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30/05/2011

Lady G and the dead industrial product

Designed to appeal to everyone over the age of six, Lady Gaga's new album "Born this Way" is basically funfair techno – with a dash of hilarious mock German. By Diedrich Diederichsen

The author of these lines is the sort of person who likes to argue that pop music is not primarily about music. Ideas, performance, attitude, pose, impersonation and counter-impersonations, the dialectic of individuality and stereotype – all this is more important than a couple of ideas about beats and chord changes. You could say that for people like myself who seem to regard pop music as a mixture of a discipline of performance art, intellectual inventiveness and the increasingly established tradition of incendiarism, Lady Gaga offers the ultimate rebuttal. For a start, she has plenty of ideas, secondly, she is a master of intermedial performance art and thirdly, she can always be relied on to cause a stir – it's just that the music is so very irritating.

And things are no different with "Born This Way". The musical maximum consists of a few gags of which "Scheiße", a song served with souped-up casio beats, is streets ahead of the rest of the album and contains the funniest mock German since Chaplin's Hitler and Jefferson Airplane's "Never Argue With A German If You're Tired". Otherwise it's dominated by what the critics like to describe as "funfair techno", although it's probably decades since any of them have been to a funfair. Probably us music critics are just referring to the last bastion of shared low-level euphoria that we can remember. So the next question is: Should Lady Gaga and her think trust have paid less attention to people like myself and spent more time concentrating on the music?

No, the problem lies elsewhere. To say that music should not be the central focus of pop music is not to deny its importance. It's only that good music doesn't happen in pop when audible attention is paid to the lessons taught in pop academies and what for musicians and other professionals is considered musical inventiveness. Good pop music emerges as an unmarked by-product of good posing and positioning, it is the casually sloping sound of decent ideas. It can be effortless and laconic, serious or whacky, but it can never be any of these just because someone wants it that way. First off, it's important to find a way to view oneself and one's friends as more fabulous, more vulnerable or more brilliant than everyone else, and after that things will somehow just sound right. And this right-sounding sound will not feel remotely like a side effect, but fantastic and convincing.

With Lady Gaga, however, the notion of the music's secondary importance has been taken too literally and fed into a neo-liberal outsourcing programme: with enormous creativity for costumes, stage sets, video scripts, queer activism on one side, and music on the other. For the former, the artist's artistic, politicised, feminist, anti-essentialist ambition was mobilised; for the latter, the music, a directive was simply issued demanding mass appeal, contemporary sound, chic and mainstreaminess. No mean feat considering that this involves finding a sound that reaches the maximum number of people while not forgetting that no one wants to be seen as part of the masses.

Here, at least, the Gaga team managed to come up with a strategically smart solution. Take the most mass-effective, mega-discothequeish funfair techno and stretch out this bubble in a few key areas. The two producers and sound stylists RedOne and Fernando Garibay, Gaga's long-term collaborators, have swapped positions in the hierarchy. RedOne, the Swedish-Tunisian teeny dance-pop specialist whose work for the Sugarbabes, Usher and J-Lo earned him his stripes in the biggest whiskey-cola distribution palaces with its addition of kiddie flavour and Euro-trash components to the lowest common denominator of alco-dance pop, has had his wings clipped. Fernando Garibay the man responsible for US-Latino flavour who shot to infamy with his Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias productions, was promoted to musical director. He stretches the bubble in this direction. Guests from the old-fart rock bracket like Brian May of Queen and the knackered old producer horse Mutt Lange then pushed things in the direction of the elderly – in order to trawl even murkier waters.

This combo strategy could work. In the first one-and-a-half albums the global techno disco sound was expanded with the squeak-happy tastes of the very young (over-sixes). Without losing sight of this group the new album also caters to the inextinguishable young male fans of phallocratic guitar sounds on the one hand, and the Latin-American US majority-to-be on the other.

Journalists, hipsters and urban sophisticates continue to be entertained with fashion ideas and the right-on stand for queer rights. But the reason anyone can even tolerate the musical concoction has nothing to do with any of these components but rests on Lady Gaga's personal talent for dizzily huge anthems for the under-fives and sentimental night-owl slime, which she acts out in some of the intros. Another opportunity to mourn the collapse of the pop-music molecule. Music that no longer casually occurs while posing, but which has been worked out to appeal to target groups, always smacks – with the exception of anthem slime – of intent.

But even the brilliant fashion ideas, like the famous glass penis heels of late, have long been completely disconnected from music-industry obligations such as the launch of this album to become autonomous art events. On the way to  High Art, however, all the disciplines and formats, which Lady Gaga has tried her hand at, fall apart. You catch yourself looking at the forcedly arts-and-craftsy stage sets and thinking that that they could just as easily house Andre Helleresque "divinely gifted bodies" as the "provocative" Gaga who, on the new album, wishes for sex with as many leathermen as possible. "I want your Whiskey mouth/All over my blonde south". A pretty rhyme.

Just as her videos eclipsed the rest of her act for a while, these days her outfits are her strongest attribute by far; the sets and beats have taken a tumble and the song writing manages only to deliver a few surprises here and there. The Lady Gaga act is shattering into as many disciplines as a mid-size multi-branch cultural festival. Like a curatorial manager Gaga reels in the audience from every corner, only to risk losing them at the next. The old pop music album format is hardly going to provide cohesion; this is much more likely to come from integration events, except that these are where people come together who have no interest in meeting one another.

Today, mass cultural products with ambition – as demonstrated by "The Simpsons" – have to reach both pre-school kids and over-saturated university-educated old farts. This, however, only functions through dialectics – the child-friendly has to appeal to the older generation, the other-worldly intellectualism to the three-year-olds – not through the splits.

Pop music used to have a format for this, which thrived because the music was allowed to just happen in the shadow of other ideas. If target-group hermeneutical efforts are invested in the sound, however, you end up with a dead industrial product. Or the all-binding unit has to form a completely new genre. Lady Gaga has at least given it a go.

*

This article originally appeared in der Tagesspiegel on 25 May, 2011

Diedrich Diederichsen (b. 1957) is a cultural critic and professor at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. He is the author of a number of books on art and pop culture and his essays are regularly published in leading art magazines such as Artforum and Texte Zur Kunst.

Translation:lp


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