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Pop Ate My Heart: Lady Gaga, Her Videos, and Her Fame Monster

Where does Lady Gaga fit into the typical conception of a pop musician?

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Pop Ate My Heart: Lady Gaga, Her Videos, and Her Fame Monster

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known to the world as Lady Gaga, has had a meteoric rise in the world of pop music with the release of her debut album The Fame. With her catchy lyrical hooks and slick electronic beats, Lady Gaga may not necessarily break any significant musical ground; she beats her critics to the punch and says that “My music isn’t me jerking my dick off all over a piano trying to feel something. I make soulless electronic pop.” But that electronic pop is an excellent springboard for a rich output of visual media, including not only music videos but also short films as well. Throughout it all, one can detect a singular vision that expresses a consistent visual style and explores a tightly-knit set of questions and themes. By examining her videos and films, one can see that Lady Gaga is trying to be a different kind of pop star. She’s an auteur in the truest sense of the word, claiming ownership of her visual output as a slice of a larger mode of artistic expression.

It is often difficult to locate a sense of authorship in the popular music world, much of which is manufactured by committee and corporate dictum and bears more than a little resemblance to the Hollywood studio system. Not every pop musician can claim authorship over his or her work; in fact, few can. Before one can examine Lady Gaga’s body of work for an authorial voice, one must justify that the body of work belongs to her in the first place. What separates Gaga from most other pop singers and musicians that we can even begin to ask the question, “What is Lady Gaga’s authorial signature?”

Take your typical pop singer (Britney Spears, etc). However entertaining or meaningful their music may be, it is fairly evident that they are not the guiding force behind their music or even their own images. Their songs are constructed by semi-anonymous songwriters and producers, leading much of the resulting product to be generic: it is undifferentiated and could be interchangeable between performers. This means that at best these artists are journeymen churning out variations of a standard product, and more typically these pop musicians are blank vehicles on which an image or style is imposed externally. The result is that the visual components of these songs—the music videos—are similarly alienated from the artist whose name is on them. The videos are simple products designed to promote another product: the musician and the music. Even musicians who have more control over their images and their music—Beyoncé, let’s say—are at a remove from the visual components of their work. The music video becomes a secondary form of expression that relies on the backing song to inform its meaning. Typically the music videos from such artists may be visually striking and inventive, but they do not all fit into a coherent aesthetic framework, having only the barest threads of stylistic or thematic connection. If a guiding hand can be attributed to the music video, it is often to the individual director’s and not the musician’s.

Where does Lady Gaga fit into the typical conception of a pop musician? The answer is that Gaga sets herself apart by self-consciously acknowledging the constructed nature of her music and her image, and then positions herself as the sole controller of both. She has both the practical and theoretical background to justify such a claim; the first comes from her days as one of the aforementioned semi-anonymous songwriters, penning tracks for other artists including the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears. Her theoretical understanding about the nature and the role of her music shows through in her discussion of it. Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones notes that “[s]he cites Andy Warhol, claims to be a ’fame Robin Hood’ who has lost her mind, opines in public about whether a certain shade of red is ’Communist,’ and has dropped Rilke’s name more than once.” The music itself is full of knowing winks and nods; there are layers upon layers to decode, even in Gaga’s own self-described “soulless electronic pop.”

At the very least, this establishes that the music from The Fame primarily originates from Lady Gaga, and that the secondary works emanating from it—such as the music videos—have the potential to be Gaga’s work as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are; after all, the individual video directors could override Gaga’s own sensibilities with their own artistic direction. However, this isn’t the case. Lady Gaga does not abandon the visual component of her music. Rather than the videos being ancillary products designed to promote the music, Gaga treats the tracks on the album as equal opportunities for visual expression. This is a one of Gaga’s principal aims as an artist; she has said that “It’s the artist’s job to create imagery that matches the music—something powerful that will really grab the audience and create a memorable impression,” and claims that:

“What has been lost in pop music these days is the combination of the visual and the imagery of the artist, along with the music—and both are just as important. So, even though the carefree nature of the album is something that people are latching onto right away about my stuff, I hope they will take notice of the interactive, multimedia nature of what I’m trying to do. The things I like to do and the theatrics, I like to incorporate them into the choreography. With my music, it’s a party, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s about making the lifestyle the forefront of the music.”

Consider the two facets of authorial signature that are used when examining the work of film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick: first, the auteur explores a consistent set of themes or questions throughout their body of work, weaving it into disparate plots regardless of the actors, producers, or studios involved. Second, the auteur maintains a distinctive visual and technical style that crosses multiple films; these distinctive markers and motifs can be used to identify an auteur’s work.

Can one detect an authorial signature in Gaga’s videos and films, regardless of who she is collaborating with? She does claim ownership of her work; in discussing the music video process, she says that “my biggest challenge working with directors is that I am the director and I write the treatments and I get the fashion and I decide what it’s about and it’s very hard to find directors that will relinquish any sort of input from the artist.” There is a consistent set of themes explored in Gaga’s videos, with the three most notable strands being: the intersection of sex, mortality, and public image; the ambiguity and blurring of sexuality and gender roles; and pop music and its attendant fame as an infectious, devouring monster. These themes are bound and unified by a distinctive visual style: at once literate and hedonistic, and possessed with a beautiful alien eroticism. This is most evident in Lady Gaga’s notorious penchant for elaborate and exotic costumes, but it can also be seen in the distinctive visual motifs and patterns present in all her videos. We have evidence that these are all conscious choices and not accidental: it’s called the Haus of Gaga. The group consists of artists of various stripes, including fashion designers, installation artists, filmmakers, and stylists handpicked by Gaga herself. It is her conscious attempt to recreate an artistic collective in the pattern of Warhol’s Factory. She describes its formation as:

“I called all my coolest art friends and we sat in a room and I said that I wanted to make my face light up. Or that I wanted to make my cane light up. Or that I wanted to make a pair of dope sunglasses. Or that I want to make video glasses, or whatever it was that I wanted to do. It’s a whole amazing creative process that’s completely separate from the label.”

The purpose of the Haus of Gaga is to create the visual framework that defines the Gaga aesthetic: the costumes, the props, the accessories, and the choreography. In collaboration with the members of the Haus and the directors of her videos, Lady Gaga is attempting to inject the word “Gagaesque” into the visual lexicon.

To fully explore the development of Lady Gaga’s aesthetic in her visual work, we can attempt to periodize the examples of that work—the films and videos—as one would do for any other auteur. These periods include an initial stage where the artist is learning the limitations of the form and the expectations of her audience, and yet manages to retain her own originality in the process. Then there is a period of development, in which the auteur finds her voice and develops her signature style—often subverting the system as she does it. Then the auteur reaches the height of her expression; the machine is running strong and she makes her most distinctive works. One can see all three stages in Gaga’s work to date.

Lady Gaga

“Show him what I’ve got”: Centrality and positions of power in the frame. From top, left to right: (a) Colby O’Donis and Akon in “Just Dance” (b) Lady Gaga in “Poker Face” (c) “LoveGame” (d) “Paparazzi.”

