Editor's note: This is the first entry in a weekly column by Ian Grey titled 'Grey Matters.' Every Friday Ian will write on an array of topics, including pop music, TV, cinema, viral videos, and whatever the hell else strikes his fancy, in his own inimitable way. His debut piece is about Lady Gaga, about whom I knew practically zilch prior to becoming friends with Ian. It's presented here in a format that Ian calls "maximalist," with sidebars and 'Easter egg'-type pages branching out from the main article -- thus the "tree" in the headline. (You can access them by clicking the hypertext links.) There is also a companion piece, "Tree of Gaga, Part 2: Born This Way annotated track list," which you can read by clicking here. --MZS
By Ian Grey
Despite falling on the far side of Gaga’s core demographic, I’ve found myself spending way too much leisure time since the May 23rd release of Born This Way like a monastic scholar of pop.
I parse Mother Monster lyrics and couture for semiotic tells or read intent into choreography changes from Saturday Night Live to France’s The X Factor. Late nights I’ll have multiple windows of Chrome open as I try to locate illuminating lines between Gaga-shaping artists, between Stanley Kubrick and Alexander McQueen, Bruce Springsteen and Thierry Mugler, primal metal perennials Motorhead, and splice-and-grind Parisian techno kings Justice. Most wonderful, perhaps, has been my discovery of an ad hoc Youtube network of Gaga fans, literate about their subject, and utterly compelled by their passions.
Fueling my newborn obsessive’s fire was the fact that nothing art/pop polymath does is an accident. To me, this need to study Born This Way-juiced Lady Gaga evokes The Tree of Life-energized Terrence Malick fans -- the way they view that film again and again, reading, contextualizing, compulsively sharing with others and viewing yet again.
As I write this it’s been a month, a small eternity in social media time, since “Born This Way” (or ‘BTW’ for short) dropped. I find myself trying to solve this mystery of whys. As in: Why does Born This Way affect me so personally? Why are its effects are so damned prolix? Why it’s so freakin’ hard to put words to this experience? Why does every answer raise five more questions? Sure, you can shrug off Born This Way as gold-standard song craft, encompassing New Order-y electro, queered Springsteen, post-Sparks chamber pop and more, as an ADHD generation’s Sgt. Pepper's. But the problem with Lady Gaga as a critical subject is that there’s no journalistic preset for responsibly covering a recording artist and performance artist, video director, chatty talk show guest, fashionista, radical queer activist and hug-giving populist. Since there’s no ‘right way,’ intuition tells me to err on the side of excited overkill, and be as subjective as fact-telling allows.
But for now, let's get back to this main article, already in progress. It starts where I’ve come to believe most if not all Little Monsters start: with pain.
One of the lies we need to tell ourselves is that the scars we gain as odd kids fade. They don’t, of course. Ever. The twelve year-old Ian who on the first day of junior high got his head smashed against the asphalt by some tween degenerates until his ears bled? And all for the social crime of trying to approximate Ziggy Stardust couture? That Ian? He’s still here. The kicker is, what I most recall is shame...this awful sense that I was asking for it. And this was far from the only time I endured some of the old ultraviolence for the sin of being weird.
And so you can maybe see how those first two lines of “Bad Romance”--"I want your ugly / I want your disease"—were pure catnip for me, all these years later. Whoever wrote them, she was singing for my team, and I didn’t even know I had one. The utter joy Gaga inspires in people counts as joy. But it’s pain that drives the Gaga experience -- whether the vivid type that young people endure from bullying, abuse, neglect or socialized insults, or the more muted ache I felt at age 12. Or as Mother Monster herself clarified as far back as the November 2, 2009 episode of It's On with Alexa Chung, “I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone, because I love you that much.” I think it makes sense that Gaga recently donated $50K to Safe Horizon, a non-profit that serves New York City’s homeless and abused teens and who promptly made this beyond-adorable “Born This Way” video. It wasn’t a celebrity stunt. It was just Gaga holding up her end of the deal.
But I digress. I made my own Gaga pain-joy connection on May 23, the night BTW dropped. It was a listening experience unlike any in my life.
Lyric-wise, Gaga isn’t one to muck about. There’s “The Edge of Glory”, written as Gaga transitioned from the pain of her grandfather’s death to imagining the awe that would follow: “I'm on the edge of glory/and I'm hangin' on a moment of truth." “Americano” middle-fingers anti-immigration legislation into a lesbian neo-Evita fealty-oath. (“I will cry for, I have fought for, how I love you/ I have cried for, I will die for, how I care”.") And of course, the two lines that, as much as those of John Lennon's “Imagine”, are now part and parcel of world culture:
“It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up, ‘cause you were Born This Way, baby.”
And where is the pain in all this? It's all over the CD, in single lines, in minor keys, in chords of yearning, regret and isolation. But now it’s balanced by ferocious jabs of validation, an absolute belief in infinite rebirth.
Anyway—midway through BTW I felt trapped between crying and laughing with a lump in my throat, and feeling as though if I heard much more I’d simply lose my shit, and that if I didn’t hear more I’d be really pissed. I took to Facebook, to Twitter, to my blog. I had to talk about this…this…event. Were other people spazzing out like this? What did “like this” even mean? There was spazzing to spare. This was, after all, the week Gaga eclipsed 10 million Twitter followers. OMGs flew into the cybersphere at record rates.
