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: Jamila Woods’s LEGACY! LEGACY! Is a Chronicle of Black Trauma and Joy
The singer-songwriter imbues her sophomore effort with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her predecessors.4
Jamila Woods imbues her sophomore effort, LEGACY! LEGACY!, with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her artistic predecessors. With the exception of “FRIDA,” which is dedicated to famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, each track bears the name of a black artist, musician, or writer, assembling an illustrious creative lineage stretching from Muddy Waters’s southern blues to Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism. Being given this kind of insight into a cross-section of Woods’s influences is a small but mighty pleasure for all that it reveals about her creative process, but the musician takes it one step further, presenting the songs here as dialectical tribute, not merely homage.
A spoken-word poet and Pushcart Prize nominee, Woods proven herself an emotive wordsmith, and LEGACY! LEGACY!, like 2016’s Heavn before it, revels in the power of language. On the high-spirited “OCTAVIA,” she honors African-American slaves who illicitly taught themselves to read and write, framing that legacy of language within the accomplishments of science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and issuing a call to empowerment: “Don’t ever let a textbook scare you.” She delights in hyperbole on “GIOVANNI,” a tribute to her matrilineage inspired by Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.” For Woods, words are both sword and shield in the way that they liberate one from adversity and honor the ego.
Although the album explores intergenerational black trauma and joy, Woods’s personal insight into such experience functions as the album’s anchor and serves as a more accessible entry point. Inspired by an interview in which Jean-Michel Basquiat refused to divulge the source of his rage, “BASQUIAT” attests to the power of a not allowing other people to regard your anger as a spectacle. Backed by the jagged textures of descending guitar passages and insistent percussion, Woods divulges how concealing the particulars of her own anger allows her to claim absolute dominion over it: “I smile in your face, but the oven’s on high.” On “BALDWIN,” Woods criticizes the “precious lethal fear” and “casual violence” of white people: “My friend James/Says I should love you anyway…But you’re making it hard for me.” Throughout the album, Woods utilizes the knowledge of her forebears as a diving-off point, advancing or contradicting their ideas to relay her own message.
Often, Woods plays with her vocal delivery, extending and contorting her pronunciation and intonation to imbue her songs with a childlike air. An ode to the necessity of preserving independence in a relationship, “FRIDA” alludes to the home Kahlo shared with Diego Rivera, a pair of twin houses united by a bridge. The repetition in the refrain—“If I run, run, would you, you, you see, see, see me?”—brings to mind the rhythms of a playground game, and this guileless atmosphere casts a gentle, carefree light on the tangle of expectations a relationship can conjure. “SONIA” unfolds like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, little girl on the grind/Met a boy, he was nice at the time.” Woods affirms the pain of a toxic relationship to validate it and ensure it cannot be erased, stating simply in the chorus: “It was bad, it was bad.” She sings the word “bad” as an oscillation, fluidly moving up and down the scale like a nursery rhyme.
LEGACY! LEGACY! chronicles the adversity that women of color regularly face, but at the heart of Woods’s music is an urgent desire to heal and be healed. Throughout the album, from refusing to compromise her ideals (on “EARTHA”) to embracing her peculiarities (on “BETTY”), Woods stresses that the first step to healing is a regard for one’s own boundaries, values, and desires—or, to put it more simply, self-respect. That self-respect is emboldening and incendiary in the face of generations of devastating animosity, the rationale behind the battle cry on “ZORA”: “None of us are free, but some of us are brave.”
Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love
The album doubles down on the singer’s devotion to all things love and ‘80s pop-rock.3.5
In a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, music can provide reliable solace and stability. A vital component of callout research—the process Top 40 radio stations use to test the favorability of songs—is “familiarity.” A song that’s recognizable is more likely to receive a high score from listeners, but it also perpetuates a feedback loop where artists are de-incentivized from substantively tinkering with their established sounds.
Carly Rae Jepsen, of course, isn’t your typical radio star. Aside from her breakthrough hit “Call Me Maybe,” her success has been largely fomented by gushing critical praise and word of mouth. But success in the age of Spotify and social media is, like radio, predicated on giving people what they want, when they want it. And Jepsen’s fourth album, Dedicated, is a carefully calibrated attempt at brand extension, reprising the effervescent pop of her last two albums while at the same time acknowledging that the 33-year-old is now a full-grown woman.
