The Great Gaga Experiment Part 2: The Image

In part one of this little experiment I talked about  Lady Gaga’s music after a whole day of listening to nothing but her discography. My conclusion was that her music isn’t for me, but I can definitely see why some people adore it. The biggest problem I have with it is that while it has more thematic depth than a lot of top 40 radio fodder, it’s still shallow pop with the musical range of a Nickelback. Her music is just sort of boring, with almost every song hitting the same ominous verse-anthemic chorus structure.

That said, in the current pop music landscape — a world of singles and not albums — it’s hard to really fault her for this. This is not music that’s meant to be intently listened to from end to end. You’re supposed to hear a song on your local top 40 radio station, get the hook stuck in your head and maybe head to iTunes to download it. At which point you’ll probably hear it occasionally as you put your iPod on shuffle while you work out or maybe at a club or something.

This is low impact, pop fluff and by those standards it’s nothing less than serviceable. I’d much rather listen to most tracks off of Born This Way than anything by Katy Perry or Kesha (fuck you, dollar signs aren’t letters!).

HOWEVER

Serviceable pop tunes do not make an international icon. For this you need an image; a message; a…well gimmick and Gaga has those in spades.

First things first: she’s not doing anything new. I don’t mean this in a negative way. It’s just a fact. Gaga is just filling the pop provocateur void that has existed in the music scene for some time now.

It’s no secret that Madonna is probably her biggest influence in terms of overall career trajectory. I’m talking about the constant self-reinvention, the social activism, the controversial music videos. There are, however, many other musical acts that are worth noting for their contributions to Lady Gaga’s image.

Glam Rock

Glam rock was more a performance style than a musical one (although there are clear musical similarities across many most prominent acts). It’s most often associated with artists who performed in elaborate makeup, outfits and hairstyles (sound familiar?).  It’s also the start of an obsession with androgyny, something that will pop up more than once in this little piece.

This is one of the first times that pop musicians put image, performance and spectacle on the same pedestal as music. Given the nature of the times (the early and mid-70s), however, it was difficult for an artist to really get this across outside of live performances and promotional videos so in many ways the music still needed to come first. Glam rock would pave the way for the more fashion and performance driven styles of music that would influence Gaga, particularly electroclash (covered in part one) where the music is almost completely devoid of substance in favor of outlandish live acts.

The father of all glam rockers is Marc Bolan, front man of T. Rex. This performance of “Hot Love” on Top of the Pops is often credited as the birth of glam.

 

Now as we look back at rock and pop history David Bowie is held up as the glam rock king, and rightfully so. Further, in terms of our little Lady Gaga conversation, Bowie is one of the most relevant artists.

With the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972, Bowie did something unprecedented and created yet another stage persona. This meant a new type of music, new costumes and a new attitude.

This lasted for years until Bowie moved on to his next character.

One of Gaga's earlier looks is clearly a nod to (or ripoff of depending on how cynical you are) Bowie's iconic Aladdin Sane album cover

While the concept of artist self-reinvention really starts with The Beatles, Bowie took things to a whole new level, paving the way for artists like Madonna and of course Ms. Gaga.

Grace Jones

An actor and singer, Grace Jones embraced the new wave of the early 80s and set upon creating a unique image and presence that would combine her music with fashion and performance art.

 

Jones’ image was best characterized by androgyny. She wore angular and padded clothing designed by fashionistas (something also employed by Gaga) and a flat-top hair cut. This is one of the best examples of a musician bringing pop music, high fashion and performance art together to create a provocative persona, something Gaga would later do.

Dale Bozzio

Dale Bozzio is the frontwoman of 80s new wave group Missing Persons. She has had a serious influence on the female pop singers of the 90s and beyond, particularly Gwen Stefani.

 

The similarities to Gaga here are obvious: big hair, wild makeup and outlandish and revealing clothes. Things get a little bit too similar, however, when you take a look at this comparison photo put together by demicouture.ca.

THE BUBBLES

Then there’s Madonna, but I’m not even going to bother touching on that one.

Electroclash

I mentioned this earlier and in part one, but Gaga’s marriage of shallow music and lavish stage performance (not to mention a bit of her actual musical style) are taken from page one of the electroclash hand book.

This is best exemplified by Fischerspooner, one of the biggest acts to emerge from the short-lived electroclash scene. The duo are as much a performance troupe as a musical act. Take a look at one of their shows:

Conclusion

Before she was known as Lady Gaga, Stefani Germanotta enrolled in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Her studies here, mainly in pop art, greatly informed the pop star she would become. She has, like other performers before her, combined accessible pop music with high fashion, pop art and performance art and in doing so created a persona that is bizarre to many and irresistible to even more.

The timing, however, was just perfect. The pop world didn’t have someone quite like her at the time and her ability to reinvent and shock has gone a long way to capturing attention while no one else is really trying.

Combine this with a progressive self-esteem boosting and pro-gay rights message and it’s no surprise Germanotta has become a phenomenon. She’s very much the product of our Internet age; constantly changing, shallow, shocking and progressive.

One has to ask though, how long will it last? Musically she’s already repeating herself and the speed of self-reinvention which she has adopted is absurdly fast. I’ll give her a couple more albums before she peters out. But what do I know?

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About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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