Mark Dery on Lady Gaga

Is Lady Gaga dumb? This is the question that Mark Dery ponders, as only Dery can, in his latest True/Slant essay: "Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back: On Lady Gaga." The point-of-entry is a New Yorker essay from last year by music critic Sasha Frere-Jones in which he raised the eternal inquiry, "How not dumb is Gaga?" Dery's answer may not not surprise you. From True/Slant:
Ladygagagagagagag Most of the comment-thread flame wars between Gaga's Kiss Army of "little monsters," as the Lady calls her devout fans, and her no less devout haters are ignited by the Great Debate: Is she a rarified being who has more talent in her clitoral hood than you can even dream of, little man? Whose Art for Art's Sake raptures us out of our stonewashed lives, into a disco ball-flecked Bubble World, a Studio 54 in the Sky where gay teens, pillow-biting emo boys,  and high-school weirdos are waved into the VIP lounge while all the Mean Girls and haters mill outside, crazed with envy? Or is she just some Tisch drop-out who watched Grease one too many times, pickled her brain in  Britney, and now thinks she's some cross between Madonna and Leigh Bowery, just because she forgets to wear pants and name-checks The Night Porter (Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism" for people who don't read)? In other words, is Lady Gaga the last, best hope for pop smart enough to beat the Society of the Spectacle at its own game, sell out with a shamelessness that would shock the pants off her patron saints (Warhol and Dali, who perfected the complimentary notions of self as brand and art as marketing) and still snooker a generation of cultural-studies profs and nth-wave feminists into a deconstructive swoon about her Judith Butler-approved gender performativity? Or is she something thuddingly dumber: Donatella Versace in the remake of Blow-Up? Liza Minelli in a Vegas revue inspired by The Reluctant Astronaut? Perez Hilton sings the Human League songbook? Is she pop, or Pop Art? In on the joke, or just a joke?
"Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back: On Lady Gaga"


  1. Oh. That chick David Bowie copied? In my limited experience, boring people find her weird, and love her as a result. I’m sure that will offend someone.

  2. She pretty much sucks just as bad as Justin Bieber. They should tour together.

    One thing is being artistic…another is being gimmicky up the fudge-nile just for the sake of trying to “out-weird” yourself. I hope she goes away soon.

  3. “Or is this article just an excuse to write very, very, very long winded sentences which make it hard to follow what exactly the author is going on and on and on about? While you think about that, let me spice the text with some extra outlandish words like ‘litotes’ and namedrop a number of fashion icons while I do my best to phrase half of my sentences as questions!”

    Let me close by saying:

    (RAH)² (AH)³ + [ROMA (1+MA)] + (GA)² + (OOH)(LA)²

    1. There’s always one, isn’t there? The “litotes” riff was a laff line, @5. Enable your irony filter. Seriously, though, it’s not that “outlandish” a word…for those of us whose lips don’t get numb when we read. Most high-school English classes touch on the concept.
      Richard Hofstadter’s ghost takes a satisfied drag on his cigar…

      1. Mark, as David mentions below, you give readers access to a context they might not have otherwise experienced. It’s a great quality.

        But your writing has other qualities. Your thorough analysis of rockism and last minute glance at the possibility of a brighter Gaga future do not remove the dismissive tone from your work. The unnecessarily-florid language does not lend credibility to your voice; in fact, it disarms a reasonable argument by putting it out of earshot from those it would most benefit.

        Jer makes an accurate summation and a fair criticism. Your content is on point and your style is overblown. The criticism serves you, and yet you disservice yourself by dismissing it as anti-intellectual.

        If you are sincere, you might consider the value of public comment. Otherwise, you’re just a well-informed troll.

  4. The problem with this style of attention getting is that it needs to always be ratcheted up. We become desensitized to it, so artists that want to make a splash by transgressing must forever go further and further in order to grab the attention of a bored public. Remember when Madonna was oh so controversial for dancing with scantily clad gay men and encouraging us to strike the pose? Well ho-fucking-hum. Now we need more skin, more sexual content, more degradation. Each generational orbit of the culture takes us one click further out. Our parents may have been titillated by Beach Blanket Bingo or Jimi Hendrix burning a guitar, and we may have been shocked by Insane Clown Posse, or Paris Hilton’s sex tape but that shit is going to be NO NEWS to our kids. They’ll be watching famous actors fisting each other and shitting in each other’s mouths at the Academy Awards. They’ll have to, because nothing less will register with our media-hardened offspring.

    This is horseshit, not art. Lady G gets a lot of attention for being artsy, for picking up the blank banner of Warhol and Bowie, for being an inventive performer. Buts it’s all a shuck. A scam. Completely calculated from the get-go. She doesn’t express herself as an artist; she acts outrageous so that you’ll look at her. Like a child acting out in class. Grabbing your attention, and hopefully, eventually, your money is the only goal, after that you’re on your own. The last thing anyone ever talks about is the music. It’s the crazy hats. Her music isn’t bad, per se. It’s just blank. Without the animating force of her big, shiny, expensive, performance spectacle, it’s just run of the mill synth pop polished as shiny as all the computers and money in the world can.

  5. An even better question : Who the hell is Mark Dery and why should we give a damn?

    “ABOUT ME: I’m a cultural critic.”