Forming an Identity. There are some striking commonalities in Lady Gaga’s early video work: first, they all revolve around parties and dancing, which is an unsurprisingly common premise for dance music videos. But at the same time, each video shows Gaga using her indefatigable personal style as a weapon against compromising external forces. In fact, there is a clear progression across videos, portraying Gaga as an infectious intruder; her sense of style takes over the people around her. Taken individually, the videos may be unremarkable: “Just Dance” portrays Gaga crashing a party and bringing it back to life, “Beautiful Dirty Rich” features Gaga and company dancing around an expensive-looking penthouse apartment, and “Poker Face” features more of the same but replaces the apartment with a mansion. The three videos are also threadbare in the sense of narrative progression, something which is challenged in later videos; in this period of Gaga’s work, the visuals require the pure force of the music to drive them forward. But consider the videos together as Gaga’s first steps, and you can see the development of her process and her struggle with reconciling her own personal vision with the external voices of her influences, patrons, sponsors, and benefactors.

The video for “Just Dance,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, has as its basic premise a party populated by ghosts (of a sort) resurrected from their slumber by the power of Gaga’s music. It is the most chaotic and raw of Gaga’s videos, and relies on a great deal of handheld camerawork; it lacks much of the precise coordination and attention to detail present in much of her other work. Working from the premise of the song (which features the lines “I love this record baby but I can’t see straight anymore”), it’s designed to be drunken, messy, and fun. Yet in the midst of this out-of-control setting, Gaga maintains control of one thing at all costs: her personal style. Her main outfit in the video (featuring the iconic lightning bolt on the face) is a take on David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” character; Gaga claims the gender-bending Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and the glam rock style as primary influences for her own work. As we’ll see across the rest of her work, Gaga is shameless in quoting and referencing her predecessors and influences; she takes their inspiration and blends it all together to form her own style.

Note the strong presence of Colby O’Donis (her collaborator) and Akon (her patron) in this video. The two artists make a strong showing in the video, and their depiction is perhaps the most conservative—even patriarchal—imagery on display in Gaga’s work to date. While Gaga is an active force of change, rushing from room to room and constantly in motion, O’Donis and Akon are both conservatively attired and stationary. They remain seated on the couch in a throne-like manner, occupying a position of power surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women. This notion of positions of power is returned to in the videos for “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi”; however, in those videos Gaga inverts the image and claims the power position for her own.

Where the main thrust of “Just Dance” is Gaga invading a space and bringing life to a deadened and initially resistant populace, the video for “Beautiful Dirty Rich” depicts a small cadre already in line with Lady Gaga. Like the Haus of Gaga itself, the backup dancers form a core nucleus of Gagaesque style, reflecting and complementing her costumes and mimicking her movements. Once again, “Beautiful Dirty Rich” shows signs of external forces bearing down on Gaga: the video was timed to help promote the second season of the ABC television show Dirty Sexy Money, and the luxurious penthouse apartment in the video is the main set for the show. But Gaga, continuing to work with Matsoukas, makes the space her own. Rather than the airy, bright, opulent space depicted in the show, Gaga and her backup dancers march through a darkened, claustrophobic environment. The heavy use of frontal lighting and low camera angles help contribute to a sense of intruding and commandeering the space; with their angular dance moves and the burning, eating, and wanton destruction of paper currency, Gaga and her crew are like frenetic robots invading the domain of the rich and claiming it for themselves.

This second video also displays the most common motif in Gaga’s work—the eyes. Perhaps playing on the “eyes as windows” trope, a main feature of the Gagaesque style involves the occlusion, marking, or obscuring of the eyes; most of her outfits include this, beginning with the dark jewel-encrusted shades on the album cover for The Fame. The eyes are such critical parts of establishing a visual identity, and in destroying or hiding them Gaga becomes a cipher and a dangerously unknown force. Many of her dance moves play around the eyes, such as the “peek-a-boo” style moves employed in “Just Dance” or “Paparazzi.” Other devices include the masks and meshes used in “Poker Face” and “LoveGame”, and sunglasses that show up in almost everything—in the video for “Poker Face” Lady Gaga deploys a pair of video-screen glasses that transform the eyes from instruments of perception to instruments of transmission. In “Beautiful Dirty Rich,” Gaga and her backup dancers wear striking bands of makeup around the eyes, while she alternatively obscures and accentuates her eyes by fanning around hundred-dollar bills from the piles around her (when she isn’t literally consuming them by eating them).

“Poker Face” is the last video in Gaga’s early period, and as such features many elements of birth and transition; the opening features her emerging from the water, flanked by a pair of Great Danes—a pop culture Aphrodite rising from the foam. She also reveals herself by prying off a mask and tossing it away; timed with the release of The Fame LP and benefiting from a larger budget, “Poker Face” displays the conception and realization of a fully-formed Lady Gaga: the fusion of technology, fashion, and pop culture. Once again, sponsorship and cross-promotion are factors; the mansion in the video was provided by the gambling Web site Bwin.com, and their logo is featured prominently in one shot. But Lady Gaga, working this time with director Ray Kay, again commandeers the space and transforms it into a house for Gaga. One segment of the video features Gaga wandering around the mansion’s pool while she is surrounded by statuesque mannequins—mechanical abstractions of people that are frozen in the poses that will be adopted by her backup dancers and the crowds in subsequent scenes. If “Just Dance” showed Gaga injecting a dose of chaotic avant-garde culture into an unsuspecting populace, and “Beautiful Dirty Rich” showed Gaga with a small core of like-minded artists, “Poker Face” represents the fruition of Lady Gaga (and a pop culture movement) infecting the populace: the crowd has adopted Gaga’s style as their own, and everyone moves to Gaga’s beat.

Just as the visual iconography of the Gagaesque style begins to consolidate in this video, the themes and questions that Lady Gaga wishes to consider begin to snap into focus as well. Beneath the ever-thumping beat and the stutter-stepping lyrics of “Poker Face” is a dangerous sexual undertone; a write-up of one of her live performances noted that “the song is about her personal experience with bisexuality. To an enthusiastic crowd reaction, she stated the song is about being with a man but fantasizing about a woman; hence, the man must read her ’Poker Face.” When considering pop stars (especially female ones) and their central role in such a visual medium as the music video, it’s impossible to escape discussion of things like the “male gaze” and female sexuality—it’s almost a given that pop music sells sex and that mainstream artists have images designed to titillate and to put their sexuality on display. Most of them are supposedly positioned as vixens or sex goddesses, but the artificiality makes the whole thing unsettling; as these women put their bodies on display, it’s evident that they are partially or wholly ceding control over their own images.

Madonna, the originator of many of the techniques used in the past quarter-century of pop music, attempted to subvert the concept by pushing her sexual display to the limits in order to seize control of it. Gaga takes a page from her playbook; although she is notorious for eschewing pants with her outfits, she pays meticulous attention to her image. Her work in fusing of influences from male glam rockers (many who played with gender boundaries themselves) and the bleeding edge of avant-garde fashion creates a conceptual image of Gaga that is not primarily designed for another’s titillation, but for the fulfillment of her own sexual expression. Lady Gaga commented in one interview that “I’m not trying to make your dick hard the way other girls are. I’m trying to teach your dick to get hard when it looks at other things. I love Grace Jones and David Bowie because they played with gender, with what ’sexy’ means.”

