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.
1. “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”.
2. “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.”
3. “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.
Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.
Review: Anderson .Paak’s Expansive Ventura Fuses the New and Old-School
The album serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.4
At the heart of Anderson .Paak’s music has always been an emotional unburdening of exuberant proportions. It’s present in the shades of intensity his voice carries between croon and rasp, the luxurious kinetics of his funk-laden instrumentals, and his starry-eyed joie de vivre. On his fourth album, Ventura, Paak alters this blueprint by mastering the equilibrium between exactitude and ease, between vintage soul and new-school fusion.
The salt and sand of the California beach towns where Paak grew up comprise the lifeblood of his albums. Whereas last year’s insular Oxnard paid tribute to the city of his birth, Ventura is more expansive. Dr. Dre, Paak’s longtime mentor, served as executive producer on Oxnard, lending that album its heavy-hitting funk-rap skylarks, but on Ventura, Dre allows his protégé to take the reins. Paak certainly doesn’t shy away from the challenge, as the album is awash in golden timbres and spacious, full-blooded textures. It’s lush yet artfully edited, unforced yet deliberate—a far cry from the overwrought architecture that got the best of Oxnard.
In many ways, Ventura represents a return to form for Paak, as he channels the neo-soul of 2016’s Malibu, which was sorely absent from Oxnard. But while Paak was comfortable residing in the clearly defined contours of traditional verse-bridge-verse song structures on Malibu, he allows those boundaries to blur and shift here. The cinematic opener “Come Home,” which boasts a particularly nimble and clever verse from André 3000, unfolds like an overture, anchored by a choir of angelic voices and hair-raising drumrolls. Staccato trumpets puncture the disco glitz of “Reachin’ 2 Much” before, in one of the most fabulous transitions of the album, giving way to a chilled-down groove equally fit for a backyard BBQ and a dance floor.
Too many tracks on Oxnard felt as if they were carried by noteworthy features like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Q-Tip, leaving Paak as a supporting character at best. By contrast, Paak is never overshadowed on Ventura, working off a tight and balanced chemistry with his guest artists, and he embraces an endearing transparency when he treats topics as disparate as dealing with a nosy girlfriend (“You stay here too much, baby/You know it’s not your place”), reigniting a dormant love (“When you take somebody for your own/It can’t survive on history alone”), and uplifting community in the face of racism and poverty (“The people that you came with? You’re coming with me”). Throughout it all, Paak maintains an optimism that, though some might deem naïve, is undeniably infectious.
The foundations of Paak’s sound—disco, funk, ‘70s soul, California G-funk—cast an air of nostalgia over his music. But he’s shrewd enough in the design and construction of his music to prevent the amalgamation of these influences from slipping into pastiche or kitsch. Although Ventura is replete with anachronisms—theatrical strings fit for Earth, Wind & Fire (“Reachin’ 2 Much”), nightclub-ready slap bass (“Jet Black”), quiet storm (“Make It Better”)—Paak fuses the old school and new school seamlessly, producing a sonic palette that hasn’t quite been replicated by any of his contemporaries. Ventura serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.
Label: Aftermath Release Date: April 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Madonna and Maluma Drop Sultry New Single “Medellín,” from Madame X
The lead single from Madonna’s 14th album is driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm.
Last month, Page Six of the New York Post published an article titled “How Madonna is using younger stars to cling to relevancy.” The infamous tabloid swiftly revised its headline to the marginally softer “How Madonna is using younger stars in hopes to stay relevant” after receiving blowback for what some perceived to be a double standard. But as the gulf between the 60-year-old pop queen’s age and that of the average radio star has continued to widen, it’s true that she’s increasingly leaned on collaborations with younger artists like Justin Timberlake and Nicki Minaj.
You’d be forgiven, then, for assuming that “Medellín,” the first single from Madonna’s upcoming 14th album, Madame X, is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of reggaton. While the 25-year-old Maluma is a huge star in Latin America, however, he’s yet to cross over beyond the Latin-pop market in the U.S., so the partnership appears to be a mutually beneficial one. And Madonna has lovingly appropriated Latin culture in her work for decades, as far back as 1986’s “La Isla Bonita,” and as recently as her torero-inspired music video for 2015’s “Living for Love.” In fact, one could argue it’s the single most consistent musical theme of her career outside of, say, dance music more broadly.
