Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Lady Gaga on Media Blackout

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey on Oprah’s Next Chapter, Lady Gaga announced her decision to sever all communication with the press.

“I do not intend to speak to anyone for a very long time,” she says, stating that it was just as much a personal choice as it was a creative one. Following the success of her latest album Born This Way, the singer has chosen to lay low in 2012, instead focusing on a new album and an overseas tour, as well as her Born This Way Foundation.

As for her own media consumption? “No press, no television,” says Gaga. “If my mom calls and says, ‘Did you hear about?’ I don’t want to know nothing about anything that is going on in relation to music. I shut it all off.”

Sound and Vision: Lady Gaga's Album of the Year GRAMMY Nominee — Big Hit Or Major Miss?

In pop music, you’re nobody until everybody loves you or hates you, and few recording artists polarize everybody the way Lady Gaga does. Mad genius or plain mad? A true original or hopelessly derivative? Hit or miss?

That last question easily could apply to Gaga’s second full-length studio album, Born This Way, which was released to near-unprecedented fanfare in May of last year. The music press gave it generally favorable reviews, according to Metacritic, which assigned the album a score of 71 out of 100. Madonna, however, was less than blown away by the title song and first single, which many declared a too-blatant rip-off of her 1989 hit Express Yourself.

The woman who has spent her entire career nicking sights and sounds from other people, apparently agreed and recently joined the song’s chorus of detractors. When I heard it on the radio¦ I said that sounds very familiar, Madonna told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden in January. It felt reductive.

As for the parent album, whether it’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste. Hit or miss, though? Commercially speaking, it depends on how you look at it. Born This Way sold 1.1 million copies in the week after its release, making it the biggest debut since 2005. However, Gaga’s sales feat becomes less impressive when you consider that some 440,000 of those copies were sold in the digital format by Amazon, which practically gave the album away for 99 cents.

By week two, sales of Born This Way had plummeted 84 percent, down to the mere-mortal level of 174,000 copies. In its third week, it sold 100,000 copies, and was replaced by Adele’s three-months-older (in the US) 21 at No. 1. When the dust settled and 2011 ended, Born This Way was the third-biggest seller of the year, with cumulative sales of 2.1 million copies, which means it did half of its business last year in its first week. The No. 1 album of 2011, Adele’s own sophomore effort, sold nearly three times as much (5.8 million).

If Born This Way were a Hollywood event movie, and in many ways it was marketed like one, it would be considered a disappointment, as aspiring blockbusters that only double their opening-weekend haul during their box-office runs are generally considered to be. Worldwide sales in the vicinity of 5 million lack luster when an album’s pre-release set-up positions it to be the biggest thing since sliced bread”or Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Then there are the five singles from Born This Way. Aside from the aforementioned title track, which spent six weeks at No. 1, they’ve performed somewhat below Gaga’s usual Hot 100 standards. The second to fourth singles all reached the Top 10, but none of them enjoyed industry buzz or runaway success on par with previous Gaga hits like Telephone and Bad Romance. Meanwhile, the fifth single, “Marry the Night,” only reached No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making it Gaga’s first official single to miss the Top 10.

There’s always the February 12 GRAMMY Awards to provide a nice Gaga rebound (she’s up for three awards), but they probably won’t, not with Adele in the running (and performing). In fact, Adele might have been the one thing most responsible for blocking the view of Gaga for much of 2011.

The antithesis of all things Gaga, she’s a singer who gets by without gimmickry and flash, just strictly on the power of her voice. Her 21 singles have had considerably more staying power than those from Born This Way”the third, “Set Fire to the Rain,” just became the third to hit No. 1”which means that when the dust settles (again) and 2012 ends, some other 21 single probably will still be jerking tears (“Turning Tables”?) or rocking the house (“Rumour Has It”?).