    Enough said. Who grows up dreaming of being a critic? No one.

    1. >Enough said. Who grows up dreaming of being a critic? No one.

      Well, I did.

      Back around 1990 I had a collection of interesting clippings from Keyboard (a music) magazine. Eventually, I realized than 90% of them were by one “Mark Dery”

    2. “Who grows up dreaming of being a critic? No one”

      I used to write art criticism. Because I liked art, and I liked talking about art. Believe it or not people do grow up caring about academic discussion!

      I don’t think Dery’s article is really that hard to read except for the horrible horrible god awful font, but I do think it’s funny. You see, I remember my mom and her friends saying similar things about how derivative the contemporary pop stars were when I was a child. And it makes me laugh, because of course they’re always derivative. Because pop is safe. That’s why it’s POPULAR music and not avant-garde.

    3. Mate, if you don’t know who Mark Dery is, you can’t have been on this site for long. As the kids say these days, you might need to “lurk moar”

      For me, the key lies in this video, also posted on Boing Boing a while ago

      The young Stefani Germanotta, despite being a talented musician, saw fame and fortune going undeservedly to those who offered spectacle and titillation, while she languished in tiny local gigs.

      Like a comic-book super-villain, she invented a new secret identity, stealing her targets’ “powers” and becoming a cruel mockery of the people she held in such contempt.

      By escalating the state of pop-culture dysfunction, she forces her enemies into a game of chicken, where they have no choice but to rise to her every ridiculous challenge.

      Lady Gaga is Stefani’s revenge on pop music.

  6. Comparing Gaga to Bowie? I think we will see which one gets forgotten faster, very soon…

    But The Onion said it best (as usual!): Bandai recalls Lady Gaga.

      1. I think you meant to reply to @nemofazer but, yeah Nataly Dawn and Pomplamoose rock hard.

  7. While I don’t personally own any of her CDs, I think her music is catchy and well-written. And since she’s been an accomplished singer/songwriter/pianist since a very young age, I think it’s safe to say that she is very talented. She also writes all her own songs, which is more than a lot of artists can say.

  8. You want shocking and appalling? She has got NOTHING on Peaches. Why waste another minute listening to thinly veiled sexual references when you could be listening to those sexual references explicitly unveiled and in all their glory.

  9. What if Lady GaGa exists both to scandalize Middle America and confound overly academic music critics?

  10. That is an incredibly long-winded way of saying “Lady Gaga is a derivative talent whose music I find unappealing and whose stage persona seems to be a mask to hide her mediocrity.”

    Not that I agree or disagree with such a sentiment – I haven’t heard enough Lady Gaga to form an opinion beyond “I’m not sure I’m in the target demographic for this” – but the only real impression the article made on me is that Mark Dery must get paid by the word.

  11. That was, ummm… wordy. I feel like I need to go back and get a masters in English before I can fully follow that.

    Regarding Gaga: I think the woman is a naturally talented musician, but those songs are just really, really bland. She’s selling herself short with the cookie-cutter pop stuff. But hey, brings in the mega-bucks.

    I couldn’t care less about the glammy-schlocky outfits and ‘shocking’ over-the-top uber-Vegas performances. The comparison to Marilyn Manson is apt. Not my cup of tea, per se.

  12. I think some people are jealous of her success. She is talented and fun. She is doing what she wants to do – perform. Yep, she’s over the top and her songs are highly produced pop, but it’s her art. Critics, go for it! Trash away!

    1. It’s not “trashing” if she is actually terrible. She does have an amazing voice I admit but no talent or ear for music. It just feels like a random mish mash of tunes and ideas never compiled into a coherent thought. She’s good, but she isn’t the musical godsend she’s made out to be. If i had to put it another way, Lady Gaga would be the musical equivalent of the movie Twilight. Vastly popular to those with no taste or exposure to anything that is actually good. Anyone critiquing this so called “artist” are then labeled as Haters or Jealous by the fans who worship this parody of a musician. FYI – You cant be jealous or a hater if you compare her to other real artists who actually have musical talent. Your jealous or a hater if you compare her to yourself. Otherwise i guess it would be called “vicariously hating”. Which just sounds ridiculous. Lady Gaga just weird done wrong. Look up “Peaches” or any other similar artist for weird done right.

  13. That is an incredibly long-winded way of saying “Lady Gaga is a derivative talent whose music I find unappealing and whose stage persona seems to be a mask to hide her mediocrity.”

    No, not writery enough. Besides who needs clarity when you have words?

    And I love that all people can be divided into Rabid Mouth-Breathing Lady Gaga Fans and Rhodes Scholars. That way it’s super easy to know who to sterilize and who to shower with free diamonds and gold deblumes.

    1. You seem to not like Mark’s writing for the very reason that I love it so much. He seamlessly weaves in references to things that are new to me and usually turn out to be quite fascinating (and, dare I say, informative) once I take a moment to look them up.

  14. Dery’s article is too full of big words to finish reading? Long-winded? Boring? Hard to follow?

    I don’t listen to Gaga, but come on–if 3,400 words of fairly straightforward cultural crit breaks your head, then you’ve got bigger issues than your chosen brand of pop.

