Friday, 4 November 2011

Lady GaGa and What She Should Have Done

So, a couple of nights ago my partner and I sat down to watch The Jo Whiley Music Show on Sky Arts.  It’s not something I would normally watch, but Nicky Wire was on as a guest and the other half is a mad Manic Street Preachers fan.  So I sat down and prepared to put on my ‘yes, Nicky is wonderful, dear,’ face.  It was actually an incredibly interesting show, and I will definitely be watching it again.  The format is that Jo Whiley, former Radio One presenter, has a circle of stylish sofas, on which she sits with three guests.  In this episode her guests were the afore-mentioned Nicky Wire, the former Pop Idol contestant Will Young, and rapper Professor Green.  They have a set three of four topics they discuss, a quick VT of an interview with another musician, and a few songs from one of their guests.  Interesting and entertaining!

But I am not writing about the show because I’ve found something new to put on Series Link.  My interest in this particular episode piqued when they ran a VT of Lady GaGa describing her ‘ideal band’.  Following the VT, there was a short discussion of her choices and of the guests’ choices for an ‘ideal band’.  The discussion then shifted to a debate over the progression of GaGa’s career.  Topics covered were her dress code and the choices she made about her latest album.  Unfortunately, I’m not blessed with an eidetic memory, so I can’t give a word for word account of the discussion.  But at one point, all three of the male guest panel agreed that Lady GaGa would be ‘better’ if she had released a very simple album.  Reasons cited were, “because she’s such a good musician and songwriter” and the panel believed that her “stunts” were harming her career and drawing attention away from her talents.

When watching it, I was pretty shocked for several reasons: because Nicky Wire seems like the last person who should criticise a new artist for ‘pulling stunts’ or dressing strangely; because artistic license is ultimately at the heart of being an artist; I’ll even admit that part of it was because I love Lady GaGa (though I’m sure when certain comments come in, I’ll regret citing this as a reason).  As I’ve had time to think about it, I’ve grown steadily angrier.  Because I am angry, I am going to write a purely angry paragraph.  It will be only one paragraph, and then I will move on to rational discussion of Why This Was Not OK.  If you don’t like women getting angry, I suggest you skip the following paragraph, as I will not be answering any comments saying that this is not a fair assessment because I’m only acting emotionally.

How dare a group of white privileged men sit in a circle serenely commenting on how ANY female artist should have carried out her career?  The fact that any woman can be as successful as GaGa has been is a credit to the women’s liberation and feminist movements, and to the fabulous creativity of GaGa herself.  She has fought against her production label and the media to put forward her own creative choices, and for that she should be applauded from the highest possible vantage point, not slyly criticised and patronised by her peers.  

Phew, thank goodness that’s over.  I can get back to my proper rationale now!   So my reasons for thinking this was a blatant example of male privilege undermining the woman’s movement and, in particular, Lady GaGa’s own special brand of feminism are as follows:

She’s Such a Good Artist!
I don’t know why this should come as a shock to anyone who’s really listened to her music, or heard her perform live.  Yes, GaGa ‘can sing’.  Yes, she can write her own material.  Yes, she can truly entertain and captivate a live audience.  She’s been on the popular music scene for three years now, this has all been discussed to death and it should be news to no one.  It should not be cited as something that influences any of her artistic decisions.  Her first album, The Fame, sold over fourteen million copies world wide.  This is just the number of people who bought her album legally.  I don’t understand why GaGa’s abilities are still being discussed and debated at this late stage in the game.  Possibly because of the following...

She Doesn’t Need to Pull These Stunts!
Ah, yes.  Of course.  Any form of unusual artistic expression can only be about publicity, drawing media attention.  To sell her albums, obviously.  And herself.  Because she’s got a pretty weak fanbase really, hasn’t she?  Especially for an artist only on her second studio album.  Especially for an artist trying to cover up the fact she has no talent.

Oh, but wait!  We all just said she’s talented!  In fact, we’ve been saying it with surprise for the last three years.  And as a high profile celebrity, actually, the media would probably follow her whatever she was doing.  Because let’s face it, the tabloid media are pretty interested in high-profile singers regardless of whether their attention is wanted or not.  God forbid that a woman take all that attention and use it to her own advantage, or the advantage of the political and artistic causes she supports. 

Among the ‘stunts’ discussed by the panel was the meat dress.  In the first place, give up on the meat dress already.  It was a year ago now, and an awful lot has happened since then.  In the second place, this was only mentioned in passing as “one of her craziest stunts”.  No mention was made of why the artist said she did it, or the various interpretations of the outfit’s meaning.  Just as no mention was made of political intent with any of her ‘stunts’.  There was no mention of GaGa as a feminist, as an activist for equality, or as a person who uses her status to bring issues under the nose of journalists who would not normally cover such statements.  Because of GaGa’s ‘stunt’, people discussed feminism, the culture of celebrity, artistic expression and agism.  Unfortunately, there was also a lot of discussion of how needy women will do anything for attention, but I choose to ignore those conversations (I know they’re bullshit).  GaGa’s stunts are necessary and important.  They are not (necessarily) a sales factor for her music, but they are an important part of who she is as a musical artist.