Even Gaga’s videos and live award show performances are no longer the talk of every town, not when Adele hits the same stage, accompanied by a tremolo piano melody, effortlessly knocking rare notes way back into the nosebleed seats, and bringing on the heartbreak with Someone Like You. She did just that at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards in September, and she walked away with the most-talked-about live TV performance of the year (without having to reveal that she was pregnant!). Gaga performed You and I at the VMAs, but it was Adele whose song was No. 1 on the Hot 100 within days of the ceremony.

Adele will likely steal Gaga’s GRAMMY thunder, too. Gaga scored her third Album of the Year nomination for Born This Way (her second was for the 2009 EP The Fame Monster), but there’s no stopping the Adele express, which is likely to run over everything in its path. Gaga may have to settle for Favorite Album of the Year at the January 11 People’s Choice Awards.

So hit or miss? I’d say Born This Way falls somewhere between stunning success and magnificent failure, definitely closer to the former when both artistry and commerce are accounted for. Derivative first single aside, the album was an uncompromising pop opus, one that is musically to the left of the one that made Gaga a superstar.

Had its more difficult tracks””ScheiíŸe” and, say, Heavy Metal Lover”been recorded by someone like M.I.A. or an obscure European electronica act, they probably would have been declared masterpieces of iconoclastic electro-pop. “Judas,” for sure, would have had considerably lowered chart expectations (it hit No. 10). Released under any other name, Born This Way, far as it is from the mainstream that Katy Perry and Rihanna call home, probably would have sold a small fraction of what it did sell with Gaga’s name plastered on the cover.

There’ll be future hits for her, though, more GRAMMY nominations. And even if her reign as the hottest thing in music is over for good, Adele shouldn’t get too comfortable at the top. In pop, nobody stays there forever.

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Sound And Vision: Director's Cuts — From Lady Gaga to Kate Bush, the Mixed Results of Tampering with Your Own Songs

I’ll never forget the day Basia lied to me. Twice. I was interviewing the Polish singer (best known for her 1988 hit “Time and Tide”) shortly before the release of her 1994 album, The Sweetest Illusion, which was coming five years after her previous album, London Warsaw New York. That day, she promised me two things: First, she would never again make me wait so long for new music. Second, she’d never release a run-of-the-mill greatest hits album featuring, well, her greatest hits. She felt that at the very least, artists owed it to their fans to reprise their hits as brand-new tunes, not just repackage the same old songs.

Her next studio album, It’s That Girl Again, wouldn’t arrive until 2009, nine years after she had released Clear Horizon”The Best of Basia, one of those run-of-the-mill greatest hits albums featuring, well, her greatest hits.

The morals of this story: 1) You can’t rush inspiration. 2) The first cut isn’t only the deepest”sometimes it’s the best, too. That’s a lesson Mariah Carey may have learned last year when she scrapped plans to release Angels Advocate, a remixed version of her Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel album, after a new version of “Up Out My Face” (Memoirs‘ best song) featuring Nicki Minaj limped onto Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 100 and refused to go any further.

But apparently, Lady Gaga, the reigning queen of remix albums and EPs, still hasn’t received the memo. When she released Born This Way back in May, she put out a special edition that included a separate disc with remixes of five of the album’s songs. (Bryan Ferry did a similar thing with last year’s Olympia.) Divine inspiration or clever marketing ploy? Perhaps a little of both, but “Born This Way”-with-a-twang never would have spent six weeks at No. 1. The “Country Road Version” makes for an interesting one-time listen, but I never need to hear it again.


Industrial Revolution: Does Expanding The Brand Marginalize The Music?

It’s not exactly insightful to note that Lady Gaga is at least as much about an image as she is about the music. I’m guessing that the majority of people were aware of Gaga’s gimmickry before they ever heard her breakout single Poker Face. My mom, in her mid-60s, could identify Gaga on TV, but I’m certain could not name one song. From her wild outfits to her conceptual videos and performance art appearances (I’m talking about Lady Gaga here, not my mom, whose own meat-dress is far more tasteful), Gaga is the apex where art, fashion, music and celebrity meet.


