"Are You Listening?"
Nowadays, the term "pop" stirs negative connotation among a great many music devotees. For some the word itself is little more than the sonic expression of everything that's wrong with the music industry--shallow, trite, and more or less divorced from anything having vaguely to do with reality.
So you might be excused for having a dismissive attitude toward Lady Gaga. That is, until she spoke at the National Equality March earlier this month. Like almost every speaker that day, Gaga delivered a forceful and unapologetic speech from the front of Washington's Capitol Building. Over 200,000 people were gathered to hear a bevy of artists, performers and grassroots activists demand nothing less than full equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the US.
In retrospect, it may seem ironic that Gaga's speech is now one the most watched segments of the march that day. Still, you'd be hard pressed to find any disagreement with what she said:
"I am also inspired by the masses of young people here today--the younger generation, my generation! We are the ones coming up the world, and we must continue to push this movement forward and close the gap... They say that this country is free, and they say that this country is equal, but it is not equal if it is 'sometimes.'"
The presence of one of pop's swiftest rising stars represented a lot more than just a celebrity jumping on the protest bandwagon. For sure, like most pop artists Gaga's songs and persona are contradictions wrapped in yet more contradictions (and in her case, bubble wrap). But there's a bit more to it than that. In heady eras like these, when the restlessness of young and angry people is so tangible you can almost literally touch it, it's not too far fetched to speculate that Gaga may represent a time when the "popular" is being put back into "pop."
There are plenty of things that can be debated and pored over with Gaga's music. She's the kind of artist that keeps postmodernists awake long into the night. What isn't up for debate, though, is that in a music industry where being a woman means being little more than a frail nightingale, Gaga is clearly cut from a different cloth than the Britneys and Mariahs of the world.
For one thing, she quite obviously has a brain! It's rather sad that something as basic as writing your own songs can set you apart from other female pop stars, but alas, that is the case. Far from being some barely-pubescent naif swept into the studio, Gaga's early years were spent experimenting with avant-garde and electro-dance, sounds that inform her present work.
Songs from her 2008 album The Fame, which take as much from Bowie and Klaus Nomi as they do Madonna, seem to paw at a kind of deliberate over-production. Hearing the distorted, fuzzed-out keys that open "Just Dance" isn't to hear the kind of glitzy, care-free pop hit that its title might imply. To say that Gaga has an "edge" that most woman pop-singers might be a bit cliche. More accurate might be to say that there are hints of a jagged menace and imminent post-recession decay lying within her music.
Gaga has also been open about her own bisexuality. And unlike other female pop stars--most of whom are straight--she hasn't used girl-on-girl stories for the sake of turning on a male dominated industry. (Katy Perry, are you reading this? Because it concerns you.)
Far from making non-straight folks into tokens, she has consistently credited the LGBT community with aiding her rise in pop music. "The turning point for me was the gay community," she told MTV. "I've got so many gay fans and they're so loyal to me and they really lifted me up... It's not an easy thing to create a fanbase."
Indeed, Gaga, who called the National Equality March "the most important day of her career," did a lot more for the NEM than show up to speak. When few of the established gay rights organizations would back it, Gaga was one of a handful of artists to support it. In the weeks leading up to the march--organized on a shoestring budget--she pulled out all the stops, hosting shows to raise money for and publicly promoting it.
Though she was also in attendance at the exclusive Human Rights Campaign dinner the night before the NEM, it's clear that Gaga is much more attracted to the grassroots approach. During her speech she urged marchers to take the energy back to "their backyards," including her own, where she pledged to fight against misogyny and homophobia in the music industry.
It might be hard to peg Gaga as a feminist given her sometimes sexually graphic material and propensity for revealing outfits. Pop music has always been something of a clap-trap, providing both the opportunity for women to express their sexuality in ways verboten in the wider world while also painting them as sex objects. In an industry where women are clearly prevented from getting ahead unless they can squeeze into (and out of) a size two, the pressures to conform are undeniably gargantuan.
Her video for "Poker Face" has at first glace all the stereotypically sexist dressings, albeit with a large dose of surrealism thrown in. While it may initially appear to be little more than sexist pop decadence (possibly a parody?) Gaga has revealed that the song and vid are both inspired by her experiences with straight boyfriends as a bisexual woman: "The fact that I'm into women, they're all intimidated by it. It makes them uncomfortable. They're like 'I don't need to have a threesome. I'm happy with just you.'"
That kind of intimate subject matter is bound to come out in messy and contradictory ways. Sexual expression is tangled up in all sorts of ugly repression. Nay-sayers looking to categorize her alongside countless bleached-blonde pinups can easily point to questionable content of her videos. What's a lot harder to admit is that while modern music still relegates LGBT people to the sidelines, Gaga is at least getting the ball rolling.
There will no doubt be plenty who say that there is no real relationship between Lady Gaga's music and her political stance. But to deny that is to deny the very nature of culture itself--and the real opportunities that Gaga's presence reflects. The chaotic times we live in have provided the space for us to inject some real substance into our world--to, as Gaga puts it "close the gap" between business as usual and our actual hopes and needs.
The same can be said for music itself. Gaga may very well be only the start. There's a lot of distance between an openly bisexual pop star standing up for LGBT rights and, say, Jagger's circa '68 dedications to the "street fighting man." But with outrage brewing in a new, confident generation, with a movement on the ascendancy, and possibly much more to come, there's little telling what other kinds of artists are in store. If it's any indication, then those of us dismissive of "pop music" might have a lot more to think about in the coming years.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a regular columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, ZNet, PopMatters.com, CounterPunch and Razorcake among others.
He can be reached at email@example.com.