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.
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”.
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.”
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.
Review: Caribou’s Suddenly Is an Inviting Dive Into Familial Waters
The album takes family as its central theme with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.4.5
The narrative arc of Dan Snaith’s career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007’s Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Our Love, from 2014, was a tender examination of, well, love, while his latest, Suddenly, takes family as its central theme—the title comes from his daughter’s obsession with the word—with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.
Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. “Lime,” for instance, boasts the peppiness of a Röyksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. “Never Come Back” possesses the propulsive beat of a ‘90s dance-floor filler. “Like I Love You” is built on the bones of what sounds like an early-aughts R&B track. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and it’s a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration.
What makes the album so spectacular, though, is Snaith’s voice. This is the first Caribou effort on which he sings on every track, and his vocals are mixed higher than they have been in the past. Throughout, his mesmerizing vocals elevate songs that might otherwise scan as banal. “Like I Love You” trades in a fairly well-trod sentiment, with Snaith rhapsodizing about an ex-lover, but he wrings every last drop of emotional possibility out of lines like “Does he love you like I used to do?/Do you ever miss me like I miss you?” Elsewhere, “Magpie” finds Snaith employing his vocals to maximum impact. The first half of the song, which features a lovely, McCartney-esque melody, is buried under compression that makes it sound like it’s playing from the busted speakers of an old cathode-ray TV set. That distortion falls away halfway through, as Snaith sings, “And now the world is catching up to you,” and the song blossoms, capturing the feeling of being in the first flush of love. This shift is but one among many moments of striking revelation throughout the album.
The brief “Sister” is a gentle, affecting lullaby about the responsibilities of love. Amid a whirl of rich, warm synth notes, Snaith sings softly, “Sister, I promise you I’m changing/You’ve had broken promises I know/If you want to change it you must break it/Rip it up and something new will grow.” At the end of the line, a burst of static introduces a sample taken from an old tape of Snaith’s mother singing his sister a lullaby. The political overtones of the lines are obvious, but the personal nature of the sample gives the song a weight that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. What he’s addressing isn’t as important as how he does it.
Label: Merge Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs
We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band’s dauntingly huge catalogue.
Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987’s charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the “classic” lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of the group only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.
We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in Guided by Voices’s dauntingly huge catalogue. It’s a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which could’ve been included here. So if you don’t see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 25 tracks that most proudly represent a group that’s not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history.
25. “Space Gun”
The title track from Guided by Voices’s 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the band’s reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, it’s a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like “I Am a Tree” took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isn’t difficult to imagine “Space Gun” as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.
24. “An Unmarketed Product”
At various times in the band’s storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the band’s legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, “I can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,” as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that should’ve been the band’s birthright.
23. “Man Called Aerodynamics”
When Bee Thousand first conquered the ‘90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticism’s elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its ‘60s and ‘70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with “Space Gun” a sound that could be described as “Pete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,” “Man Called Aerodynamics” is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.
22. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”
“G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the band’s transitional 1992 album Propeller. As we’d discover later, the “crowd” was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the group’s forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a “Stars on 45” for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.
21. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock n’ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone else’s is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is both melancholy and majestic—Leonard Cohen via “Champagne Supernova”—and the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldn’t add a thing beyond surface shine.
Review: Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory Is Bound by a Sense of Maturity
The album explores darker, weightier subject matter than its predecessor.3.5
With 2018’s Clean, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison emerged on the scene sounding a lot like a moody indie rock incarnation of Taylor Swift. That album’s “Your Dog” and “Cool” are effortless anthems that possess the same instantly anthemic quality as many of Swift’s mega-hits. But the main connection between the two is a pseudo-adolescent outlook wherein their dating lives and associated travails are elevated to matters of life and death. Just 20 at the time of Clean’s release, Allison was consumed by thoughts like “She’s so pretty/Even more than me.”
With Color Theory, Allison raises the stakes. Slicker than Clean, and beefed up by her touring band, the album’s sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to, if not Swift, then familiar ‘90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allison’s progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the album’s darker, weightier subject matter: Continuing to draw on personal experience, she largely eschews songs about her love life, instead confronting her issues with mental health and abandonment.