Of course, she’s not the first pop star to arrive at this crossroads. The artist to whom she is most compared, Madonna, certainly lit the way, as did glam rockers like David Bowie. But what is unique about Lady Gaga is that her “brand” has by far eclipsed her music. If Madonna had not kept up some degree of consistency in her music, it would have damaged her brand. Each record she released was met with anticipation and with a critical eye. The music was primary. I don’t think she would have faded into obscurity if she had failed on that front”she was too huge a star from the start and would always be a celebrity”but she would not be the colossal star or brand that she is today.

All killer, no filler

With the release of her latest album, Born This Way, Lady Gaga is arguably the first serious pop star whose music is not the lede in any form of coverage. I’ve been paying attention and the only recent critique I can recall is that the single Born This Way sounds an awful lot like Madonna’s Express Yourself. But those same reviewers also immediately dismiss their own criticism as being beside the point. They argue firstly that Gaga’s single was to be taken as a statement in support of gay rights, and the music is kind of inconsequential, as long as it had a groove and sounded good” which of course it did. But if this is the case, then the underlying message here is that none of her music can ever be that important, because that’s just one piece of the brand.

Gaga has expanded beyond music. She is keenly aware that changes in the music industry have made being both surprising and ubiquitous the best way to maintain and grow her public image (she appears to have rejected entirely the concept of overexposure). She is not trying to be a music star; she’s trying to be a pop star, in the literal, Warhol-esque sense of the term. Music, while no doubt crucial to her as an artist, is now the vehicle she rides into the public consciousness. It is part of her larger brand, built upon her ability to shock and awe, which she does in very strategic moves to maximize public impressions and viral proliferation.

Recognizing that traditional media no longer shapes and drives the story, but instead tells the story of public reaction, Gaga has invented herself as the pop star of the future, unpredictable and spanning genre and milieu.  She does this by re-appropriating existing brands and figures. What she did with Madonna (even appearing with her on Saturday Night Live), she has done with now-late designer Alexander McQueen (a symbiotic relationship, to be sure), as well as fellow shock-art star Damien Hirst, who painted a piano for her, and iconoclastic architect Frank Gehry, who designed one of her insane hats.

The success of Gaga’s branding efforts can be marked by the fact that, no matter how controversial or risqué, corporate interests have come calling. Wisely protective of her brand, Gaga is careful about what she endorses. The lucky (not so) few have included Monster headphones, MAC cosmetics (teaming up with yet another pop icon, Cyndi Lauper), Polaroid and others. It’s especially worth noting that Lady Gaga doesn’t just endorse existing products; in each of these examples, she has teamed with the company to launch new, Gaga-branded products, establishing herself as a creative driver rather than pitch-woman or, worse, sell-out.

Check out this crazy shit: Polaroid shades.

Be sure to check out the hyper-overt product placement and subsequent mockery of product-pitching in her amazing video for Telephone:

In reference to the launch of her Polaroid line, Gaga said, I consider myself to be a visionary, not just a songwriter and a singer. I am an artist. I brought my vision and love of fashion, technology and obsession with the future into all of my work with Polaroid.

All of this is great and more power to Lady Gaga for being a savvy businesswoman expanding her reach and her image. Assessing her as more than a singer or songwriter is clearly accurate, but that does not mean she is not also a singer-songwriter who should be judged by the quality of her music. She is known primarily as a musician. It’s neither right nor wrong that her fame extends beyond music and that her brand could continue to hold value despite the success of her records. That’s just the way it is. But as long as she plays in that arena, she, as a musician (and again, this is with the understanding that she is and should be taken seriously as a singer), should be evaluated in the same way all musicians are. Otherwise, her continued musical output devalues pop music as a whole.

Sound And Vision: 10 Reasons Why I Wanted To Hate Lady Gaga's New Album Before I Heard It

By now you’ve read the (mostly glowing) reviews, and Born This Way is probably well on its way to becoming Album of the Year. So who needs me on the Lady Gaga bandwagon? She’s already sold millions of albums and singles without the benefit of my adoration, and her second full-length effort (launched worldwide on May 23) is destined to pad her coffers with more gold and platinum. But after single after sound-alike single from The Fame and The Fame Monster EP, I was hoping for a change of course, her very own Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a follow-up to a mega-platinum breakthrough that defies expectations and stands on the strength of the music alone. (Remember how George Michael made only one video for that album, and he didn’t even appear in it?)

