Monday, April 26, 2010

The Fame Analyst

May's Machete recently raised the question of, among other things, what Lady Gaga's music video for "Telephone" says about American culture and the media. I've been meaning to talk about Lady Gaga for a while, so I thought I'd take the baton and run with it today.

While I consider myself pretty well-informed in regard to movies and television (and pop culture in general), I have to admit that pop music is largely a blind spot for me. Old codger that I am, I'm simply not interested in most of what's out there. And it's not for a lack of trying. Helby and I consistently record "The V-Spot" every week - the two hours of broadcast time that VH1 actually devotes to playing music. Every once in a while, something new comes along that I can get into. But mostly, it's all a bunch of achingly bland sameness. The songs all sound the same, the bands all look the same, and the videos are all shot the same. We end up fast-forwarding through 80% of the show.

When Lady Gaga began begging my attention, she was nothing more than another component of the sameness. An obnoxious Rolling Stone cover assured me that she was the next big thing (as many an obnoxious Rolling Stone cover had done before). A slew of mini-controversies assured me that she was somebody worth talking about (as publicist-generated controversies are meant to do). The revelation of her appearance on a preposterously unrealistic reality show assured me that she was destined for the spotlight (as reality shows are stringent signifiers of one's destiny).

The song itself was nothing but a generic, disco-influenced dance number accompanied by a standard-issue video - ornate locations, incongruous intercutting, costumes, poses, backup dancers, and blue-grey filters. It incorporated the ridiculous line "I'm bluffin' with my muffin," which reminded me of Shakira's equally idiotic line, "My breasts are small and humble, so you don't confuse them for mountains." I immediately rejected Lady Gaga and her poker face.

But I could only resist for so long. The song is, let's face it, pretty catchy. It's not the sort of thing I'd seek out; but if other people were into it, I wasn't going to plead with them to turn it off. I even grew to appreciate the muffin line for what it was meant to be - a cheeky little tease. Still, "Poker Face" was just a one-and-done from a new pop star who, odds were, wouldn't be around for long.

Then came "Paparazzi." And in an instant, I went back to rejecting Lady Gaga. Here was someone who had taken the national stage only a short while ago; what did she know from being hounded by the paparazzi? At the time she'd been recording the song, the number of paparazzi chasing her down was surely zero. Just who in the hell did she think she was?

Of course, if I had actually listened to the song, I would've realized that it wasn't Lady Gaga complaining about being chased by the paparazzi. It was about being a paparazzo, doing the chasing of a celebrity. And actually, not even that... it was about a stalker who was only deluding herself into believing that she was something as legitimate as a paparazzo.
I did, obviously, figure this all out eventually. And what had lured me in was the compelling video. Instead of being just another run-of-the-mill music video, this was a rare thing - an extended story video, the likes of which we hadn't really seen since the glory days of Michael Jackson. The video seemed far more concerned with its story than with featuring the song. In fact, the video is essentially a reversal of the song's lyrics: in the video, Gaga is the celebrity, and "True Blood"'s Alexander Skarsgard is the obsessive stalker-boyfriend who is driven to murder.

The video apes many of the iconic elements of films noir. Toward the beginning, Gaga descends into a Vertigo-inspired spiral. Spinning newpaper headlines bullet-point the story for us. And the credits -- as if a music video should have credits -- are in the style of your average postwar black-and-white. The story itself is rife with the scheming, betrayal, and sense of impending dread that were hallmarks of classic film noir. Of course, it's all used ironically here. The video invokes, it doesn't embody. It's all just for fun.

"Paparazzi" forced me to pay closer attention to what Lady Gaga was doing. It was a bold move. Her career had just gotten off the ground, and here she was doing an elaborate, extended narrative video. Not only that, but she was making references to classic films (and not '80s "classics" either), and presenting it in a way that felt like it was authentically from her. This wasn't your average parody video -- which is something that gets done a lot -- this was a well-thought out, well-executed bit of pop art.

