Lady Gaga

An artist is judged by the extent to which they’ve fulfilled their ambitions. I believe Lady Gaga’s monumental effort to give four decades of pop music its glittering conclusion categorically failed. Kesha on the other hand aimed lower, but wove a whimsical paracosm more coherent and distinctive than Gaga’s opus. Nonetheless, Gaga’s The Fame era (2009-2010) for which she is best known, showed promise and remains one of pop’s most exciting debuts. To compare “Just Dance” – an innocuous splash of electropop – with the more eccentric “Poker Face” video and then with the cinematic kookiness of the “Paparazzi” video is to discover how her ambition burgeoned dramatically with commercial success. While her McQueen-esque costumes, which made the streets she walked down into runways, were a masterstroke in terms of publicity, their frantic diversity revealed an impatience to get out new ideas which limits the era’s unity. One can see why David Bowie, who so meticulously crafted his personae, would not associate with the starlet. And unlike Prince, whose outfits were part of his mystique, Gaga concealed herself behind her clumsy if sometimes inspired eccentricity, risking the possibility that when the mask was lifted the public would not approve. However, we can’t demand perfection of any artist, and we must especially forgive new artists for such missteps. Her incomplete aesthetic was still utterly mesmerising in 2009’s pop landscape, and 2010’s “Bad Romance” heralded a period of rapid growth and creativity. Comparisons to Madonna were understandable. The revamped Monster Ball Tour is a loud, rushed yet marvellous production which I believe marks Gaga’s apotheosis. Her virtuosity as performer rivals Madonna, and her voice is stronger. But the first sign that her team didn’t share Madonna’s incisive knowledge of the industry arrived soon with the release of the monotonous “Alejandro” instead of the gorgeous “Dance in the Dark” (even if its bridge steals that of Madonna’s “Vogue”).

Adele’s success in 2011 could never have worked in Gaga’s favour, but she could have harmonised her era with Adele’s to avoid the damaging contrast between honesty (21) and pretence (Born This Way). Following her debut, Born This Way was in many ways an understated era – a song of staggering, simple beauty like “The Edge of Glory”, released with an imaginative yet subtle video might have changed the music industry. Instead Gaga released the album’s mediocre title track with its high-octane LGBT advocacy. In thereby alienating heterosexual listeners Gaga relinquished her position as a camp figure in the mainstream (as Madonna always was) to become a pigeonholed queer icon (akin to Cyndi Lauper). Like Beyoncé, her vain desire to symbolise a political movement tarnished her art. The era couldn’t recover from such a botched start – overexposure and hastily-conceived videos further bruised the star so that by the time she returned to form with the “You and I” video the public had lost interest. Then Artpop (2013-14), visually sound but musically questionable, was virtually abandoned after one single. Cheek to Cheek (2014), her jazz album with Tony Bennett, and the soft-rock Joanne (2016) reflect a jaded and nostalgic turn away from pop, and while the latter did salvage her image with the raw “Million Reasons” and consummate Super Bowl performance, its modest sales were propelled almost entirely by core fans. “Come to Mama” is my favourite track from Joanne – a gloriously camp plea to the embittered which voices woman’s healing power and foreshadows that Clinton presidency that never happened (Gaga performed the song on Clinton’s campaign), and “Sinner’s Prayer” is also a highlight. “The Cure” (2017) is a luscious one-off radio-friendly single which underperformed and ended hopes of a true comeback. Rarely has a superstar been so swiftly consigned to veteran status: Gaga must be commended for her talent and work ethic, but she’ll be remembered as a woman who had the opportunity to change popular culture and flunked it. Her career’s trajectory only reinforces the remarkable breadth and consistency of Madonna’s.

Beyoncé and Alicia Keys

With superhuman talent and stamina Beyoncé achieved immortality in the music industry long ago. By 2010 her ambition to merge Madonna pop with the diva tradition had been fulfilled on a grand scale. What followed was a premature, craven retreat from the charts and an aggressive courtship of critical acclaim. She’ll be remembered for “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, two of pop’s best singles, and for Destiny’s Child which I believe is as culturally significant an act as her solo career.