For the most part, Jepsen succeeds at threading that needle. The album’s lead single, “Party for One,” initially felt like a retread, its opening strains nodding to “Call Me Maybe” and its whirling strings and bouncy keyboards acting as if not a day has gone by since her last album, 2015’s Emotion. As the closing track of Dedicated, however, the song clicks perfectly into place, a declaration of independence that bookends an album’s worth of frustrated desire: “I’m not over this, but I’m trying,” Jepsen humbly proclaims.
“This” being the various love affairs—consummated or otherwise—that comprise the album’s loose narrative. Dedicated opens with “Julien,” a recollection of a fleeting romance—“I’m forever haunted by our time,” Jepsen sings wistfully—followed by over a dozen songs that luxuriate in love or fret over the loss of it. She ponders its meaning on the euphoric “Real Love,” her voice filled with knowing abandon (“I go everyday without it/All I want is real, real love…I don’t know a thing about it/All I want is real, real love”), and shakes off an affirmation that’s too little to late on “Right Words Wrong Time,” the album’s sole ballad.
Dedicated is, well, dedicated to its theme, revisiting topics Jepsen studiously explored on Emotion. One notable development is the singer’s newly and boldly expressed sexuality. “I wanna do bad things to you,” she declares on “Want You in My Room,” before coyly asking, “Baby, don’t you want me to?” She similarly plays the coquette on “I’ll Be Your Girl,” beckoning her object of desire to “come to bed,” and promises “sweat disco all night” on the squelchy “Everything He Needs,” channeling “Physical”-era Olivia Newton-John.
The album also doubles down on its predecessor’s fixation on ‘80s pop-rock tropes. “Want You in My Room” is awash in Vocoder effects, shimmering new-wave guitars, and a grinding bassline straight out of Cameo’s “Candy”—all within less than three minutes, and topped off with sax solo for good measure. The kitschy “Everything He Needs” is the sonic equivalent of a velvet painting, based on a pitched-up vocal sample of Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye. Producer John Hill lends several tracks a distinct reggae groove, like the simmering “Too Much” and the ska-infused “I’ll Be Your Girl,” while “For Sure” dizzyingly pairs tribal rhythms with swirling synths and chants.
These tweaks to Jepsen’s formula feel less significant when placed alongside more boilerplate fare like the single “No Drug Like Me” and the cloying “Feels Right,” both of which could be leftovers from Emotion. But Jepsen deserves credit for committing to a pure pop sound when it might be shrewder to venture into more hip-hop-influenced terrain. There’s something to be said for the virtues of familiarity—even if it means you won’t get played on Top 40 radio.
Label: Interscope Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: The National’s Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious
The album is the band’s widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.4
In early 2013, I was interning at a recording studio in upstate New York where the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner were working on overdubs for the band’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, which was released later that year. As playback of the lovely “I Need My Girl” filled the control room, one of the brothers remarked, somewhat shockingly, that the National’s frontman, Matt Berninger, isn’t a great singer.
Berninger’s thick, apollonian baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in indie rock, and he wields it like a weapon, lending immense gravitas to everything he sings. He doesn’t have much range as a vocalist—in terms of both emotion and literal notes—endowing a certain level of sameness to the Dessners’ compositions. But he and the rest of the band have managed to parlay that limitation into a consistent, often brilliant 20-year career. Nonetheless, it’s reason enough to approach their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, with skepticism that 16 tracks and over an hour of running time might be a bit too much Berninger for one sitting.
The first half of the album’s opening track, “You Had Your Soul with You,” boasts the same type of deconstructed post-guitar rock that the National has been making for a while now, with glitchy electronics, a lurching drum pattern, and Berninger intoning about loss and failure. But after the building instrumentation fades away into lush piano and strings, the first voice we hear isn’t Berninger’s, but that of Gail Ann Dorsey, longtime bassist and vocalist for the late David Bowie. When she sings, “You have no idea how hard I died when you left,” her steely but buoyant delivery offers an emotional shade to this brooding line that Berninger never could have achieved. It’s this moment that defines the rest of I Am Easy to Find, as Dorsey is one of various women who share the mic with Berninger over the course the album. The result is the National’s widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.
Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables, among others, aren’t just some form of affirmative action for a band that’s sometimes derided as the epitome of self-absorbed straight-white-guy rock. The main impetus for their presence on I Am Easy to Find was, in fact, a short film of the same name directed by Mike Mills, and the band’s desire to more directly reflect the film’s female protagonist, played by Alicia Vikander. Besides, Berninger has often collaborated with his wife, writer and former New Yorker fiction editor Carin Besser, on lyrics for the National, so having female voices sing those lyrics is just a more explicit acknowledgement of how Besser’s perspective has shaped the band’s lyrical identity.
Still, the effect of those voices spotlights the nuances of the Dessners’ compositional craft. From the stately piano balladry of “Roman Holiday” and “Light Years” to the more propulsive “Rylan” and “The Pull of You,” even seemingly standard-issue National songs are made rewarding by the guest singers’ eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. It’s one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date.
The preponderance of other voices on I Am Easy to Find is such that Berninger is at times reduced to little more than a bit player in his own band, as on the swirling, blustery “Where Is Her Head” and the slow-building “So Far, So Fast,” a showcase for Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. On the occasions when he does wrest the spotlight entirely for himself, even the greatest indulgence he can muster—“Not in Kansas,” a seven-minute ballad composed of stream-of-consciousness musings—utterly charms and never becomes overbearing.
Of the many singers featured on I Am Easy to Find, the ones who leave the greatest impression are the members of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, who make multiple appearances throughout the album. Their presence, including on the wordless interludes “Her Father in the Pool” and “Underwater,” is ethereal and indelible, miles away from the band’s usual, insular timbre.
Considering how many of the songs on I Am Easy to Find are leftovers—mostly from the sessions for 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, though “Rylan” dates back as far as 2010—it’s remarkable how much of a piece it feels. That said, one does eventually feel the album’s length, with the stretch of songs in between “You Left Your Soul with You” and “I Am Easy to Find” feeling comparatively pedestrian—the sounds of a band treading more familiar ground before really staring to take chances. But once they do, the sprawl quickly begins to justify itself, revealing some of the most ambitious music the National has ever made.
Label: 4AD Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride Is Generous with Its Rewards
There’s still darkness flitting around Ezra Koenig’s consciousness, but it’s more of the “middle-aged malaise” variety.3.5
A lot has changed in the world of Vampire Weekend since the band released their last album, Modern Vampires of the City, in 2013. Most significantly, frontman Ezra Koenig’s main songwriting partner, Rostam Batmanglij, announced in 2016 that he was leaving the band. Approaching the release of their fourth album, Father of the Bride, with apprehension, then, would be a reasonable stance. Fortunately, it’s unfounded, as Father of the Bride is overstuffed with the pristine production, sickly sweet melodies, and audaciously off-the-wall genre-bending that’s sustained the band long enough to remain arguably the most commercially relevant of the popular 2000s indie bands that are still standing.
Modern Vampires of the City was nothing short of a quantum leap for Vampire Weekend, possessing a seriousness of purpose and lived-in musicality that made everything the band had done prior sound trite by comparison. Six long years later, one hardly expects Koenig to still be grappling with the same existential dilemmas he did on that album. But absorbed back to back with Modern Vampires of the City, the shift in tone on Father of the Bride is jarring.
There’s still darkness flitting around Koenig’s consciousness, but it’s more of the “middle-aged malaise” variety than the crisis of faith he teased out last time around, and even then the music is so relentlessly sunny that Koenig rarely sounds anything less than content. (It’s telling that the album’s most arresting, confrontational line—“I don’t wanna live like this/But I don’t wanna die” from “Harmony Hall”—is recycled from 2013’s “Finger Back”.) On “This Life,” even as he asks, “Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?” he sounds like a millennial Jimmy Buffet, pondering the question from the comfort of a sonic hammock composed of beachy guitars and effortlessly breezy harmonies. There’s nothing wrong with Koenig achieving this state of mind, of course—in fact, it’s comforting—but if he were a character on a TV show, it would feel as though we missed a few crucial stages of character development.
Taken on its own terms, however, Father of the Bride is generous with its rewards. The resplendent “Harmony Hall” is Vampire Weekend firing on all cylinders; its sparkling guitar arpeggios, sun-drenched chorus, and baroque piano break are all entirely familiar elements within the band’s oeuvre, but they’ve never coalesced so irresistibly before. And while a certain sense of over-familiarity does pervade some of the album’s lesser tracks (like the white-bred funk trappings and use of Auto-Tune on “How Long?”), others are as inventively irreverent with genre conventions as any of the band’s past work, such as the bluesy finger-picking married to Disney-like orchestral lines on “Rich Man,” or the early-1970s Cali-rock vibes interspersed with jazzy scatting on “Sunflower.” In this anything-goes context, even the appearance of country and folk elements on tracks like “Hold You Now” and “Big Blue” that otherwise might be considered conventional feel quietly bold.