I like Gaga best at her piano with a bare minimum of camp and circumstance, and I wish she’d go there more often. There’s something about way-over-the-top freaky Gaga that leaves my eyes in perpetual rolling motion. Plus I’m generally allergic to anything that’s hyped by the majority of the universe. I won’t bother to review the new album since pretty much everyone with an opinion has offered it on Facebook, Twitter or any other social-media forum where people will read it, but I’ll say this: Since the marketing of Gaga is often more interesting than the music she releases, my expectations were low. This time, though, in a nice surprise twist, she exceeded them. Still, it’s so hard to listen without prejudice, unaffected”positively or negatively”by a publicity push that shoved Gaga in our faces 24/7 and screamed, “You must love her!” So what exactly fueled my pre-release discontent and keeps my Gaga resentment bubbling just under the surface of my grudging respect? Read on.

1. “Judas.” Here we go again! Another busy video in which Gaga bombards us with visual stimuli. (Enough with the religious iconography, girl!) This one’s an eyesore, and I’d rather go blind than ever watch it again. But the biggest problem with “Judas,” the second Born This Way single, is that it isn’t much of a song”it’s basically just a noisy rewrite of her previous hits. No wonder it spent all of one week in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, at No. 10, after its initial characteristically over-hyped release.

2. The onslaught of Born This Way teasers. Though Gaga would surely have us believe that this is yet another of her brilliantly “original” ideas, Taylor Swift did the exact same thing in the weeks before the release of her third album, Speak Now, last October, and Katy Perry pulled a similar stunt with Teenage Dream. After the title track, Born This Way‘s three follow-up singles were released in too-quick succession to have much impact, and when you add the streaming of songs from the album on Farmville in the days leading up to May 23, it’s like an extended trailer that gives away the entire plot to the Event Movie of the Year, to which Born This Way was born to be the musical equivalent. I’m surprised she didn’t add “in 3D” to the title!

3. Her publicity blitz cut into my Justin Timberlake time on the Saturday Night Live season finale. Watching Justin Timberlake host SNL made me long for the good old days of gimmick-free pop stars who weren’t trying to save their fans from the big bad evil world. He’s talented, nice to look at and his music stands on its own. He don’t have to take his clothes off to have a good time, or to make his tunes interesting, though he’s certainly welcome to! So why should he have to share the SNL spotlight with musical guest Gaga?

4. “You and I” was not a pre-release single. If anything good came of Haley Reinhart’s run on American Idol, it’s this: She dug up a then-unreleased Gaga track called “You and I” and almost did it justice. I immediately marched over to YouTube and sought out Gaga’s live performance of the song on the Today show last year. I felt like I was watching a female Elton John in her prime. Too bad the Born This Way version is more heavily produced by Shania Twain’s ex, Robert John “Mutt” Lange.

5. As an Idol mentor, she didn’t even acknowledge the free publicity Haley gave her little-known song. Did it happen off screen? Does she not watch the show, or was she simply unimpressed by Haley (Lord knows I usually was)? That said, Gaga made an excellent mentor and gave constructive advice. James Durbin didn’t do as he was told (come on, dude, put some Elvis into it!), and look what happened to him.

6. She’s probably going to leave Adele’s 21 in the dust as the top-selling album of 2011 so far. But then again, Adele made her mark fully clothed without the benefit of flashy videos and a billion-dollar publicity campaign. She didn’t even bother to get out of her seat in the “Rolling in the Deep” clip, and the single still went to No. 1.

7. Does every Gaga video need a cast of thousands? Just once, I’d like to see her go stark and minimalist, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”-style”no controversial imagery, no cheap group choreography, no grandiose aspirations. Yes, there’s strength in numbers, but less could be so much more.