Interview and behind-the-scenes footage of Destiny’s Child show an unguarded Beyoncé who’s fiercely competitive and single-minded, endearing qualities she needn’t have dissembled later on. The elaborate calculations behind her solo act prohibit even the impression of spontaneity – a thing Madonna and Michael Jackson knew they needed to become the most successful pop acts ever. But due to her superlative talent Beyoncé might have got away with mechanicalness and ascended to their level if she’d continued to innovate on every other front. Dangerously in Love (2003-4) and B’Day (2006-7) are her magnificent early eras which show an indomitable Beyoncé free from the constraints of being in Destiny’s Child (but without the cultural potency of a group of three such liberated black women). Bemoaned by her fans for straying too far from R&B, 2008-9’s I Am… Sasha Fierce remains her most ambitious era, from the “Single Ladies” video to the tour’s glimmering outfits which beckon Lady Gaga’s The Fame. Critics complained that the album chased singles success, but successful singles are required for a complete era and for pop immortality. (In any case the album sounds excellent. “Disappear” – my favourite Beyoncé song – is a masterpiece of mystical melancholy, resolved in the soaring “Smash Into You”, while up-tempo tracks like “Radio” and “Sweet Dreams” maintain the same lavish ethereality.) The era’s obvious weakness is the flimsiness of the Sasha Fierce alter ego on which it’s predicated, but overlooking that it’s a daring and authentic project, improved by other imperfections.

The “Single Ladies” video, her most important moment, is just a suggestion of what could have been had Beyoncé the aesthetic sensibility of Michael Jackson. As well as the appearance of spontaneity in Jackson’s dance which made him likable to millions, his otherworldly image was distinctive enough to impose itself on the collective imagination; so that in spite of his talent and strangeness – which should seem so distant – we believe he embodies some figment of our imagination. He found an ideal balance between iconicity and reachability that’s reflected in all his work – in many of his videos, for instance, the mythical man dances through ordinary urban or suburban streets, encouraging the fantasy that Jackson might be lurking down your road. We are close to him because, like Charlie Chaplin and Santa Claus, he demands ubiquity, he lingers in our minds. Beyoncé, just as talented and narcissistic as Jackson, has not bridged her talent and persona with audiences in this way. ‘Sasha Fierce’ came closest, but that was jettisoned. A glance at Janelle Monae’s ongoing project indicates the kind of boundless creativity and raw energy that was required of Beyoncé in the latter chapter of her career.

4 (2011), while full of obviously superb songs, is slight as an era. Beyoncé (2014) is an immaculate record, but its surprise release denied songs like “Blow”, “Drunk in Love”, “XO” and “Partition” the global success they deserved. The gullible would object that this era marks Beyoncé’s graduation from ‘mere’ pop star to ‘artist’, but she was always an artist. I don’t believe writing camps matter in pop, except when the star masquerades as auteur; Beyoncé is inescapably a pop act, which relies on a broad synergy of esteemed producers and writers. Many stars have taken creative control at a later stage of their career, which might be commendable in some ways but doesn’t necessarily improve their act, but rarely has a star so striven to create the illusion they’ve taken the reins and hold a serious world view. She’s obdurately refused interviews since 2013, because every time she appeared as interviewee before, any notions of a sharp and intellectually-coherent Beyoncé were shattered – which was quite all right; pop stars don’t have to be thinkers, and Beyoncé has always expressed her keen intelligence somatically. Her ego has now transcended her act, when it should be the other way round.

feminb

I don’t mind her appropriation of feminism, inspiring to fans and very marketable, but it’s not without problems. She’s either at the centre of a mass media intent on reducing that whole ideology to a hollow word, or she promotes a hyper-materialist wing of feminism which celebrates competition and sisterhood without attempting to reconcile the two. Madonna’s political statements, however iconoclastic, were a natural part of a controversy-seeking persona. Beyoncé’s on the other hand seem driven either by cold calculations or a megalomaniacal desire to be viewed as a political figure. Her blithe assimilation into hip hop – the most testosterone-fuelled genre since rock – also jars with the feminist sentiments she plays to. I suspect that Beyoncé’s decade of self-aggrandisement is in part due to the spectre of Adele’s artistry and meteoric rise in 2011. The contrived candour of Lemonade (2016) seems like an attempt to rectify the lack of emotion listeners have always perceived in her technically-peerless voice, and the soap-like drama that plays out between ruthless-billionaire-superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z is far too mundane to convince.