The imagery used in “Poker Face” matches that: the futuristic sci-fi styling (that includes sculpted shoulders, bold lines, and video screens replacing the eyes) connotes an alien sexuality. Even when she employs a provocative concept such as a game of strip poker, Gaga is the orchestrator rather than a helpless body put on display. In the most blatant displays of sexuality in the video, it’s the man who is passive and practically naked while Gaga approaches him from a position of power. To get a real sense of the stark difference in presentation, contrast “Poker Face” with more traditionally-styled displays of female sexuality, such as in the music videos for Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” or Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty”.

Lady Gaga

“Brown Eyes”: Lady Gaga’s use of the eye motif. From top, left to right: (a) “Just Dance” (b) “Beautiful Dirty Rich” (c) “Poker Face” (d) The album cover to The Fame (e) “Eh, Eh (Nothing I Can Say)” (f) “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” (g) “The Fame: Part One” (h) “LoveGame” (i) “Paparazzi.”

Developing the Vision. When an auteur develops her visual vocabulary, it is important to define its edges. Gaga explores one extreme in the video for “Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say),” but for the other edge, she steps away from being tied to any one specific song and works in the realm of short films for “The Fame: Part One” and “Who Shot Candy Warhol”—bursts of visual expression that develop the Gagaesque style as a whole. “Eh Eh (Nothing I Can Say)” as a track is an intriguing case: rather than the tech-assisted sexy-androgynous dance pop that dominates a good chunk of The Fame, it and its sister tracks “Brown Eyes” and “Again Again” are evidence of a stripped-down, simpler, sincere Gaga. As such, the accompanying video also serves as a contrast to her body of work—now that the Lady Gaga persona has been fully established, it’s time to fill in the negative spaces and the shadows. The video doesn’t say that Lady Gaga is a character being played by Stefani Germanotta, but it does remind us of the essential humanity of the artist. What’s striking about it is how much it feels like Lady Gaga is playacting: the video has a nostalgic, dreamlike tone. Set in a stylized pastel 1950s Little Italy (and perhaps playing on a version of Ms. Germanotta’s own roots growing up in New York), the video plays heavily with stereotypical and historical shorthand as it displays mustached chefs, macho men in wife beaters, cute Vespas, and spaghetti and meatballs.

Working with veteran music video director Joseph Kahn, Lady Gaga mashes all these elements to create the feeling of a fashion dollhouse. She even plays house and engages in activities that, while not necessarily feminized, are at least domestic: cooking meals for her man and doing his laundry. But the tasks feel unreal, as if she is going through the abstracted motions—this is reinforced by the fact that she sings and addresses the viewer as she’s doing them. She’s not in the moment, but is instead playing a feminized role in a dreamlike space; this quality is accentuated by the bright and blown-out color palette, and the numerous shots of Gaga in bed or sleeping. The cumulative effect is that it asserts the Lady Gaga of the previous videos to be the real one, and the Gaga in “Eh Eh” is a character that she is playing. There’s a definite sense of progression in her work to this point; “Eh Eh” couldn’t have been her first video, because it relies on its contrast to the foundation laid by her previous videos to make complete sense. By showing us this playact, it reinforces the other elements of the Gagaesque style.

Music videos are not the sole component of Lady Gaga’s visual palette; aside from the heavy emphasis on fashion and costume that turns her every public appearance into an artistic display, “The Fame: Part One” and “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” are works unbound from the demands of the music video format. These short films allow Gaga to pursue more challenging lines of expression and help her to better elucidate some of her core themes. “The Fame: Part One” is a short designed to promote the release of the eponymous LP; it uses a medley of Gaga songs as its soundtrack. Directed by Constellation Jones, the film has the clearest narrative threads of any Gaga work to this point. It follows the travails of Lady Gaga and her backup dancers as they rob a jewelry vendor, explore the urban landscape, and face betrayal and reunion. The film is heavily inspired by the French New Wave: all the dialogue is overdubbed in French, and it plays with a fractured timeline, unexplained character actions, jumps in time and space, and heavy use of hand-held cameras in public places. It’s telling how many of these stylistic elements have been incorporated into contemporary music videos in general, but in this context Gaga and Jones strip the structure bare and play with it. It’s also a polyglot film: besides the French dub, the film features burned-in subtitles in both English and Chinese—Gaga’s thinking globally.

This concept of reaching the whole world is important; Gaga announces at the beginning, “Together we can conquer the world.” In fact, one can consider “The Fame: Part One” as a manifesto of sorts, laying out all of the major themes Gaga considers important. In one shot, Gaga’s video glasses proclaim that “Pop music will never be lowbrow.” This film also features one of the first explicit mentions of the Haus of Gaga, which conceived the “art and technology” on display in the film; the most prominent example of this is the “discostick,” one of Lady Gaga’s most iconic props. The discostick is cane-like and has a beacon of light on one end, usually making it the brightest thing in the frame and giving it a somewhat magical quality. In “The Fame: Part One” it is used as a weapon and force of transgression: Gaga draws it out like a sword from a sheath and uses it to smash a display case. This sense that Gaga is a trespassing alien force unleashed on the populace runs throughout the film; with their distinctive costumes and robotic synchronous movement, she and her dancers stand out from the drab urban landscape and draw the attention of all the relatively normal people around them. They tear a path through a marketplace, accosting and discomfiting everyone in their way.

Death imagery is a powerful motif in much of Gaga’s work, and it is on full display in “The Fame: Part One.” Gaga hangs one of her dancers with a length of rope, an image that is revisited in the video for “Paparazzi.” That same dancer suffers a symbolic death when Gaga discovers that she is a traitor—the enemies of Lady Gaga are “bigots,” as that is one of the epithets she hurls when visiting her punishment upon the dancer. The nature of this punishment is to strip her naked; Gaga yells, “Get the shoes, the jacket… Get everything!” To be stripped of one’s clothing and costume is to be denied an identity. Gaga eventually reunites with the woman, but on strange terms. In the ending to the film, Gaga’s dancers are reduced to the status of props; Gaga uses one as the stand for her keyboard, and while she embraces the other and lights her cigarette, the dancer is frozen in place like a mannequin. This hints at one of the potentially more alienating themes embedded in Gaga’s work: pop culture is a monstrous assimilating force, and for people to have any permanence in the face of it, they must become empty vehicles for its transmission. Lady Gaga may be sacrificing her identity on her own terms; but like every other pop star, she is still sacrificing her identity.

This concept is further explored in “Who Shot Candy Warhol?”—a series of short films used as introductions during Lady Gaga’s live performances. Also known as “The Crevette Films” and “The Heart/The Brain/The Face,” the series of films owes a great stylistic debt to the work of Andy Warhol. Lady Gaga’s body of work elucidates and expands on many of his thoughts on the nature of fame and the role of pop culture; it’s only natural that she would look to him as a major influence. The visuals of “Who Shot Candy Warhol” are designed to recall many elements of Warhol’s work, down to the appearance of being shot on grainy, aging 1960s film stock or recorded on distorted reused videotape; in “The Heart,” Gaga gives herself an all-black outfit and cropped platinum hair, sculpting herself in Warhol’s image. Other homages to Warhol include relying on minimalist settings to the point of abstraction and investing a great deal of attention on repetitive actions such as taking off gloves or brushing hair (which itself is quoting a scene from Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls).

