For seven weeks last summer, Lady GaGa was just what pop aficionados needed. Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" had inexplicably topped the Billboard Hot 100. Each week that passed with Perry locked in at #1, her bad-girl shtick and forgettable melody seemed to suck the heat from the sun, leaving listeners out in the cold.
Waiting in the wings was GaGa, the anti-Perry. While Perry started as a Christian singer, GaGa was an ex-go-go dancer; where Perry's persona was carefully packaged by music industry veterans, GaGa cultivated her own creative team, Haus of GaGa, composed entirely of art school peers who had adopted names like "Dada" and modeled their milieu on Andy Warhol's Factory. Most crucially, while Perry's singles lulled, GaGa's charmed, boasting clever hooks and a persuasive voice. It was only a matter of time before GaGa's own summer anthem, "Just Dance," began its ascent to number one.
But in the six months that passed between Perry's and GaGa's turn at the top of the charts in January, something corrosive overtook our heroine. She got a little ahead of herself, and pretension set in at record speed for a singer who, in "Just Dance," had made her name with a song "about being totally wasted at a party."
She wanted her audience to know she was thoughtful. But because her art was devoid of ideas, she had to compensate in her press. "How do I make pop, commercial art be taken as seriously as fine art?" she wondered to the London Times. "It's not my intention to make fun of pop culture," she told another journalist. "It's my intention to review it."
The notion of a more cerebral Britney Spears is compelling, for sure. And an up-and-comer who could name-drop Warhol with authority was enticing, to say the least. But the problem with GaGa's promise is that it's ultimately not what she delivers. On her October debut album, The Fame, the bait-and-switch begins with the music itself, which offers no revision of the distorted synth-heavy sound that has absorbed airplay the last five years. It might be sleeker than Britney's recent albums and less ornate than Gwen Stefani's. Sure, the fact that GaGa writes her own material lends The Fame a pleasing cohesiveness X-tina can only dream of. But on the whole, tracks like "Pokerface" and "Love Games" are defined by a radio jingle's efficiency. Catchy? Absolutely. But contrary to the musical salvo GaGa has fired, revolutions don't begin with earworm choruses alone. To explode, they need ideas brighter than run-of-the-mill sexual innuendo ("Let's have some fun/This beat is sick/I wanna take a ride on your disco stick").
Beyond the odd euphemism, her lyrics are exclusively concerned with celebrity culture, a theme she somehow believes is overlooked in our time. Yet how many song, movie, and television titles in the last decade have anticipated some variation of GaGa's own "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich"? Or what lyrical image from "Paparazzi" (from "Ready for those flashing lights" to "I'm your biggest fan") hasn't already appeared on countless other starlets' records? Here, as in too many aspects of GaGa's worldview, pop clichés rule.
This is precisely where the frustration lies in getting to know GaGa. Unlike the X-tinas and Lily Allens who have also promised a brave new mainstream, GaGa's force of personality makes us think she can actually deliver. But in trying to defy her audience's preconceptions she's only managed to embody them.