Lemonade certainly sounds tremendous – just as polished as its predecessor yet more thematically cohesive, I’m most intrigued by “6 Inch”, which invites every female listener into a fantasy narrated by the superstar. The Lemonade film is beautiful, save for the grandiloquent poetic voiceovers that flank the songs, and there’s a smallness to the videos, disguised as authenticity, which mirrors her retreat from the mainstream. Much has been made of the album’s celebration of blackness, but through being the most talented individual in the music industry Beyoncé has always celebrated blackness, with her R&B- and gospel-infused act. By deftly capitalising on American progressive political currents with Lemonade, she guaranteed herself the kind of critical approbation which bordered on idolatry in the most effusive or politically-correct critics. Despite the hype, the era was her least successful commercially, with no true hits, and while its spectacular tour was a true force (almost outgrossing those of teen idols Justin Bieber and One Direction) it represents a reputation plateauing far too early. I’d advise her to stop demanding a straight-faced credulity in her audiences, to lose all affectation and embrace her pop stardom. I think “Daddy Lessons”, for instance, comes alive with the line ‘Daddy made me dance’ (referring to her domineering father who groomed his daughters for fame), due its honesty. While the regal “Flawless” fails due to its heavy-handedness (‘bow down bitches’), not redeemed by a feminist speech being shoehorned in, there are some examples of Beyoncé getting the balance just right. In 2015 she uploaded a YouTube clip entitled “Darling Nicki (Minaj)” to promote her concert appearance with the rapper. Beyoncé sings a playful jingle mythologizing Minaj, as the pair’s silhouettes mingle on stage. It’s a tantalising exchange between stars which shows the Beyoncé legend at its best – let’s hope she can surprise us next era with something well-managed and imaginatively rich which unapologetically pursues chart domination.

Alicia Keys was viewed as a more dignified artist for many years, and served partly as an antidote to Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child’s stomping performances. The purity and simplicity of Keys’ voice and act (practically the same thing) instantly affect, although her lyrics and repetitive melodies don’t always stand up to scrutiny. Her best era in my view is The Element of Freedom (2009-10), with its stunning cover and quietly strong songs such as “Empire State of Mind (Pt. II)”, “Doesn’t Mean Anything”, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, and “Put It in a Love Song” featuring Beyoncé – the video for which was shot but, sadly, not released. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, even at her best, Keys is just a bit dull. Her legacy is most apparent in her British clone Emeli Sandé, whose successful and soporific debut era Our Version of Events (2011-12) was nothing more than a marketing triumph. So a look at Keys, who was actually considered equal to Beyoncé throughout the 2000s, shows how effectively Beyoncé, even if she hasn’t yet realised her full and dizzying potential, has remained one of pop’s brightest icons.

Introduction

First there was Madonna. To explore how she shaped the music industry as we know it today… to explore how with the “Material Girl” video Western woman evolves before our eyes… to explore that four-decade long artistic project which surpasses Andy Warhol’s in scope… would take another, much longer blog. I’ll instead focus on her descendants who’ve emerged this century and built on and diversified her vision, while touching on her confused dialogue with them.

