Welp, Lady Gaga is an Oscar nominee now. Our Mother Monster is growing up! I have not seen the alleged cinematic masterpiece that is A Star is Born, but I listened to the soundtrack album, and on its own terms it’s really… kind of terrible. I am still, as a fan, very proud of Gaga for the growth she’s shown in her career. She has outgrown, in leaps and bounds, her beginnings as a purveyor of provocative pop songs. She always described herself as an artist who happened to become a pop star, and that rings true. All that growth, obviously, has to be reflected in her music and writing, and it’s cliche but true that her last album was her most vulnerable and mature. But I doubt that she’ll ever really outgrow her flair for the dramatic, or her flamboyance, or her love for huge choruses and bombastic power ballads and four-to-the-floor hooks.
Lady Gaga is kind of an absurd character, constantly teetering on the edge between self-serious and silly. That balancing act is inherent in being a pop icon, because it is to some degree absurd that we have people we call ‘pop icons’ in the first place. Lady Gaga knows this, obvious fact that it is. She may have a bit of a messiah complex, which of course comes with the territory. She’s also not afraid of going to far into the absurdity of it all. Going as far over the top as she does is dangerous territory, and if you’re going to risk looking ridiculous, you might as well embrace your own ridiculousness to the fullest extent. Hence, a dress made entirely out of Kermit the Frog. And if you’re going to go Europop, you’d better go full Europop and don’t let not speaking German stop you. Lady Gaga knows exactly one word of German, and that’s enough to write a song with. It’s gibberish, even the English parts, but she delivers it with every ounce of conviction her little body can muster. And that makes it an unqualified triumph of pop songwriting.
Lady Gaga set out to reinvent 80’s style arena rock, and it was just what we didn’t know we needed. Born This Way was full of ridiculously cheesy fist-pump anthems and power ballads. And it was good. So, so good. This is like a long lost Whitney Houston song, but better. So, so much better. Because it has the all of the brio and enthusiasm of a genuine camp aficionado. Obviously, Gaga just loves the hell out of the FM rock tropes of her childhood, but she wants to use them for art. That’s why she called one of her albums ArtPop, because she’s stupidly clever like that. Lady Gaga is a master of high-low, stupid-clever, trash-to-treasure.
I remember the exact moment I first heard Lady Gaga on the radio. Cruising through south Austin in a Subaru station wagon with a person I would now murder if I thought I could get away with it. A far from idyllic memory; the early months of 2009 were among the worst of my life. When most of your time is spent trying to become unconscious, little happy moments make a big impression, and hearing a good song on the radio stays with you. I’ve successfully repressed the rest of that day, but that moment with the radio dial will stay with me forever. Hearing the robotic chorus of Poker Face for the first time, my exact thoughts were, “This song is far too good to be on the radio; I will most likely never hear it again. Better enjoy the hell out of this.” It was like something you would hear at a leather-daddy disco, an aggressively sexual earworm too dark for anything but a three a.m. dance floor. It’s a song designed for that final desperate bout of dancing right before last call, when the fates decide who gets to ride the disco stick and who goes home to cry. That’s to say, it’s a very specific aesthetic. Before Lady Gaga exploded into the mainstream, we were in one of those boring dry spells where the kinky gay club music stayed in the kinky gay club. Now its hit supremacy feels inevitable, the hand of the pop gods at work. But at the time, in that moment, in broad daylight, it had a gorgeous feeling of misplacement, like a straggling reveler doing the walk of shame in their glitter and sweat on a Monday morning.
After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.
- ★ – David Bowie
David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.
2. Lemonade – Beyonce
Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.
3. Hopelessness – Anohni
Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.
4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.
5. This Is Acting – Sia
Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.
6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John
Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.
7. Joanne – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.
8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon
Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.
9. Super – Pet Shop Boys
How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.
10. AIM – M.I.A.
M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.
Remember when Lady Gaga, at the height of her Bad Romance-era meat-dress notoriety, claimed that she would never step off the towering platforms and appear in public looking ‘normal’? Because that’s not how her fans want to see her. Because she exists, as an artist, to provide fantasy and escapism. Well, here she is now, in her newest incarnation, rolling around in the dirt in little more than cutoffs and smeared eyeliner. She’s been promoting her new album in noticeably diminished form, mostly barefaced, her only flamboyance an unflattering pink hat. So what changed? Gaga has learned what many artists before her have; that success and acclaim are no protection against pain, and that fantasy and escapism are no match for a broken heart. Since her last solo album, Lady Gaga suffered the dissolution of her engagement, a tough trip for anybody, and one she was forced to take with the whole world watching. No wonder she didn’t have any more empowerment anthems in her; she had to write her most personal record yet, and she had to appear as her most naked self. It’s a whole new side of Lady Gaga, and a new sound. Less pop more rock, less glitz more real emotion. Audiences eventually tire of pure spectacle, and artists tire of providing it. Sooner or later, every larger-than-life stage creation will revert to their real self, too exhausted to maintain the illusion. Ziggy Stardust has to die; the meat dress has to come off. If we’re lucky, that’s when things become really interesting.
This old chestnut comes around yet again. Every few years, ever since 1948, this song hits the Zeitgeist. And I’ve always found it ridiculous. It’s not just corny in the typical 40’s fashion; it’s downright campy. There’s no way a song about a boy ‘strange and enchanted’ isn’t loaded with innuendo. It has to be the gayest American Standard in the great book of American Standards. Witness the smirk with which Nat King Cole delivered it. He knew! Despite or because of its nature, Nature Boy has been revived again and again, by everyone from Sinatra (who, I think, made a point of singing ALL THE SONGS) to Sarah Vaughn to Grace Slick to Celine Dion, just to mention the most notable of notables. In my day, the song came to pop culture prominence via the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, delivered by no less than David Bowie, with a degree of conviction that may have been more than the thing deserved. On last year’s Cheek to Cheek, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga jumped in, with surprisingly straight faces. Gaga, gaycon aspirations aside, can be a very earnest lady, and that record was her chance to put on her ‘serious artist’ hat, so it’s reasonable that she delivered it without a sideways wink. But what a missed opportunity! If anybody can camp the hell out of an old classic, it’s her. Here’s hoping that sometime down the road she merges her radio monster flamboyance with her serious chanteuse classy side and delivers some serious remixes of this and other standards.