Color Theory rarely progresses beyond the admittedly rich template established in its opening track, “Bloodstream.” Here, Allison offers frank and poetic ruminations on her history of depression and self-harm as rhythm guitars thrum behind her. Her visceral lyrics—“Now a river runs red from my knuckles into the sink”—are partially obscured by a deceptively cheery chord progression, just like she once “covered up the wounds with my long sleeves.”
In its subject matter, chords, rhythm, and tempo, “Circle the Drain” bears a strong resemblance to “Bloodstream.” But the song’s most lasting impression is its hook, a sing-song “Round and around” refrain that’s deafening in its obviousness—not because it’s uncreative, but because it’s a wonder no one else thought of it sooner. Indeed, Allison’s best melodic hooks—like the overlapping guitar lines on “Crawling in My Skin”—are often simple but indelible.
Even as Allison delves deep into heavy subject matter, she usually sounds more angsty than haunted. Which is fine when she delivers that angst with such melodic verve (the album’s dourest-sounding songs, especially the final two, are easily the weakest, as they lack melodies strong enough to buoy Allison’s disaffected musings). Her still-youthful perspective means that the charmingly tongue-in-cheek “Royal Screw Up,” on which she imagines herself as an emotionally damaged waifu (“My dungeon of fire, I’m the princess of screwing up/And you wear your armor and you save pretty girls like me”), isn’t totally out of place here.
Still, a sense of maturity binds the album’s best moments. “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” lazily unfolds over seven-plus minutes, but as with “Bloodstream,” there’s pain hidden beneath the pleasant vibes. Dogged by memories of her terminally ill mother, Allison laments that even her daydreams of happier times are tainted by the knowledge of what’s to come: “Loving you isn’t enough/You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.”
Color Theory’s lynchpin is “Lucy,” which makes clear just how much Allison has grown as a songwriter since Clean. Allison is having trouble with a boy, and there’s another girl involved who’s complicating matters. But this time, the boy isn’t just a mean boyfriend; he’s “the root of all evil,” intent on dragging her to hell, perhaps literally so. And the other girl isn’t a prettier or cooler rival; she seems to be a part of Allison’s own psyche, constantly tormenting her. “Oh Lucy please/Quit taunting me,” Allison pleads over and over, a refrain as menacing as it is catchy. Though some deeper and darker has taken root in this indie rock wunderkind, her melodic grip remains the backbone of her music.
Label: Loma Vista Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Justin Bieber’s Changes Represents a Marked Shift in the Singer’s Perspective
The album finds the singer trying to usher in a new era characterized in large part by asking for help.3
In 2017, after over 250 tour dates across six continents, Justin Bieber canceled what remained of his Purpose World Tour, citing extreme exhaustion. The decision is touched on in the first episode of his YouTube docu-series Justin Bieber: Seasons, a not totally uncynical and yet undeniably humanizing snapshot of a troubled performer whose youthful mistakes were augmented by incredible wealth, increasing isolation, and a public whose gaze has been made all the more searing by the rapid growth of social media.
Taken together, Seasons and Changes, the singer’s fifth album, find Bieber trying to usher in a new era in his life and career characterized in large part by asking for and receiving help. Along with medical professionals who are helping him to manage his recently diagnosed Lyme disease and Epstein Barr, in addition to his chronic anxiety, his new wife, Hailey Baldwin, seems also to have had a calming effect on his music. Where Bieber’s previous albums have often felt engineered almost exclusively for the purpose of stimulating audience response, Changes seems focused instead on the tenderness and comfort of his newlywed bubble.
Seasons makes much of his perfectionism, showing him cut vocal tracks line by line, singing on a loop until he hits each note just right. But it’s that attention to detail, along with the use of vocal effects that coat his voice in a plastic sheen, that holds Bieber at an unfortunate remove from us. In leaning into a more subdued palette of R&B, Changes creates a space for Bieber’s voice to take a central role. But for an album that focuses so strongly on human connection, there’s a certain lack of emotion that might have come from a looser recording process. That distance is counteracted in large part by a certain lyrical openheartedness, and though Bieber often veers into cliché—“When your battery gets low/I’ll be the one to charge you up,” he sings on “Take It Out on Me”—there’s a real charm to the songs that rest so deeply not just on love or sex, but trust and commitment.