  15. *shrugs* She’s kind of fun for a pop star, but pop sucks.

    So… I’m not sure that’s a compliment.

    I like her shoes.

  16. Although I can’t help but think that the only thing worse than yet another pop star that is just edgy enough that the mainstream goes *ooh* and just safe enough to sell records is yet another long winded ivory tower type telling us what it means.

  17. Of what little of her music I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed. I think she can really belt out a tune, so I don’t think she’s talentless. Is the question is she, herself dumb or is it dumb to like her? She’s making a bunch of money and made herself the center of attention, so she can’t be too stupid. What I think she’s doing is selling an illusion that we can choose to participate in or not.

    As far as Mark Dery’s article is concerned, I’ve always believed that a large vocabulary is like owning a classic car – you have to take it out for a spin every one in a while so people know that you have it.

  18. I guess I respectfully disagree with the joy of this particular bit of writing. To me he comes across as a near hysterical puts who hates Lady Gaga so much that he’s near incoherent. I want to get him help.

    Lada Gaga is undeniably a triumph of pop culture. She’s popular, and she’s outrageous while not being self destructive. (How many pop stars can you say that about?) Be happy to have a daughter like her.

    Don’t really care much either way about her music though. It’s pretty irrelevant, really.

  19. As giddy as I am to see an academic breakdown of Fairy Feller’s outside the Queen message boards, Freddie Mercury is still the man who wrote Delilah and Body Language. That is to say, he was just as goofy as he was a genius, chill out, and let the kids like their outrageous pop star.

    And “rockism”? Decrying the new for the sake of the old, just cause? You might as well call it get-off-my-lawn-ism, for all the water that word holds. Besides, labeling yourself, basically, old and out of touch right off the bat makes the whole article hard to swallow. Dery’s cranky. We get it. No need for him to dress it up with some faux-intellectual term.

    Granted, Poker Face is no Bohemian Rhapsody. But it’s no Laughing Gnome, either, so to discredit Gaga entirely because she has idols like any kid (though I’ve never heard her invoke the name of Marc Bolan or Bryan Ferry, so the tangent about glam seems extraneous) is plainly stupid. Of course she’s going to emulate her heroes until she finds her own footing, it’s what everyone does.

    Queen I is an intelligent mash of Zeppelin and The Who, Bowie’s early stuff is Dylan-esque crooning mixed with the theatricality of Anthony Newly. Guys like Dery, in charge at places like Rolling Stone, did everything they could to nip their careers in the bud in the name of Clapton and Jagger. But it didn’t work; they just tried harder, just like Gaga has done in the face of all her criticism.

    There’s a Gaga for every generation, and whether she lasts depends on her talent, not her publicity. It’s the only factor that separates the Bowies from Boy Georges. Maybe she has it, maybe she doesn’t, but audiences do like her. I’m not particularly enthralled with her movement–if anything, I think she’s not outrageous ENOUGH–but some people worship her … doesn’t that count for anything?

  20. re gaga’s music: i’ve heard some of her stuff. my 3 & 5 y/o daughters like it when they hear her on the radio. i don’t have any issue with her music really. personally i’m more of a Sepultura/SuperJointRitual person myself ^_^

    if people want to hear dance pop and they like to listen to her brand of it, that in and of itself is just fine.

    the part that fascinates me however is when i’m out and at the market let’s say and i overhear two teenage girls talk about her like she’s this great goddess coming down from the mountain and is gracing us with her presence and her music.

    don’t get me wrong, i get the concept of idolizing an artist. i’ve seen it with Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, & Amy Winehouse.

    Hell, i’ve seen girls doing up their hair and make up just like Winehouse not long after Amy was big news. I get that people will idolize those that they love.

    It’s just that this gaga is different and not in a good way. She doesn’t have the vocal skills of a Christina Aguilera. She doesn’t have the heart & tradgedy of an Amy Winehouse.

    She really is disposable pop fluff cottoncandy and because I see her as that, I am really left scratching my head trying to figure out how could sooo many people idolize cottoncandy?

  21. That was a fun article, but in the end it seems like Lady Gaga is smart, just not smart enough to matter. Some folks want her to be some transgressive mole in the pop world, when really she’s just a pop star who subscribed to Index magazine for a while. No harm in that, and the machine rolls on.

  22. The piece seems to conflate the idea that she is intelligent with the suggestion that her work is meant to be intellectual. It isn’t, but I think she is. She’s playing this game like a virtuosa. Calculated scam sounds about right to me. She is one very happy mutant.

  23. I’ll take GaGa and her fans over insane clowns and their f-ing family. Good lord they scare the S*it out of me.

  24. I will sum up this article: Nothing is new and only obscure people have done anything interesting.

  25. Aw, musical criticism, what a great art form. Music someone doesn’t like is “dumb” and anyone that likes the music is “stupid”. The music critics want to punch or hit the artist (that option being apparently easier than changing the channel). Kind of gives me the impression that music fans are in dire need of anger management therapy.

  26. I can agree neither with Mark Dery’s hstrnclly slf-stsfd writing style nor his opinions on Gaga, who is, lest we forget, far better than the alternatives: Ke$ha, etc. Hell, she got Matthew Barney references in front of Middle America. For that, she’ll always get a pass from me.