The three films of “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” are all slices of the same subject, revolving around the “beautiful monster” of Pop claiming various parts of Gaga’s character (the Candy Warhol of the title); in each, she engages in a dialogue with a mysterious male figure who probes her with questions. Both speak in a robotic monotone, divesting their speech of emotion. Gaga tells the man that Pop ate her heart; but instead of feeling empty, she feels free. She tells him that Pop ate her brain and replaced it with a machine. In the final film, Gaga tells the man that Pop wanted her face; after she introduces herself, the man asks her for her real name. But she tells him that she doesn’t understand the question—she has no identity except for what Pop has given her. Each film then ends with a barrage of images leading up to Gaga’s entrance on stage for the concert. In keeping with one of the main Gagaesque motifs, in each film Lady Gaga blocks her eyes in some fashion: with sunglasses, with a hairbrush, or with a mask of pantyhose—the last one distorting her entire face and literally removing her identity.

The most intriguing element of “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” is how Lady Gaga is able to locate such a strong avant-garde tendency in something as supposedly mainstream as a pop concert. Every stylistic element in these films is purposefully designed to be alienating; they are filled with obtuse imagery and abstract dialogue, and the countdown to Gaga’s arrival consists of snippets and flashes of her disembodied eyes, lips, and face that strobe through garish purple filters or that are chopped into an epileptic barrage of shots. At the risk of making a broad generalization about Lady Gaga’s audience, it seems like this is the type of visual art that most people would not seek out on their own; they are only able to properly experience it because of the context Lady Gaga puts it into. Whereas “Eh Eh” only makes complete sense when taken as a contrast to the rest of Gaga’s work, “Who Shot Candy Warhol?” only makes complete sense when taken as an example of Gaga’s artistic tendencies pushed to the extreme. It’s a statement made by an auteur seizing the reins; at the end of “The Heart,” she announces “Revolution is coming. And I want—we want—you deserve the future. My name is Lady Gaga, and this is my Haus.”

Lady Gaga

“Lady No More Gaga”: Death imagery in Gaga’s work and beyond. From top, left to right: (a) “Just Dance” (b) “Beautiful Dirty Rich” (c) “The Fame: Part One” (d) “Paparazzi” (e) “Paparazzi” (f) Melanie Pullen’s “Half Prada (Hanging Series),” part of High Fashion Crime Scenes.

Expanding Horizons. When the auteur has received some measure of popular or critical acclaim, and when she is experienced enough to wield the tools of her craft with confidence, she enters into a distinctly new period of her career. The primary pressures are no longer external (although commercial demands may never go away), but instead come from within. The auteur must work to create something that elucidates and builds on what has come before while still being compelling as an individual work in its own right. An auteur’s vision must be continually reproduced in new and interesting ways while deepening and widening the stylistic palette. Lady Gaga’s most recent work, which include the videos for “LoveGame,” “Paparazzi,” and “Bad Romance,” all show the artist more deeply exploring her core themes while adding flourishes and layers to her signature. In these videos, Gaga is fearless in synthesizing her influences and forebears, assimilating them into the Haus of Gaga’s framework.

Directed by Joseph Kahn back-to-back with “Eh Eh,” “LoveGame” continues the thematic trend of Gaga as invader, starting with her gang of dancers charging through Times Square; they heft a manhole cover branded with the words “Haus of Gaga.” The sanitized and glittery New York of today is contrasted with the deliberately anachronistic and raw gang outfits straight out of the New York of the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the video is a direct homage to the video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which was a display of a pop musician and his dancers flouting boundaries and challenging authority. In “LoveGame” this challenging of authority ranges from jumping subway turnstiles to Gaga co-opting the police with the sheer force of her sexuality. While every Lady Gaga video features numerous costume changes, in “LoveGame” there are three distinct fashion styles used by Gaga to illustrate specific elements of the video’s core theme of sexual expression and dominance. The first is used in the opening of the video, as Gaga brings her gang of dancers all around her. Dressed in light colors to make her stand out from the crowd, she is also hooded and hides her eyes behind a fence-like mesh. Lady Gaga wields her discostick like a scepter, and all eyes follow its bright light as she waves it around. The effect of the whole ensemble is to make Gaga seem ethereal or even magical; although she is surrounded by athletic, towering men, the diminutive Gaga is clearly the dominant figure in the space.

The second style is employed outside the main narrative and intercut throughout the video: Gaga is engaged in a liaison with two men on a subway bench, and she is fully nude save for being covered with shiny makeup and jewels. As in the couch shots from “Poker Face,” Gaga claims the power position. Even though she is naked and ostensibly vulnerable, she remains the dominant force; the men have the words “Love” and “Fame” shaved into their hair, and they are passive—almost symbolic—playthings for Gaga. Like the “Haus of Gaga” inscribed into the manhole cover at the top of the video, Gaga is physically carving her presence and style into the world. The makeup gives her an angelic or alien appearance; she is transcending concepts of shame or modesty.

Lady Gaga transforms into the third style during a ride on the subway (the symbolic meaning of trains speeding through tunnels being almost hilariously blatant). She goes from a light-colored outfit to the leather and dark colors of her gang, taking on the markers of counterculture and subversion before her confrontation with the police. Her dance moves incorporate furiously pounding her fists on the hood of a car, almost challenging authority to come and get her. Authority responds and the police swoop in, apprehending the members of her gang. But Gaga gets the upper hand, and the officers become enthralled with her. The most subversive element of the video is almost subtle enough to go unnoticed; consider that most representations of homosexuality are still tainted with a sense of “otherness.” When female homosexuality is deployed in pop music, it is usually as a source of titillation for male viewers (such as in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”) or purely for its shock value (such as the kiss between Britney Spears and Madonna). However in “LoveGame” not only is Gaga fawned over by both a male and a female cop, the quick cuts and flowing camera movement between each liaison give both equal weight; the man and the woman are practically interchangeable in Gaga’s eyes, and gender is merely another boundary to transcend in her sexual expression. This idea continues into the final section of the video, where Gaga pays homage to Michael Jackson by appropriating his iconic crotch-grabbing dance moves. Gaga not only uses the move forcefully and aggressively, she incorporates a fist held high in the air, an unmistakable signifier of power and authority. “LoveGame” displays a Lady Gaga fully confident in her expressive sexuality, able to use it as another tool in her stylistic palette.

The video for “Paparazzi” explores themes that could be considered the flipside of those in “LoveGame”: the nature of mortality, and using fame as a bulwark against death. “Paparazzi” is the collision of fashion, sex, style, and death; to elucidate these themes Lady Gaga draws on two major sources of inspiration—classic film and fashion photography, both of which are able to eke out a sort of permanence from seemingly transient forms. “Paparazzi” is directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who is known for his own transgressive and gender-bending work, such as the video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” His collaboration with Gaga is an extremely ambitious work: it’s an epic that clocks in at almost eight minutes and features an extended introduction. The video’s narrative is seemingly simple—Gaga is almost killed by her boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), but survives and murders him in order to catapult herself back into fame—but it’s filled with layers of references and encoded meaning.

