Author's Cut, originally published on www.Citypaper.net.
In the world of pop tunes, presentation is--arguably--much more the "product" than the music. In that respect, there's almost no question that Lady Gaga is pushing boundaries. Unless of course you count Marilyn Manson as a pop star. But as you know, he doesn't make pop music, he makes industrial goth. What Gaga lacks in doing it first, she makes up for with doing it in a far less adventure-ready arena. And whatever "it" is, she aint bad at it. I'll bet it's with no fully dissolved solution of respect and envy that Manson watches the video for "Bad Romance" with a twisted grin on his face.
But courageousness aside, can we really call Lady Gaga a member of the avant-garde?
www.TheFreeDictionary.com defines the avant-garde as "A group active in the invention and application of new techniques in a given field, especially in the arts."
Okay, if the given field is pop music, which we're defining--cynically--as the packaging of a singer for mass consumption... Then yes, we can say that at least part of what Lady Gaga does is completely new.
But is it actually a technique? Or is it just the glorification of flinging stuff at the wall because the market is ready for it? Let's look at the definition of "technique".
technique (n): "The systematic procedure by which a complex or scientific task is accomplished."
I don't know whether Gaga's procedure can be called systematic. Hell, I don't even know if we can call it a procedure. This aint Claude Monet developing more exaggerated brush-strokes of light and shadow to render a stylized impression of landscapes. If anything, the Gaga schtick seems to flourish by virtue of it's sharply asystematic, "WTF"-appeal.
Is it rebellion that Germanotta taps into? If so, then why does she keep the music so effortless to hear? Remember, the music is still part of the equation, and if she wanted to be really rebellious, she would have stayed with her earlier rock or hip-hop songwriting instead of re-tooling Madonna and Michael Jackson for an easy swallow by the millions.
I guess that "m" word really explains it. Lady Gaga knows how to feed the machine with the tunes necessary for pop universality. She knows that fashion, photography and music video are far more avant-ready mediums for the bizarre or unusual. Music, not so much. That's the key to pop-song success: instant familiarity. It's why the same four-chord structure comprises half of the songs you hear on the radio. The ear and the eye are such different animals. The eye is hungry for more data. The ear wants to maintain the status quo. Why do you think alarms are so... alarming? Evolutionarily, the ear "stood watch", protecting us from predators and rival tribes. The eye worked on hunting, learning and reproducing. Advancement. The eye is the offensive squad, and the ear is the defense. Ever hear someone listening to really weird music and then joke that they're on drugs? The phrase, "you have to be high to enjoy Phish" is not entirely un-scientific. When music has too much color, complexity and other variables, our primal ear turns off from it. Illicit substances, for better or worse, are known to boost the visual qualities of our other senses. By the same token, have you ever honestly been thrilled by looking at a picture of a tree in a field? BORING! I've seen that like a thousand times by now! Show me something interesting, like melting clocks drooping off the side of a mesa!
But I digress. Lady Gaga is not an avant-garde artist, she's a marketer. She certainly meets the standard of an "artist"--she's definitely expressing herself in a way that could change how you look at the world. But her strategy of connecting unusual sights to the same old sounds are nothing short of a marketing strategy. She's a shrewd businesswoman, a supposedly postmodern creatrix whose craft is the attachment of contrasting packages to each other, in order to increase demand for the "product".
I tell you what though, she IS "active in the invention and application of new techniques in a given field", but that field is making millions, not shedding light on the inner-life of the world.
Unless of course marketing is an elaborate--and coincidentally profitable--performance piece about modern humanity...
For the record, I love Lady Gaga.