Going Gaga Over The Lady

Like it or not, you can’t get far today with your ears or eyes open without your day being punctuated by the Lady.  She’s everywhere.  Our kids are lip syncing her songs and even politicians in the USA are listening to her now as she branches out into ever new territory.

She is a complex character, and her cultural reach is an issue for concern for some.  Is she just pure entertainment, and current phenomenon that will pass or is she here to stay?

Our regular contributor Andrew Grant tries to make sense of the the Lady phenomenon in a series of articles.  Feel free to chime in via the comments section.


The Phenomenon

In my travels it seems most over 30s (particularly in Baptist circles) recognise the name but know little of Lady Gaga. It’s not uncommon to draw a blank stare at the Gaga name from people, including those whose bread and butter is youth work.

While I don’t pretend to be an expert I think it’s important for us as Christians to be aware of modern cultural personalities (like Lady Gaga) and the influence their message has on those who deserve our best efforts in obedience to the Great Commission.

Something that hasn’t seemed to change in a long while (if my father’s whistling of Ella Fitzgerald tunes is any guide) is the soundtrack to young life provided by popular music. One only has to look at the creepy nostalgia for 80s music amongst my Generation X peers to understand the power of music in the teenage identity.

In the past year Lady Gaga has shot across the music stratosphere with particular brightness. Ironically her moniker is drawn from Queen’s 1980s hit Radio Gaga. Gaga is the artist formerly known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a 24 year old native of New York.

My aim is to share my observations on the Gaga phenomenon in a series of blogs, giving my interpretation of her message and themes. What is Gaga’s message to today’s generation? What is being lyrically hard-wired into their brain with catchy tunes? How can we understand the Gaga world view to our advantage in reaching a needy world? What’s an appropriate parental response?

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a pop icon achieve such rapid prominence and influence. Her break-out single was less than 18 months old when in March 2010 Time Magazine named Lady Gaga as the most influential artist/performer in the world.

In recent weeks she became the first celebrity to gather 10,000,000 “friends” on Facebook (now 14,356,000 and counting), a number that would beat most of the highest selling albums of all time. Over on youtube her videos have garnered more than a billion viewings.

She’s got the outlandish fashion and media notoriety thing happening, but those two alone don’t make a star of her magnitude without being hung on more than adequate music.

At its core Gaga’s music is fairly formula plastic pop, the sort of vein well mined by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani over the past decade.  However, Gaga arguably has more musical ability than those three put together. Spears and Aguilera were the Mickey Mouse club kids who are adept at miming along to formula tunes put to them by record company executives. Stefani rode the coat tails of No Doubt to fame.

Gaga learned the piano at age four and spent her teenage years immersed in the theatrical world. Before she broke the big time she was performing in burlesque shows on New York’s Lower East Side. Her background in music and education in the school of hard knocks gives a bit more of a harder grunt to her music (together with a voice decidedly lower and more gravelly than some of the other pop princesses). But the strength of her music is the party-girl atmosphere driven by a driving discoesque beat and awash with dirty synth and catchy hooks.

Let’s be clear, Gaga’s music is catchy, very catchy and it’s ubiquitous. When I started taking notice of Gaga I realized her major hits were already lodged in the recesses of my brain. The siren synth of Just Dance and repetitive mah mah mah mah of Poker Face had already been logged. Listen to Poker Face and the refrain will run around your head for days.

Gaga has become the sound of being in public places. Simple music with a big hook. Don’t discount just how pervasive Gaga has become. If she’s on the sub-conscious register for a large part of the population you can be sure her riffs and lyrics are hard-wired into the brain of today’s teen. Think how hard it can be to memorise text, but how simple it is to remember the pop tunes of your youth. Gaga is a large part of the sound track for today’s under 30s.

So we might ask, what is the message of this sound track?

Just Dance

Gaga’s first hit single, Just Dance, didn’t initially set the world alight on release. It gathered momentum after it became an Australian nightclub favourite and Australia initially drove its worldwide chart success.

It’s little wonder because the song reads as a laudatory commentary on the nightclub, binge drinking culture so prevalent in Australia. The heroine staggers from misadventure to misadventure, increasingly “hosed”, to the driving refrain that everything will be alright if you “Just Dance”.

Okay, its confession time, I was not a distant observer of the traditional Australian “rites of passage” as a late teen, early twenty at university and in my early working career with a high disposable income. I’ve been where Lady Gaga is advocating and done that.

Jam Just Dance, or Love Game on your iPod, tweak the volume as high as it goes and you can be pretty quickly transported back to 2am in your favourite night club with a thumping beat, a bump and grind crowd and a steady flow of vodka shots having their inevitable effect on one’s sobriety (or lack of).

And we’re all gettin’ hosed tonight.

What’s going on on the floor?

I love this record baby, but I can’t see straight anymore.

Keep it cool what’s the name of this club?

I can’t remember but it’s alright, alright.

Just dance. Gonna be okay.

Da-doo-doo-doo

Just dance. Spin that record babe.

It’s a heady place, but I can’t say I remember it being one where “just dancing” was a cure to all of one’s life problems. In fact the opposite was more likely to be true. From what I remember, my peers and I were more likely to spend Sunday (often in church!) squinting behind shades and picking over the gossip of the previous evening’s events, working out who’d said what, done what and to whom, and dealing with the ramifications. And that was amongst friends.

If anything the last fifteen to twenty years has seen night club culture become more malevolent, not less. Things like drink spiking were rare back then. Arguably the drug culture was harder to access and the substances were more “natural” than what gets churned out of laboratories these days.

So this message that we can just go out, get hosed, and be safe with our similarly inebriated friends seems a little out of kilter with the darker side of the nightclub culture that is the subject of millions of dollars worth of advertising warning of its dangers and promoting safe behavior.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’d go as far to suggest that a 4 minute pop frenzy like “Just Dance” with its catchy synth hooks and dirty bass enjoys significantly more mind share and has more currency for the average teen than what has been purchased with the millions poured into “alcohol education” by government.

If you wander around the world of Facebook and peruse the photo pages of the average late tween/twenty something you’ll get a pretty good insight into the binge drinking culture of the ‘average’ Aussie. Spend time in any university during orientation week and you’ll hear the messages of hedonism, promiscuity and indulgence lauded, without reference to the down side.

Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” world view provides a thumping soundtrack to this world of social hedonism, fueled by the great social lubricants of our time, alcohol and drugs. But she’s painting an incomplete picture – one that doesn’t pay sufficient homage to what happens when it all goes wrong.

How many lives are wrecked by what is said and done around the “dance”? I’m not preaching wowserism or abstinence even. But let’s not suggest we can all go and get hosed this weekend without recognising that it’s high risk behaviour.