Gaga draws on a rich filmic tradition to inform the work. The flamboyant opening titles and shots of a sprawling, empty estate recall Xanadu from Citizen Kane; like that film, which had as a core theme the attempt to understand a person from the exterior and the secondhand, “Paparazzi” also uses newspapers to convey plot information, and even uses the simple act of reading newspapers to symbolically convey distance between a man and a woman. Kubrick’s hand is also at work here: the same blend of alienation, sexual transgression, and mortality evident in Eyes Wide Shut is on display. Gaga’s dance moves in the video exploit the dynamic tension between sex and death, often being unclear whether she is representing the throes of death or the throes of orgasm. After her near-death experience, Gaga is confined to a wheelchair, barely able to control her own body and wearing thick rounded sunglasses—she’s Doctor Strangelove. At several points in the video, Gaga even employs the so-called “Kubrick stare,” the low gaze looking up from below the brow line and often coupled with bared teeth that Kubrick often employed to signal intensity and derangement. But if there’s any director that Lady Gaga is consciously channeling, it is most certainly Alfred Hitchcock; for a brunette-reinvented-into-a-blonde making a video about sex, murder, and voyeurism, it would almost be a crime not to. (As if to assuage concerns about who had Hitchcock on the brain, Gaga’s “Bad Romance” features the lines “I want your Psycho, your Vertigo shtick/Want you in my Rear Window, baby it’s sick.”) Gaga’s near-death by being pushed off the side of a building consciously recalls Vertigo; the point is hammered home by the use of spiral imagery in shots of staircases and with the dreamlike shot of Gaga slowly falling through what looks like a card from a Saul Bass title sequence.

While Lady Gaga’s fall is referencing Hitchcock, fashion blogger Superqueen points out Gaga’s death pose is also quite similar to Helmut Newton’s photograph “Central Park West, New York, 1978.” This is just one of many uses of fashion and photography; others include a robotic outfit and helmet by Thierry Mugler and Mickey Mouse-style sunglasses by Jeremy Scott. The most prominent fashion inspiration for “Paparazzi” comes from works like that of Melanie Pullen, whose photo series High Fashion Crime Scenes juxtaposes elements of high fashion and couture against grisly death scenes such as hangings, drownings, and shootings. Recreations of these photographs are interspersed throughout the video, and the contorted death-poses of the bodies seem no more than fashion poses frozen in time or extremely lifelike mannequins. There is an interesting tension when attempting to ascribe a concept of artistry to death, and in both High Fashion Crime Scenes and “Paparazzi” aesthetic beauty is written on the bodies on the dead, giving them a sense of permanence. After all, the beautiful deaths are the memorable ones; as the paparazzi crowd around Lady Gaga’s broken and bleeding body, they call out, “Beautiful! Beautiful!” Her murder of her boyfriend is the work of art she creates in order to catapult back into stardom. All these elements support the main narrative thrust of the video, which is about the demands of fame and the metamorphosis required to meet them. At the beginning, Gaga’s character is heartfelt, trusting, and vulnerable; her resistance to the demands of the cameras and the media gets her killed. She is reborn into a robotic, emotionless shell, and in the end she revels in the attention she gets from her murderous act—her painted-on purple tears stand out against the black-and-white photography. For all the glitz and the glamour, “Paparazzi” is a meditation on the dark undercurrent that runs through the monsters known as Fame and Pop.

This concept of metamorphosis is an important theme to Gaga, and the main one she is considering for her re-release album, The Fame Monster. She states:

“[W]e talked about monsters and how, I believe, that innately we’re all born with the monsters already inside of us—I guess in Christianity they call it original sin—the prospect that we will, at some point, sin in our lives, and we will, at some point, have to face our own demons, and they’re already inside of us. So we talked about growth, and that led us into this kind of scientific space, and we started talking about evolution and the evolution of humanity and how we begin as one thing, and we become another.”

With The Fame Monster, Gaga is beginning as one thing and attempting to become another; this is made especially clear with her latest work, the music video for “Bad Romance.” Although it’s evident from frame one that this is a Lady Gaga video—the glasses, the Great Dane, the costumes—in “Bad Romance” Gaga surges forward and claims new ground.

The premise of “Bad Romance” (directed by Francis Lawrence) is human trafficking, and with it Lady Gaga makes literal the unspoken plight of the pop star—being transformed into an empty vessel and reshaped into a commodity to be put on display for her audience. Metamorphosis is key; Gaga and her dancers emerge from cocoon-like coffins and are covered from head to toe in pupa-like full body suits. Elements recalling avant-garde art film such as the Cremaster cycle (and which were hinted at in “Paparazzi”) come out in full force here; Gaga and her cohort take on animalistic and alien form-distorting costumes, and their dance moves are not acrobatic but both hyper-precise and off-kilter. They take on bestial aspects as they perform for their half-human, half-mechanical all-male audience. (The main antagonist even looks like a cross between Matthew Barney and an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen.) White-clad captors shepherd Lady Gaga through the “Bath Haus of Gaga”; the stark and empty white cube resembles the final destination of Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What’s striking is that none of the references is necessarily as direct as they have been in other works. It’s more as if Gaga has tapped into the same thematic space as these other artists, and has pulled out similar resonant images. It’s the sign of a confident hand creating a more syncretic work of art. Even when Gaga deploys signature imagery, it’s used in new and intriguing ways. For example, the eye motif is again seen in sunglasses—she wears her Versace 676s and a unique contraption constructed out of razor blades. She uses jewel-encrusted veils and masks, and there are even shots of Gaga where she has extremely dilated pupils and enlarged eyes, giving her a bizarre neotenous doll-like look. But the most potent eye imagery is only in the video for a few brief seconds, and in it we see a Lady Gaga we haven’t seen before. She’s in extreme close-up: no makeup, no masks, and no glasses. She stares directly into the camera and then away with a plaintive look. She isn’t playing; a tear rolls down her face. Is this the real her? Have we reached peak Gaga?

Of course, the final seconds of the video are of Lady Gaga lounging in bed next to a charred skeleton, smoking a cigarette as sparks shoot out of her explosive brassiere. There’s more to see from Gaga yet, and she’s more than happy to show us.

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The 12 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

Here are 12 of our least favorite holiday songs, one for each day it took the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus.

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Worst Christmas Songs
Photo: Atlantic Records

It’s that time of the year again. Black Friday sales. Last-minute treks to the gym to absolve your guilt over that third slice of pecan pie. And Mariah Carey playing on every radio station and in every shopping mall for the next 26 days. Unfortunately, we’ll also have to endure a litany of ill-conceived and poorly executed Christmas songs that are inexplicably resurrected every year, and will likely be until time immemorial. Here are 12 of our least favorites, one for each day that it took for the three wise men to reach the baby Jesus after he was born.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 28, 2011.

12. Jimmy Boyd, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

This Saks Fifth Avenue potboiler from 1952 about a child catching his mother being sexually assaulted by an elderly home invader only becomes even creepier when you realize the kid’s mom isn’t cheating on his dad, but that Mommy and Daddy have a Santa fetish.