Although the tonal fluidity of Changes errs, from time to time, toward homogeneity, there’s a weightlessness to it that seems to signify the slipping of a long-held burden from Bieber’s shoulders. His most personal offering to date, the album feels like a reflection of actual experience as opposed to a projection of a fantasy. Putting aside the album’s lead single, “Yummy,” a Tik-Tok-baiting affront to both sex and music in equal measure, this is an album that feels very much like the documentation of a very specific moment in time in the singer’s life and an accompanying marked shift in his perspective.
Label: Def Jam Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans Is More Parody Than Tribute
The album seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year.2
Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year. It’s the work of an affable group of guys who travel the country playing the kind of ‘70s and ‘80s light rock that gives their band its name. Over the past decade, Yacht Rock Revue has built something of a soft-rock empire, playing in major venues across the country and hosting an annual festival in Atlanta where they’re often joined on stage by the musicians they’ve made their bones covering. Now, having established themselves as the premier purveyors of yesteryear’s smoothest hits, the band is releasing their first album of original material. But while Yacht Rock Revue is a stellar live band, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans often fails to show what makes them special in the first place.
Having made music as a cover band for so long, Yacht Rock Revue seems tempted to play “spot the reference” with their original material rather than engaging with the songs on their own merits. Some of the tracks, of course, wear their influences on their sleeves: “House in the Clouds” is built around a Matthew Wilder/Thomas Dolby synth riff, while “Change of Scene” apes Stevie Wonder. The album’s palette isn’t exclusively limited to the ‘70s—“You’re Welcome Baby” sounds uncannily like Kishi Bashi’s brand of indie-pop—but it’s easy to get distracted wondering who the band might be trying to sound like in any given song.
The album’s larger issue is exemplified by opening track “The Doobie Bounce,” the title of which is a winking reference to the jaunty rhythm perfected by the Doobie Brothers that JD Ryznar has held up as a hallmark of the genre on his podcast Yacht or Nyacht. The song itself is about the pleasures of getting stoned and listening to records, referencing the Doobie Brothers, Sade, and, perhaps surprisingly, OutKast, and it has one good laugh line: “I used to sleep on couches/Now I sleep on nicer couches.” Yacht rock has a reputation for skimming the surface of emotions, but that stereotype isn’t totally fair: Daryl Hall is a clever songwriter, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are among the sharpest and most acidic satirists in rock. These songs, though, are disappointingly obvious. “House in the Clouds” is about living in a house above the clouds, and “Another Song About California” is, well, I’ll let you guess.
The band’s tendency toward obviousness comes to a head on “Bad Tequila,” a party anthem that revises the old chesnut about turning lemons into lemonade into a joke about turning tequila into margaritas. It’s certainly catchy, and pure escapism certainly has a proud tradition in pop, but it’s also, at five minutes long, frustratingly repetitive.
Say what you will about the genre, but most AOR bands were tight musicians, and Yacht Rock Revue has likewise honed their craft to a razor’s edge. The appeal of their live shows lies in the way they treat their music with utmost reverence, even as they perform dressed in costume to crows of people crushing daiquiris and wearing captain’s hats. From its jokey title and cover art to the somewhat undercooked songs, however, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans feels more like a parody than a tribute to the genre Yacht Rock Revue so clearly love.
Label: Please Rock Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guided by Voices’s Surrender Your Poppy Field Serves Power Pop with a Twist
Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop.4
Nearly 40 years into his career, Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop, like a magician forever pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ever since Pollard assembled a new Guided by Voices lineup for 2017’s August by Cake, the band has showcased a different facet of their sound with each outing, and that diversification continues on Surrender Your Poppy Field. The album weaves the unusual time signatures, song lengths, and baroque-prog structures of last year’s Sweating the Plague with the tight melodicism that’s made some of Pollard’s best solo albums so memorable.
In comparison to their longer counterparts on Sweating the Plague, almost every song here runs through several moods and styles rapidly—but without ever sounding rushed or contrived. “Cul-de-Sac Kids” alternates between gentle acoustic strumming and brief full-band bashing before launching into an underdogs-win-the-day chorus—“Cul-de-sac kids throw the best parties!”—bolstered by the album’s most driving riff. It’s the most complex and exhilarating track on the album, all in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes.
The album’s lead single, “Volcano,” is a Pixies-esque ballad buoyed by Mark Shue’s muted bass runs. What makes the song both uniquely strange and beautiful in the Guided by Voices catalog is the inclusion of atmospheric keyboard phrases that play over verses containing some of the prettiest lyrics Pollard has written: “True is the time when I see you/Blue from the blinds that I see through.” The explosion of the chorus into a wall of power chords provides Pollard’s life-affirming exhortation—“On the trail of lovers/Never failing with their loving eyes around you to prove your rage isn’t true”—with the perfect euphoric accompaniment.