Other -- like people who’d just stared down the Grand Canyon and wanted evidence of the experience -- used Youtube to upload videos of what had just happened to them.
A tween girl’s still-raw memory of bullying was salved just by talking about Gaga’s “Hair”. “Born This Way” made a lone queen Latino ska-reem! And an African-American teen pulled his t-shirt over his head and joy-hooted over “Judas” while elsewhere a thirty-something woman contextualized the same song within a discourse of addiction pathology.
At various points I felt like all of these people. Ultimately, I realize that Gaga is basically engaged in the alchemy biz, where music and words touch on the stuff of pain to become joy -- the side effect of which is something I’m happy to call awe.
Of course, I’m still a guy. And guys have this kind of pitiful need to know how things work on a mechanical level.
Gaga songs work like this: Using everything in the songwriter, musician and remixer toolbox, they simultaneously trigger conscious and subconscious reactions in multiple parts of your brain, with sonic quotations from B, world and art cinema for even more trigger reactions. Why? Because Gaga and her co-writers understand that, aside from Michael Bay movies, nothing is experienced and then forgotten forever. We hold multitudes…of stuff. And the part of our brain that reacts to music does so in increased levels of the brain's natural opiates.
Q: So how can one brain process all that at once?
A: It can’t. Either you spazz out like I did, or you keep returning to a song hundreds of times until you’ve processed it well enough to stop listening to it all the time.
Bottom line: most songs you can encapsulate in a sentence. A Gaga song needs a fucking synopsis.
Even the album-track lark that is “The Queen” combines pealing synth church bells, Brill Building idiom, Darlene Love-ing vocals, and hip-switching Shindig! beat with Queen-style Brian May-esque multi-layers which totally fit as the lyrics pay homage to the band whose “Radio Ga Ga” gave her one Stefani Germanotta a name. And most of this in 60 seconds! But it’s the end, the outro of “The Queen”, that knocks me out -- when the song sort of grinds down and morphs into a sort of scaled-down Wall of Sound, a neo-doo-wop torch song complete with Gaga’s girl group vocal hiccups, and I just sort of melt. I imagine her exquisite in McQueen--the genius Gaga go-to designer who took his own life last year, dressed in one of his flawlessly tailored New/Old Wave toreador suits. I feel that if heard on the juke in Mean Streets it wouldn’t sound out of place.
The Germans have a word for what happens to me with “The Queen”: it’s sehnsucht, which C.S. Lewis described as an "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what."
It’s at this point that my Guy Explanations fail. I don’t know why this song gets me like this. But it does. And I know that this and other strange intimacies work not in spite of the fact that Lady Gaga performs with teal pubic hair or meat cutlet dresses or feather-covered elk-horn hat, but because of it.
Lady Gaga ended May 23rd, the first day of Born This Way's existence in our world, with an epic autograph meet-and-greet at the Best Buy store in New York’s Union Square. Stripped down to leather bra, panties, body-nylons and knee-high couture heavy metal boots she literally makes as much of herself available to fans as possible.
In the process of signing autographs, kissing babies and hugging approximately 500 adoring fans, this man just walked up and with no niceties started talking, pulling open his Army fatigues shirt. There was something too aggressive, something off, about his approach and manner. She was signing his copy of Born This Way when something he said caused her hand to stop, and she was just thunderstruck by whatever he was saying, and like that—snap! -- she was weeping as her own “Electric Chapel” played in the background. Wrapping her arms around him, she patted his back, took his proffered fatigue. There was applause from the assembled Little Monsters—We accept you, one of Us!-- as the man finally looked as though perhaps a milligram of his trouble had been lifted.
This extreme extension of the Little Monster/Mother Monster social contract squicks people out, because it smells of cult -- because the boundaries are so porous. It also discomforts some of us because we’re used to looking at our favorite greats, out Malicks/Dylans or Ecos, as elevated untouchables. The key to Gaga’s success, to her empire of Monsters, is her symbolic erasure of distance and the implementation of a legend of parity and access. Whether there is or isn’t an army of interns posting exciting news to Ladygaga.com, or Twittering to her Little Monsters their needs and pleasures every night, is immaterial. Print the legend, right?
As much as I struggle—and like the Terrence Malick fan trying to make sense of Tree of Life, keep struggling—to figure out why the exotic extremes of Gaga’s music form a cohesive whole that slays me, there’s something I think I’ve sussed out.
And it’s in that hug.
See, there is no cult of Gaga. Oh, fans do get obsessed (cough, cough). But there is no creepy text, no Fountainhead for the Poker-Faced. There’s nothing for fans to follow beyond Gaga’s repeated insistence that BTW is about fans seizing their right to be metaphorically reborn and reborn again until they get it right, or as the great Brit wit Stephen Fry, himself a passionately out and proud adult Monster, put it, to “find out who you are and be it.” But actually doing that is hard work, day in, day out. And that’s where Lady Gaga -- in her Tweets, lyrics, Facebook reminders, multi-lingual talk show appearances, by her sheer, relentless, media-piercing, atmospheric Gaganess -- most vividly earns her keep. It’s by being a best-case-scenario reflective surface for her fans’ dreams. All the outfits, antics and stagecraft fall away and what’s left for the Monster is her real gift in song: a forgiving mirror glimpse of possibility.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have published his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.