In the near-total absence of Batmanglij—he’s listed as the co-writer and producer of one song and the co-producer of another—Koenig turns to HAIM’s Danielle Haim to find a new foil. She’s game, singing with Koenig and playing three very different kinds of paramours on “Hold You Now,” “Married in a Gold Rush,” and “We Belong Together.” The latter of these has the melodic construction of a beginner fiddle tune and the rhyme scheme of a children’s song and yet remains maddeningly infectious. But she can’t fill one role that seems to have slipped beyond the band’s grasp: editor. At 18 tracks and 58 minutes, Father of the Bride is by far the longest release by a band whose brevity was once one of their best characteristics. This results in a not-insignificant amount of bloat, including at least one or two songs—like the lounge jazz disaster “My Mistake”—that should have been left in the outtakes pile.
But Koenig is clearly in no mood for compromise. He’s not shy about putting all this new material out there, or about confronting his critics in the process. Lyrics like “I’ve been cheating my way through this life/And all its suffering” (on “This Life”) and “One rich man in ten has a satisfied mind/And I’m the one” (on “Rich Man”)—not to mention the title, if not the content, of “Unbearably White”—seem designed to provoke the authors of the slate of circa-2010 think pieces about Vampire Weekend, appropriation, and white privilege. He doesn’t much seem to care if his words piss you off, as he seems to be feeling pretty good regardless.
Label: Columbia Release Date: May 3, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy Is Weighty and Understated
DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel weighty and timeless.3.5
Over the course of his seven-year career, Mac DeMarco has proven his songwriting prowess to be both transportive and alchemic. With his fourth album, Here Comes the Cowboy, he once again invites us into his idiosyncratic, hazy world but grounds the album with concrete ruminations on longing and remorse that are sonically stripped down and understated. DeMarco embodies the solitary and resilient figure of the cowboy throughout, divulging moments of clarity and vulnerability alike with an unshakeable stoicism.
DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel simultaneously weighty and timeless. But while his previous work suggested a flair for embellishment and drama—like the lavish “Chamber of Reflection” and otherworldly “Moonlight on the River”—Here Comes the Cowboy is decidedly more reined in. The forlorn “Heart to Heart” simmers with tension, its restrained use of synths entwining carefully around DeMarco’s plaintive vocal: “To all the days we were together/To all the time we were apart.”
Throughout the album, spare arrangements foreground DeMarco’s lyrics and vocals. On “K,” his voice’s proximity to the listener is as palpable as the crystalline plucking of his acoustic guitar. At several points, DeMarco relinquishes control over his voice, sacrificing pitch precision for ardent expression, like when he lets out an animalistic howl on “Finally Alone.”
For all its reflections on regrets and love lost, Here Comes the Cowboy also exhibits DeMarco’s eccentric sense of humor, which has been sorely absent in his recent work. On the closing track, “Baby Bye Bye,” his playful falsetto is accompanied by a zany slide guitar before bursting into crazed laughter and a funk breakdown that recalls the spirit of David Bowie’s “Fame.” In spite of the album’s earlier solemnity, DeMarco bids a tongue-in-cheek farewell as if to assure us that he hasn’t lost touch with the slacker rock goofball of his “Ode to Viceroy” days.
A handful of tracks scan as underdeveloped or incomplete. The three-minute title track plods along sedately—the only lyrics being its four-word title—with DeMarco’s deadpan delivery scanning as more vapid than charming. On “Choo Choo,” he’s lithe and energetic, but without a breakdown, the numbing funk groove peters out. Although elsewhere the album benefits from his light-handed instrumentation, the structural one-dimensionalities of these tracks harbor too many empty, open spaces, yielding songs that flatline. Like 2017’s This Old Dog and 2015’s Another One, the album doesn’t represent a progression so much as a broadening of what DeMarco has already proven himself to be capable of as a songwriter.
Label: Royal Mountain Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon
The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30
Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.
In 1991, when Debbie Gibson’s underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled “The Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.” In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America’s sweetheart—anointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit—to being declared a pop casualty by the nation’s newspaper of record.
Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, “Lost in Your Eyes,” the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson’s four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987’s Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.
