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.