Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance”

Released: 10.26.09

Peak: #2

For me, the artist who Lady Gaga first brought to mind wasn’t her obvious precursor. It was gloomy ol’ Marilyn Manson. From her earliest photo ops, Gaga auditioned for the role of Iconic Cultural Figure with a singlemindedness that Madonna, driven and image-conscious as she was, didn’t wholly acquire until she’d heard academics carelessly bandying about words like “bricolage.” As with Manson, though, it’s possible to imagine Gaga, had musical success eluded her, deploying her visual aesthetic in some alternate route to showbiz notoriety.

But if Brian Warner was a fraud with a philosophy, Stefani Germanotta was a hack with a dream, and the latter make for sturdier pop stars, or at least peddle snazzier soundtracks to their hype. Gaga may never love disco as unconditionally as the young Madonna so obviously did (and probably still does). Still there’s still an audible affection for second-hand shtick she peddles — even if, in her enthusiasm, she sometimes forgets to separate the recyclables from the trash.

The lyrical conceit of Gaga’s debut single, “Just Dance” — disoriented club dolly hides out on the dancefloor til she figures out where she is — is funnier than its aggressively generic vocal fully conveys. Which brings us to Gaga’s greatest weakness: Though her voice is notably heartier (go ahead and call it “better”) than Madonna’s, sharing the Cher-ier side of Xtina, her chops don’t always translate into personality.

So she overcompensates—not just visually, but, on the single entendre “LoveGame” and the sexually opaque “Poker Face” lyrically and melodically as well. And yet, though its hint at the Grand Statement could’ve been a real turnoff, “Paparazzi” showcased her voice was at its most vulnerable—maybe because she seems to care so much more about celebrity (or, to put a kinder spin on that, her fans) than she does about sex.

“Bad Romance” was no less willing to irritate than what came before, but it was doubly eager to please. The “Gaga/ Ooh la-la” fanfare and the untransliterable, tortured faux-francais “r” of “I don’t wanna be friends” indicate Gaga in full try-anything, I’m-gonna-make-you-love-me effect. Correspondingly, her emotional range expands, veering from the down-low swagger of the verses to the transcendent ecstasy of the “Ohs.” Sure “I want your psycho/ Your vertigo stick [shtick?]/ Want you in my rear window” reads like cocktail napkin rough draft scribble. But Gaga’s lyrics, like her outfits, don’t jumble together signifiers in the hope that meaning will accrue from the overkill. She’s just out to show you that she’s beyond embarrassment.

Taylor Swift — “Fifteen”

Released: 9.1.09

Peak: #23

Whenever I hear Taylor Swift’s songwriting gift credited to her youthful perspective, I think of a bygone 60 Minutes segment on studios axing older screenwriters because the bosses thought only young people could write for their contemporaries. One wizened pro who’d been set adrift on an ice floe (guy musta been forty, at least) explained that a good writer can write from varying perspectives thus: “Antz wasn’t written by ants.” I also think of Michelle Branch. She was the worst.

Still, Swift has been able to turn a young writer’s greatest weakness — lack of life experience — into a strength, by homing in on the most vivid moments of the few years she has lived, perhaps to no greater effect than on “Fifteen,” an enlightened eighteen-year-old’s counsel to her younger fans. If nothing else, the song shows up the term “teenager” as so meaninglessly overbroad that anyone who’s ever encompassed thirteen- and nineteen-year-olds in the same thought should feel embarrassed — hard to think of a six-year span where humans undergo more drastic emotional and physical changes. And Swift’s vocals capture the different character of those ages, as the eager breathless anxiety is progressively flattened by adolescent skepticism, then repeatedly returns at the end of each chorus to the songwriter’s own late teen perspective with “I didn’t know when I was fifteen.”

Despite Swift’s insistence that high school is “life before you know who you’re gonna be,” “Fifteen” never condescends. And though Anti-Swifties have simplified the song’s take on the story of her real-life pal Abigail — who, we’re told “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind” — Swift isn’t referring merely to virginity here. And she treats teen sex, non-judgmentally, as a complicated font of emotion. In fact, that verse culminates with “And we both cried,” because Swift is really concerned with two girls sharing an intense experience. Because if “in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy of the football team,” this kind of bonding with another woman may just be one of those things.

Shakira — “She Wolf”

Released: 7.13.09

Peak: #11

Pay any attention to the past century of music history and it’s hard to unconditionally oppose the practice of industry suits peeping over artists’ shoulders to second-guess their decisions. Uncomfortable and undignified as such top-down collaboration must be, the inextricable commingling of creativity and commerce is what makes music pop. Unfettered individuality is no less likely to spawn self-indulgent goo than imposed commercial strictures are to compress the artistic impulse into aural styrofoam.

Still, I wish the check-writers at Epic would let Shakira be Shakira. Her own skewed misapprehension of pop form is always preferable to someone else’s idea of how she should sound. After Oral Fixation Vol. 2 slipped on the charts, the label tacked on “Hips Don’t Lie” as a bonus track; Shakira sounded exactly as bored as any reasonable person would be to hear Wyclef shouting her name in 2006. Annoyingly enough, “Hips Don’t Lie” became a number one hit — her first, in case you wondered whether pop audiences could be just as wrong as label heads about how a star should sound.

Just as wrong as Amanda Ghost, that is, who was responsible for “Beautiful Liar,” which was less a song than an idea — that idea being “Beyonce and Shakira are singing on the same song!” Ghost also brokered the existence of “Give It Up to Me,” Shakira’s most expedient bit of chart-bait to date. Occasionally, the star’s throaty sing-song, gone all rap-like, makes it sound like she’s willing to give it a go. But post-OneRepublic Timbaland is no longer the unsurpassed international beat thief of the early ’00s, and here’s the bellydance preset to prove it. As for Lil Wayne, by ’09 his guest raps were so ubiquitous and phoned in they were the 21st century equivalent of a David Sanborn solo.

“She Wolf,” on the other hand, is uncut, idiosyncratic Shakira. Even the song doctors on call here are oddball picks: Sam Endicott, frontman of everyone’s least favorite New Strokes, the Bravery, and Apples in Stereo guitarist John Hill (who also lent a hand in production). With its Baleiric burble, liquid guitars and, above all, the strings that mimic and then elaborate upon the freefall melody of the chorus, the track insinuated its into a radio-scape that was all bland boom. Even that electronic “S.O.S./ She’s in disguise” was weirder and more deliberately robotic than the prevalent Auto Tune homogenization.

A lesser weirdo might have taken the lupine slavering over the top, but Shakira’s dancing in the video, which splits the difference between porn and contortionism, is the sole concession to excess here. Instead, Shakira convincingly inhabits the fantasy world of a meek woman willing herself to have a wild side, a gal whose idea of putting her foot down is to complain of “not getting enough retribution or decent incentives to keep me at it” — a lyric that, in true Shakira fashion, leaves you puzzling to locate the border between ESL syntax and metaphorical absurdity. And to cap it all there’s that timid “awoo,” straining to earn an exclamation point. You’d almost think that Shakira is kidding around. But darling, it is no joke. This is lycanthropy.