Let’s Talk About Lady Gaga

26 08 2011

Originality just doesn’t seem to be all that important anymore.  Oh, sure, there seems to be a cultural drive toward innovation, but just how much innovation can we, as a society, take?  Technological innovation is not my primary target here, and surely there are examples of technological originality that drives cultural shifts in behavior such as smartphones or ipods.  Although, some areas of technological advancement are somewhat hindered by a societal push against originality.  No matter how revolutionary the electric car that may be developed by one automotive firm or another, they all maintain the same general “look” of the kinds of automobiles we have been used to for over eighty years.  When cars move drastically in style from the typical design with a longer front end to house an engine, they seem silly (take the BMW Isetta for example—there’s a reason it was used as the nerd Steve Erkel’s car in the sitcom Family Matters).  There is no real purpose for having this space in electric or hybrid or even gas-powered cars, but cars that change drastically don’t sell, because the public chooses the familiar over the innovative.

Really, though. This is a ridiculous car.

Culturally, at least “mass-culturally,” we do not seek out the truly innovative, strange, or original.  As I write this, the film Fright Night is opening.  I actually had no idea it was a remake of a 1980s B-movie, though I certainly saw no reason to put it into a category of “ground-breaking films.”  From the previews, it seems like a vampire-filled version of the Scream films, which, while reflexive, were themselves rehashing a horror-movie formula that has been around since the dawn of the genre.  My point is that the non-original quality of contemporary entertainment is not limited to remakes of previous cultural production, but that the formulas are used over and over again, and the cultural quotation that occurs between the individual instances of using those formulas is so universal, that we often don’t realize that anything is being quoted.

As an example, let’s look at an ad from the current Foot Locker campaign:

It seems harmless enough, if a bit stupid.  However, the average television viewer may or may not be aware of the internet video series this ad is similar to:  Drunk History.

Four years after the first Drunk History video, the Foot Locker ad is using many of the same triggers for humor:  a loose grasp of historical facts and contemporary language and behaviors used by historical figures in re-enactments.  It is also using a similar laid-back delivery in narration.  It’s not drunken delivery, but it is somewhat slow and a bit monotone.

As I have outlined before in Ad-Stiche, pastiche can be seen as quotation that seems to make no indication that it is aware of the fact that it is a quotation.  It isn’t satirical or mocking of the original source, nor is it an homage.  It is simply a hollow parody.  Ads as pastiche may seem too easy, too obvious.  Advertisers copying something popular is practically encouraged as a way to tap into the contemporary consciousness.  However, Drunk History is a bit on the obscure side and, more importantly, it is old.  Four years after its first burst of popularity, with thousands of memes, viral videos, and flying pop-tart cats being produced and distributed in the meantime.  In this case, the parody becomes subsumed, unconscious; hence, it becomes pastiche.

Perhaps my favorite example of originality’s lack of importance in contemporary culture is Lady Gaga.  Some years ago, there was a bit of noise raised over the similarity in sound between her song, “Alejandro” and Ace of Base’s 1993 song, “All That She Wants.”

 

There is obvious quotation in the opening few bars with the flute/synthesizer, arguably the melody, and perhaps even in the narrative.  I don’t see “Alejandro” as an Ace of Base rip-off, but as a knowing acknowledgement of a type of fetishization of Latin American men in popular music—not just with Ace of Base and Lady Gaga, but with Abba as well.  The use of the name “Fernando” is, to me, an obvious allusion to the Abba song of the same name.  It even has flutes!  The reason this becomes pastiche is because, while some of the target audience for the Lady Gaga song might be familiar with Ace of Base, they are largely unaware of Abba, and overall they are unaware of the fact that Gaga is seeking to quote and allude to these earlier songs, not to steal the work.

More recent claims about Lady Gaga stealing from previous songs have been made regarding stylistic similarities between “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”  And there, of course, are many. (FYI–if you click the “Born This Way” link, it’s the full music video, complete with extended movie-intro.  You may just want to skip to the middle to get the gist of the song.)  In fact, Lady Gaga’s entire persona is built on the kind of performance-based, change of identity, strong female presence that Madonna embodied in the 1980s and 90s. But Madonna also used pastiche and quotation, most obviously of the look of glamorous, golden-age Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, just as much as Gaga uses it.  Gaga is just more blatant, or perhaps I should say, more open, and possibly, more aware.  Lady Gaga’s name itself is quotation, referring to the 1984 Queen song, “Radio Gaga.”

Madonna and Marlene Dietrich. You could do this, side by side, with Greta Garbo as well.

As before, I am not denouncing this trend toward unoriginality and pastiche.  Nor am I disparaging Lady Gaga for employing them.  I love Lady Gaga.  If I could find a way to incorporate her into every single class I teach, I would do it.  What I am doing here is highlighting areas in which we see cultural production on a very commercially and critically successful level, and the originality of that production is not the most important draw—it’s the personae, it’s the performance.  Originality is no longer the touchstone of cultural achievement, packaging is.

Packaging... egg... Gaga... it's a metaphor! Get it?

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