The album’s biggest surprise is that several tracks—“Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” “Steely Dodgers,” and “Andre the Hawk”—utilize waltz time to evoke the kind of carnival-esque stomps that comprised some of Guided By Voices’s earliest recordings, including 1987’s Sandbox and 1989’s Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These songs offer a compelling contrast to more straightforward rock tracks like “Stone Cold Moron,” which features a double electric guitar attack from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. that’s pure arena-rock euphoria.
Indeed, waltzes aside, Surrender Your Poppy Field may be the most consistently hard-edged and rocking Guided by Voices effort since 2018’s Space Gun. “Queen Parking Lot” and “Man Called Blunder” waste no time as rousing, unfussy riffs barrel into verse-chorus-verse sing-alongs. It all leads to a stunning conclusion, as “Next Sea Level” transforms an eerie demo-quality recording of chime-like guitar strums into a majestic full-band and orchestra-accompanied crescendo. The song’s title and chants of “rising” suggest a climate change apocalypse, but since that would be far too on the nose, the ever-oblique Pollard ends with something mysteriously hopeful: “To hear you/To touch you/To know you’re coming around/Still coming around.” Beyond the Tommy reference, “Next Sea Level” proves that Pollard can foster worlds of thought and feeling out of sparse yet strategic gestures.
“Next Sea Level” also represents the welcome maturity of the current incarnation of Guided by Voices, whose only Achilles’ heel is an exhausting deluge of content. Some have lamented Pollard’s prolific songwriting for diluting the quality of his output, but at this stage of his career Surrender Your Poppy Field proves he’s deepening rather than merely proliferating his music, continuing to grow up instead of growing old.
Label: GbV Release Date: February 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Billie Eilish Drops Lush James Bond Theme Song “No Time to Die”
The lush, darkly cinematic track feature an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and guitar from Johnny Marr.
On the heels of her historic Grammy wins, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has unveiled “No Time to Die,” the theme song from the upcoming James Bond film of the same name. The song was produced by her brother and frequent collaborator, Finneas, and veteran knob-twirler Stephen Lipson. The lush, darkly cinematic track falls in line with past 007 themes, with an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Matt Dunkley, and featuring guitar from Johnny Marr of the Smiths.
The 18-year-old Eilish, the youngest person and first woman to win the four main Grammy categories in the same year, is now the youngest artist to both write and record a Bond theme. She will perform the song live for the first time at The Brit Awards on February 18.
No Time to Die hits U.S. theaters on April 10 through MGM/United Artists Releasing.
Review: The Men’s Mercy Finds a Mercurial Band Settling Into Their Sound
The album boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.3.5
The Men is a mercurial band, having moved with remarkable swiftness from the punishing noise-punk of their early albums to the more radio-friendly rock of their more recent output. The Brooklyn band’s eighth album, Mercy, continues to challenge the boundaries of genre, with psych-folk sitting alongside twangy alt-country and rave-up hardcore. The album’s variety displays a commendable commitment to sonic adventurousness, though the band isn’t quite pushing boundaries like it once did.
Mercy is the Men’s third consecutive album with the same roster, and this relative stability has allowed them to settle into their sound. The album was recorded mostly live with minimal overdubbing, a testament to just how in sync the current lineup has become as a unit. The penultimate track, “Breeze,” is a fuzztone ripper with a throat-searing vocal that moves at a breakneck pace, while lead single “Children All Over the World” pairs serpentine guitar licks with singer Nick Chiericozzi’s sinister whisper and a dark, delightfully ‘80s-inspired synth riff. The song builds to a blistering solo almost reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, rendering it simultaneously familiar but fresh—at least for the Men.
The country-rock sound that the band began exploring on 2012’s Open Your Heart was a radical departure from their earlier style, and here these genre excursions prove to be some of the album’s strongest. “Cool Water” is a loose, Laurel Canyon-esque rocker, while the title track is a folky deathbed sigh, with Chiericozzi coolly pleading, “I need mercy at the hour of my death.” And though its title nods to Sleater-Kinney, “Call the Dr.” isn’t a spiky punk song, but rather a chooglin’ country romp with a first-person murder narrative in the vein of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” The song’s narrator tells a story about getting gunned down after a heist, dying atop his ill-gotten goods. The lyrics display a powerful sense of economy, sketching out just enough details to make the story vivid without becoming overwrought. The finger-picked guitar fills and Chiericozzi’s raspy vocals give the track a sort of dusty, western verisimilitude.