A Madonna-inspired pop experience is not an album but an era, spanning music, visual art, dance, fashion and more. An era is usually spearheaded by an album, but doesn’t conclude till the last single is released. Eras are appraised by their coherence and meaning, each one possessing its own delicious taste, and the transition from one era to another should be natural and seamless. The young artists I’ll explore are visual artists, only satisfied once they’ve achieved beauty… they flit between personae, though beneath their masks should have a recognisable identity which suffuses all their work… their music is ingenuous and melodic – it’s not literature as the lyrics are secondary to the melody, which is pop’s poetry, the world’s new poetry. Theirs is an extravert’s medium, and is democratic – most of them are visionaries who’d have been excluded from art in an earlier age due to their background and lack of formal education… their broad education consists in experience, fashion magazines and Madonna, and their aliveness is seen in their dance and their eye. They reject the stultifying side of modern life and champion a transgressive wildness that was once the territory of novelists… they’ve done more to empower the masses and advance social views than any other figures in our culture… they’ve consciously, successfully defended the sexual revolution, all while retaining a negative capability, and they embody that superposition of irony and earnestness that is the hallmark of our digital, mass-media-driven age. A carefree appropriation of anything and everything is part of their incarnation of liberty, and while their world is sensuous their greatest work makes us think – as they work in such a young tradition we haven’t yet trained ourselves to see all its meaning. Contrivance is a charge often levelled at them, but art is contrivance… their best work reflects the vitality of being alive more than most things in modern culture. The staggering logistical complexities of all aspects of the pop experience – particularly touring – demonstrate how a pop act is a vast alchemy in which the star herself is in some instances just the beguiling figurehead… and she’s always an entertainer… not precluding art! The degree to which artists can take themselves seriously while avoiding pretension depends on their talent, certainly, but the very best ones never lose their sense of fun. I’ll ignore unsuccessful ‘pop’ acts as pop is by definition popular… if an artist wants to endure, the more time they spend in the stratosphere of mainstream consciousness the better, and if they’re serious they’ll do everything in their power to ensure their truth touches as many people as possible.

Back to Madonna. Her work from the 2000s, while deserving of critical attention, is blemished by her anxiety over the younger women who offered up their own fresher identities with the confidence and tenacity that previously only Madonna had had. At times, she takes her reputation in her stride. In the great “Me Against Me Music” video from 2003, an elegant, mature Madonna looms on screens over the young Britney Spears, who tries to prove her worth with a lively dance routine. But when the unwitting Spears searches for her mentor she’s teased and evaded, finally vanquished and left to agonise over the greater star’s influence. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005-6), an unabashed dance record, succeeds by refusing to compete with younger contemporaries who were expanding pop sonically. Instead it innovates within its subgenre, borrowing from Kylie Minogue (always a more interesting Madonna clone than Spears), and such a concession allows Madonna to find her last true nirvana. She also cultivated an angelic image around that time, compounded by her high-profile philanthropy, which entrenched her status as the divine mother of pop:

dmopAt Live 8

The beginnings of her slide into denial over her age are seen in Hard Candy (2008), a sleazy, slightly desperate era which apes and exaggerates Nelly Furtado’s Loose (2006-7). But Madonna’s most extraordinary achievements in the flawed final chapter of her career are her tours, where she can most uninhibitedly celebrate her legacy, and where her money and unrivalled position in the industry result in far more ambitious productions than those of any starlets. I believe her performance of “Vogue” on the Sticky and Sweet Tour displays more energy and beauty than anything we’ve seen from Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. It’s also worth acknowledging that Madonna’s continued stamina throughout the decade demonstrates the consciousness of her entire artistic statement. Whereas Michael Jackson, whose embodiment of mystery was at first so magical, was drowning in personal traumas by the 2000s, Madonna’s focus and reinvention confirm how she pursued fame in order to prod it; from her exalted position she could play to and challenge the general public’s conceptions of celebrities and icons. But, again, that’s an exploration for another time!

Over a decade after “Me Against the Music”, “Bitch I’m Madonna” (Rebel Heart, 2014-5) shows her identity crisis unresolved, although her palpable frustration in the song and video are offset by her effortless appropriation of the artists who feature in the latter, including Katy Perry and even Beyoncé. It points to what Madonna has always known: that she must never apologise for being herself, an artist to whom every woman pop star and a great many other women today are indebted.