The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for “the next generation,” released as Electric Youth’s second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, “Electric Youth” dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America’s now-neglected “middle child.” Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr’s bonkers musical arrangement—a frenetic mix of faux horns, “Planet Rock”-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars—and its even more batshit-crazy music video.
The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests—lots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of ‘80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.
Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”
Despite the video’s copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, “Electric Youth” was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna’s iconic “Express Yourself,” which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher’s distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)
“Electric Youth” spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson’s last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and ‘80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.
Review: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s Fishing for Fishies Lacks for the Oddball
The album fails to yield anything truly novel within the scope of blues-rock.3
There’s something gleefully bizarre about King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s pairing of lyrics about environmental doom with spirited blues rock on Fishing for Fishies. Purveyors of sludge-heavy psych-rock and tongue-in-cheek wordplay, the Australian seven-piece is prone to trying different genres, like surf rock, stoner metal, and jazz, before then pulling them apart at the seams. But whereas the band’s most successful forays into genre-bending benefited from their delight in warping styles out of shape, Fishing for Fishies suffers from by-the-book derivations and a shortage of their usual oddball instincts.
As the album’s cover of a cartoon robot fishing in a hellish lake of fire suggests, King Gizzard’s main concern is environmental and social degradation in the digital age. The band amplifies the perils of our world, envisaging an apocalyptic landscape marked by plastic-choked oceans, wildlife extinction, and millennials deprived of meaningful human interaction. They underpin this subject matter with muddy blues guitar, intensifying the sense of doom by emulating the jeremiads of the blues traditions, and with shuffle boogie rhythms. The “boogie” motif that threads through the album juxtaposes the celebration and dance of boogie music with sobering lyrics. “Death will come from plastic/Death will come from people,” singer Stu Mackenzie chants on “Plastic Boogie” as a crowd claps and cheers over a blazing guitar lick.
For all of its attempts at unconventionality, though, Fishing for Fishies fails to yield anything truly novel within the scope of blues-rock. “Plastic Boogie” and “The Cruel Millennial” sound like discarded B-sides from ZZ Top and Ten Years After, respectively. This derivative treatment of blues-rock makes the album one of the band’s most accessible to date, but devoid of their trademark absurdities (eerie soliloquys, road burn-inducing walls of sound, and jigsaw-like song structures), what’s left is arid and unmemorable.
With the introduction of electronic elements and musings about a dystopian, cyborg-dominated future, the tail-end of the album recaptures some of its initial vigor and intrigue. “This Thing” opens with another ZZ Top-influenced guitar lick, but in this case, the track transitions into a strange psychedelic brew of flute, harmonica, and synth drones. The use of microtonal tuning on “Acarine” lends it a disorienting feeling that’s supplanted by a moody house outro. The closing track, “Cyboogie,” returns to boogie rhythms but features zany Auto-Tuned vocals and a cyborg as its protagonist. Certainly, the shift from the humanity and warmth of blues-rock to the synthetic robotics of electronic music is intentional, but the album ends too abruptly for one to clearly discern the full extent of its significance.
Label: Flightless Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Pink’s Hurts 2B Human Peddles Boilerplate Angst and Introspection
The album settles into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.2.5
Pink’s eighth album, Hurts 2B Human, finds the singer peddling the same boilerplate pop-rock songs about self-empowerment and existential angst that have defined her career for almost 20 years. The album opens with two decidedly upbeat numbers—the brassy “Hustle,” featuring Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, and the Auto-Tune-heavy “(Hey Why) Miss You Sometime,” produced by Max Martin and Shellback—before quickly settling into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.
The album’s expectedly earnest lead single, “Walk Me Home,” reunites Pink with co-writer Nate Ruess, who lends the song his signature brand of rousing, if nondescript, pop pathos. Co-penned by Sia, “Courage” is another power ballad in a bizarrely enduring genre seemingly based entirely on Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” The understated “My Attic” is marred by an on-the-nose metaphor, while tracks like “Circle Game” and “Happy” drown in self-help platitudes that attempt to mask self-pity: “I had a hard day, and I need to find a hiding place/Can you give me just a second to make it through these growing pains?” Pink pleads on the former.