8. “The Edge of Glory” is like a bad ’80s flashback. It would have been perfect for the Top Gun soundtrack. Images of Kelly McGillis dance in my head. Bonnie Tyler, or Stock, Aitken and Waterman-era Donna Summer, would have killed for this. I almost expect Laura Branigan to rise from the dead and start singing back-up halfway through. If only it were half as good as “Gloria” or “Self Control.”

9. She wasn’t born that way. Isn’t it ironic that the singer who sells artifice better than anyone scored one of her biggest hits”six weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100”with a song called “Born This Way”?

10. Her return is totally eclipsing Beyoncé’s. Queen B should have done what Kelly Clarkson did and sit out a few months while Gaga rules. A stronger first single would have helped, though. If the premiere of the “Run the World (Girls)” video on Idol and Beyoncé’s May 22 Billboard Music Awards performance don’t put her in charge, maybe she can still pull a Britney/Rihanna and get Gaga to add her two cents to a “Run the World” remix and watch it soar straight to No. 1.

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Duff McKagan: Patron saint of spendthrift rockers

It took an exploding pancreas for Duff McKagan, ex-bassist for Guns ˜N Roses, to slow down enough to start looking at his finances ¦ and realize he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Seventeen years and a bunch of finance classes later, McKagan is launching a wealth management firm for musicians called Meridian Rock, along with British investor Andy Bottomley. His goal is to prevent musicians from blowing their load right out of the gate, only to end up broke down the road when album sales dip. Will smarter financial moves lead to more modest homes on Cribs? Will Ke$ha will put the dollar sign in her name into a savings account? We can’t wait to see how much appetite for investment McKagan can drum up.

Trent Reznor takes on the vampires

Just when you thought the Nine Inch Nails frontman couldn’t get any cooler, he announces that the follow-up project to his Oscar-winning score for The Social Network will be the score to the Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton-directed film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Reznor will not only write the music, he’s set to have a small cameo as the vampire that killed Honest Abe’s own sweet mother. Let it be noted that Reznor’s not too pleased about that last bit leaking. Read his post about it here.

The Bad

Phil Collins calls it quits

The Internet was all a flutter this week with reports that Phil Collins was quitting music because the industry was full of disrespectin’ tools. Collins took to his Web site to set the story straight. Some of the things mentioned above have been said by me in various interviews, but said as asides with a smile on my face and in passing, he explains. However, the result is that I have ended up sounding like a tormented weirdo who thinks he was at the Alamo in another life, who feels very sorry for himself and is retiring hurt because of the bad press over the years. None of this is true. For the record, reports that Collins can’t dance, can’t talk and can’t sing were quickly verified.

Lady Gaga breaks up with Target

Until this week, Target had the exclusive rights to sell a special version of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way at retail locations. But Gaga’s spokesperson announced on Wednesday that the deal had been dissolved, likely because of Target’s past support of political candidates who oppose gay rights, such as Tom Emmer. As of Wednesday Target was still taking pre-orders for the album, which seems pretty optimistic for a company that had just been given the boot”specifically the Alexander McQueen lobster claw boot, the most painful of all.

The Ugly

Lupe Fiasco suffers light suicidal thoughts

It’s no secret that Lupe Fiasco and Atlantic Records have a rocky relationship. The rapper has complained in the past about the label holding him hostage on his upcoming album Lasers. Now, in a new interview, Fiasco reveals that he was nearly suicidal when Atlantic Records chose B.o.B.’s version of Nothing On You over his own. Read all about his angst here.

Ke$ha distributes condoms at shows

Here’s something to give you nightmares: Ke$ha has 10,000 condoms with her face on them, and she’s giving them away for free at shows. If it breaks, you have to name your daughter or son after me, she warns. No worries, the image of Ke$ha on your lover’s nether regions is a surefire way to kill your sex drive once and for all.


Has Gaga Backed Herself Into A Conceptual Corner?

