Tuesday, 25 March 2014

DIGITAL WORDS / Behind The Aura: The Risky Business of Lady Gaga

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Why did the world come to a shuddering halt a couple of weeks ago to watch and condemn Lady Gaga having paint spit up on her? Why wasn’t anyone more dazzled by her human BBQ rotisserie opening number? That shit was cool.

Lady Gaga’s SXSW show was hardly the first time she’s gone out on a limb in the name of risky performance art. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time regurgitation artist Millie Brown has spewed on her (see the ‘Exorcist Interlude’ from Gaga’s 2009-2011 Monster Ball Tour for evidence).

In the pop star stakes, Gaga has always been a risk taker. She hung herself live on stage for her MTV VMA debut performance, the following year she swept the board whilst dressed in preserved meat, and in 2011 she turned up in drag: the Video Music Awards and planet pop belonged to Gaga.

Yet for last year’s awards ceremony she opened the show with ‘Applause’ and spent the rest of the evening dressed in a sea-shell bra and nude thong… And no one really cared. The next day’s headlines did not belong to her but to the car crash spectacle of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke.

As well as the VMA upstaging and vomit-gate, a few of Gaga’s most recent moves haven’t exactly paid off either. She turned up to The Oscars and no one was sure why. Yeah, she made her silver screen debut in Machete Kills, but, again, no one was exactly fussed. The video for ‘Do What You Want’ with R Kelly never materialised and a new version was recorded withChristina Aguilera after critics, quite rightly, asked why a star with such publicity powers as Gaga chose to share her spotlight with a proven sexual predator. The Aguilera hook-up was less a power diva dream duo, and more a disappointingly ad-hoc exercise in barrel scrapping. Plus two pop stars, who have both endured media scrutiny of their sizes, singing about the insignificance of the physical form now that they have lost their previous excess weight wasn’t exactly inspiring. Lady Gaga’s loosening grip over her success was translated into cold statistics when first week sales of ARTPOP petered out at 258,000 – just over a quarter of the million-plus units Born This Way sold in seven days back in 2011.

Whilst Lady Gaga was right to complain during her SXSW keynote speech about the pressure placed upon her and the nonsensical competition drummed-up between herself and pop stars of the more conventional kind (e.g. Katy Perry), it doesn’t seem so unfair to compare her current work to that of Gaga of yesteryear… You remember her, the downtown NY girl with a hair bow on her head, a disco stick in her hand and a hunger for nothing but fame in her heart. She was once so sure of herself and secure in her self-made persona that she was happy to work “Gaga” into the vocal hook of many of her biggest hits.

What seems to be the crux of Gaga’s current hit-and-miss status is an apparent identity crisis. She once claimed “I would rather die than have my fans not see me in a pair of high heels” and yet there she was live at SXSW barefoot in ripped fishnets and a baggy Iron Maiden shirt. The video for ‘Marry The Night’ portrayed Gaga having a break down following the premature termination of her first record deal. So severe was her anguish that ‘Marry The Night’ showed her being hospitalised on the grounds of broken dreams. But she told the sold-out SXSW crowd, “You don't need a fucking record label, you don’t need a company you are the spirit of every artist!” And for concrete evidence of a conflicted sense of self, please compare the austere, gravelly-voiced Gaga who spoke slowly but assuredly about her artistic identity on Newsnight and the utterly bizarre faux baby-voiced interview she gave to Jimmy Kimmel recently.

With her nigh-on instantly iconic place in pop achieved through a succession of early, faultless singles it seems as though Lady Gaga feels the need to reevaluate what her fame and status means and should be used for. She came, she saw, she conquered – what next?

As she continues to preach her message of art and pop, creativity and rebellion (as if the concepts had been mutually exclusive until now…) and vital members of the Haus of Gaga drop away (manager Troy Carter – gone, stylist Nicola Formichetti – gone, choreographer Laurieann Gibson – gone), it seems Lady Gaga is seizing control of her own raging evolution. Whilst her current output may well be irregular in quality, her unflinching desire to take risks is the key to her pop supremacy. You may not like her next song, video or outfit, but you can never second-guess her. Most A-list acts are happy to tick boxes and fit moulds, but Lady Gaga is willing to challenge herself and her audiences regardless of whether she’s critically rewarded or not.

ARTPOP is a frustrating record, no doubt about it, but with the luxurious revenge drama of the ‘G.U.Y.’ video looking like her best short-film yet and the mammoth, lucite stage set for her ‘artRAVE’ world tour, we may be about to witness the second coming of Lady Gaga… Or maybe not. You never know with her. 

Written for Planet Notion

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