Saturday, December 05, 2009

Over the Top and Falling Short

One thing I love about dating a girl from a foreign country is the fresh perspective she offers.

For example, I know what I think of American culture. I know what I think of the fanfare surrounding Super Bowl ads, the death penalty, Hollywood. But it’s interesting — and sometimes shocking — to hear a foreigner’s take on the same things. It really makes you think.

Enter the discussion my girlfriend and I were having the other day about Lady Gaga.Having been in Germany so long, I had been completely in the dark when it came to the flamboyant, 23-year-old pop princess. But recently, after having returned, I flipped on my TV, saw the music video for Lady Gaga’s new single, “Bad Romance,” and quickly came to understand the fuss.

She struck me as original. The set of the “Bad Romance” video looked like a cross between something out of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and a D&G ad. The hook to the song was cheesy yet irresistible, and Gaga’s dance moves looked one part Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” one part “Flashdance,” the other something I'd do in front of a mirror if I knew no one were watching.

The point is, Lady Gaga had my attention. I even thought — I'll admit it — she was kind of cool. And so, I decided to tune in to the American Music Award’s last Sunday after having heard she’d be performing.

Now, this performance. You saw it, right?

She comes out on stage in an ecru body suit equipped with antler-like headgear and a breast plate pulsing with lights, sings a song and does a choreographed number with several backup dancers. Then the stage empties save for her. Once alone, she picks up her microphone stand and uses it to smash her way into a huge glass cubicle on stage where a baby grand piano awaits her. (She needs the piano for her next song.) The moment she starts playing — vrum! — the piano’s lip is lit aflame. She then grabs a glass bottle, which had been set up atop the piano, and smashes it down on the keys with one hand while the other still tickles the ivories. She does this several times, with several glass bottles. All in that ecru body stocking.

Now, perhaps I had been in Europe too long. I don’t know. But I found the performance kind of shocking. Although I had liked the Lady Gaga of the “Bad Romance” video — she had struck me as fresh and unafraid — the Lady Gaga of the AMA’s seemed more like someone desperate to make an impression. It didn’t jibe with my prior notions of her.

And so, struggling to understand this discrepancy and looking for someone to offer me fresh perspective, I turned to my girlfriend. I told her about my shock. I told her that it seemed as though Lady Gaga and American entertainment seemed so intense and crazy after having been with her in Europe for so long.

And then my girlfriend said something that gave me pause.

She didn’t mock me for watching a Lady Gaga performance, which I almost certainly thought she would. She didn't mock Lady Gaga. Instead, after I recounted the performance — the fire, the broken glass, the antlers — my girlfriend simply said, “That’s sick.” Just like that, “That’s sick.” Now, she didn’t mean “sick” as in “cool.” She meant “sick” as in “Lady-Gaga’s-performance-is-what’s-wrong-with-your-country sick" — that we've got serious-societal-problems sick. And she meant it.

Normally, after getting such a response from her, I probably would have backpedaled. (I've come to notice I tend to defend the U.S. out of a gut reaction if a non-American is doing the criticizing.) I probably would've said something like, “No…the performance wasn’t really that crazy. I guess we" — as in Americans — "just like to go all out when it comes to entertainment." Perhaps I would have criticized her country, Germany. It’s easy.

But her comment surprised me in a way that forced me to step back. And then I thought — even though it was hard to admit — jeez, this girl might be right. There is a chance that Lady Gaga’s performance and what it represented had moved past the realm of innovative and into "sick."

I wanted to defend Lady Gaga, American music and entertainment, I did. But something just seemed so off with that performance. Gaga seemed so boldly artistic at first. At the AMA’s she seemed more like a bad front yard Christmas display.

Musicians, of course, are known for toeing the line during performances — even leaping right over it. And many have done so successfully. But those performances worked because, often, the artists’ bold moves were cleverly calculated or their antics reflected an emotion felt by the audience at the time or were an expression of the zeitgeist. Lady Gaga, however, just seemed to be going over the top. And falling short.

I kept on thinking about the discrepancy. I had to try and figure out why Lady Gaga seemed to be striking so many false notes with this performance when she did seem to be someone, initially at least, who had talent.

Then finally, it hit me.

Lady Gaga may not be to blame. In fact, her AMA performance probability doesn’t reflect her merit as an artist. She may not be “sick.” What drove her to put on such a performance, however, just might be.

See, the only thing that’s sick — or, let’s be fair, might be sick — is what current pop stars must do to really get noticed. Think about it. Pop culture in America was always a bit of a circus. Now, it’s being transmuted into something crazier, stranger and even more hyperactive.

Why so? I wondered too. It has to do with the age we’re living in, the digital age. The pressures of working as an entertainer in the digital age and the democratization of stardom are reshaping our artists and entertainment. And not necessarily for the better.

Hear me out.

Being talented is no longer enough. Being unique is no longer enough; nor is being on TV. Everyone can be on TV, a.k.a. youtube. The playing field really has been leveled. So what does a pop star like Lady Gaga, who prides herself on individuality as it is, have to do to really get noticed? To really be different? To really shake things up?

She needs to take her performance to the next level. Burn pianos. Wear body stockings. Break glass bottles on keyboards. All to make that impression. If not, she, or any pop star, runs the risk of not being heard, of being drowned out by everyone — literally, everyone — else out there who also wants a piece of the spotlight, and can now actually get it.

And this new landscape may be difficult for an individualistic artist to navigate. Lady Gaga may truly have something special to offer. But because of the pressures associated with working as an entertainer in the digital age, she may be forced to “up her game” a bit and take her performance, her dress, her persona to the next level.

