Lady Gaga, will you please put on some pants?
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
When Lady Gaga first hit the scene, no one was indifferent about her. You either loved her or hated her, and usually to a large extreme. But now, as we as a culture have had to live with her for five or so years, she has gone from the elephant in the room that you can't help but notice, to the elephant in the room that you're not sure if you should keep around, mostly because it is such a hassle to dust it.
I started off liking Lady Gaga in a big way. She was big and goofy, sure stunningly derivative, but she was the first pop diva since Pink that was remotely interesting. Pink was a radical because of her confessional style, like Jewel only without the annoying cloying poetry and twee acoustic guitar and sincerity. Gaga was anything but sincere, her bit was more akin to Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club, doing whatever was going to grab our attention. And in a world of 24-hour news cycles, internet granny porn and hobo shock fights, not much is going to grab our attention long, unless it's really weird (like the Balloon Boy) or really messed up (Two Girls One Cup, The Kardashians) and lucky for Gaga she sort of filled all the checkboxes.
The Fame, her first record, was a genuine monster, with singles that dominated the next two years of the charts. She was an instant media darling, her back story getting more revisions than George Lucas has done to Star Wars. She was sassy and engaging and built her own little virtual world. The music was good by pop standards but the crazy stand out was the branding. She moved from new to essential in months, becoming the first true diva sensation since the Spice Girls nearly a decade before.
Not to discount Madonna of course, but Madge had long since made it out of Diva of the Month club. She outlasted metal and grunge, and may be the last genuine icon standing -- the last of the golden age of the pop star in any case. In fact, here is a little bit of a mind blower: Madonna's career thus far has gone 6 years longer than that of Elvis. This year marked the 30th anniversary of her first single, and yes, you really are that old. Madonna is, according to Guinness, the most successful female artist of all time. She is in the number three position of most records sold by an individual artist, just behind Elvis and Michael Jackson, and if she has one more big hit record she'll most likely tie or beat Jackson...which, let's be honest, he was probably into.
There is a long history of the diva -- the female superstar who defines an era, not just through their talent but by style and artistry. A pop culture as well as a pop music phenomena. Truly, they are the singular icons of their prime diva age. You're probably thinking Madonna in the 80's; may I however suggest Jenny Lind as the first true diva. She was the Madonna of the 1850's...well minus the whole church scandal sexy dancing nude pictures thing.
That aside, Jenny Lind really did cause something of a panic in these United States. She toured relentlessly over a very short period of time and became a national obsession. This was in a time before recordings, before radio, so she essentially had a huge fanbase made mostly of people that had never heard her sing. She had merch: clothes, chairs, even pianos. Setting true to the path that would follow pop diva for the next 150 years, the hype was all orchestrated by an older man, in this case PT Barnum. A figure that would be a role model for showman and scoundrels alike for the next 150 years.
The problem of diva-ness is that for the most part it doesn't last too long. Oh sure, you're still famous, but more in that "didn't that use to be" kinda way; for every Britney and Christina there are a dozen Vitamin C's . Remember, even Brooke Hogan was a diva for a week.
That was what was exciting about Gaga: her second record was more interesting than her first, her tours all the more ridiculous. She also became the cover girl of choice for Vanity Fair and Vogue. And to quote Adam Ant: "When you get to number one the only way is down. And if you have a sticky patch, they start looking, start looking around." The same formula of quirky takes on ripoffs from fetish culture, and sound alikes from the Madonna songbook no longer held the same allure. So the sex got bigger, but the problem is once you're naked you really don't have anywhere else to go. There is no mystery, no hidden allure, really no revelry. Yet it's still her favorite topic for songs, well that and problems with love. Not to play all armchair psychologist but if every song wasn't just about screwing some random person, or object as the case may be, things might work out a little better in some of the other songs.
When everyone is rebelling, how can you still rebel? At the start of Gaga's career, there wasn't a lot of kooky going on in the diva biz, just rapidly aging mousketeers and crossover country artists, not a lot of 80's style outrageousness. Sure there was sex, but there was always sex, yet if you look back at early Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera videos they seem almost innocent by comparison, by diva standards at least.
In those first few years there was no Nicky Minaj, no Janelle Monae, no Florence, or the Machine for that matter. The only divas shopping in the Halloween section were Lady Gaga and her partner Lady Starlight, who went on to be an answer in the Trivial Pursuit "Lady Gaga Edition." Starlight was Gaga's primary influence and early partner, and she cut to the wind like a Pete Best, only with fewer clothes and more glitter. Today's market is a gamut of goofy, some good, some great and most embarrassing. Like having to admit you were once in Kajagoogoo-level embarrassing.
So there leaves Gaga, her first record sold 15 million, her second 6 million and her third as of this writing 305,000. Or too put it another way six times as many people watched one episode of Family Feud last week, and it was probably a repeat. Of course its well known that record sales numbers are down all over, but this kind of short fall has killed many an other artist. In spite of the Jeff Koons album cover, which -- surprise, surprise -- features a naked depiction of her. The music is better than on the last record, but that is also a bit like saying Hardee's is better than Jack In the Box, or typhoid is better than cholera.
It's just so dull while being stunningly pretentious. She croons how she invented "Artpop" -- could someone please get her a Genesis record please? She developed a "revolutionary app," which is essentially an animated gif maker -- but after seeing things that are truly revolutionary like Bjork's last, it just calls to question her intelligence. She goes on the idea that if you say it loud and often enough it is true, and while that strategy has worked fantastically for Fox News, it doesn't really play for the pop world. Well, that is until Rush Limbaugh takes over Rolling Stone.
Her career certainly isn't over -- she can tour for a long time yet, sex still sells, even as it gets more boring, and the productions will get smaller, as will the costumes. She'll try and get wilder, but how do you sell sex as the "look don't touch" thing that is so vital to the Diva mystique when almost everyone has a phone in their pocket that can reach absurd porno site name of yourchoice.com. Gaga burned hot, she burned fast, and ultimately burned out her audience too.
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