The album’s centerpiece, “Wading in Dirty Water,” is a 10-minute psychedelic jam with an unsettling but catchy synth hook; the guitar solo sounds like vintage Nels Cline, though it drags on for at least a couple of minutes too long. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the spare piano ballad “Fallin’ Thru” veers into crooner territory, with vocals that are mixed almost like an ASMR video. The song seems to be aiming for a quiet menace reminiscent of Tom Waits or Nick Cave, but the overall effect is somewhere between soporific and goofy.
Overall, Mercy doesn’t quite measure up to the band’s stellar triptych of albums released between 2012 and 2014, on which they stretched to expand their repertoire, challenging themselves to explore various sounds from throughout the history of rock while refining their chops and chasing wild hares. Mercy boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.
Label: Sacred Bones Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Pet Shop Boys’s Hotspot Points to Potential Joy Amid a Backdrop of Dread
If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.4
Reportedly the last in a trilogy of collaborations with producer Stuart Price, Hotspot is stuffed with instantly infectious melodies and lyrics that flaunt the Pet Shop Boys’s fierce intellect. Eternally sly postmodernists Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are at their funniest here, embedding bouncy synths with barbs directed at failing political institutions across the globe (their own kind of hotspot), social hypocrisies, and even themselves.
The bleeping synth hook of the opening track, “Will-o-the-Wisp,” is the sonic equivalent of mainlining sucrose, and only Tennant would think to use the song’s chorus as an occasion to reference the Vienna U-Bahn metro system. But he’s after something less esoteric and much knottier. A kind of sequel to 1993’s groundbreaking “Can You Forgive Her?,” a song about repressed homosexuality, “Will-o-the-Wisp” finds the narrator running into an old flame on a train and wondering what’s become of him and whether the two will even acknowledge each other. “But maybe you’ve gone respectable/With a wife and job and all that,” Tennant deadpans in a tone of hilarious disdain that suggests no fate could be more horrifying, before delivering the come-on: “Give me a smile for old time’s sake/Before you run away.”
Hotspot consistently points to potential joy amid a backdrop of dread. Over the euphoric house keyboards of “Happy People,” Tennant’s nimble rapped verses (lest we forget that this is the group that launched their career with “West End Girls”) allude to “The sense of so much missing/When the world gets in the way.” Lead single “Dreamland”—featuring Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, whose own work is indebted to the Pet Shop Boys—might scan at first as romantic four-on-the-floor club filler, but the famously progressive and unflinching Tennant employs the title’s fantastical metaphor to eviscerate the very real leaders who’ve abdicated their countries’ responsibility to take in refugees. “You don’t need a visa,” he sings of an imagined destination. “You can come and go and still be here.”
Not all is (quite) so grim. “You Are the One,” with its sweet yearnings and sticky percussion, ranks among the Pet Shop Boys’s most straightforward love songs, and they’ve rarely sounded more convincing. While they’ve long knocked rock music (Tennant recently joked that the acoustic guitar “should be banned”), “Burning the Heather” adopts the rock textures of 2002’s Release with, um, an acoustic guitar. Autobiographical lyrics describe a fading troubadour who sits in a bar alone insisting that he’s fine before, finally, reaching out for company.
Tennant’s satire can, however, sometimes tend toward glibness, as on “Monkey Business,” in which he vaguely targets a traveler who just wants to get wasted on margaritas and wine. But the track is saved by the irresistible disco production and the darker implications of the unchecked hedonist at its center looking for “a party where we all cross the line.” If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.
The Pet Shop Boys are pranksters to the end, in this case literally. Non-fans would be forgiven for finding closer “Wedding in Berlin” confusing or just grating. But its tragicomic vision of marriage represents a statement of defiance. Church organs interrupt the aggressive EDM beat more like a nightmare than a reprieve. Tennant clearly takes vows less than seriously, reducing them to an act of bourgeois convenience: “A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay.” It’s a happily stinging finish to an album that proves no one is safe in the hands of Tennant and Lowe, and that pop can be anything but pedestrian.