11. Sia, “Puppies Are Forever”

A track from Sia’s 2017 collection of holiday originals, Everyday Is Christmas, “Puppies Are Forever” is a reggae-vibed public service announcement about, well, how puppies are not forever: “They’re so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love ‘em when they’re old and slow?” The repetitive wannabe-earworm is, at best, an admirable message about the responsibilities of pet ownership. And it comes complete with the sound of barking dogs. (Earplugs not included.)

10. Lou Monte, “Dominick the Donkey”

Lou Monte’s 1960 holiday jingle about Saint Nicola outsourcing his Christmas present deliveries in the Italian mountainside to a dim-witted donkey feels more prescient than ever. But that doesn’t make it any less irritating.

9. Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne”

The concept is touching enough: Fogelberg runs into an old flame at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and they grab a drink and reminisce. But melodramatic lyrics (“She went to hug me and she spilled her purse/And we laughed until we cried”) and gratuitous details (“We took her groceries to the checkout stand/The food was totalled up and bagged”) make “Same Old Lang Syne” a cloying annual annoyance.

8. Neil Diamond, “Cherry Cherry Christmas”

In this addition to the schmaltzy, nonsensical holiday song canon, Neil Diamond wishes you “a very, merry, cherry, cherry, holly-holy, rockin’-rolly Christmas,” before idiotically exclaiming, “Cherry Christmas, everyone!” at song’s end.

7. Cyndi Lauper, “Christmas Conga”

Holiday cheer has always been all-inclusive. Hell, even the Jewish Neil Diamond has released three Christmas albums. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say a Latin house anthem with lyrics like “Bonga, bonga, bonga, do the Christmas conga!” probably wasn’t necessary. But we still love you, Cyn.

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The 25 Greatest Beck Songs, Ranked

For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments.

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Beck
Photo: Citizen Kane Wayne

Beck’s breakout hit, “Loser,” represented the sound of the nation’s youth wearing their slackerdom as a badge of honor. It’s a rather dubious fate for the workmanlike track, considering that if Gen X ever “had” a sound, it was the slow, snarling grunge roiling out of the Pacific Northwest, a genre far too self-possessed and clumsily aggressive to match the decidedly goofy appeal of Beck’s patchwork style. If anything, “Loser” was a middle finger to the self-serious headbangers, Beck’s own shrug at the angsty masses before ignoring them altogether and staking his career on offbeat lonerism.

The lonesomeness that results from possessing such an individualist streak is explored rather profoundly on albums like Sea Change and Morning Phase, but regardless of the personal costs, he’s become a folk hero, having built his legacy on championing near-forgotten strains of Americana at every turn. Constructing a list of his best tracks can thus be likened to assembling a mosaic pieced together from several generations of music. The songs themselves aren’t simply attention-starved amalgams strung together randomly though: For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments, empathetic to the point where his creations often cease to be facsimiles at all, but heartfelt creations born from the same cultural conscious that inspired them. You can’t write if you can’t relate, indeed. Kevin Liedel

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Beck playlist on Spotify.


25. “Debra”

Midnite Vultures exists largely as satire, but it also serves as an opportunity for the usually cryptic Beck to let his freak flag fly. On the epic, cheesy “Debra,” he hoists it way, way up, further establishing the absurdity of the album’s seedy narcissism by attempting to pick up sisters. The greatest moment here, however, is the supreme elasticity of Beck’s voice, sprinting from husky whispers to erotic falsettos with the kind of joie de vivre worthy of Prince. Liedel


24. “Soul Suckin’ Jerk”

Beck’s sense of humor has always been prevalent in his music, but what’s less well-established is how his absurd, juvenile setups often dissolve into black-hearted non sequiturs. “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” is one such reversal, a slacker tale that traces Beck’s working stiff from the food court into the edges of civilization just as its verse descends from quiet basslines into raucous drum stomps. “For 14 days I’ve been sleeping in a barn,” Beck’s suburban drone-cum-backwoods anarchist observes, right before a guttural, bottom-heavy font of distortion hammers home the desperation in his wisecracks. Liedel


23. “Hollywood Freaks”

Beck lays claim to legitimate skills on the mic, and they’ve never been stronger or more precise than on “Hollywood Freaks.” Of course, this being Beck, the rhymes come with a twist, delivered in a lisping, nasal drone that’s part Truman Capote and part Sylvester the Cat. All the better for it, considering the slick, springy track boasts the weirdest combination of allusions Beck’s ever concocted: Ripple, No Doz, Norman Schwarzkopf, tricked-out Hyundais, and the song’s ubiquitous, drunken tagline, “He’s my nun!” Liedel


22. “Forcefield”

Given Beck’s recent lavish productions, it’s easy to forget that in the early- to mid-‘90s he was a lo-fi master. This is nowhere more evident than on 1994’s One Foot in the Grave, a barebones album steeped in folk and blues. Its centerpiece is “Forcefield,” a song built on three simple yet haunting acoustic guitar notes and intertwining vocals by Beck and Sam Jayne of the sadly unheralded post-hardcore band Lync. The lyrics are largely enigmatic, but the chorus poignantly summarizes the necessity of a metaphorical forcefield: “Don’t let it get too near you/Don’t let it get too close/Don’t let it turn you into/The things you hate the most.” Michael Joshua Rowin


21. “Rowboat”

“Rowboat,” from 1994’s Stereopathetic Soulmanure, is a gently strummed, classically constructed ballad of rejection and loneliness that features Beck’s early penchant for lyrics that alternate between deadpan melancholy (“Rowboat, row me to the shore/She don’t wanna be my friend no more”) and humorous non sequitur (“Dog food on the floor/And I’ve been like this before”). Late Nashville legend Leo Blanc’s stunning steel pedal work provides just the right amount of additional sorrow, and, as if to give it the country stamp of approval, Johnny Cash covered the song in 1996. Rowin

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Review: Beck’s Hyperspace Is As Lyrically Vague As It Is Sonically Minimal

Most of the album’s songs blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous.

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Beck
Photo: Peter Hapak

Throughout his varied and unpredictable career, Beck has achieved constancy in one respect: an almost unrelentingly bleak worldview, a portrayal of pre- and post-millennium America as a Bosch-like inferno of indignities. It was there early on, in his adherence to the folk and blues tradition of biblical prophesying (“There must be some blueprint, some creed of the devil inscribed in our minds,” he sang on 1998’s Mutations), and it’s in his more recent work, darkening avant-pop efforts like 2008’s Modern Guilt and adding a global sense of sadness to ostensibly more introspective albums like 2014’s Morning Phase.

Which is why 2017’s Colors was so surprising: Aside from one or two tracks, it was Beck’s first unabashed, unironic feel-good party album. But if Colors was a million-dollar bash, then Beck’s follow-up, Hyperspace, is the comedown. While similarly heavy on beats and electronics, the album lacks its predecessor’s bounce and exuberance. This trade-in would initially appear welcome since, unlike Beck’s past genre experiments, which always contained an unmistakable personal touch, Colors’s glossy, airbrushed fun bordered on inhuman. By comparison, Hyperspace represents something at least relatively thoughtful, its skeletal beats and somber synth washes—a result of Beck working with co-producer Pharrell Williams—suggesting a period of midlife self-examination against a backdrop of perpetual twilight.

