Lady Gaga is totally rock & roll.
Lady Gaga just announced her European tour dates for the fall this year. I asked a lot of different people if they want to come with me, and the general reaction I get when I posed this question was raised eyebrows. Apparently I don't come off as a Lady Gaga fan because I am definitely a rock fan, not pop. Truth be told, I only really became a fan after studying her closely for my master's thesis on music videos. (Have you seen the videos for "Paparazzi" and "Telephone" in succession? No? Do it.) The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Lady Gaga actually could fall under the umbrella of "rock and roll," which is why I like her so much.
In the fall and winter last year, I took a MOOC on Coursera, The History of Rock & Roll, taught by The University of Rochester's John Covach. I did it to better understand the genre and the history and out of pure interest. One particular aspect that continually came up was what Covach called the "hippie aesthetic," which arose in the late 1960s and consisted of the following elements:
- Serious lyrics. Topics weren't about teen life and romance, but dealt with spirituality, the terror of war, etc. Essentially, it's the difference between The Beatles' songs "Please Please Me" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." One is about teen love, the other is more spiritual (ok, yes, it's also rather trippy, but that's what happened).
- Serious music. The actual music was inspired by other styles, like classical and jazz, which were considered less mainstream and more worthy of respect. Additionally, this meant that artists were not just artists, but also musicians with virtuosity. They were good at playing their instruments and really mastered them. Think of Jimi Hendrix.
- The use of technology. In the late 1960s, there were so many new technologies developing, and those that fell under the "hippie aesthetic" embraced them. This included the use of more tracks, the use of technology and the studio as an instrument, and the use of synthesizers. One good example here would be Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
All of this together made for an authentic image. The artist wrote their own songs based on their own experience and played their own instruments. It's the difference between The Monkees and The Beatles (don't get me wrong, The Monkees also made their contribution to music history and there are definitely songs, but their original concept was very manufactured).
Turning back to Lady Gaga, you might be thinking, "Well, how the hell does this apply to her?" Yes, there are the pop songs that don't really deal with anything that could be considered "serious." There are countless examples: "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)" "Just Dance," "Bad Romance" (basically, a lot of songs off her first album).
But there are also examples that are about her personal experience and are less about the idea of love (and since it's 2014, sex). She's said that "The Edge of Glory" was about her grandfather's death and the impact it made on her. The song is about the moments before someone dies, about standing on the edge of glory. Then there's "Born this Way," which of course takes on the theme of self-acceptance and is sort of an anthem for the LGBT community. "Americano" is about the repeal of Proposition 8 in California, which prohibited same-sex marriage. "Applause" is about being a celebrity and being appreciated for what Lady Gaga does as an entertainer. These topics aren't found in your typical pop songs. They're meant to be thoughtful and are maybe marketed in pop packaging, but it's really less so than you would think.
"But serious music? It's pop!" you might say. Sure, her first album is more pop than her second or third, but again, look at The Beatles. Please Please Me versus Abbey Road? The material changed a lot, as it does with Lady Gaga, who is an incredibly talented singer and songwriter. Have you ever seen her belt out a tune playing the piano? My personal favorite is "The Edge of Glory" (watch the video below for what I mean), which, by the way, Clarence Clemons from The E Street Band played saxophone on. Not to mention, Brian May (yes, the Brian May from Queen) played the guitar on "Yoü and I" and even performed it live with Lady Gaga at the MTV Music Video Awards. Sure, it's dance music and might be played on top 40 radio, but if you listen closely, you'll hear the inspiration from other music forms. Not to mention her music videos are littered with references to rock & roll -- the lightning bolt on her face in "Just Dance" is homage to Ziggy Stardust, the prison scene in "Telephone" is reminiscent of Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," the dance sequence in "Bad Romance" has elements of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (ok, MJ might be the King of Pop, but he came from Motown, which is closely related to rock music anyway...but this deserves its own essay).
With the use of technology, I don't know how relevant this still is compared to the late 1960s, but I'm also not an expert of music technology today. So I'm not going to claim any sort of expertise in this area.
Lastly, the authentic image is one that Gaga does well. Watch her HBO special when she played at Madison Square Garden. She might be playing up being the humble New Yorker making it big and being "weird" for the sake of her celebrity image. However, reading interviews with her, she comes across as being genuine. It's not just the interviews, but also her entire social media presence. Thanks to social media, her fans have insight into what she's doing, what she thinks, and it's like following a friend on Twitter or Facebook. She even has her own social media platform, LittleMonsters.com, where she can directly connect to her fans and vice versa. She brings fans up on stage during live shows and then meets with them later backstage. It reminds me of what Bruce Springsteen or Green Day do at their own shows.
So when people raise their eyebrows and wonder why I love Lady Gaga and want to be down in the Monster Pit, it's actually not that far off from the other types of music I like. It's a little more danceable and more gay-friendly, but it's still rock & roll to me.