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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.