Co-produced by Mirwais, who was previously at the helm of Madonna’s Music and American Life albums, “Medellín”—named after the city where Maluma was born—is a sultry midtempo track driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm and Madonna’s catchy refrain of “one-two cha-cha-cha.” The singer’s inexplicably Auto-Tune-drenched verses are nostalgic and wistful, nodding to the breezy escapism of “La Isla Bonita”: “I took a sip and had a dream/And I woke up in Medellín.”
Vocally, Maluma does most of the heavy-lifting on the bilingual track, with inuendo-filled verses that reference both Colombia and Madonna’s hometown of Detroit. But Madonna’s sugary harmonies, particularly during the song’s rousing hook, balance out Maluma’s gigolo routine with a dreamy sweetness.
The music video for “Medellín” will premiere on April 24. Madame X is out June 14 on Interscope Records.
Review: The Chemical Brothers’s No Geography Resembles Loving Fan Fiction
The album displays elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retains the same playful inspiration found in their best work.3.5
To call the Chemical Brothers’s No Geography a kind of impeccable fan service is to suggest a criticism entirely unintended. If the U.K. duo’s ninth album resembles loving speculative fiction, it’s of an urgent, exciting sort that the electronic pioneers have more than earned over their relatively consistent 25-year career. In fact, save for the wonky sequencing choice of front-loading the two most negligible songs—the boilerplate big-beat intro of “Eve of Destruction” and ”Bango”—No Geography could easily pass for a collection of epic B-sides to some of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’s signature classics.
“MAH” (short for “Mad As Hell”) is a dopamine-surging mash of familiar sounds, its frenzied, vaguely tribal beats and grinding noise reminiscent of “It Began in Afrika” and “Chemical Beats,” respectively. “Gravity Drops” gives the 808s-on-Salvia drum thunder of “Come with Us” a modern production spit-shine, with some additional sprinkling of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” and Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker.” “We’ve Got to Try” similarly resurrects the hip-hop-based car-stereo thump of the Chemical Brothers’ first two albums, and even raises a glass to two of the stronger tracks (“High Roller” and ”Busy Child”) by their early American counterpart the Crystal Method.
Fans of the Chemical Brothers tend to have their own favorites among the many genre styles the pair use to generate their panoramic sonic palette. If you love the group’s bouncing, THC-fried detours into crisp, disco-infused pop, singles like “Got to Keep On” and “Free Yourself” are made to order. For this listener, it’s the moody dance-floor psychedelia, and in this vein, No Geography thrills as well: “The Universe Sent Me” gives “Star Guitar” a darker, more meditative spin with its humming baseline, ethereal Liz Frazier-esque vocals, and fire-damaged guitars, and “Catch Me I’m Falling” winds down the BPMs while turning up the intergalactic lovesickness. These songs, like the album as a whole, display elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retain the same playful inspiration found in their best work.
Label: Astralwerks Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Watch: Madonna Unveils Teaser Trailer for New Concept Album Madame X
The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks.
Certain discrete corners of the internet lost their collective minds earlier this month when Madonna’s Instagram page, alternately littered with posts featuring the singer’s adopted twin daughters or snapshots of her recent photo and video shoots, was taken over by nine indivudal images comprising a large red “X.” The typically prolific celebrity ‘grammer remained relatively quiet over the next two weeks, intermittently posting images of the letter X in her stories, and slowly revealing the manifesto for Madame X, her first album in four years:
Madame X is a secret agent
Traveling around the world
Fighting for freedom
Bringing light to dark places
She is a cha cha instructor
A head of state
A cabaret singer
The album’s lead single, which could be out as soon as this week, is rumored to be a duet with Colombian reggaeton singer Maluma, but details are scarce. The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks since at least the turn of the century. The studio recordings for her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, leaked like a sieve, resulting in the arrest of an Israeli hacker.