    I wonder what Dave Hickey (he of the lambent, wonderful, easy series of cultural crit essays AIR GUITAR) would have said about Gaga. He manages this sort of thing with grace, rather than with the baggage that seems to overload Dery.

  27. While the Manolo appreciates the effort that went into stringing this many non-sequiturs together in one article, he must object to this…

    Or is she something thuddingly dumber: Donatella Versace in the remake of Blow-Up?

    Do not let her self-mutilation distract you, Donatella Versace is the remarkably canny woman. She comes across as moderately thoughtful and sharp witted in her interviews and her exceptional success following the death of her brother speaks for itself.

    But this tendency to underestimate the mental acuity of the fashion people is nearly universal.

  28. After hearing/reading so much about Gaga (she’s ubiquitous, even for people- like me- without TV or radio) especially in the same breath as Bowie and Mercury, I wondered if perhaps I was missing out on something great. So I finally listened to a few songs a couple of weeks back… I was disappointed.

    I mean, it’s okay ‘dance-pop’ fare, but I wouldn’t be able to tell her sound apart from most other pop females out there. I was expecting that her music would be as peculiar, unique and experimental as her looks. That would have been interesting.

  29. i’m open to the idea of liking her, and to a point i think she’s fine, but i’m old enough to look at her and have a hard time getting past the part of my head that says, “meh… 2 parts elton john, 1 part bowie, 1 part madonna, remixed and repackaged for a new generation.” : /

    1. >music is meant to be listened to

      Just like paintings are to be looked at, and books are to be read? But never actually discussed or thought about?

      Please note that THIS comment is meant to be read, and not responded to.

  30. I think she should confound everyone by learning to play the Buchla Marimba Lumina, Continuum Fingerboard and Eigenharp Alpha for her next tour.

  31. Gaga is clearly an RIAA plot to show us what all future performers must do to make money & get famous, unless we all pay for each and every time we listen to one of their songs.

  32. Oh, one thing I meant to add. I really think Gaga gets the reaction she does from the likes of people who like to consider themselves on the cutting edge because when it comes time that little bits of Mathew Barney and whatnot are reaching the mainstream, are accessible to audiences at all via pop music, then it means it is time to move on artistically if you mean to be ahead of the curve.

    And that can be a sad moment for some.

    IMO in Gaga’s case she’s not that much more vapid than the art she emulates, which is probably why it gets people in a tizzy trying to figure out whether to take her seriously or not.

    She’s a pop star. Occam’s razor applies there. Now what about the art that is virtually indistinguishable because it’s been comfortable idling in pop-culture critique and post-modernism for over 10 years?

  33. Marylin Manson made goth/horror/industrial safe for Walmart. Gaga made Madonna safe for Walmart shoppers who were sick of Madonna.

  34. I’ll be happy to give a lesson in brevity to anyone who can’t critique the writing without insulting the author.

  35. Please, like Britney Spears knows who Rilke is or even what he is famous for. Long live Gaga!

  36. When Bowie was doing this cosmetic shape-shifting in the 70’s it was only a minor curiosity.

    Nobody cared all that much, he was delivering an unholy groove in the bland AM pop landscape with “Young Americans”, “1984”, “Changes”, “Rebel Rebel” …etc.

    What has the Gaga industry to offer apart from the packaging?

  37. Lady GaGa stole my irony. Waaaah! Waaaaah!

    I think she falls solidly in the “Lets Rock” half of the Lester Bangs mission statement – Fuck art…lets rock!

    LGG takes apart a lot of that pop-elite imagery that the humorless ironic folks hold sacred. Yeah she cribs looks from Bowie, Betty Boop/Paige MinnieMouse and even a Blythe doll that ate too many darvons, and thats only in the 2 videos I watched.

    Loosen up a bit, sit back and listen to a trashy pop song and watch the bendy women and men jump around. Criticy types can take notes on a steno pad if they need to cover up an accidental stiffy, or need to justify listening to something that their niece likes.

    Fuck art, lets rock! (or at least dance like mindless space hookers once in a while)

    Nick Drake and Ian Curtis will never know you strayed…

  38. great, jump into the gaga-crit maelstrom, but jesus god don’t start your article with a pedantic description of litotes that ends with a personal anecdote about “an avant-garde composer i once knew.”

    he criticizes gaga for dropping the odd warhol reference, and then proceeds to compose the most awkwardly name-droppy column ever (twain-mencken-burroughs-lynch-springsteen-*barf*).

    dery should realize that these days we can listen to queen, and scarlatti, and gaga, and owen pallett, all within the space of a few downloads, and not feel bad about it. we aren’t confined anymore by the genre-cults of the past few decades or their shallow internecine conflicts.

    gaga is interesting because of her massive, quantifiable appeal — her music is “popular” in the traditional sense of the word, and that’s intriguing. dery should be thinking about how she did that — considering what she is, rather than preaching about what she isn’t.

  39. Robert @ no.3: You’re not cool because you don’t know (or pretend to not know) who this is. Just sayin’.

    Was this piece written to impress a pretentious English teacher or Dennis Miller? I hope Hunter Thompson’s corpse reanimates and writes a critique of this critique. With handguns.