Unfortunately, she might be going too far. When one’s antics start obscuring one’s talents, that’s usually a sign to take a step back. If Lady Gaga doesn't, she runs the risk of simply being labeled silly. And no artist wants that.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whole Lotta' Shaking Goin' on

Here's something I scribbled in my Mead notebook a few months ago when I was in Germany. I was sort of bored/in a melancholy mood this particular day, just hanging out in a Starbucks that sat across from a big Gothic cathedral in Aachen, the country's westernmost city. Enjoy.

Aachen, August 16, 2009

Sitting here in Starbucks, not too many people, feeling a bit lonely on a Sunday. I’ve noticed while in Germany that one thing that makes me feel homesick is music, American music. American rock 'n' roll, to be exact. American rock 'n' roll seems to capture, or hold, an innocence, an intensity, an optimistic and fun-loving intensity, which Europe lost with its two World Wars. And forget Germany.

A few minutes ago, one of the baristas here stopped the cafe music that’d been playing. I thought the place was shutting down. But no. She was just switching CD’s. The new CD was a rock 'n' roll one, a “best of” compilation: everyone from James Brown to Elvis to the Temptations. The music got my foot tapping and if anything I was glad the cafe wasn’t closing early. Most stores in Germany don’t even open on Sundays.

Anyway, the music was pleasing enough but then one song came on that really awoke something in me: Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 “Great Balls of Fire.” Once I heard the gliss at the beginning, I was “shook” out of my reading. Lewis’ voice was just so full of energy and excitement. The song is a bit horny, actually. All right, it’s overtly horny. But that’s OK; it can be. It can be flirtatious, crazy and a bit boisterous, too — which it is.

And not only did the song shake me out of my reading, it also moved something in me. It transported me for a minute to America. Lewis’ voice made me feel all the excitement, energy and hope that typify the American experience.

No, America is not Europe. Europe may have its museums, its theatre houses, its wine, its architecture and its long history. But America is the land of incredible possibility, of constant change, of dynamism and friction, for good or bad. America is the land of rock 'n' roll.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

German diaries

I don't know how many of you know but I'm in Germany at the moment. Below you can find stuff that I've scribbled down -- obeservations, musings, vignettes -- while here. 


Friday, October 30, 2009

snapshot of Cologne cathedral at sundown

Cologne, August 4, 2009
9:28 p.m.

Sitting on the city-block-long set of steps that leads to a gothic cathedral so big and dirty and hulking and beautiful, it looks like something visited in dreams. The spires of this 900-year-old church rise into the sky. Like sequoias, the Cologne cathedral gives the impression of something that has been here before us and will be here after us. The soot caked on its sharp gothic features testifies to its old age. But still it rises. World War II didn’t even destroy it, so I guess it’ll be around for a while longer. Sitting on a city-block-long set of rough marble steps, hanging out here with about 100 other people. The sound of laughter. The sound of low German, of street German, being spoken. The scratching sound of flint wheels as people light up a smoke. The sun has gone down and the sky is a light blue, a soft-August-twilight blue. In the west, however, the sky holds on to some orange. The sun has sunk past a horizon not visible. Apartments and trees block it. But above these apartments and trees, an orange glow. Sitting on a city-block-long set of steps that leads to the gothic cathedral. Sitting, looking at the Hauptbahnhof. The Hauptbahnof has large illuminated letters on its roof that spell out Hauptbahnhof. Each letter is about the size of a person. The font of the letters is characteristic of another time, before Hitler. There’s something 20’s about the style of the illuminated letters, something Deco, something Weimar. There’s a football-field-size stone plaza in front of the Hauptbahnhof. People are crossing it. Back and forth, back and forth, they go, keeping beat with the metronome of time. Sitting on the city-block-long set of steps that leads to the cathedral.

Cologne, August 4, 2009
9:45 p.m.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

a must-read

Holy crap. If you're interested in a breaking new story chocked with drama, check this out.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Status Quo

There are many things I don’t understand about America. Our unbridled optimism, our celebrity obsessions, our cross-country networks of fast food chains...Hummers, hero worship, reality TV.

But I can live with those things. What I can’t live with — and perhaps what I least understand about America — is our perennial failure, our abject and shameful failure, to deal with the control of guns.

Week after week, as sure as death itself, some one of our citizens is walking into a public place — be it a church, school or office building — and opening fire on the soft helpless bodies inside.

Just last Friday, a 41-year-old man armed with two pistols entered an immigrant community center in Binghamton, New York, and shot and killed 13 people in an ESL class.

The next day — hell, the next morning! — a man in Pittsburg turned his very own AK-47 on three police officers who showed up to his house to investigate a domestic disturbance call, killing all of them.

And the list goes on: eight senior citizens shot dead in a North Carolina nursing home; a baby killed after another gunman goes on a rampage in Alabama; an Illinois pastor shot to death inside his church.

And that was all in March.

So now here’s my question: What’s it going to take stop these kinds of killings? How many more innocent people — 10, 20 200 — must die before our government passes the kind of legislation that could seriously restrict the ease with which a man can get a gun in this country? Better yet, is it even possible to pass such legislation? Is tighter gun control something we even want? Or is our gun culture too far entrenched to turn back now.

After that nightmarish scene unfolded last Friday in Binghamton, the New York Times asked a man who worked a few doors down from the immigrant center what he made of the shootings, which had, in effect, just transformed his small rural city into a zone of chaos. The man, a pastor, said that, to be honest, he wasn’t all that surprised by what'd just happened considering how frequently such killings occur in America. "It's like our number came up," he said.

How sad it is to live in a country where mass murder has become the status quo.