On August 1, 1981, MTV launched by airing it’s first video “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. This seminal moment is widely heralded as a prophetic statement. Indeed, MTV did ‘kill’ the radio star with the next 29 years (and foreseeable future) of broadcasting that focused less and less on music to the point where Heidi & Spencer are the new Sid & Nancy. The reality of MTV’s responsibility in the change of popular music is undeniable and ubiquitous. But, is it something to be looked at with such disdain? Let me get to the point by digressing…
My original idea for this post was to lambaste Lady GaGa for the pop icon she has become. She is the neo-MTV incarnate. She is focused on image over music, controversial, exceedingly sexualized, and a white female (see: Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Pink). Her music is lyrically simple with fuzz filled synth leads whose timbre and rhythm are not much different than those in Heaven by DJ Sammy – a song popularized by Dance Dance Revolution and Europop discotheques. Listen to the chorus of “Heaven” and then the chorus of “Bad Romance” and you will see the similarities. (I want to clarify that I am saying similarities not sameness). Part of what gives Lady GaGa her wide appeal is her ability to constantly change how she is seen and not how she is heard, musically. And in this day and age of social networking and wifi, that can happen between albums, between songs, hell, even between bathroom visits. One day she can be wearing a bunch of Kermit the frogs, flipping the bird to Mets fans the next (who wouldn’t?), and then eating it on the pavement because of her two foot heels. I wanted this to be my reason for not liking Ms. GaGa, she is an exhibitionist in which music is a consequence of, and not the reason for, her fame. Yet, the more I got to thinking about it I realized it really is just the natural progression of music.
Let’s continue digressing, as Inception taught us “We have to go deeper…”
To simplify matters, let’s say that the roots of modern pop music started in the 50’s with Elvis Presley. Elvis was the original Madonna, Marilyn Manson, and, yes, Lady GaGa. His performances and persona were secondary to his music. (99% of which he didn’t write. Another foundation of modern pop music). What do we think of when we think of Elvis Presley? We think of Elvis not being allowed to be shown below the waist because of his gyrations, the synchronized “Jailhouse Rock” dance, and him getting fat in Vegas and dying on a toilet. These are the reasons over 600,000 people visit Graceland every year. Elvis Presley is not a musician, he is an icon. We could do this same exercise for other famous icons such as David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince (aka O(+>) just to name a few (although all of them wrote their own music). But to be fair, there is another side to this coin.
There are those musicians who go out of their way to prove that music is more important to them than any image. Think Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Dr. Dre, etc. Sure, Pearl Jam wore plaid, Led Zeppelin used to spank groupies with mud sharks and Dr. Dre, well, just trust him… he’s a doctor. But their lack of focus on image is an image in and of itself. It’s how we remember them outside of their music. Devotees of the classic school of rock will preach night and day to you about how their beloved and pseudo-deified rockers (i.e. Led Zep, The Who, Black Sabbath) were all about the music (Hot Topic says the same thing). And these fans, who like to act like they grew up with the bands, are right, they were all about the music. But that’s still an image. We still recognize the aura of Led Zeppelin just as easily as we know the aura of Lady GaGa.
The million dollar question is, is there a right/wrong answer to how image plays into your fame/artisanship as a musician? Do we blame Lady GaGa for refocusing our collective eyes away from musicianship or do we applaud her for finding a new way to progress music? My mind is racing with other questions I want to ask but I figure your answers and comments will help spur a coherent response instead of the previous 5 paragraphs of brain farting.
Spew your answers/comments forth!