Lady Gaga has been all the rage the last couple years, and probably for good reason: she plays piano, sings well, designs her own clothes and writes her own music. Oh yeah, and she spends copious amounts of time being as weird as she possibly can. But, over the last few months, it’s starting to look like she’s gradually painted herself into a corner. This culminated a few weeks ago at the GRAMMY’s when she showed up in a giant egg carried in by four men and then hatched on stage. This may be the latest episode in the Gaga saga, but the constant one-upping of her strangeness has been going on for a long time now. The question is, where can she go from here?

Let’s face it, Gaga goes out of her way to be different for the sake of being different. Consider the raw meat dress she wore to the VMAs. Supposedly it was a retaliatory symbol against gays being discharged from the military, but wearing a meat dress hardly seems an effective medium for protest. And it doesn’t make any sense. And of course there was her see-through beekeeper costume that she wore to her sister’s high school graduation, and her “Alejandro” video that even Katy Perry called blasphemous. Is she beginning to plateau, though? More recently she has been sporting shoulder and face horns in public and gave birth to evil in her latest video (literally). It may be getting a bit stale at this point, but she did bring home $62 million in 2010, according to Forbes, which makes it tough to criticize her life choices.

Lady Gaga and Madonna comparison

Another point of Gaga controversy of late has been over her alleged rip off of Madonna. Idolator has a complete breakdown of the possible similarities, so we’ll let you make the call for yourself. One thing is for certain, however: more and more people are starting to question Lady Gaga and her longevity. Her much anticipated Born This Way will drop in late May through Interscope, so we’ll soon find out if they’re onto something. Let us know what you think in the comment space below!

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Kanye’s Monster gets the Muppets treatment

Watching the Muppets rap Kanye West’s Monster is both hilarious and distressing. Count Von Count opening with Bitch I’m a monster / No good bloodsucker is entirely apropos, but then when Beaker delivers the line about the you-know-what in a sarcophagus you can almost feel your entire childhood imploding. Watch at your own risk.

Josh Groban sings Kanye’s tweets

It’s a very Kanye Friday everyone. Before you cry Enough! be sure to watch this one last clip. GRAMMY-winning singer Josh Groban put all of Mr. West’s tweets to music for a bit on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. If you thought they sounded ridiculous in cyberspace, just wait. Our favorite aria has to be I make awesome decisions in bike stores. Find out what yours is by watching the clip below.

Love is in the air ¦ so is anti-love

The celebrity musician zeitgeist got a workout this week with multiple hook-ups and break-ups. In one corner we have Kelly Pickler and Carlos Santana getting hitched (not to each other) and Selena Gomez getting with the Biebs. In the other corner, John Mellencamp announced his divorce from Elaine Irwin and Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal split. Love wins by a hair (a Bieber hair, the most powerful kind).

The Bad

Chuck Berry collapses onstage during Chicago concert

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry collapsed onstage in Chicago on New Year’s Day as his guitar was being tuned before the show started. After being rushed off stage, the 84-year-old legend returned 15 minutes later and tried to pick up his guitar to play. A man approached Berry and escorted him back offstage. Finally Berry returned to apologize to fans for being too weak to perform. They’re afraid I’ll do my scoot, he explained. Berry’s rep later reported that the singer was suffering from exhaustion.

The Ugly

Will Oldham attacks Bill and Melinda Gates Charity Foundation

Will Oldham

Bonnie Prince Billy wasn’t so bonny in an interview with Fogged Clarity this week. The man behind the alternative folk act, Will Oldham, had a lot to say about the ulterior motives behind Mr. and Mrs. Gates charity efforts. His take on Bill Gates thought process went thusly: I want to eradicate cholera, so I can get another motherfucker to buy my computer. We’re not sure that third-world kids will be rushing to the nearest Best Buy to buy a Dell, but what do we know?

Courtney Love’s tweets lead to defamation lawsuit

Courtney Love

After Courtney Love was asked to pay up for custom clothing made for her by designer Dawn Simorangkir, the singer reacted with her characteristic grace, calling the designer a drug-pushing prostitute on her Twitter page. Now Love is being sued for defamation of character. The trial is set for February. Hope one of those bespoke garments is proper courtroom attire.