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Pop culture Alzheimer’s or, Lady Gaga did not invent diddly squat.

August 17, 2010

Yesterday was Madonna’s 52nd birthday and it got me to thinking about pop culture icons and our collectively short memory span. It could totally be the fact that I have now passed the mid-thirties mark and am on an inevitable toboggan run toward forty, but it kind of baffles me the way people act like our current crop of chart-topping popsters invented the (really tired) wheel they are spinning ’round (like a record, baby). And I don’t mean young people – I can’t expect a 15 year old to have some encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture’s past – although they could access it in the twinkle of an eye thanks to the magic Internet box we all have in our homes these days. No, it’s the adults, the folks my age or older, who blow my mind with their slavish devotion to some of these also-rans clogging up the airwaves.

I recently indulged a friend of mine and went to a Castro gay bar that I am not a huge fan of so I could join him in dancing off some of his fashion grad school stress as he slaved away at a knitwear collection every free second he wasn’t working his ass off as a hairstylist. The bar in question played the requisite top 40 pop fodder but I don’t completely hate that for the purposes of dancing. But what seriously grated my cheese was watching men who were well past their early 20s belting out every word along with Lady Gaga, Ke$ha (that dollar sign will drive me to homicide one day, I swear) and Katy Perry as if these pop tarts had penned their lyrics after poring over their collective diaries. I am not begrudging anyone their pop music joys – you should have seen me shaking my backside when Beyonce came on – but I just don’t get the fervor over some of these folks. Especially Lady Gaga.

I know she is a popularly divisive figure and there’s a lot of folks out there who love to hate her. But my thing is I can’t even generate enough emotion about her to hate her. She gives me a raging pop culture soft-on. I have been impressed with a few of her videos for sure, they can be quite epic and visually stunning. But she’s not directing the videos so I don’t feel I should give her much of the credit. People praise her for writing her own songs and yet they don’t stand out to me as being terribly unique compared to anything else topping the charts, so why is she so deserving of praise for that? And sure, she’s cultivated a hyper-weird persona and image and wears all sort of outlandish outfits but it’s not like she’s the first pop star to ever tread that path. Hello? Do the names Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Grace Jones or Cher ring any bells to you? Again, I don’t expect the youth of today (heh) to recall these icons from decades ago, but my peers are really bumming me out with their worshiping of her and her aforementioned peers who, in a lot of ways, just seem like the fifth or sixth faint photocopy of Madonna, the early years.

In the end, I guess it’s a fascinating study of marketing in action. Lady Gaga, if nothing more, feels like she was market-tested into existence. I remember the first time I heard any buzz about her and went and read her press info online and it spent more time talking about her image and style and attitude than her music. And it’s not as if past pop gods and goddesses were any less shameful in their marketing in the past. But what makes me a bit wistful for those bygone days is a distinct lack of joy or fun and a heaping helping of humorlessness to most of today’s pop mega-conglomerates. (Although I will give Katy Perry a pass on that because she seems to be having a ball even if her and her music irritate the living daylights out of me.) I wish everyone in pop music could lighten the fuck up and stop worrying so much about being sexy and edgy and slick. And it wouldn’t hurt to be able to laugh at yourselves a little. And that applies to the birthday girl pictured at the top of my post. She has become such a brittle, funless, harsh version of her formerly fun self that it almost eclipses the versions of her I adored in the past. But my good friend Jonno shared this video on his Tumblr in honor of Madge’s birthday and for 4 minutes and 42 seconds I got to bask in the joy that once was Madonna. Watch the video, wherein she addresses MTV on its 10th anniversary, and try to imagine anyone on the pop music landscape doing anything half as funny, bitchy or plain fantastic as this little slice of joy.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. taylor permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:14 am

    You said it all with Grace Jones. How blatantly can you rip off someone’s entire persona? I feel like she may have watched Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner a couple of times too. Pop culture has gone down the tubes.

    • August 17, 2010 11:00 am

      Taylor, the best thing is that Lady Gaga apparently approached Grace Jones’s people about working with her and she flat out denied her saying she prefers to work with original artists and not “people who are trying to copy me.” Priceless!

  2. August 17, 2010 10:34 am

    I’m mostly indifferent to Lady Gaga’s music. I like it enough, I guess. Removed from the videos, it’s nothing that special. What does fascinate me about Lady Gaga is that she dropped onto the planet this fully-formed pop star, with no evolutionary process whatsoever. Even with someone as big as Madonna, there was a rawer, rougher version. Lady Gaga just kind of… happened.

    • August 17, 2010 10:59 am

      Right! That is part of what feels weird about her too. But if you do some digging she was just a brunette singer/songwriter with a somewhat sexy image that no one was paying much attention to. But, like I said, she feels like she was formed in some sort of pop culture zeitgeist laboratory or something.

  3. August 17, 2010 1:15 pm

    The discourse surrounding Gaga has been far more interesting – to me, anyway – than anything about her artistry. In some ways, I find her wildly exploitive, but at the same time I question whether or not some of the backlash she receives is largely due to the argument you’ve expertly laid out here: her fanbase’s inability to place her musical contributions in a larger context. Unlike Gwen Stefani, I’m not entirely convinced this is something Gaga actively encourages, I mean she did reach out to Grace Jones, though I’m pleased that Jones rebuffed her advances. That said, there’s nothing in Gaga that I can’t find in Freddie Mercury, Grace Jones, Cher, Bowie, Daryl Hall, Tina Marie or hell – even Madonna. Therefore, I’m not especially interested in investigating her music much. She’s not like Xtina, who corrected those who sought to align her legacy with Madonna’s; she rightly aligned herself with her talent musical godmother – Cyndi Lauper.

    As always, fantastic post.

    • August 17, 2010 6:53 pm

      Yeah, I think she rides really far on so many people thinking she just fell from the sky fully formed like a creature of myth as opposed to her image being strategically overhauled to maximize her appeal. It was interesting watching that Madonna video I posted because, of course, it led me to look at others from that era and there’s almost…I don’t want to say “DIY” because Madonna had way more money and people behind her than that. But there’s a feel to it that is more human I think due to the different technology of the time. It wasn’t possible for people to look like glassy-smooth glambots then like they can now. I mean, Madonna’s hair used to look bad. Like she might have colored it herself. And maybe that was on purpose, but it seems like an impossibility in this day and age for someone to look that mortal.

  4. August 17, 2010 1:39 pm

    Holy seriousness re Madonna (and, really, the rest of it). I cannot look at Gaga without thinking that.

    Shamefully I don’t know very much about Grace Jones but I enjoyed the zing.

  5. colin permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:56 pm

    and then Madonna became this:

    • August 17, 2010 6:49 pm

      I know she’d hate to admit it but that sure looks like a hot flash to me.

  6. August 19, 2010 9:20 am

    I find it odd how so many people get angry at Bjork for her fashion, while pop culture is eating up Lady Gaga, who to me looks more like an ice capades performer than a pop star. I dont even think her music is catchy or fun. Just grating.

    Also, Gaga is the logical conclusion of the arty pop/electro movement thats been going on since the beginning of the zeroes – Peaches, Fisherspooner, Hey Willpower, Chicks on Speed, The Knife etc. All of these people I actually remember in NY clubs and mix-tapes, while Lady Gaga just kind of appeared. So when she talks about coming up in the NY “scene” I’m not sure what scene exactly she is talking about.


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