This time out, the queen of pop has successfully kept things under wraps, but it seems that Madame X—a character perhaps inspired by the 1966 film of the same name starring Lana Turner—is ready for her close-up. Watch the teaser for the new album, directed by Steven Klein, below:
Madonna will reportedly perform new material from Madame X at the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14.
Review: Craig Finn’s I Need a New War Soars When It Rises Above the Mire
If there’s one thing that squarely separates the album from the Hold Steady singer’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness.3.5
The artistic growth Craig Finn has displayed over the course of his four solo albums is comparable—in terms developing a lyrical and production style—to his progression as a songwriter across the Hold Steady’s first four albums. The difference is that rather than sketching out narrative party epics set to huge power-and-glory guitar riffs, Finn is now mostly writing tightly focused character studies to go with his largely understated indie rock songs—music, in other words, that’s harder to latch onto and easier to overlook.
Despite its title’s connotations, I Need a New War—the third in a retconned trilogy of albums—finds Finn further entrenching himself in the stylistic hallmarks of 2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. The album’s ties to its two predecessors are, however, largely implicit rather than explicit. Counter to past Hold Steady albums, there are few, if any, recurring characters, and unlike Holly, Charlemagne, and the whole crew of divinely inspired party hounds who Finn sings about with that band, his subjects here are mostly just regular folks doing their best to muddle through their day-to-day lives. It takes one hell of a good writer to turn that kind of subject matter into compelling rock n’ roll, and Finn—practically in his own category as a lyricist—is up to the task.
Produced by Josh Kaufman, who also helmed Faith in the Future and We All Want the Same Things, I Need a New War retains many of those albums’ sonic traits: watery guitars, pillowy keyboards, and a stuffed-nose Finn singing in a lower, relaxed register. But it’s also a departure, introducing new wrinkles like silky backing vocals by Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins and a liberally employed brass section that gets downright jazzy on the lounge-y “Her with the Blues.” Several songs, particularly “Magic Marker” and “Indications,” unexpectedly adopt a ‘50s doo-wop sound, continuing Finn’s penchant for introducing new stylistic approaches on each of his solo albums that we haven’t heard from him before.
If there’s one thing that squarely separates I Need a New War from Finn’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness. With its dreamy atmosphere and loitering tempos, the album is more reliant than ever on Finn’s wordplay. This is rarely an issue for a lyricist of Finn’s caliber, as his eye for detail can turn seemingly mundane scenarios—a simple favor that becomes hard to repay (“A Bathtub in the Kitchen”), an office drone who daydreams of driving away from a dead-end relationship (“Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today”)—into resonant vignettes.
At the same time, Finn can get too bogged down in minutiae, such as devoting an entire verse of “Holyoke” to binge-watching TV shows. But even then, the aside serves the song’s larger purpose of illustrating the anxiety-ridden narrator’s vain attempts to distract himself from the omnipresence of death: “Massachusetts, man, you’ve got a lot more graveyards than we’re used to/I swear to god they’re every other mile.”
I Need a New War soars when Finn dares to rise above the mire. This includes “Something to Hope For,” whose optimistic title is mirrored in its peppy, infectious hooks. And lead single “Blankets” is Finn’s most rousing solo effort to date, an account of a desperate search for an old flame that’s as sweeping and powerful as the “thunder in the canyon” that the musician sings about on the chorus. The song’s concluding thought—“You live your whole life/Just to travel to the place you’re gonna die”—is as bleak and resigned as anything else on the album. But like almost everything that Finn sings, it’s also invigorating.
Label: Partisan Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon
The 25 Best Chemical Brothers Songs
To celebrate the release of the duo’s ninth album, No Geography, we ranked their 25 best songs.
