that's the real issue: Her processed beats and heard-it-all-before lyrics don't match her outlandish fashion. Musically speaking, she's little more than an updated Christina Aguilera, fitted especially for some conception of a new age of female. But that new age of female doesn't wear Diet Coke bottles in its hair or attach burning cigarettes to its sunglasses. At its core, each Gaga song still plays on the same old memes—girl power and the escapist freedoms that come with it—which only ostensibly warrant such behavior. Girls have the freedom to do whatever they want and get away with it, sure, I get it; but artists don't have the capacity to do whatever they want and get away with it. What makes an artist an artist is the ability to either instill meaning in objects or to attribute objects to meaning; that is, do whatever they want with meaning. By dressing up teen pop in feathers and boas Gaga's just adding confounding layers to a simplistic notion. She uses a lot of wrapping to cover up a minimal gift. In other words, she's overstating her own significance, which is a mortal sin in artistry as far as I'm concerned.

And really that's my biggest problem with Gaga. Although you'll rarely hear me admit to it, her songs are just fine. They're not exactly my cup of tea, but I understand the appeal. They're club thumpers, booty shakers in their purest sense. But from my standpoint the baggage that comes with them discredits any sonic achievements. She bastardizes modern art and makes a generation of priviledged girls think they understand what is in fact a very esoteric art beneath the surface. And maybe I'm (more than likely) giving Warhol more credit than he deserves, but at least his swagger had a purpose and vision. Modern art isn't Coke bottles and face paint, it's Coke bottles and face paint presented in a fashion to critique some societal thorn. And don't think Gaga is saying something over my head: If she was, her songs wouldn't be such cookie-cutter bubblegum. She takes the aesthetic and divorces it from the meaning behind modern art, which in no way, shape or form makes me want to rock out.

Perhaps a better explanation for Gaga's credibility as an artist was posited at the same NYE party: She's stitched together the Google Ads formula and tailored it to Top 40 music. This much I can follow. She does things that attract attention and she writes club thumpers. Well I don't care much about club thumpers, and an inventive ad campaign still doesn't lend legitimacy to an empty art form. So while I can appreciate an impressive campaign when I see one, from an artist's standpoint (which is all I've bothered to concern myself with), we're back to square one.

So really, then, the best claim to credibility Gaga has is the third and final idea proposed at the NYE party, by a man far less musically inclined than most others in the conversation. He's a politics buff who's worked on campaigns nation-wide, so it makes sense that he'd be the one to crack the code. Because, you see, Gaga's appeal has nothing to do with music at all. I've already admitted she writes club thumpers, but that doesn't explain why she's garnered such a hip underground following. In reality, the reason she's important and the reason us dudes should listen up is simply because, as he so eloquently framed it, "As soon as you put her on the stereo girls get naked." Point taken. I'd like to see Joanna Newsom do that.


  1. You delete my comment, bitch? That stings.

  2. I have sooo many arguments against this. Too many to outline here.