  40. Would Gaga-haters change your opinion if Gaga revealed herself to actually be Bowie (ala VELVET GOLDMINE)?

  41. When people say things along the lines of “ZOMG, you can’t compare Gaga to Bowie!”, it reminds me of William F. Buckley Jr. calling the Beatles ‘anti-music’. I’m pretty sure that the get-off-my-lawn crowd said the same thing about Purcell and Dowland.

    She’s pretty blunt about being an entertainer with more interest in fashion and staging than music. If you want to look for her roots, look at Nancy Sinatra, not Bowie. It’s never about the singing, although Gaga can actually sing. It’s about the show. The thing about popular music is that the only criterion for success is popularity.

  42. Considering how much time this article spends deriding lesser minds for missing how vapid Lady Gaga is (heavens forfend we have a pop star enjoyed by people who are only familiar with Baudrillard *gasp* in passing) you’d think Dery might not miss the point of the original Sasha Frere-Jones article quite so gleefully. Frere-Jones’s “How Not Dumb is Lady Gaga?” formulation is a commentary about the way the debate on Gaga is framed, her point about “Just Dance” isn’t that being vapid is a virtue in itself but that in creating a kind of ur-vapid pop song Gaga’s clearly doing a wink and a nod to the audience.

    True/Slant doesn’t seem to have linked to the original article but it’s an economical bit of writing that makes its point about Gaga with an argument that’s well-formulated and nuanced in ways Dery doesn’t seem to want to bother addressing. I’d highly recommend you all read it both to enjoy and to have a more complete picture of the debate going on here.

  43. “All these kids and their new-fangled pop music, it’s just dumb noise – nothing like the pop music we had when I was a kid!”

  44. “Gaga-haters”?

    I’m sorry but this Gaga thing just doesn’t have any presence, to my sensibilities at least.

  45. Mark Dery is no Lester Bangs, he’s not even Greil Marcus.

    Howabout answering the hard question, of what is the appeal of Lady Gaga? Why is she selling millions? Sure, you could go with “The public likes trash” but why then doesn’t (admittedly trashy) garage rock have a bigger listening base?

    Spending pages on justification of why you don’t like something doesn’t make you a great wordsmith, it makes you boring.

  46. Gaga works in a contemporary mode while subsuming the style of the previous generation of artists. That’s not necessarily bad; Bowie, Madonna and Bowery also used the style of previous generations to become what they were.

    Dery makes the argument that the high glam of the 70s was a response to dowdiness and drab–that Gaga doesn’t have dowdiness and drab to respond to in our slick, glitzy, mediated age. For this reason, he says, she is unexeceptional.

    But where glam responded to the banality of pop and folk, Gaga responds to the homogenous sheen of contemporary mediated pop. Dery is right that the pop music of today is all about bling and showbiz; he even acknowledges that it is uniform for all its screaming about standing out. Gaga seems to leverage the notorious personalities of the past for exactly that reason; she is a hilarious manifestation of it’s-all-been-done-before. A personality jockey, if you will. Dery mistakes this for being an unironic participant of the machine.

    Moreover, her ability to connect with her audience comes from a smart reading of a sophisticated gag culture. She is informed by a culture that was unavailable to previous glam artists, and one that largely communicates in the parlance of shared media experience. She plays with video production in Telephone, making Beyonce a puppet both literally and figuratively. The technique might as well come from YouTube, but it serves as commentary on manipulative production and artist control. In the same video, she turns the game Cooking Mama into a a vehicle for spousicide. She transforms the age-old ballad of carnal hunger into an ode to pulp horror gluttony with Monster. In the age of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the mashed-up content has an audience, and that audience is clamoring for tickets to see Andy and Marilyn do Tim and Eric.

    Each generation of artists has the privilege and responsibility to create the intersection between contemporary interest and previously-laid foundation. As a species, our primary mechanism for coping with change is generationally-transformed technology; the arts do not transcend this reality. As a send-up of the last 50 years of popular culture, Gaga does something really interesting with the normal cycle of reiteration.

    We’ll see how long that lasts.

  47. Being out of her demographic by 10 or 15 years, I could have jumped on the bandwagon of just dismissing Gaga and patting myself on the back for being so unimpressed by this ‘mainstream pop garbage’. Instead, I decided to listen to her music and see if I actually liked her.

    I find it both funny and dumb that lots of people seem to use a popularity scale to decide if they like something. Which works both ways, because some people are so determined to go against the grain that they never even give ‘pop’ music a chance–I guess it would ruin their musical/artistic ‘credibility’ or something.

    Personally, I think Gaga’s music is mostly fun and easy to listen to. It’s not the pinnacle of fantastic music, and I might get tired of her at some point– but it won’t be because someone told me that Gaga is only listen-able to someone “with no taste or exposure to anything that is actually good.” I’ll decide for myself what I think is good, thank you very much.

  48. I recall thinking Madonna was going to be a one-hit wonder back in the early 80’s. Whether she lasted as long as she did because of talent and hard work or luck and industry connections I can’t say. As for Lady Gaga, only time will tell, which reminds me. . . ASIA was touted as “the band of the 80’s” when their first LP came out.

