Friday, April 9, 2010

They’ll Go Gaga at the Gogo: The Second Coming

Some months ago, I went to see Lady Gaga in concert. This was the second time I had seen her, the first being when she opened for New Kids on the Block and fairly stole the show (and that’s no mean compliment, as the New Kids were Block-tacular). Though she was the headliner this time, and though she performed well, I must admit that this second experience was a lesser one overall.

I endured a smorgasbord of emotions at this one.

Confusion – at the labyrinthine queuing on display at the venue (San Diego Sports Arena) that had me hopping around trying to figure out which line led to which door for which ticket-holders.

Searing rage – at waiting for some 20 minutes in one line just to find out that I was in the wrong line and would have to find a different one – twice.

Lumbar pain – I’m about five years too old for the kinds of shows that have you standing elbow to elbow with Bud-swilling, 7-foot-tall douchebags as you wait two hours for the main attraction to get on stage.

Elation – at finally seeing Gaga perform in all her Gaga-ness.

She played every song of consequence, aside from duets (like her current hit, “Telephone,” featuring Beyonce). Though it was hard to tell what was live and what was lip-synced, I would say a far larger portion of the show featured live singing than the Britney Spears concert I went to a few months prior. The dance routines were aggressively primitive and scandalous, and the special effects were appropriately flashy.

And yet the show was a bit disappointing, and at times, a real drag. Though it may be unfair to give too much weight to peripheral issues like a maddeningly incoherent venue and loutish rabble – things that have nothing to do with the performer – a concert is more than just the music; if it weren’t, I would just stay home and listen to my CDs. A great concert is more than just a stellar performance; it’s the feeling that you’re in a special place where you and the performer share a unity of purpose that brings that performer closer to you.

Lady Gaga didn’t necessarily help her own cause when she repeatedly baited the crowd with cries of “Hello San Jose!” I’ve always loathed this cliché of the touring circuit – calling out the name of the city you’re playing to elicit gratified hee-haws from your slavish audience – but if you’re going to do it, at least you could bother calling out the right city. She yelled out “San Jose” about six or seven times before the surely mortified crowd started chanting back, “San Diego!” Then she said “San Jose” about two more times before switching to “San Diego.” About three songs went by before she started bantering with the crowd and finally issued a shockingly sincere mea culpa, which I didn't expect, or at least I thought if she were going to apologize, it would have happened right away. She said she didn't want to "pretend it didn't happen," because she "respected her fans too much." I appreciated that, I guess. More mystifying was when she said her people had told her before the show that she wasn't in San Diego. I guess when you lead a diva’s life like hers, you rely on other people to tell you where you are, what year it is, what your name is, etc.

She later embarrassed herself and the more knowledgeable fans in the house when she announced that just one year ago, she opened for New Kids on the Block in this very arena. Har har. She didn’t – she opened for them at Cox Arena across town, now known as Viejas Arena. Whatever.

* * *

During our interminable wait for Gaga’s appearance, they (the house? her handlers?) had the audacity to play only Michael Jackson songs. For concert-going veterans, this will surely come as a surprise. They will wonder, “What, you mean they didn’t just blast awful crap from bands you’ve never heard of?” No, they played a known quantity, and a monarch at that. This was fun for the first few songs. Then, frankly, it became awkward. Perhaps this comes as a shock to no one, but the longer you pump out the MJ, the more unfavorable the comparison will be when you play your own music. I have to believe this is why most concerts entertain you with the lousiest music available – they don’t want the intermission music to outshine the actual performer.

And yet, part of me thought there was another force at play here. Maybe this was Gaga’s not so subtle way of announcing that she was Michael’s successor, a fittingly nutsoid Princess of Pop. After all, one of the questions that arose in the aftermath of Jackson’s death was: who is his successor? It’s like asking who the next Jordan or Gretzky is. Everyone has a nomination, prefaced by vehement proclamations that no one could ever replace the original. And yet the questions keep coming.

Well if you have questions, you’ve come to the right place. I know my readers don’t come to Czardoz Contra World for wishy-washiness. They come for straight answers from a straight shooter. So here it is: Lady Gaga is not the next MJ. But that doesn’t mean she’s not the next something. Something a little more obvious.

What made Michael Jackson the King of Pop was not just the extraordinary talent, but the singular strangeness that he embodied. He couldn’t help being Wacko Jacko any more than he could help being a brilliant artist. This sense of the inevitable hasn’t been seen since, not even in Gaga.

Gaga has a much more calculated sense of world domination. She’s a freak, yes, but you get the feeling that she could dial it back if she wanted to. She could dial it back, drive it deeper, sprout antlers, grow a penis – whatever it takes to stay one step ahead – in fashion, in music, and especially in controversy. In short, Gaga is the next Madonna.

Madonna was Jackson’s contemporary and near-equal in fame and fortune, but it was always clear that hers was a different sort of mania. For Michael, it was all unaffected: he was as natural doing the moonwalk as he was dangling babies over balcony rails. Madonna, on the other hand, was the ultimate salesman selling the ultimate product: herself. All the shapeshifting in her career has been about getting an edge and keeping people’s eyes focused squarely on her, even when other shiny objects were fighting for some of that attention. They copied her hair, so she changed it. They copied her moves, so she came up with new moves. They even tried to horn in on her controversy, but how could they? Look at “Papa Don’t Preach.” Look at the “Like a Prayer” video. The “Justify My Love” video. The Sex book. Oh, the controversy!