For a few moments early on in the album, Beck follows through on this premise. Opener “Hyperlife” acts as a brief prologue by announcing the album’s core theme of melancholic and disconnected excess, the phrase “crushing life” qualifying a desire for “more and more beauty, light” amid several interweaving synth textures. This leads into “Uneventful Days,” with deep keyboard washes and effervescent twinkles playing over a modest trap beat as Beck continues the theme with a lovely melodic vocal: “Never-ending days, never-ending nights/Everything I say, I know I can’t get right.” The mood is dreamy, numbed, and yet somehow hopeful.

But tracks like the album’s lead single, “Saw Lightening,” return both to the forced enthusiasm of Colors and to the hybridization of blues and hip-hop that Beck explored with far more wit on early hits like Odelay’s “Hotwax.” As one of the only “up” songs on Hyperspace, its forward momentum is undermined by a conventionally programmed drum track, popcorning keyboard blips, an annoying Pharrell verse, and faux-gospel background yelps that transform a lyric about the end of the world into what sounds like soundtrack music for an action movie.

What follows is a series of slight midtempo electro-pop ballads: “Die Waiting” sways with a brightness augmented by acoustic guitar strums, “See Through” emphasizes bubbling electronic percussion, and “Star” uses video game-esque bloops and a gently pulsing bassline as a nest for Beck’s falsetto vocals. It’s all in the chillwave vein and, while not oppressive like Colors, it’s also all extremely soporific. Aside from the ascendant airiness of “Chemical,” the gospel grandeur of “Everlasting Nothing,” and a few interweaving vocal lines that call back to the aural density of Midnite Vultures, most of the tracks blend into each other so nebulously that they become collectively anonymous. When something stands out it’s usually for an ugly reason: The title track’s rap breakdown is exceedingly cornball, and a few songs fade out so abruptly and awkwardly it seems like they’re embarrassed at their own meagerness.

Beck might have redeemed Hyperspace with his underappreciated lyrical genius, and he could have gone in two different directions in doing so: a return to the pared-down confessional songwriting that made 2002’s vulnerable Sea Change so universally resonant, or else the absurdist wordplay, apocalyptic imagery, and pop-cultural detritus that typically fill Beck’s songs to the bursting point with vivid portraiture and singular turns of phrase. (Even Colors achieved some, well, color with lines like “I want to see you with the pharaoh’s curse/The apple flower doggerel, the batteries burst.”) But there’s little of either throughout Hyperspace, which is as lyrically vague as it is musically minimal.

Instead of creating a unique world of characters, Beck populates too many songs with first-persona clichés (“I don’t care what I have to do/You know that I’m gonna wait on you”), and, elsewhere, his metaphors are rote and obvious (love is a drug on “Chemical,” disorientation becomes the directionless heavens on “Stratosphere”). By the time Beck finally gets to an original, gut-punching metaphor in “Everlasting Nothing”—“And I washed up on the shoreline/Everyone was waiting there for me/Like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sun”—it’s too late to make up for an album’s worth of platitudes.

Beck’s 2006 album The Information is a better example of his unrivaled funhouse approach to style and tone: By blending techno, folk, punk, hip-hop, Krautrock, blues, ambient, and groove-oriented rock, that album is by turns strange, aggressive, hilarious, disturbing, eerie, and fun, all while expressing wry dismay over our current cyber-Armageddon. In comparison, and for all its apparent now-ness, Hyperspace feels inconsequential and incomplete.

Label: Capitol Release Date: November 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The 20 Best Rihanna Singles

We took a look back through the singer’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

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Rihanna
Photo: Roc Nation

Like Madonna before her, Rihanna possesses a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when she’s expected to zag. “Russian Roulette,” “Diamonds,” and “Four Five Seconds” were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo. The Barbadian singer’s wild success, which includes 11 solo #1 hits in the U.S., can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012’s Unapologetic, and she’s only dropped one album since then, 2016’s ANTI. While we wait out another dry spell in one of contemporary pop’s most unexpectedly enduring careers, we took a look back through Rihanna’s catalogue of hits and picked her 20 best singles to date.

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist on Spotify.


20. “Four Five Seconds”

The reverberations of a “ella-ella” or “na-na” now feel something like a big bang: There would be no “We Can’t Stop,” no “Come & Get It,” without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if “Stay” saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, “Four Five Seconds” does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartney’s best Lindsey Buckingham impression. It’s an oddly affecting formula that’s unlikely to prove quite so imitable—though Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Sam C. Mac


19. “S&M”

To say the world wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear Rihanna, after just having bared her soul in Rated R about (among other things) “that incident,” singing about how much chains and whips excite her would be a gross understatement. Career momentum, and a little assist from Britney Spears on the remix, thrust “S&M” to the top of the charts anyway, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many admitting that they, too, like the smell of sex in the air. But screw it, we’ll say it. “S&M” might be the boldest of all Rihanna house jams, the moment when she truly found her Janet Jackson-circa-“Throb” stride. Eric Henderson


18. “Love on the Brain”

No one would ever confuse Rihanna with Amy Winehouse, but the doo-wop-inspired fourth single from 2016’s ANTI channels the late singer’s brand of throwback pop with its juxtaposition of retro instrumentation and, one might say, retrograde lyrics: “It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good that I can’t get enough.” Rihanna shows off her vocal versatility throughout the track, at turns cooing in falsetto and dropping to a growl, as she unabashedly puts her heart—and her brain—on her sleeve. Sal Cinquemani


17. “Man Down”

Rihanna’s follow-up to ANTI will reportedly be more reggae-influenced than any of her previous efforts. Of course, the singer has already paid homage to her roots countless times over the course of her career. One highlight is “Man Down,” about a woman who shoots a man in the public square, putting a feminine twist on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Rihanna’s vocals are surprisingly agile, and “Man Down” is one of her most confident performances to date. Alexa Camp


16. “Rehab”

If “Umbrella” was a good girl’s gesture of generosity, “Rehab” is her reeling from the abuse of a bad man who squandered it. “I’ll never give myself to another the way I gave it to you” is one of the saddest Rihanna lyrics, but a blow blunted by the singer’s signature resigned delivery, deployed here as a coping mechanism. What might be a typical lovelorn ballad becomes tough and resilient, a tone well complemented by Timbaland snapping percussion and dramatic strings, and the anonymity Rihanna had been criticized for suddenly matures into a mode of vocalizing repressed emotion that she’d never before explored. It only took a crummy metaphor to get her there. Mac

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Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35

We’re taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.

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Like a Virgin

Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)

I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.


MTV Video Music Awards (1984)

Feminists angered by Madonna’s choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time she’d descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.


Music Video (1984)

Shot largely in St. Marks’s Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for “Like a Virgin” found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal bride—sauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture—and street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted “Like a Virgin” with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other “girls” being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her “Boy Toy” image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that “Like a Virgin” is first and foremost a paean to self-love.


The Girlie Show (1993)

The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Like a Virgin” was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of “Like a Wirgin.” Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.


MTV Video Music Awards (2003)

After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted “Like a Virgin” off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.


Confessions Tour (2006)

In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of “Like a Virgin.” Back in the saddle, indeed.


MDNA Tour (2012)

Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of “Like a Virgin” for 2012’s MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who’d for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNA’s “Love Spent,” a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl’s marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.