    From what I’ve heard of her actual commercially available music so far, I suspect it won’t have lasting appeal (too much of modern pop music is based on glitzy stage shows and ridiculously simple songs), but she could write the next “Bohemian Rhapsody” tomorrow for all I know.

    I think there is too much over analyzing of her here– remember, she’s just a pop singer, and she survives at the whim of the public. Modern music history is littered with one-hit wonders, talented musicians who fade away almost forgotten, and only a few mega-stars who last more than a decade.

  49. A not-terrible article, M. Dery (litotes).

    Seriously, though, I’m a bit taken aback at your privileging of readerliness and formal play in your exegesis of Eddie Mercury over the smooth surface and nonsensical soundscapes presented by Lady Gaga’s glossolaliaic onomatopoeic ullulations; and I strongly object that the cultural matricies woven by Baudrillard and DeBord are somehow more valid than those of the Wachowski brothers–or would be taken aback and would object if you didn’t write with such snap and bite, and if you didn’t provoke those outraged cries of hate from the howling-for-your-critic’s-blood mob. I’ll leave you to ponder the epistemological-ontological chasm that yawns when one contemplates the mysteries by which Nebraska *really is* the only *real* album by that pasticheur-poseur The Boss: philosophical-aesthetic mise-en-abyme (The Unbearable Lightness of Springsteen), or just a not-totally-fake (litotes again) record? Anyhoo, great article.

      1. Thanks, but just to be clear, I’m presenting some very real, though minor, issues I had with this piece in the form of a tongue-in-cheek hommage, partly to M. Dery and his asskickingly coruscating style, partly to the academic-theoretical-hipsterspeak in which he and I and so many others have read: it’s more of a code, “I really fucking loved this, and here’s a fun, playful way to tell you, bet hoi polloi won’t catch the L’Etranger reference, etc.” than making fun of or mocking or parodying his gorgeous, bejeweled prose for the delight of others. A lot of people write somewhat like this, and so many of us wished we wrote like M. Dery, and very few of us get to come anywhere close.

  50. to number 4:

    please marry me.

    author: you spent too much time trying to sound brilliant and not enough time making a point.

    gaga has a great fucking voice. chew on that.

  51. She’s smart enough to make money.

    Her music isn’t the sort I like, but she isn’t a completely talentless hack. The fashion/shock thing is a gimmick, and it’s usually a stupid gimmick, but it’s working. Even people who have barely listened to snippets of her songs and didn’t like them feel the need to reply to blog posts about her.

  52. Appreciated this post.. Especially the nod to an obscure Queen song on my favourite album of theirs.. (And seeing as they’re my favourite band too, this is great!)

    My opinion of Lady Gaga? Don’t care for her music, but I’ve got tons of respect for her, I’d reserve my opinion on the music till the next album.

  53. Insightful criticism is a valuable asset to society. A string of vitriolic insults is not. Mark Dery should learn the difference.

  54. This article is the reason for which I resent Literary Critic/Philosopher/Pop Culture Specialist Hipsters: they overthink crap that do not need to be overthunk. I didn’t like Lady Gaga until a few weeks ago because I hadn’t really given her a chance. In the end, I found no reason not to like her. I like dance music, I like weird outfits, I like silly lyrics. What’s not to like about her? My boyfriend is a metalhead and he absolutely hates her music. He says her music is pointless and that you can’t understand anything at all (y’know, the (RAH)² (AH)³ + [ROMA (1+MA)] + (GA)² + (OOH)(LA)² thing). But guess what, I also think metal is pointless and you can’t understand anything at all. So there, you can’t never agree on anything when it comes to music. That’s why I stopped listening to supposed “specialists”.

  55. Lady Gaga is 24 years old. Her professional career *just* started. People are comparing her young work to the entirety of Bowie and Queen…? Bowie was a flop when he came out. In fact, he has failed several times throughout his career.

    This discussion reminds me of an interview I saw the other day with Joan Jett. She talked about how it’s harder now to be a young person in music than when she started out because people aren’t allowed a lot of space to fail and mature. Seasoning is important. These days the spot light is just *on* and every messy detail is instantly beamed out. I think Gaga is doing great.

  56. To paraphrase Groucho:
    Gentlemen, Lady Gaga’s music may sound vacuous, and her persona may seem vacuous, but don’t let that fool you: she really is vacuous.

  57. Yes, things that are fun, should just be “fun”. But honestly, doesn’t it bother you to hear songs that you heard several years ago? I mean, pretty much exactly? And the outfits are there to grab your attention. Period. I’m all for fun (for the love of god I still listen to Blink-182), but really, she is so blatantly derivative of the people who did it first, and the fact that she is smart does not make it a master plan, it makes it reprehensible. Of course, I’m the moron arguing on the internet. Look who won.

  58. Dear Howling Mob: Now I know how Edmund Burke felt when he contemplated the Terror from just across the Thames. I hear the tumbrel at the door, but will have to beg off, because I’m on yet another deadline tonight, and will be off the grid for much of tomorrow. I may weigh in on Thursday, but by then everyone will have packed up his portable guillotine and gone home, I suspect.