From Khalid’s socially conscious ruminations on the schmaltzy title track to Chris Stapleton’s raspy bellyaching on the ‘80s-indebted “Love Me Anyway,” the contributions of a litany of guest artists largely fail to add much more than mere texture to the proceedings. The sole exception is singer-songwriter Wrabel’s Vocoder-enhanced harmonies, which, in a nod to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” give the minimalist “90 Days” a stirring, otherworldly quality. The album’s closing track, “The Last Song of Your Life,” is a similarly poignant acoustic ballad with reverb-soaked vocals reminiscent of early-‘90s folk and a contemplative performance from Pink that transcends the rest of the album’s turgid introspection.
Label: RCA Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Taylor Swift’s “ME!” Is an Ebullient, Eye-Popping Fantasia
The pop singer drops her new single and music video, featuring Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie.
Earlier this month, Taylor Swift posted an Instagram story with a countdown to the launch of her next musical era. Swift’s 2017 album Reputation and subsequent stadium tour were both sonically and aesthetically darker than anything she’d done before, and the reception was mixed at best, resulting in the lowest-selling album of her career. So it was, perhaps, inevitable that the singer would move away from the combative tone and hard, hip-hop-influenced beats of singles like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready for It?”
Swift first hinted that a shift in tone was imminent via—where else?—her Instagram account, which, over the last several weeks, has been populated with decidedly softer imagery than usual for the singer, including sequins, butterflies, jewel-encrusted hearts, and fluffy-faced kittens—all bathed in creamy pastel tones. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was preparing to launch a tween apparel line and not the next phase of her global pop domination. But if Reputation taught us anything, it’s that Swift is nothing if not committed, and her new single, “ME!”—which features Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco—is a full-tilt 180.
Produced by Joel Little, best known for his work with Lorde and Broods, the song plays like a piss take on the bright and shiny pop of hits like “Shake It Off,” with marching-band drums, stadium foot-stomping, stately brass, and a cartoonishly ebullient hook: “Hee-hee-hee, hoo-hoo-hoo!” Swift may be one of the most self-aware pop stars alive, so it’s impossible not to view everything about “ME!” as a calculated response to her last album, right down to the song’s effusive title (Reputation precedes “ME!”—get it?). Even her signature self-deprecation—“I know I went psycho on the phone/I never leave well enough alone”—is given a self-reflexive twist: “I promise that you’ll never find another like me.”
The music video, co-directed by Dave Meyers and Swift, begins with a shot of a pink snake—a nod to the singer’s supposed reputation—slithering across rainbow-colored cobblestones before bursting into a kaleidoscope of butterflies, pointedly marking the end of an era. She and Urie are seen arguing in charmingly stilted French accents, setting the stage for an eye-popping, effects-laden fantasia of a make-up session that includes antagonistic clouds, Easter egg-colored pantsuits, liquid dresses, and a 1960s-style variety show.
Madonna Unveils Carnivalesque “Medellín” Music Video Featuring Maluma
The video for Madonna’s new single is steeped in Portuguese and Latin-American influences.
Today MTV took a break from its around-the-clock programming of mind-numbing reality TV to air the exclusive world premiere of Madonna’s new music video, “Medellín,” like it’s 1995 all over again. In the video, Madonna dons a white wedding dress reminiscent of her iconic look in the clip for “Like a Virgin” and the VMA performance of the song that helped make her a household name nearly 35 years ago. And like “Like a Virgin,” which was shot in Venice, Italy, the new video is also an international production, filmed in Portugal, where the queen of pop has lived on and off for the past two years.
But that’s essentially where the similarities end, both in terms of Madonna’s less-than-virginal mien—the wedding dress is accessorized with a cowboy hat, a red leather glove, and a safety-pin-covered eye patch—as well as the video itself. The nearly seven-minute “Medellín” is the official introduction to Madame X, the persona Madonna has adopted for her 14th album of the same name, out on June 14, and features the singer in various guises, including a cha-cha instructor and a bride to Colombian reggaeton star Maluma.
An extended intro finds Madame X delivering her manfesto via prayer:
“Dear God, how can I trust anyone after years of disappointment and betrayal? How could I not want to run away again and again, escape? I will never be what society expects me to be. I have seen too much. I cannot turn back.”
Reportedly shot at the Quinta Nova de Assunção palace near Lisbon, and co-directed by Diana Kunst, who was raised in Spain and has helmed videos for A$AP Rocky and Rosalía, “Medellín” is steeped in Portuguese and Latin-American influences that culminate in a carnivalesque wedding reception. Watch below:
Madonna and Maluma will perform “Medellín” for the first time at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards on May 1.
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