Her next video, "Bad Romance," wasn't as direct and forceful a statement as "Paparazzi" had been. It's some sort of futuristic sci-fi horror jumble. The whole thing takes place in a "Bath Haus" that looks more like a sleek spaceship. Doesn't make sense to me, really. But the creep-factor horror elements are in place - the enlarged eyes, the face mask/crowns straight out of Giger, and the torture-porn elements of being forcibly stripped, force-fed water (for some reason), and then being forced to perform... seemingly in order to rate highly with her judges, we assume to save her life. It all culminates in -- spoiler alert -- the burning death of the man who'd selected her in the rating contest.

The sci-fi elements don't quite connect with the horror elements for me. I'd speculate that Gaga and the video's director, Francis Lawrence, had a difference of opinion on what the video should be. I'd expect that the sci-fi elements came from Lawrence, and the horror elements were Gaga's. This video has some unusual elements to it, but I think it ultimately turned out a little more along the lines of a typical music video.

But then came "Telephone"...

Gaga re-teams with her "Paparazzi" director, Jonas Akerlund, and the two step it up several notches. This is an all-out Tarantino homage... which is funny, since Tarantino himself is known for all-out homages to film history. Here, we have a masterfully-executed modern era/'70s-influenced sexploitation picture, complete with prison babes and a revenge plot gone wrong. They even leased the Pussy Wagon!

As with "Paparazzi," the references to films past feel natural and inspired. This isn't simple parody. This is deep comprehension of what these films mean, inside and out, and appropriating their imagery and style to new ends. In a word, it's excellent.


Lady Gaga is something rare in pop music: she's an actual artist. Most of the pop tarts out there are just looking for fame and fortune. Some have a genuine compulsion to express themselves through music... but usually don't have anything interesting to say.

Don't get me wrong - I'm certain that Lady Gaga is looking for fame and fortune. (Remember... she was on a reality show!) But to me, as of this moment anyway, she seems to be something more than just a fame seeker. She seems to be a thoughtful, introspective, creative being. Her very compulsion to seek fame has forced her to stop and analyze this aspect of herself. Fame became not just what she was chasing, but the topic that she chose to examine as she was chasing it. Through her songs -- and even moreso through her videos, I would say -- she addresses her fascination with fame... a fascination shared by our society overall.

What conclusions does she reach? It's not always clear to us, and it may not always be clear to her. As May said, artists "work through and grapple with ideas and concepts through playing with them." And as is the mark of any worthy piece of art, interpretations are left the audience.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: The 40 Year Old Boy

Genre: Comedy

What It's About: Spinning comedy gold from nothing. Comedian and former Never Not Funny co-host Mike Schmidt tells stories from his life in such an amusing way, you can barely believe they're true. (But they are, he assures us.) Mining life experience from his childhood right up through his drive to the studio that day -- the studio being the apartment of producer, background laugher and burlesque dancer Lili von Schtupp -- Schmidt never fails to entertain.

Why You Should Care: Schmidt has lived a very full life and is willing to share all the embarrassing details. It's everything we want from our entertainment - humor, truth, and growth. Schmidt is a natural storyteller, a master of structure and pace. Even as he spirals into side stories within side stories, he always manages to bring it back around and tie it all together. Season 3 has just recently gotten underway, so it's a great time to start listening. His mission throughout this season is to write and produce a one-man show that he will later tour with. Start listening now to follow the process.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: An hour and 30 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Martini Shot

Genre: Humor

What It's About: Veteran sitcom writer Rob Long shares short anecdotes about the day-to-day lifestyle of being a writer in Hollywood. Usually a story from his life, coupled with a general observation about life and wrapped up with a tidy punchline.

Why You Should Care: Long strikes the perfect balance between "inside baseball" and relatable life experience. While this podcast offers a window into the inner workings of a specific sector of the entertainment business, it's also just quirky, Seinfeld-esque observational humor about life in general.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 3 - 6 minutes... a short one

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.