I went to see Lady Gaga in San Antonio, Texas, sometime between the release of “Born This Way” the single and “Born This Way” the album. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience. My then-boyfriend and I were on our feet the entire time, screaming and dancing in our wacky Little Monster attire. When I heard the opening harp notes of “Telephone”, I went weak in the knees. In the middle of “Alejandro”, a backup dancer lifted her into the air and she shouted “EQUALITY!!”, for no reason at all, and I practically wept with joy. She performed “Born This Way” twice, once as a mellow piano ballad and then again later – glitter falling from the sky – for her second encore. The fabulousness of it all overwhelmed me. It was probably one of the greatest nights of my life.
Now, Mother Monster, it’s time for one of your baby birds to fly free.
Don’t get me wrong, “Applause” is a solid pop hit. It’s catchy, spooky-wacky, and an instant requirement at gay weddings. The video is even better – Gaga indulges our collective ADHD tendencies with a series of rapid-fire, over-the-top images. As with most music videos, the best part is a breather from the frantic, flashing visuals, when she and her backup dancers break it DOWN just before the second chorus. Her hair, her handsy bra thing, her fierce snarl of fierceness, it’s all sheer beauty. And Mother Monster looks to be having fun with the song, which as Chris Rovzar aptly points out, we haven’t seen in a while.
But… she lives for the applause, applause, applause? The way we cheer and scream for her? We know, Mommy. This is well-trod ground and, frankly, “Paparazzi” covered it better:
“Loving you is cherry pie / ‘Cause you know that, baby, I / I’m your biggest fan / I’ll follow you until you love me / Papa-paparazzi”
Catchy and creepy in equal measure, that song and its mildly epic music video – in which she takes revenge on her corrupt boyfriend and the paparazzi who deride her and adore her in equal measure – got us all to think about the effects of fame and attention. At the “Paparazzi” phase of Lady Gaga’s career, we were simply obsessed. It was late 2009 and there was no telling what this superstar would do next. Whenever she positioned herself beneath the spotlight in her relentless marketing, she was doing so as someone who knew 1) the many pitfalls of living up on that stage, and 2) how she could outwit and command an audience anyway. Somewhere between razzle-dazzle theatrics and sheer confidence, there was no denying there was a performer – in every changing sense of the word – with power.
What happened? Now she’s singing, “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me”. What was once innovative and graceful now sounds not only redundant, but vain. And though vanity has always part of the Lady Gaga experience (in fact, “Vanity” is a brilliant song), I can’t help but feel there’s something selfish going on in her new work. I noticed it during her iTunes Festival performance in London, during which she took long breaks between songs for elaborate costume and makeup changes, clearly knowing we would all wait patiently.
It didn’t help that the songs she unveiled appeared… how do I put it, Mommy Monster? Disappointing doesn’t quite cover it. “Sex Dreams” doesn’t hold a candle to “LoveGame.” “Artpop” sounds like an earlier draft of “Heavy Metal Lover.” A much lamer earlier draft. And don’t even get me started on “Aura“, going viral-ish as “Burqa”, which has cultural appropriation coming out of its ears.
It also isn’t great that all of this is going on in the midst of Mileygate, which not only overshadowed Gaga’s fun VMA performance, but also seems to be steering the conversation about superstardom towards Teenage Role Models! Young Female Sexuality! Minstrelsy! Trolling!! And away from pop art, and the art of true entertainment. An off-handed comment from Tom and Lorenzo the other day got me thinking – isn’t it ironic that Miley undoubtedly learned a lot of her attention-seeking methods from Gags herself? The lengths to which celebrities have to go in order to stay at the forefront of the 24-hour news cycle were established during the rise of the many estrogen-fueled pop divas in the past half-decade. And now we all have to suffer under the indecent and un-decent blows of MC Hammer. (Has no one made up that nickname yet?)
Speaking of ironic, the biggest signal that the “ARTPOP” era is nothing like the good old days came from her Haus of Gaga team about a month ago:
The reason I felt such gut-wrenching disappointment when I saw this is its clear indicator that my Mother Monster is feeling insecure. The empress of self-expression, uncertain of her place in the world, after only a year or two out of the spotlight? It certainly looks that way. It’d be one thing if she threw down the reverse-psychology gauntlet and then continued to entertain us all with the kinds of unexpected innovations that defined her (oh, how I miss thee, hair-hat and meat-dress!), but she showed up to the VMAs looking demure, and every public image since has erred on the side of yikes.
People used to wonder if and when Lady Gaga would have to stop out-outrageousing herself. Mother forgive me, I believe that day has come. Back in the days when I would hole myself up for an entire afternoon watching and re-watching the “Telephone” music video, I would have seen this Haus of Gaga promo and laughed. “Of course I’m going to buy your album, Mommy! Of course you’re not ‘over.'”
But Mommy? I approach the 11/11 arrival of “ARTPOP” with trepidation. I am ashamed to admit I am no longer the man I was in that stadium in San Antonio. And the way I see it, the rest of the world may have changed too.