Cast your mind back to the dark days of 2010: a world where the words ‘hung parliament’ and ‘Cheryl Cole’ were still in regular usage. As a 16-year-old gay lad stranded in provincial England, and as yet uninitiated into the pleasures of alcohol or human contact, there was really only one thing that was going to give my life meaning. A Lady Gaga concert. Thus one glorious summer’s evening I paraded around in my best denim short shorts as Gaga brought a taste of the eclectic New York club scene to the rather less glamorous Trent FM Arena in Nottingham. In a usually drab and un-cosmopolitan city she attracted a surprisingly colourful and vibrant crowd.
Thousands of articles have been written in the last five years about the reasons for Lady Gaga’s success. In my eyes it is because she allows those who feel marginalized by society and the media to escape the constraints of the mundane. This, of course, hasn’t gone unnoticed by others, least of all by Gaga herself but I’ll come to that later. For young people, particularly those who are gay, she creates club music for those who cannot go to clubs. This is further embellished by her glossy and heavily choreographed music videos. Her rapid ascendency to superstardom and the bluster that accompanied it was truly exciting as a young fan. I remember being amazed by a whole episode of ‘Friday Night With Jonathan Ross’ being devoted entirely to Lady Gaga, just a year after her first number 1. The pace at which her career developed was probably due to her being the first real megastar of the Internet age; able to fully utilise Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc. Unlike her predecessors she is able to connect personally with her fans. To them she is not just an icon, but also a friend and a confidante.
Between 2008 and 2010 Lady Gaga experienced what Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys refers to as an ‘imperial phase’ (basically a period of near ubiquity). The release of her second album Born This Way in 2011 heralded a new social conscience in her music. I mentioned earlier how Gaga particularly appeals to those who feel disaffected by most mainstream culture. Born This Way’s message was one of acceptance and freedom; which while of course admirable, made for rather tiring listening. It is not like young gay people need to be reminded about how difficult life is. The reason I loved Gaga as a teen was not because of any trite, hollow ‘it gets better’ rhetoric. The pure glossy dance-pop of her debut, The Fame, for me, evoked thoughts of New York and a world outside the dreary and conservative Midlands. No amount hype could save Born This Way from underperforming compared to its predecessor and the interest in Gaga from the general public began to wane.
Which brings me to her latest album, Artpop, released in November. Billed as a post-modern, Warholian fusion of art and popular music, it is frankly a bit of a mess. Whereas Born This Way had just enough ‘#certifiedbangers™’ to save the whole endeavor, Artpop is ruined by some barely risible lyrics and dated production (dubstep? trap? ugh). The central concept of high art is not at all reflected in the music and worse still the pretentiousness of it all risks alienating her young fans; who she was once so proud to have.
A look at the work of Bjork or Grace Jones shows that a fusion of popular music and art can be achieved. However, Artpop fails to deliver on its bold statement or include any of the infectious melodies and hooks that characterised her earlier songs. Lady Gaga is a talented songwriter and producer and it would be a loss for popular music to see her relegated to the realms of ‘niche’ artist. Her visibility in the media, as an independent and creative woman, helps direct attention away from the more derivative and hyper-sexualised side of pop. Less affectation and more pop sensibility are going to be needed for her to remain popular. Pop culture doesn’t have to be lowbrow, but it does have to be enjoyable.