Rebel Heart Tour (2015)

After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of “Like a Virgin” for fans around the globe. She didn’t roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.

See where “Like a Virgin” landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.

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Review: Celine Dion’s Courage Digs Deep But Largely Comes Up Empty

In terms of both length and theme, the singer’s 12th English-language album can feel exhausting.

2.5

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Celine Dion
Photo: Columbia Records

In recent years, Celine Dion has been less likely to generate headlines for her music than for her eccentric fashion choices and personal developments (her husband of over two decades, René Angélil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singer’s first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit “Flying on My Own,” a rousing house anthem that’s a bit of a red herring. With the exception of “Lovers Never Die” and “Nobody’s Watching”—which deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dion’s core audience—the rest of the album’s 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.

Though Dion doesn’t write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. “I would be lying if I said I’m fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,” she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely verses—“I talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never end”—are put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, “For the Lover That I Lost” is expectedly mopey, though it’s less so in Dion’s hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. She’s in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on “Change My Mind” and the husky lower register she employs on “Look at Us Now.”

Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden “Lying Down” feels both modern and classic, while “Best of All” comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dion’s peak output. Perhaps intentionally, it’s not until the album’s last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired “How Did You Get Here” and the gospel-infused closing track, “The Hard Way.” In terms of both its length and themes, the 20-track Courage can feel exhausting, alternating between platitudes about grief and self-empowerment that, with only a few exceptions, make what should feel cathartic sound empty and even anonymous.

Label: Columbia Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: DJ Shadow’s Our Pathetic Age Paints a Grim Picture of Modern Life

The double album speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

3.5

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Photo: Derick Daily

Imagine a magician. He walks on stage and wordlessly holds up a canister of gasoline, which he then drinks from. He then places a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lights it like a cigar. The fuse burns down and the magician explodes, blowing a huge hole in the stage and soaking the audience with blood and viscera. As everyone is shocked and terrified, their ears ringing, the magician appears on a nearby balcony. Ta-da! You might ask how he did it. But a better question is: What does he do to equal if not to top himself?

Such is the problem that’s faced DJ Shadow since 1996’s Endtroducing…, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasn’t been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps that’s why Shadow’s sixth album, Our Pathetic Age, announces in its very title that his concerns are immediate. The cover, rendered in Pop Art style, shows a woman in semi-profile gasping as she looks at a smartphone. The cover art and title, taken in tandem, suggests that this double album is a stinging critique of our age of technological proliferation. Despite this, Shadow has said that he doesn’t intend his latest to be an indictment of modern life as much as a comment on it, one that speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

Our Pathetic Age’s first half showcases Shadow’s renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: “Intersectionality” layers synths on top of an icy, spare beat until it builds to a neon-lit climax that might make you wish you were riding in a spinner from Blade Runner, while “Slingblade” matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.

More compact than its sprawling title suggests, “Beauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Law” shows Shadow’s continued ability to wring humor out of his work. The track starts with a funky synth figure that morphs into something more jazz-inspired, with jittery piano on top of splash-heavy drumming. Everything except for the drums drops out as the song comes to its conclusion, and Shadow delivers the punchline with a voice telling the drummer to “shut the fuck up” against a polite smattering of applause.

On the album’s second half, Shadow takes a back seat and welcomes an all-star cast of guests to bring their own identity to bear on the songs. De La Soul infuses the catchy, high-energy party anthem “Rocket Fuel” with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on “Drone Warfare,” the most explicitly political track on Our Pathetic Age. The rappers address mass surveillance, economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and racial injustice over an explosive, take-no-prisoners beat.

Ghostface Killah, Inspektah Deck, and Raekwon contribute verses to “Rain on Snow,” which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trio’s dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (“Rain on snow makes it melt away”) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. “Kings and Queens” gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that they’re one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the group’s Dirty South roots.

The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islands’s Samuel T. Herring, whose delivery splits the difference between Tom Waits and Bill Withers and settles perfectly into the groove. His lyrics paint a picture of a relationship recalled through the haze of time, his memories framed by years of emotional decay. Balanced against the propulsive music, the song is as effecting as anything Shadow has ever done.

Less successful is “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while “Small Colleges (Stay with Me),” featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something you’d hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Age’s biggest problem is that too much of it feels disposable, anodyne, or tossed off. But Shadow still manages to get some strong work out of both himself and his guests, and he deserves credit for not trying to merely recreate the same trick over and over.

Label: Mass Appeal Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie “Prince” Billy at His Most Existential

The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.

4.5

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Mickie Winters
Photo: Mickie Winters/Drag City

“You need to knock this one out of the park,” Will Oldham sings on “New Memory Box,” the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like he’s suffering from diminished confidence, don’t be fooled: Oldham’s albums as Bonnie “Prince” Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.

The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldham’s voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. “Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past” is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singer’s indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. It’s weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: “Get your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.”

The word “apocalyptic” is frequently applied to Oldham’s work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilization’s collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.

Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervade—though it’s unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the world’s sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. “This Is Far from Over” finds Oldham contemplating “shorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,” but he reassures us that “new wild creatures will be born” because “the whole world’s far from over.” Oldham’s gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.

Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes he’s funny and sometimes he’s sad, but he’s always there to keep the listener safe. “Squid Eye” delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the album’s funniest lyrics—“I’ll drive right in as if I were Aquaman’s kid”—set to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while “The Glow Pt. 3,” the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.

Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself that’s not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didn’t ask for. His thesis is simple: “I don’t know why I was born, but I have made a place.” In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminar’s worth of existential crisis.

Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

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Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental—intensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, however, the band’s performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer’s death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: FKA twigs’s Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession

A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.

4.5

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigs’s shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her mission—both in the writing of this follow-up to 2014’s LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tour—to embrace her pain.

Despite twigs’s vocal precision, there’s always been an element of unpredictability to her music, as the production on her albums is prone to spareness one moment and cacophony the next. And on Magdalene, she leans even further into that volatility, her crystalline, Kate Bush-esque falsetto shape-shifting into something richer and thicker on “Holy Terrain,” angrier and rueful on “Fallen Alien,” and sweeping on the transcendent “Sad Day.”

At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On “Home with You,” her raspy delivery of “The more you have the more that people want from you” gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me I’d be home with you.” Anger and acceptance coexist here, one growing out of the other.

twigs has a knack for spinning mystical imagery out of everyday experience, and on the album she explores the shifting power dynamics at play in her life. The prying, judgmental gaze of the paparazzi can be easily imagined as a many-eyed monster in “Thousand Eyes.” Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like “I lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take you” on “Sad Day” suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’s feet, yet the phrase “take you” suggests that the object of her affections has no choice but to submit to her. Another often misrepresented biblical figure, Eve, comes to mind when twigs invites her lover to “taste the fruit of me” on the same song, but it’s not an act of temptation, it’s a plea.

For all the strength and self-possession twigs demands from herself and her lovers, she also provides space for the necessary grief that comes with saying goodbye to someone who wasn’t able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power she’s filled with to “cleanse” and “heal” on “Sad Day,” she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical “Daybed.” There’s little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes there’s an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigs’s reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone.

Label: Young Turks Release Date: November 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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