This week, the Chemical Brothers will release their ninth studio album, No Geography, a notable feat for a group that was first propelled into the mainstream via electronica’s so-called big bang in the late 1990s. Here’s how consistently rich the duo’s vast catalogue has been throughout their near-25-year career: Given the task of choosing our individual favorite tracks, we came up with over 50 contenders worthy of inclusion. As you read—and better yet, listen—to this list, you’ll discover some unexpected omissions (pour one out for one of their biggest crossover hits, “Blocking Rockin’ Beats,” which didn’t make the cut), but also some equally surprising additions that more casual fans may find unfamiliar. Regardless of your level of immersion, though, what you’ll find here are 25 of the most explosive, head-bobbing, ass-shaking anthems in electronic music history. Blue Sullivan
Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire playlist on Spotify.
The Chemical Brothers’s 2007 album We Are the Night is rightly maligned for containing a few of the duo’s rare missteps (here’s looking at you, “Salmon Dance”), but it also contains one of their most propulsive house bangers. Built on ping-ponging keys and a bassline so deep and dirty it almost qualifies as subliminal, “Saturate” builds to a surge of hammering snares that sound like crashing waves. A frequent late-set addition to the duo’s live show over the last decade, the track is just as deserving of its inclusion here as any of their early classics. Sullivan
24. “Life Is Sweet”
But is it? Structured as a call and response, “Life Is Sweet” first finds the Chemical Brothers radiating in an unambiguously optimistic vibe, to the point you can almost feel UV rays emanating from the speakers. And then, suddenly, everything clouds over and you find yourself dancing in a haze of primal doubt that winds up in a denouement of existentialist angst. Eric Henderson
23. “Loops of Fury”
Best video game soundtrack of all time? WipeOut XL, without a doubt. And the Chemical Brothers’s “Loops of Fury” was but one of the crown jewels of a compilation that also included Underworld’s “Tin There,” the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Photek’s “The Third Sequence,” and Fluke’s “Atom Bomb.” Even in that company, the relentless “Loops of Fury” comes about as close as any of them to feeling what it would be like to barrel down an anti-gravity race track at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Henderson
22. “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”
There is perhaps no other song on the Chemical Brothers’s 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, that defined the duo’s developing sound more efficiently than the unrelenting “Three Little Birdies Down Beats.” The track is a torrent of increasingly complex layers: breakbeats, soul samples, and an onslaught of screeching guitars and distorted vocals that would become the group’s signature over the course of the next decade. Sal Cinquemani
21. “My Elastic Eye”
Based around a sample of electronic composer Bernard Estardy’s 1973 piece “Tic Tac Nocturne,” “My Elastic Eye” sounds at once cinematic and classical, fusing prog-rock and jazz influences, and boldly employing the filtered basslines of French techno and electroclash, which was peaking in popularity around the time of the song’s release. The result is a mélange of styles that cohere into a spooky musical score that wouldn’t sound out of a place in an Argento giallo. Cinquemani
Review: Khalid’s Free Spirit Embraces Self-Inquiry to Hackneyed Effect
The album feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.3
With his butter-smooth two-octave vocal range, megawatt smile, and candid, sincere commitment to portraying millennial love—replete with boozy Uber rides and text-message mind games—Khalid has swiftly become a pop fixture, carving out a seemingly permanent place on the Billboard charts. But there’s a sense of guardedness, an almost antiseptic quality, to the 21-year-old singer’s produced-to-perfection R&B. And on his sophomore effort, Free Spirit, he can’t seem to shake that predilection for playing it safe, despite the album’s calls to lose our inhibitions and be free.
Whereas his 2016 debut, American Teen, played like the soundtrack to teenage romance and misadventure, Free Spirit sees Khalid embracing more mature self-inquiry, albeit to hackneyed effect, as he does on “Self”: “I’ve ran away for miles, it’s gettin’ hard for me to breathe/‘Cause the man that I’ve been runnin’ from is inside of me.” And no less inspired are lyrics like “So if you’re gonna love me/You gotta love all of me” (from “Bad Luck”) and “Life is never easy when you need it to be/Try to knock me down, but I get back on my feet” (from “Hundred”).
