We all had a great time and it was fun whilst it lasted, but I just can’t do his anymore, Angelina.
Remember when Lady Gaga was just a bad imitation of an electroclash Christina Aguilera? Then Fame Monster came along, Pitchfork offered warm praise, Bad Romance and Telephone revealed themselves as AAA pop songs, were reinforced by internet-stopping videos and Christina Aguilera eventually stumbled back on the scene and offered a better bad impersonation of an electroclash Christina Aguilera.
But now, it’s over. Alejandro is the end of our little fling, for now.
Most obviously, it’s not half the song Bad Romance or Telephone are. The video helps highlight the song’s qualities, but the song doesn’t do any favours to the video as spectacle.
Then there’s a point of just how derivative it is. Telephone, particularly, made the point of reveling in pop culture referentiality. It was post-modern and Warhol, much like Gaga herself, or more accurately, Tarantinoesque. That much was evident well before the Pussy Wagon turned up and allowed the video a free-pass. Rather than being condemned as derivative, it’s knowing, referential and culture literate. The gauche product placement was part of the act, acceptable in the same way Kill Bill can lift entire shots and soundtracks from obscure and not so obscure films and survive a mauling from the critics.
Alejandro hasn’t got the same shield, but the deliberate references are still there. Most notably manifesting themselves in the iconography of someone a little too close to home who inhabits Gaga’s own universe in a way that film and video game references do not: Madonna. To go on about how much Lady Gaga may or may not be indebted to Madonna is tiresome stuff and the pop equivalent of saying every ‘serious’ female artist sounds like Bjork or Kate Bush, but given her background, her iconoclasm and blatant subversion of sexual conventions, it’s a point worth raising in how she’s perceived more than it would be for say, Katy Perry.
Let’s start with the militaristic, fascist theme of the video which, when brought into further focus with the song’s longing Iberian, South American subject matter, draws your mind into the territory of figures like Eva Peron, a figure in history with which most people would confuse as solely a character Madonna played in a movie. The platinum blonde, crimson red lipstick; the monochrome dance section and blatant use of provocative Catholitic imagery being ‘blasphemed’ asks the question as to why it wasn’t seen fit to light the crosses in the background and go the whole nine yards.
To try and bring it into clearer focus, I’ll just leave this here:
Whether it’s meant to be a Madonna tribute or not, the comparisons don’t really do her any favours. Not yet, anyway. What made Lady Gaga such an interesting prospect was that she seemed apart from the never ending conveyor belt of Britney Perrys and Katy Spears who utilise sex (in and out of their music videos: Exhibit A and Exhibit B) and who they may or may not be fucking to sell records. Alejandro seems like a step back to her early ‘Electroclash Aguilera’ days where she frolicked about unremarkably like a perma-tanned Ibiza blonde to similarly unremarkable songs.
In his latest Poptimist article, Tom Ewing forwards the idea of artists achieving an imperial stage from which they could do no wrong and writes:
‘People were as fascinated by Britney– especially during her meltdown period– as they are by Lady Gaga now. But there was a crucial difference: Few seemed to care whether what Britney did artistically– her music and videos– was any good. That wasn’t what drove the stories. With Gaga, her imperial phase started when she grabbed this permission– when the story stopped being whether she’s wearing pants, or has a dick, and started being inescapably about the work she’s doing.’
Though defensively thrown out there as a piece of furtive, drunken pretentiousness, Caitlin Moran’s observation that ‘you don’t penetrate Gaga’ in her excellent Times piece, is, I can confirm as a straight male, spot on. Whilst Alejandro doesn’t have me slobbering over 1080p copies of the video, it’s hard not to watch the gangsex scene (rather than gangrape) in which she’s stripped, and admittedly adored, and feel that things have been taken backwards. She may not have been penetrated but, as with the Catholitic baiting, it’s a crass come-on. By aiming to shock with her body, she’s giving back this permission that she grabbed wonderfully in Telephone with the ‘told you she didn’t have a dick’ line and then starred in the best music video of the year. People began talking about her music, about her style, not whether she had a dick or if she was ‘authentic’. Though, perhaps I’m not meant to get a video that’s described as a love letter to her gay fans and clearly revels in camp melodrama. But that’s another piece for someone else to write.
More prosaically and beyond preferences of taste, reference suitability, my sexuality and Lacan/Feminism 101, the video’s a little low-rent compared to its blockbuster forebears. Its length is unnecessary for a video that has no clear, cinematic narrative like Telephone and no strong aesthetic glue or wow factor like Bad Romance. Stretching out a merely good song to nearly double its length to accommodate dance routines infront of a dodgy video screen in an environment that doesn’t look to dissimilar to a drama studio. And the gun/phallas bra (Really? Again?) is a little bit ill advised.
Don’t get me wrong, Alejandro is a great video; far better than the vast majority of music videos out there. That I’m even writing this post acknowledges it’s still something worth writing about, something worth caring for. It’s just that with this video she no longer appears as the ‘Dada Gaga’, an indefinable, convention challenging whirlwind. She becomes the rather cheap, boring Gaga of early videos; just another sex object.
And when you fall to Katy Perry’s level and get beaten by her latest effort, it’s not a good day in Gagaland.
Where do we go from here? I would say there’s no more singles to be squeezed out of The Fame/Fame Monster. Whilst Alejandro is considerably better than those early singles, for my money she didn’t really hit her stride, her ‘imperial phase’ as Tom Ewing would put it, until after those early, furtive singles with Paparazzi and has been riding it pretty… imperially since. Whether it’s good enough to extend her regal dominance over the charts remains to be seen. Of course, she’s still riding the megaton wave of Bad Romance and Telephone: Alejandro has 23 million views on Youtube alone in the two weeks its been up in comparison to California Gurls’ 4 mill at the time of publishing, but if she hangs around for another single does she run the risk of outstaying her welcome? She’s had a pretty long run of it. To throw her into comparison with her most obvious contemporary once again, One of the Boys was released a mere two months before the The Fame way back in 2008 and Just Dance dropped a month before I Kissed a Girl. Comparing California Gurls and Alejandro is a little disingenuous in the sense that California Gurls is the first single from Perry’s second whilst Alejandro is the tail end of what is essentially one long album cycle for Gaga, but in a single dominated landscape it won’t necessarily appear like that. Katy Perry looks like she’s going to be having the big Summer hit whilst Gaga flips Yankee’s fans.
Returning to the ‘imperial’ concept, Ewing is keen to point out that artists may and do have several imperial phases. Or, in some cases a very long and indefinable one. The pace that the album and single cycle moves in an the age of iTunes accelerates the rate in which an artist might capture an imperial level of fame and that privileged place in the popular consciousness – the ream of Gaga covers and parodys that litter Youtube, some better than others, are testament to this – but it also means it’s also easier to get knocked off that pedestal by someone else. Even by the kindest ‘rockist’s’ standards, Lady Gaga will never be a star that creates perfect albums that stand up to the scurrility of ‘serious’ music journalism such as Madonna’s own pop contemporary Prince did. Her approach is top-heavy but short-lived and she runs the risk of running short her own dominance with overexposure and failing to live up to her own high standards.
‘There’s a will for her to go further, to get better each time, which must be intoxicating– of course many imperial phases end in hubris.’