Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Judas, or: How I Betrayed the Critical Community and Enjoyed Lady Gaga's Latest Songs

The inevitable backlash has begun.

Two years ago, there was nothing Lady Gaga could do wrong, creatively. Any garment (or Kermit doll) she donned was instantly declared a bold step forward for fashion. Her music was unstoppable: "Poker Face" became THE song of the summer in 2009, "Paparrazi" was inescapable, and even one of her worst songs - "Lovegame" - became a certified hit. For any other artist, repackaging your debut album with a new EP would be simply financial greediness and pointlessness, but Gaga introduced seven new songs that not only changed her style from clubby pop to delirious, dense dancefloor club music. This EP, The Fame Monster, gave us "Bad Romance," "Telephone," and "Alejandro," as well as, in what I believed to be her best song to date, "Dance in the Dark."

Her songwriting had improved greatly, and the EP worked as a sampler of Gaga at her at-the-time best: it was only her best, without the sprawl that would have allowed for more of her worst. But I still wasn't ready to praise her to the heavens. For one, nothing she did sounded as if she was really believing in it, or having fun with it; every song sounded as if she had written it just for radio play/mild musical subversion. Musically, she's played it safe, straying away from interesting ideas and adhering strictly to her image: she's the pop star of tomorrow, today. Therefore, everything she did had to be safe for radio play while pushing pop into the next decade. And she was successful, too, as everyone from Katy Perry to Beyonce to Britney Spears have adopted her sound and emulated her to pop success. But on an artistic level, she had set herself apart, but there didn't seem to be any heart in it. She wrote and sang her songs, but they never felt like HER songs.

And as a brief aside, the accusations of ripping off Madonna: you can't be a pop artist post-1985 WITHOUT ripping off/imitating/paying homage to Madonna. So you might as well accuse Justin Bieber and Britney Spears of ripping her off as well.

But it's 2011 now. And the critics have been much less kind to Gaga, with each new single being treated to the resounding boos and hisses of high standards. First, lead single "Born This Way" was labeled as a poor remake of Madonna's "Express Yourself." Then "Judas" was considered underwhelming. And both videos failed to meet the standards of her previous short films. That's to say nothing of the debacle surrounding her supposed refusal to let "Weird Al" Yankovic spoof "Born This Way" and her admittedly-awful album cover, which you can see below:

But here's the thing: she's "dumbed-down" her lyrics, as the critics have said (a claim that I think is bunk). And yes, her videos have been less-than-masterpieces, but that has a lot to do with the fact that she probably peaked in that aspect with "Bad Romance." Yet her music has never been better. "Born This Way," as I've written about before, is her best work to date, as Gaga channels Gloria Gaynor to praise pride. For the first time, too, it sounds like Gaga actually wrote this song and believes what it says, as she lays herself into the vocals with infectious excitement.

Humoring the Madonna comparisons for a second, if "Born This Way" is her "Express Yourself," then "Judas" is her "Like a Prayer." Is "Judas" the latter song? Of course not; what song could ever possibly achieve that? But it is another strong effort from Gaga, steaming with the sacrilegious heat of unholy passion over that thumping beat. It also features some of my favorite lyrics in the Gaga ouvere, such as:

Jesus is my virtue
But Judas is the demon I cling to


In the most biblical sense
I am beyond repentance
Fame whore, prostitute wench
Vomits her mind

This is probably the closest we've gotten to the old Gaga out of the singles she's released so far. Yet it's still superior to anything on The Fame.

Finally there's her latest single, "Edge of Glory," which was released yesterday. And while that sounds like the title of a Bruce Springsteen song, it actually owes more to...well, Springsteen, actually. 

Bear with me, people.

"Edge of Glory" obviously isn't a Bruce Springsteen song. But listen closely, and you'll hear the influence. The lyrics about escaping, the power balladry, the Clarence Clemmons sax break (and come on, how could you not like a song with a Clemmons sax solo?)...all of these are the hallmarks of a Born to Run-era Springsteen song. In fact, if you listened without thinking about it, it could be conceived as a dance remix of some lost Springsteen demo. When Gaga said that this album would be more rock-influenced, most assumed it meant she would be doing a few rock numbers. Instead, she's emphasized the influence part, adding the conventions and structures of rock to her song and making it her own.

Lady Gaga - The Edge Of Glory (Audio) by vidifunny

Which, ultimately, highlights what I think has made her music so much better this time around. She's no longer trying to be the future of pop through the standards and sounds of current pop. Instead, she's reaching back to the late '70s/'80s, embracing the sounds of disco and American-road-rock and translating them into 21st century pop. The result is music that, ironically enough, sounds most comfortable to her, and her songs sound more like HER songs than ever. She's finally found a sound and a voice that suits her best, after two albums worth of experimenting. And that may be part of the reason for the backlash: this isn't the sound she had when we collectively fell in love with her, and by changing that sound, she's betrayed us all.

To quote the song, I may be a holy fool, but I'm still in love with pop music's Judas.


Jose said...

Yup, that sax rocks! The rest of Gaga I find utterly boring though.

Jason H. said...

I could use more sax in my pop music. A new trend, maybe?

I can dream...