I admit disliking most pop music, so when Lady Gaga appeared, I filed her beside other one trick ponies who come and went (remember Toto? Christopher Cross?). Her grotesque stage presence, exemplified by displays like the notorious meat dress, reinforced that Gaga was, as her second album title said, The Fame Monster, motivated by desire for attention that cared little for talent. Her prurience, blasphemy, and other shock tactics may offend blue-noses, but considered coolly, they’re remarkably banal. I gave her no further thought.
Then I started working at the factory.
Amid the cacophony of conveyor belts, motor vehicles, percussive equipment, and jangling metal, the company provides us radios and lets us pick our music. One radio’s sound doesn’t carry far amid the conflicting sounds, so a thirty-foot stretch of factory has three radios, each playing its own music, and each inaudible before you reach the next. In picking stations, we must recall that not everything is audible among conflicting sounds. The folk music I favor at home has no place in the factory.
Lady Gaga, remarkably, makes good factory listening. Her complex high-end orchestration, combined with a simple rhythm section that lays down a largely unvarying groove, gets on my nerves if I listen to her in ordinary circumstances. But in an environment where lesser noises can disappear beneath sturdier competition, Gaga’s clear voice carries remarkably well, and the simple, repeating guitar and synth licks that form her musical backbone set an important counterpoint to the factory’s funereal percussion.
Plenty of music I’ve often disparaged as inane suddenly becomes worthy in the factory space. In the larger world I mock Tom Petty’s lack of imagination, Duran Duran’s use of synth hooks in lieu of something important to say, and the Eagles’ excessively polished niceness. Yet these “shortcomings” become artistic contributions when they cut through the factory noise. Like Gaga, all these acts become something greater in the factory mainly behind one important virtue: I can hear them.
I can’t help remembering the band Judas Priest. Formed in Britain’s industrial capitol, Birmingham, the band derived its invariable pulsating rhythm, and the title of its classic 1980 album British Steel, from the steel mills that dominated their city, interrupted school lessons, and defined when Brummies could sleep and wake. Instead of complaining, they made that thrumming, alongside the sound of glass breaking and children screaming, the heart of their sound. They became a music of their place and time.
Taken from that angle, Lady Gaga too is an emblem of our time. I do not mean that in terms of her musical content, which resembles little so much as a small child reciting curse words and dirty jokes to elicit a reaction from nearby grown-ups. Rather, as our society becomes increasingly cluttered with extraneous sound, and we need more and more piercing influences just to make themselves audible, she does manage to cut through the chatter. People can, and choose to, hear her.
When I mention our society’s extraneous sound, I do mean the obvious: cars, cell phones, mass media. We’re a literally noisy society. But we’re noisy in other ways. As I’ve said before, we refuse to hear each other. Even regarding our most important issues, we talk past each other. We won’t stop talking, and we won’t stop demanding that others pay us some attention; but we won’t listen. We spew noise and expect others to accept it, even as new digital technology floods our synapses with more content than any human being can process.
Let’s not discuss know-it-alls clogging the blogosphere just now, okay?
Like Madonna before her, Lady Gaga takes her time’s inherent solipsism and displays it externally. I might not wear a barbed wire dress to get an audience’s attention, but I expect people to treat me with the same reverence as a celebrity. I don’t choose a pseudonym based on religious or aristocratic pretensions, but notice how I expect people to spell my name with the middle initial, as though I were C.S. Lewis or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like my society, I’m very arrogant.
Doing something unusual makes me audible through the noise. I’m sure Lady Gaga deliberately courted controversy by using insensitive terms in her song Born This Way, if for no other reason than to get people’s ears. I may not go as far as Gaga does, and I certainly don’t have her audience. But like her, I just want to be heard. And in our time, embracing the theatrical makes that possible.