    More to the point, those who think I’m Dennis Miller for Derrideans won’t be convinced by any argument to the contrary anyway, I suspect. It *is* interesting to note that this debate reboots itself virtually every time BB links to one of my screeds. In the past, I’ve world-wearily dragged myself to the debating table, feeling every one of my thousand years, to point out that: It’s. a. frickin’. POLEMIC. people. The authorial persona is an assumed one. You know, for levity? Like Swift? Like Mencken? Like Vidal? Like Taibbi? Like Hitchens?

    Not saying I’m fit to shine their thesauri, just saying that all the Captain Earnest calls for less meanness toward the Lady Herself miss the point entirely. It’s in the nature of the genre to be waspish and hyperbolic. You may not look for such qualities in your essayists, in which case, there’s always Roger Rosenblatt. Or Andy Rooney. Or Gail Collins.

    Regarding matters of style: Yes, the sentences are long. Tell it to Proust. Yes, there are more far-flung allusions, references, op cits, and ibids than midges on a hot summer day. Tough darts; that’s part of the fun. The rest of the culture condescends to you, treats you like a ruminant herd; I respect your intellect enough to assume you’ll be flattered by the assumption of historical, cultural, and critical literacy, and all you can do is cavil about all the heavy lifting you have to do with the OED, or hours spent slaving over a hot Google? Come ON, guys; this is Learning Annex stuff. You should see what handgun drills with Avital Ronnell or Gayatri Spivak are like.

    To those who argued with what Burroughs would call “a mineral calm,” prosecuting the point that I’m needlessly recondite, roundabout, et. al., I would simply say that style has its own politics. If you prefer prose that reads like a PowerPoint presentation, Malcolm Gladwell is never far from the point of purchase. I’m not your man.

    1. If it makes you feel any better, your comment is the only one I’ve read in this entire thread. I’ve been avoiding the whole thing because I have no idea who either you or Lady Gaga are. The only reason I’m here now is phrases like ‘Dear Howling Mob’ can’t help but get my attention. If I could, I’d buy you a beer just for that.


      1. I have no idea who either you or Lady Gaga are

        I can only hope you’re lampooning the whole “ignorant and proud” thing hipsters like to affect.

          1. If you’re sitting in front of an open web browser typing “I have no idea” instead of “google Mark Dery” you may as well just sell your PC.

  59. Personally, I blame the death of Michael Jackson for Lady Gaga’s recent explosion of popularity. Sure, she was around and gaining momentum for a good year or two prior, but there’s no denying the rapid acceleration it’s undergone since around the time Just Dance was on the radio. In some oddly Jungian-socio-cultural-freak-accident sort of way, it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, more LSD is required before I can fully develop this theory.

    But in all seriousness, I see the spectacle as nothing short of depressing. As far as her music goes, it’s easy to defend or dismiss either way. It’s above average by pop standards, there’s no getting around that; but by any other standards it’s pretty bland. Especially if you have more than 4 gigabytes of non-radio tunes on your hard drive. What strikes me about her as a phenomenon, is just how inoffensive and unclever her approach to pop-art actually is. It might be too early to blast her for not living up to the influences she seems to compulsively namecheck every time she’s pressed for substance, but it’s not hard to list at least a few artists who have been dwarfing her intellectually in the pop world even in their own trial runs. How about The Residents? Or what the KLF did in the british music industry? Warhol (love him or hate him) had real, influential artistic theories. Bowie was a bombshell on the fashion world. Calling yourself a pop artist or even just heavily implying that you’re pulling off some sort of cultural terrorism without ever making a real statement is kind of sad. When you have to rely on the rationalizations of your vapid fans for artistic credibility, it might be time to reevaluate whether or not you’re actually accomplishing anything other than a fat bank account and the memetic status of your persona.

  60. Personally I think its dumb to suspect that someone who managed to achieve pop stardom is dumb. Do you have any idea how many people are trying to do that? She very well may not be intellectual, but she’s almost certainly not dumb.

    And you may not like her music, but lets face it, the average boingboing reader who gets off on cigar box guitars is most definitely not the intended audience of a pop diva. Well, unless she was dumb…

    And furthermore I don’t think its quite possible to call her songs bad in the context of what they are, which is pop music aimed at 12 to 22 year olds. Personally my 40-year-old ass finds them annoyingly catchy, especially when performed differently.

    And seeing her before she was Lady Gaga might help the knee jerk haters understand her as an artist and dedicated musician a bit better:

  61. Another thought, since its so much more fun than getting actual work done: if David Bowie were an unknown 22 year old today, what kind of music would he be making? One thing’s for sure, he wouldn’t be strumming his 12-string acoustic guitar and singing Space Oddity. He was a folkie when folk was popular, then psychedelic when that was popular, then glam when that was popular, then a soul guy, etc.

    Granted, he did it all so well that it turned out to be timeless, but still he was an amalgam of previous and contemporary artists and styles. As they say, he was standing on the shoulders of giants. And I’d argue that Lady Gaga is doing the same. Sure you could dismiss her work and persona as “derivative” but in my mind that’s only an insult if she has nothing new to offer, and her songs sound plenty new to me, and personally I can’t think of anything to compare her stage show to. And she’s got a phenomenal voice, which doesn’t hurt.

    I’m not arguing that her songs will be timeless, but really who’s to judge until a few years have passed. Personally I hated The Cure and The Smiths when they first came out so I’ve pretty much accepted that tastes and judgements especially about music are pretty arbitrary.