Like Madonna, Gaga isn’t the prettiest starlet. She doesn’t have the most range in her voice. But she has the larger than life persona that turns a star into an icon. I don’t care what adherents of Beyonce or Britney or Taylor or any other diva may say. As respected, beloved, or well-known as those artists may be, none of them dominates pop culture the way Lady Gaga does. Just turn on the radio. I can’t remember the last time I heard a single artist with so many different songs played on so many different stations. I can name six Gaga songs that are in current, regular play on any of four radio stations in San Diego alone: “Poker Face,” “Just Dance,” “LoveGame,” “Paparazzi,” “Telephone,” “Bad Romance.” No other artist commands that kind of appeal, both broad and deep.

The Britney-Madonna kiss (to Christina Aguilera’s everlasting dismay) at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards was widely seen as a passing of the torch from a pop icon to her heir apparent. I’m not so sure that the right person took the torch. Britney is huge and Britney is great, and I even preferred her live show to Gaga’s (at the same venue). But Britney is a product of other people’s imaginations, whereas Gaga, like Madonna before her, seems to be a product of her own.

In fact, I’m most reminded of the ashen body of Optimus Prime on his deathbed, passing the Autobot Matrix of Leadership into the hands of Ultra Magnus, who (in a brilliant piece of foreshadowing) fumbled and bumbled it into the hands of Hot Rod, who would later become Rodimus Prime and turn out to be the true successor to Optimus Prime, leading the Autobots to victory and salvation.

Roll out!


Henry said...

To be honest, probably owing to the conditions, I couldn't even hear her yelling "San Jose" instead of "San Diego," so I had no idea what she was talking about later on with the "my people told me I wasn't in San Diego" bit. I thought she was just making high-level crazy.

I will say that there is an ironic angle to Gaga's act that distinguishes her from Madonna. I feel like, in the beginning at least, Madonna really was just being herself. The shapeshifting was not about getting ahead, which originally came about naturally, but about staying on top by never getting stale--a lesson I think she learned on the job. Some of her recent turns have been downright depressing, and I wonder if maybe she has gotten to fooling herself.

Gaga seems to have shot out of the gate with this calculated, self-aware, even metafictional performance (which is obviously heavily inspired by Britney), but I'm betting it actually took much study and labor, once she realized she wouldn't make it as herself, to develop this character, Lady Gaga, which right now seems more like a show than a person. I think she is definitely on her way to becoming an icon on the level of Madonna, but, as much as I appreciate and admire her current material, I'm really excited to see what comes after The Fame. Savvy as she may be, however, I don't know that any one person can entirely control this monster that she's created. The question, in other words, is whether she is master of her own image or now enslaved to it. While I think her songs are good and she's a stronger vocalist than the vast majority of her pop peers, I do remember it troubling me, when she first came to my attention two years ago, to find that her website offered no clear shots of her face. Even now that she has exploded in popularity, there is still a relative dearth of such images.

Czardoz said...

Yes, I agree that Madonna didn't start off as a "character," though I think a great part of her legacy has been 1) her influence on other artists, and 2) her self-transformative powers to continually distinguish herself from the copycats.

Gaga, it seems, has studied the fame game so well that she has learned to distinguish herself by being everyone else, as well as an odd "other," and perhaps like you say, none of the things/personalities she portrays so well may actually have anything to do with who she really is. Although, who is anyone really, but an amalgamation of influences and reactions against those influences?

It's interesting what you say about there being few clear shots of Gaga's face, because just the other day, I saw a rather alarming print ad with her and Cyndi Lauper, both featuring a lot of face, but none of it rather flattering to my eyes, perhaps because I'm not used to seeing Gaga so full in the face:

Czardoz said...

"I'm really excited to see what comes after The Fame."

I was thinking about your comment today, and it brought back to my mind the mild and murmuring "debate" about who the next Michael Jackson is, or the next Madonna, or the next transcendent music artist, the iconic star who reaches all audiences. It's interesting that I never hear any current male artists in the mix, other than Justin Timberlake, which is a joke. Among male-dominated bands, there are some Radiohead adherents who are convinced that their favorite band is the new U2 or the next Beatles or something, but of course they aren't as big as U2, and even U2 wasn't the next Beatles.

But anyway, the current conversation usually includes the women I mentioned, Beyonce, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift, and of course, Lady Gaga. I think your comment makes it pretty clear that only Gaga is a real contender for lasting impact. We've pretty much seen everything Beyonce has to offer, and her next release will probably surprise no one. If she hasn't reached transcendence by now, she never will. I think the same can be said of Britney. Her fans are for sure excited to get more music from her, but is anyone really "excited" in the sense of anticipating something truly new? Taylor is young and she actually could surprise people, but so far, she still seems like an accidental superstar who's just happy to be a millionaire.

I interpret your comment as meaning that you're excited about the possibility/likelihood of getting something different, new, maybe revolutionary from Gaga in the future. I think if anyone in the current roster of stars does it, it will be her.

Henry said...

This will sound ridiculous, but once upon a time I thought Avril Lavigne was the early Beatles of her generation. I was operating with limited knowledge of The Beatles and under the belief that she actually wrote most of her hits. Even so, I'm sure this was more a reflection of my stupidity than of anything she was doing or has done since.

Czardoz said...

Considering the pop atmosphere during Avril's early years, you can be forgiven if you thought of her as the vanguard of her generation. She was playing with house money.

If it makes you feel any better, I actually kind of believed the hype that Avril was the anti-Britney, or Britney-killer. For better or worse, Britney has proven to be the more enduring and relevant popster.

If anything, Avril's early success reminds me very much of Taylor Swift's current perch at the apex of the tween/teen girl-power market. We'll see if Taylor suffers Avril's decline and fall. Guest host on American Idol when you haven't had a relevant release in years? For shame.