She Should Have...
It seems like I can’t go a day without reading a woman’s article, without reading in comments underneath about what she ‘should have written’.  I addressed this subject briefly in a previous blog, but I will just quickly say that people have their own interests.  They will discuss and research whatever interests them.  If something else interests you, go write about it.  Chances are, if it touches on that person’s interests, they will even actively support you doing it.  So when Whiley’s guests started discussing what would have made a ‘better’ second album from Lady GaGa, there was a small part of me that was disappointed that this is not a phenomena that only effects internet articles. 

The specific suggestion was that GaGa should have done an acoustic album.  The word used was “simple” – there are obvious connotations, but as I don’t think they were intended I won’t go into discussing them.  The reasons cited were those above: she does not need to pull stunts, but despite all three well recognised and established artists agreeing that she is an excellent musician, she still has to prove herself in some way.  I sat listening to this discussion, wondering if any of the successful men sat on the sofas had ever been talked about in a similar way.  Wire, I very much doubt it – and if they had he would neither have noticed or cared.  And if he had noticed or cared, he would have tried his very hardest to do the opposite of whatever was suggested.  Professor Green, I will confess, is an artist with whom I am entirely unfamiliar.  I know he’s a successful white British rapper, and therefore must be a reasonable minority in his field.  And Will Young’s second album was released once the next round of Pop Idol had begun.  The attention was already off him, and he was free to begin expressing himself as an artist, instead of as the winner of a talent show.  This was possibly the first album in which people did not tell him what he should or shouldn’t do.  Given the careers of these men, it is doubly patronising that they preach and comment on what GaGa “should have done”.

It is worth adding that no acknowledgement was made to the fact that GaGa is a genre artist.  She may have had consistent number one singles and albums in the ‘pop’ charts, but her music is billed as dance or electronic by Billboard Magazine.  No one would recommend that either Nicky Wire or Professor Green, who are both genre artists, completely switch genres for their second album. 

But aside from what I would call sexism, and my critics will undoubtedly call constructive criticism, there was no understanding of the fact that the point of GaGa’s music is that it’s fun!  She produces punchy songs that fill the dance floors.  They have empowering and sometimes political lyrics, but if you don’t want to listen to them you still have a bloody good time.  And “simple” album would have fallen flat on its face, disappointed her core fan base and would surely have seen the artist disappear into obscurity.  Perhaps while three men on a sofa talk about how she “should have” stayed true to what she was good at.

To Conclude...
There are other topics on which I could opine, but I think I’ve made my point.  There will be those reading who think, who is this woman?  This feminist?  How can she complain about misogyny in a show that has a female presenter?  Yes, this show – which was, otherwise, rather fantastic – does indeed have a female presenter.  A female DJ presenter, and we know how hard they are to come by.  But I am not going to spend a paragraph thanking the patriarchy for installing a woman as the figurehead of a niche show in a post-watershed time slot.  I’m not of the opinion that we (as feminists, women or human beings) should thank the patriarchy for the small crumbs they are willing to throw to the cause of equality.  Especially not when I watch a good show – presented by whatever gender, creed, race, ability or sexuality of person – devolve into what is, essentially, a group of privileged white men discussing how the girls should be doing things to win their approval.  What this discussion became might not have been an attack on Lady GaGa or her music, but misogyny does not need to make its point by screaming "I HATE WOMEN!!!" in an abused housewife's face.  It can make itself just as evident by calmly questioning the artistic license of a hugely successful new musician, and patronisingly offering suggestions of what she should have done.


  1. The only thing I'd say about Gaga's stunts is that she can rarely come up with much of an explanation for them - when the meat dress thing happened, she said something about "I am not a piece of meat", and then something about "if we don't stand up for human rights, we're not worth the meat on our bones". Or maybe she did have a well-thought out reason and the media just failed to report it accurately. I wouldn't say she always does them for political reasons. Having said that, does she need an excuse/explanation for being outlandish? Yeah, it's self-indulgent and a bit ridiculous, but what's wrong with that?

    All that stuff about what would've made her album "better" is bullshit. I fucking loved her album - yeah, it's a bit samey, but it's full of storming chart-toppers and well-written dance music.

    To be honest, I think Lady Gaga makes a lot of people uncomfortable because she expresses herself in bizarre ways (e.g. the face implants), she's wildly successful, and she isn't afraid to be unsexy (e.g. her Joe Calderone male persona, or her Kermit costume). Plus, as you rightly pointed out, she's a great philanthropist who does a lot of good work, and no one ever mentions that (did you hear about her new project, the Born This Way Foundation?). It's always back to the meat dress thing.

  2. The media is full of instructions about how women look, its not whether you should have surgery now but when, a lot of famous women look like aliens in their attempts to appear eternally young. That is bizarre, that how ordinary women look is not acceptable and subject to constant scutiny and criticism.

    I love Lady Gaga because she takes that stuff and pushes it to a creative extreme that she is in control of, the result, they hate it! Is it because 'they' aren't controlling and prescribing how she looks.

    Maybe more of us should follow her example.