Slate has been running a feature that analyzes pop music using actual music analysis, like the kind that professional music theorists do for a living (and yes, some people do this for a living). We posted the Katy Perry one a couple of weeks ago on the Facebook page (and yes, you should 'like' our Facebook page). Recently, author Owen Pallett examined the music of Lady Gaga, declaring 'Bad Romance,' as her masterpiece and her greatest accomplishment so far. As Pallett points out, Gaga is relatively formulaic in most of her songs, which adhere to set principles. Some of these help ensure their international success, such as Gaga's habit of repeating the song title ad nauseam--helpful for those who are not native English speakers. 'Formulaic' should not be understood as 'bad' or 'hackneyed' or 'trite,' as Pallett also points out, and rightly so. In fact, he hails Gaga as the modern genius of our age in terms of pop music, claiming that she is in a league by herself in terms of what she produces.
This article appeared at a nice time for me, in a way, since I had been planning to write a blog post about why I believe that Gaga is the greatest pop artist working right now--yes Kanye, I went there. While I enjoyed Pallett's analysis, for me, what makes Gaga great goes beyond the conventional topics that are discussed in music theory and can be explained instead as the experience that she creates. I first saw Lady Gaga in April of 2009, back before she was mega-huge, although I can't claim that it was back before she was big since she was already getting national radio play. This is where I first heard 'Poker Face' and 'Just Dance.' I liked 'Just Dance' from the get-go, in part because of musical parameters that I can explain using conventional theory terminology. For instance, the beginning of the song is ambivalent about being major or minor, and this ambivalence remains for most of the song. The very start, the 'Just Dance' part that has a relatively thin texture, points to a major key. It isn't until the accompaniment comes in that the song reveals itself to be minor. I am never a fan of hearing major as 'happy' and minor as 'sad,' but I think in this case the ambivalence between these two modes works well. There is a bit of cloudiness that surrounds our protagonist, but I don't think that we are supposed to take it seriously. That is the section in major, which proclaims that we should 'Just Dance,' because everything is going to be okay--whatever else happens during the course of the evening.
I also liked 'Just Dance' because it is kind of a club-kid stream of consciousness that might have resonated with me 15 or so years ago, when I went out and had fun at clubs. 'Just Dance' describes a night of madcap drinking where you can't find your keys or your phone and you aren't quite sure which club you are in, but it's all fine. I can't say that we've all been there, but I sure have been, and it did turn out to be all okay:
Since I mostly listened to this song on the radio, though, I realized that I was missing one of its most crucial aspects: its sound. This is club music at its best, and you can tell even when you are listening in an imperfect format. In fact, the whole reason that I purchased a ticket to hear Lady Gaga perform at a hip and cool club (venues that I no longer frequent) in the hip and cool part of town (which I mostly only go to now because there is a good pizza place there, not for clubs) was that I wanted to hear that bass blast out at 0:16 seconds, and I knew that the only way to really appreciate the spectacularity of this moment was to hear it played on proper club speakers. I was not disappointed.
Beyond conventional analysis, this is, to me, the genius of Lady Gaga's music. She not only takes the conventions of pop, she makes them even better, and she makes you understand that they are best appreciated in their proper venue. For me, the most important convention of pop is that you find yourself following multiple lines/events in the music. This is true all the way back to the 1970s, as evinced by this famous BeeGees track. Listen carefully at the beginning for the catchy little rhythmic hook, then follow that as the rest of the song begins:
(Related: FAB. 70s. VIDEO.)
Gaga gets this, as her music is populated with multiple events. One of them in 'Just Dance,' for instance, is that bass drop. Another is in 'Dance in the Dark,' where Gaga screams 'Make it stop' from somewhere in the 'back' of the track (1:00)--I didn't hear this until I had listen to the song dozens of times:
(This is a fantastic song, and I view it as Gaga's masterpiece. I think she feels the same way, since it was all over the Monsters' Ball tour, including as filler between numbers. I'll save my discussion of it for another post though).
Going back to 2009: while I enjoyed 'Just Dance'--and felt that my experience of it was worth the price of admission, even though we did all have to wait for a while until Gaga showed up (as she does)--it was 'LoveGame' that blew me away in terms of live performance. I did not know the song before I attended her show, but it was easily my favorite afterward. It's pretty unusual, I think, for that to happen. We tend to go to shows expecting to hear and enjoy our favorites; hence the stereotype about new material being the most boring part of an event. However, it was hard not to be entranced by 'LoveGame,' at least in my opinion. This performance is a pretty close replica (I don't like the official video, which went for more obviously titillating moments and to me, lost some of the rawness):
This is angular, distinct, and visceral movement, and it contrasts with the types of 'boy bandified' movements that had become commonplace in music videos. Certainly there is a great deal for your ear to follow, like those low drums that show up every so often, but don't come through very well unless you happen to be in a club and have amazing speakers. If you start paying close attention, you notice that it becomes difficult to follow the rhythm: the melody is syncopated with the accompaniment, and neither one lines up with the other very well. Gaga's guttural insertions, like the 'huh's right at the beginning, emphasize the angular qualities of the dancing. In fact, if you start tapping your foot along at the beginning, you will notice that she comes in 'off the beat' with her first 'HUH' (0:34), which marks the start of the song. To me, there is very little that is lyrical or catchy (the melody is hard to sing), apart from the melodic part around 2:50. But even that moment is interrupted by one of the very striking 'HUH.' In this case, the 'HUH' serves either as a form of censorship, or allows our imagination to fill in what she was going to say. If I had to characterize this song, I would say that it is a disco march--maybe even a disco imperative--and Gaga is leading the way.
And did I mention that glowy stick thing? Because it was awesome in a dark club. It's missing something in this live version because it's during the day.
If you're curious, this was the same tour where Gaga performed acoustic 'Poker Face' with the bubble piano:
What I find most impressive about Gaga, then, is her ability to make you want to attend the show, because the show will give you something that you can't get from being at home. You probably don't have club speakers. You probably won't hear the music the same way. In this, she is creating a version of pop music that needs to be viewed live for full effect. In this day and age where we can hear anything from the comfort of our living room, I am genuinely impressed that she has found the right timbre needed to draw you to her shows--or at least to get me in a club for the first time in years.
You might be wondering why I was thinking about writing this post now, about a concert I attended around five years ago. It's her new song, 'G.U.Y.' To me, it's her first song in a long time that re-creates this 'I want to go to the club' sense. In fact the timbres that she uses here are quite fascinating, such as the maybe voice near the beginning (is that a sampled voice? Electronic? It's not clear). The video is great, and has been explored in detail by Aylin Zafar in an article for Buzzfeed--that outfit at 2:46! But mostly I want to hear that bassy-line in a club. In fact, I want to hear the whole thing in a club, because I am absolutely sure that my computer speakers are not doing this song justice:
In fact, the bass drop of the chorus took me right back to 'Just Dance,' and has captivated me in the same way. Guess I better get tickets for the next tour.
Also, can she just write a musical already? This, I think, is her ultimate destiny.