Free Spirit brims with potential radio hits, like the broody, laidback “My Bad.” The Disclosure-produced lead single, “Talk,” is bright and electric, with a galaxy of heavily textured synths underpinning the track’s buoyant chorus, in which Khalid shows off his seemingly effortless falsetto. A spacey guitar solo from guest John Mayer elevates the grounded groove of “Outta My Head” into something a little more out of this world. Multiple tracks, however, feature the same reverb-drenched guitar and airy synths, sucked dry of vitality by too-pristine production. For a burgeoning artist still establishing his signature style, Khalid settles into a surprising complacency here, failing to experiment with the template of his debut.
A fleet of 1970s-era vans emblazoned with the Free Spirit logo were deployed to colleges across the U.S. to promote the album’s release, and a band of disillusioned teens taking a weed-stoked road trip are the subject of a short film that accompanies the album. The title track grapples with the tantalizing and distressing prospects of freedom, but Khalid never seems to reconcile the depths of that freedom throughout Free Spirit. Perhaps it’s because, at 21, his journey is just beginning. But with all of the lyrical platitudes that abound on the album, the cover art of which depicts the artist overlooking a desert from the top of a dusty van, Khalid’s coming-of-age odyssey feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.
Label: RCA Release Date: April 5, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Flaming Lips’s King’s Mouth Brings the Hooks but Lacks Heft
The album’s heartwarming melodies set to hit-and-miss lyrics represents at least a partial return to form.3
Given that Wayne Coyne has spent the last decade mired in increasingly bleak stonerism and aimless neo-psych jamming—not to mention the Instagramming and hawking of absurd novelty merchandise—it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll ever return to the starry-eyed philosophizing of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that made him an indie-rock icon. Or, for that matter, if Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd will ever go back to writing the sweet pop melodies that made those albums so indelible.
With King’s Mouth, initially being released on vinyl as a Record Store Day exclusive with a full release to follow, Coyne’s voice is freed of the alienating reverb of the band’s recent work, returning to its clear, humanly quavering state in the center of the mix. Unfortunately, the album only contains about an EP’s worth of solid material, with the rest of the running time devoted to a tedious children’s fairytale featuring narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones.
Jones delivers, in intermittent spoken segments, a predictably offbeat yarn about a beloved king whose severed, steel-coated head becomes a totem of inspiration to the children of the kingdom (itself an extension of an art installation by Coyne). Conceptually, this is no less loopy than Yoshimi or any one of dozens of Lips songs that could have originally been conceived in a crayon drawing. But much of the narrative-focused sections of King’s Mouth lack compositional heft: They’re mostly sub-two-minute, largely instrumental toss-offs that Jones’s flat, disinterested narration does little to energize.
Still, as slight as they are, even vignettes like “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot” and “Funeral Parade” contain snatches of melody more distinct than nearly anything else the band has done this decade. This renewed melodic emphasis, though, is more appreciable on the album’s more deliberately composed songs. With their strummed acoustic guitars, pervasive but unfussy electronic embellishments, and Coyne’s existential musings, these songs sound like the basis of a proper follow-up to Yoshimi even more than the zany At War with the Mystics, did.
Of course, 17 years and numerous musical evolutions and public Coyne episodes later, this does feel a bit like backtracking, especially lyrically. The Coyne of “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Fight Test,” and “Do You Realize??” was pseudo-childlike in disposition but also knowing and world-weary, and it was in that synthesis that he achieved genuine profundity. On King’s Mouth, Coyne too often defaults to just the “childlike” part of that equation, especially on “Giant Baby,” on which silly refrains of “You’re the biggest baby/You’re a giant little boy” render the eventual payoff line—“And it made me understand/That life sometimes is sad”—miles less impactful than, say, “Everyone you know someday will die.” Album closer “How Can a Head” also sounds a bit like a mash-up of things Coyne has said before in less frivolous contexts: “How can a head hold so many things/All our life, all our love/All the songs it sings.”
The heartwarming melodies that Coyne and Drozd set these hit-and-miss lyrics to represent at least a partial return to form for songwriters who, in recent years, seemed to have forgotten that melody is what they do best. Songs like “The Sparrow,” “All for the Life of the City,” and “Mouth of the King” boast sugary yet wistful melodies in the same vein of some of the Lips’s greatest work, and hearing Coyne sing them is like reuniting with an old friend.
Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon
The 15 Best Nirvana Songs
Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic death via a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As if that weren’t a stark enough reminder of our fragile mortality, the band’s debut album, Bleach, will turn 30 this June. Of course, the massive success of Nirvana’s 1991 follow-up, Nevermind, would help change the course of rock history. The band’s songs, the vast majority of which were penned solely by Cobain, fused pop, punk, and heavy metal into raw yet relatively digestible scraps of visceral rock poetry that struck just the right balance of accessible and challenging, introducing “alternative rock” to the masses, influencing an entire generation of musicians and fans, and—for better or worse—christening a new subgenre: grunge. Though Nirvana only lasted for seven years and three studio albums, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were prolific enough to produce some of the greatest rock songs ever put to tape. Sal Cinquemani
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2014. Listen to our entire Nirvana playlist on Spotify.
15. “Been a Son”
The first of many collections of scraps tossed out to hungry fans, Insecticide at least revealed a few new sides of the band, ranging from blistering punk assaults to strange slices of jagged power pop. “Been a Son” proves one of the standouts of these early recordings, a zippy, straightforward ditty that retains only a scant undercurrent of sludge, only hinting at the psychic trauma that other songs made much more evident. Jesse Cataldo
14. “Rape Me”
Emblematic of the band’s reaction to accusations that they “sold out” for signing with a major label and softening their early punk sound, the opening guitar lick of “Rape Me” pointedly and playfully evokes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the track devolves into a crushingly blunt treatise on sexual assault that conveniently, if unintentionally, doubles as a taunt to the media to take their best shot. Cinquemani
Rock’s inherently primal qualities have always been obvious, but few songs have approached them as directly as this one, a charging anthem that boils down to a melancholy tale of a little boy crying for his mother. Originally released by Sub Pop as a non-album single, it’s another sustained tantrum of a track, a roar disguising a whimper, highlighting the tormented whelp at the center of all that seething rage. Cataldo
12. “In Bloom”
Pitted with a stream of pithy, sardonic koans that go almost unnoticed under all the noise, “In Bloom” imagines a micro-problem (ignorant meddlers of the Seattle scene) that quickly exploded into a macro one, leaving an acidic song retroactively aimed at the huge contingent of fans prizing the band for their muscular qualities, while ignoring the pained sensitivity which produced that intensity. If more people had been listening, maybe we could have avoided the long downward spiral of influence that eventually led to Puddle of Mudd. Cataldo
11. “On a Plain”
Few things are more selfish, or illogical, than addiction, and the messy, self-focused tenor of Nirvana’s songs proves the perfect platform to engage that topic. The exacting honesty of tracks like “On a Plain” ended up as one of the band’s biggest cultural coups, pushing the focus of mainstream rock not only from glam fakery to “genuine” emotion, but from a fixation on surfaces and objects to the intrinsic horrors of being human, the gross weakness of our bodies and the yawning emptiness of discontent. Cataldo
Listen: Ariana Grande Drops New Single “Monopoly” with Victoria Monét
Yes, human pop song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today.
Human pop-song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today. Last week the singer hinted via Twitter that a release of “Monopoly,” a duet with frequent collaborator Victoria Monét, was imminent after the pair debuted the song live during a stop on Grande’s Sweetener World Tour. And here we are.
Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, the hip-hop-inflected “Monopoly” doesn’t leave much space for Grande to flex her much-ballyhooed vocal prowess, though she does manage to sneak in a few whistle notes at the end. The track has prompted as-yet-verified rumors that the pop star is bisexual: “I swerve both ways, dichotomy,” Monét says before both women put a fine point on it: “I like men and women.”
The lo-fi video is slightly more successful, with emojis popping up on the screen while Grande and Monét playfully celebrate on a roofop. At one point, Grande swipes left on “haters,” “negativity,” and “Trump.” (Grande recently started an initiative called #ThankUNextGen to register voters for next year’s presidential election.)