Label: x2 Release Date: January 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Drive-By Truckers’s The Unraveling Is a Bleak Reflection of the Times
The band’s 12th album is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.4
Drive-By Truckers’s American Band was released a month before the 2016 presidential election—seemingly an eternity ago both in terms of the political landscape and the time between albums for the typically prolific band. American Band was supposed to be their final word on all that, but according to Patterson Hood’s notes for their 12th studio effort, The Unraveling, “writing silly love songs just seemed the height of privilege.”
This is a dark, uncompromising album about such topics as gun violence, white nationalism, the opioid crisis, and putting children in cages. But despite similar subject matter, it isn’t a sequel to American Band. Never mind that there are no individual tracks quite as immediate as “Surrender Under Protest” or “Guns of Umpqua.” But whereas the previous album was composed largely of the narrative history lessons that have been the Truckers’s stock in trade for over 20 years, The Unraveling is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.
Hood frames multiple songs around either trying to explain daily horrors to his two young kids, or hoping they will one day make things better. “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain/It hurts me that I have to look away,” he sings on “Thoughts and Prayers,” a plainspoken accounting of the onslaught of gun violence in America. He repeats the sentiment on the pointedly titled “Babies in Cages”: “I’m sorry to my children/I’m sorry what they see/I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me.” All Hood can do in “21st Century USA” is “hope and pray that they can conjure up a better day.”
This is heavy stuff, with only the wishful catharsis of the soaring “Thoughts and Prayers” offering much respite. Other flashes of optimism are fleeting: Lead single “Armageddon’s Back in Town” is an uptempo travelogue with a blazoning classic rock riff, but Hood sings about broken-down buses, standing in the rain, and his “responsibility for the darkness and the pain.” It’s not until the song’s frenzied instrumental coda—a thrilling showcase for the band’s usually unassuming drummer, Brad Morgan—that the adrenaline really kicks in.
Mike Cooley, a sort of redneck Confucius who seems to never run out of sardonic one-liners, only wrote two songs here, and one of them, “Grievance Merchants”—a trenchant breakdown of the alt-right pipeline—is one of the most lyrically serious-minded, musically dramatic songs he’s ever written. Delivered in Cooley’s uniquely conversational style, it’s an arresting effort; hearing him sound so scared out of his wits that he can’t even muster a single quip is genuinely chilling. His other contribution, “Slow Ride Argument,” is much more fun, with its overlapping vocal hooks and cheeky advice for cooling down after a heated debate, political or otherwise by, basically, going for a drive, possibly after downing a couple of tall boy beers (“not one, not three,” Cooley advises). A driving, minor-key rocker that stylistically lands somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and early R.E.M., it’s yet more evidence that Drive-By Truckers transcend the Southern rock label they inexplicably still get pigeonholed into.
Where The Unraveling really distances itself from its predecessor, and all of the band’s prior work, is its sonic complexity. Former Sugar bassist David Barbe has produced every Drive-by Truckers album since 2001, and to his credit, not one of them sounds alike. But armed with the vintage analog toys at his disposal, and accompanied by engineer Matt Ross-Spang, Barbe has helped the band craft its first true piece of sonic art. A wisp of a song like “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” is transformed into something captivating by the sheer depth of the mix: the subtle tremolo guitar accents, the snaky violin/viola accompaniment, the delicate mingling of Hood’s vocal and the natural reverb off the piano. From reliable tricks (old school slapback on Cooley’s vocals) to new ones (running a washboard through a guitar amp, wah pedal, and delay to add an otherworldly effect to “Babies in Cages”), there’s no shortage of ear candy here.
The album ends with the eight-minute-plus “Awaiting Resurrection,” which, with its unrelenting bleakness and all the air between Morgan’s minimalist drums and Hood and Cooley’s cobweb-like guitars, is the closest the band has ever come to post-rock. “I hold my family close/Trying to find the balance/Between the bad shit going down/And the beauty that this life can keep injecting,” Hood intones in a ghostly growl, returning once again to the same theme of many of the preceding songs. Hood and Cooley dwell more on the bad shit than the beauty throughout The Unraveling. It’s perhaps their most confrontational, challenging effort to date, an intricate work that’s more a reflection of than an antidote to the darkness.
Label: ATO Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon
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