    I bet this “hell in a handbasket” phenomenon has been around since the caveman days, and that people used to complain that the latest generation of cave painters are a bunch of talentless hacks.

    And Burning Man was better last year.

  62. Queen is the new standard? Really? I’m old enough to remember when their first album came out, and if Mercury and Gaga have anything in common, it’s this: incomparable, unassailable singles which will change your life, but getting through a whole album is a little difficult.

    Meanwhile, I’ve dropped $200/seat to see her in Atlantic City July 4. (And that’s face value, not a scalper special.)

    Be there or be sulking in your room…

  63. I think the fact that so many intelligent people (here, at linked article, and elsewhere) expend so much energy writing about Gaga, striving to prove how culturally insignificant she is (or ought to be seen as), somehow indicates the opposite is the case.

  64. I don’t understand why it’s worthwhile to discuss Gaga’s intelligence. Her music is clever and she’s a good performer. The ideas she brings to it are interesting, but still saleable. In short, her product seems shrewd at least and possibly smart. None of us has enough data to judge her personally.

    And why should we? The point of music criticism is to talk about the end result and the product, not the person. Her persona is part of her product, but this is just the impression she publically creates, not her actual self.

  65. Is she dumb? It’s obvious that she has musical talent. It’s equally obvious that she’s used her talent in the service of profit through sensationalist fame. She simply figured out that what would’ve been Madonna’s demographic was ripe for the plucking, and that Marilyn Manson’s shock tactics and production values could also be applied to the mainstream pop/dance genres.

    I hope she’s having fun and laughing all the way to the bank. There’s no use hating her. Hopefully she can use her fame and riches to say something substantive with her talent later on.

  66. Ugh its another of those women are dumb and equal pop culture which is feminized and dumb and men equal super artistic bookish tweedy culture which is smart. Now the man will precede to show you how smart he is by using obnoxious language to demean the female artist. Rinse repeat.

    1. I hadn’t considered it from that perspective before; I think there might be a large grain of truth right there.

    2. How does it logically follow that calling a neo-disco diva who styles herself an Artist with a capital A to account for the vacuity of her art—or, rather, Art—implies that all pop art is vacuous? The Queen song I get all swoony about, in my essay, isn’t exactly Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, for chrissakes. It’s a slab of pop…with Artistic Pretensions. More to the point, in essays published down through the years, I’ve fairly wallowed in crud culture. So arguing that the Male Critic vilifies disposable pop by first feminizing it isn’t very adequately evidenced, in this case. Ironically, your argument recapitulates the anti-rockist defense of Gaga, i.e., if you cordially loathe her, you must*, by definition, be a rockist—again, an error of logic. As for “obnoxious” language, tell it to Mencken. Or Hitchens. Or Vidal. The waspish zinger is the better part of the polemical essay’s pleasures.

  67. Following this thread, I can’t help but think the real debate here is whether or not a person can have a “rational” relationship to pop music. Since almost all pop music is about texture, image, and disposable conceits, being profoundly invested in Lady Gaga or Bruce Springstein or David Bowie or Queen or whomever says much more about the listener than the music. Often, really loving a type of pop music means no more than, “I’m young, my body works, and I associate these sounds with feeling good.” Pop pleasure is almost always profoundly irrational at is core. Example: note how emotional so many of these responses are in reaction to a literate act of cultural criticism. The deep identification with “fun” “outlandish” “rich” “smart” Lady Gaga, and the summary dismissal of any criticism of her as being “male” “old” “pretentious” “brain-hurting” etc., etc. Dery’s “crime” here is to have the audacity to consider Gaga within a cultural and historical context.

    As for biting quip #6, “no one ever grows up dreaming to be a critic.” That’s true #6–most people who become “critics” only do so after a life of experiences, intellectual inquiry, and reflection about how the world works. Many more people grow up with the infantile fantasy of being worshiped as a pop star, which is kind of what Gaga is all about.

  68. Criticizing Gaga for dumb lyrics is a dead end. Wop Bobba Loo Bop a Bop Bam Boom! Much of rock music is dumb as hell, and great because of it.

    Music can be used for many things. One example- to assist in finding a suitable mate by encouraging dancing. Dancing demonstrates physical fitness for mating and releases pheromones. Intellectual elements are not needed for the enjoyment of music used for this fine purpose. No lyrics necessary, and dumb as hell lyrics ok too. Boogie Oogie Oogie.

    Music can be used for young women, or anyone, to feel their powers of independence. Heavy metal does this for young dudes. Nothing wrong with that. Gaga is probably good for this too. Music can also be used to emphasize inclusion or exclusion from a group. Like, hey I’m a hipster intellectual because I listen to this good music, and others are either too dumb or too uncool to get it. Music is probably used this way on both sides of the Gaga divide. Also a pretty benign use, as long as you don’t get fascist about it, which I don’t think Gaga does. Nor the original post-er.

    The great thing about music is, you can enjoy it all. The original post sets up a false choice. You don’t have to choose between Rock and Disco. You can enjoy both, and Country, Blues, Gamelan, you name it. Most Gaga songs are under five minutes, so you will still have plenty of time to enjoy lots of other music.

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