By Kirk Woodward
[Once again, I’m presenting an article from frequent guest-blogger Kirk Woodward. His last contributions were a discussion of theatrical music versus pop songs (“Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October) followed by a consideration of pop songs in the context of a jukebox musical (“The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October). In that last article, Kirk raised the possibility that the songs of Lady Gaga might be in line for a successful treatment on the musical theater stage. Now Kirk returns to ROT with an interesting profile of Lady Gaga and her music (and considerable other talents and skills) and we can glean some of the reasons Kirk thinks her songs might work on the theatrical stage. I think you’ll find, as I did, that the exploration comes at its subject from a unusual angle as well. ~Rick]
One has to feel sorry for today’s critics and reviewers, faced with a dilemma that I reported in my book The Art of Writing Reviews (available at lulu.com). If you don’t mind, I will quote myself:
The fact is that the boundaries between art forms aren’t rigidly fixed, the way they (maybe) used to be. The visual arts, dance, poetry, all draw on each other. Conceptual art closely resembles theater. Poetry slams, those raucous celebrations of verse, resemble both theater and musical concerts.
The blurring of boundaries can confuse a reviewer. Earlier generations assumed that there were basic principles that applied to any art work of a particular genre. Is that still true? Are there any landmarks, any touchstones that the reviewer can rely on?
But then, should there be? Common sense says that the more you know about an art form, the better a reviewer you’ll be, but consider this: All education about art is looking backwards. It has to be – up ahead, in the future, there’s nothing to see. Learning the elements of an art is learning what’s already been done.
What’s wrong with that? Don’t tradition and craft matter? They do, but the problem is that artists who aren’t repeating what has already been accomplished, are striking out into unknown territory. Their work may be vital and important. It may also be garbage. What it won’t be like – unless it’s mere imitation – is what’s gone before it.
A reviewer learns – at least one hopes so – the fundamentals of the art being reviewed, and then – yikes – the fundamentals begin to shift! History suggests that these shifts used to occur gradually. If there were any reviewers in the Middle Ages, it might have taken decades for them to notice that figures in paintings had begun to acquire new dimensionality that gave them the appearance of being fully rounded. Today equivalent kinds of changes occur practically overnight.
The rise of electronic communication methods in the Twentieth Century, and an expanding range of materials available for use in art, led to the rise of almost instantaneous communication methods across the Internet in the Twenty-First, and the resulting increase in capacity has led to an overwhelming need for novelty. The comment in the New Testament that the intellectuals of Greece “spent all their time discussing the latest new thing” (Acts 17:21) can be said of us as well, in spades, and not just concerning products like TV shows and video games. Wikipedia’s article on “Contemporary Art” includes a list over eighty art movements from the 1950’s on, including many unfamiliar to me, such as (I select at random):
Bay Area Figurative Movement
New Leipzig School
I’m sure there’s an excellent article, not to say a thesis or book, in the development of so many art movements over such a short period of time, but I want to concentrate in this piece on two, conceptual art and performance art, because they have direct bearing on the subject of this article. Conceptual art declares that the idea is the most important part of the art work – indeed, the idea may be said to be the work of art itself. An example is Telepathic Piece by Robert Barry, who said that during his exhibit he would attempt to communicate to visitors, mind to mind, a series of thoughts that were not either images or words. (Try it.)
In effect, one creates conceptual art by (figuratively) putting quotation marks around an idea, an activity, or anything else – singling it out, and then identifying that very process as art. This approach has a natural tie-in with the more physicalized art movement called performance art, in which any interaction between the performer(s) and the audience can be identified – conceptually, so to speak – as an art piece.
Although there are no rules for performance art – who would make them? – there is an implied suggestion that performance art impinges on “real life,” that it sets itself up in an unusual or unexpected relationship to ordinary existence, so it probably has a higher degree of spontaneity than a theatrical event such as a play would have. There is also usually implicit in the idea of performance art the principle that the event is basically not repeatable – that each encounter between performer and audience is unique.
An interesting example of this concept is the very funny “Over the Moon” sequence in the musical Rent, in which one of the characters, wishing to protest a real estate scheme, stages a performance art piece. This scene is a part of Rent, a scripted musical, and as such really isn’t performance art – unless, I suppose, one conceptually makes it so – but instead is about performance art. One could claim, in theory, that including a performance art piece in a musical is a piece of conceptual art. This is where I begin to get dizzy.
The art movements we are discussing have been around a while now, and their pioneers have been joined by members from new generations. One of the most notable, not to say successful, one who has most been able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by conceptual and performance art, one who has in fact transformed her public self into a piece of performance art, is the artist who performs under the exuberant name of Lady Gaga.
It is not my intention to present either a full biography or a full critique of Gaga (as I will hereafter refer to her, presuming an intimacy that I haven’t got). However, elements of both history and evaluation are useful in order to get a picture of just what she’s doing as she makes the rounds of modern commerce, culture, and art, all at once.
Gaga is 25 years old. Born Stefani Germanotta and raised in New York City, she appears to be, as a person, what the singer Tony Bennett called in an article in The New Yorker (September 19, 2011) “a sweet little Italian-American girl.” She is also a notoriously hard worker (an acquaintance who was in school with her said he had never seen anyone with such a work ethic), and she has the gift of apparently being able to throw herself wholeheartedly into any activity, no matter how risky, no matter how it makes her look.
Twenty-five is not terribly old for an established artist, but Gaga has packed that short number of years with plenty of training and experience to equip her for the role of a premier performance artist in our time. Among her areas of accomplishment are:
PIANIST – this was her first artistic activity; she is classically trained and didn’t know anything about popular music until her early teens when her father gave her albums by the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. She was if not a prodigy at least highly talented, knows the classical piano repertoire, and frequently plays piano (not classical music, though) in her appearances.
MUSICAL THEATER PERFORMER – she played lead roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Guys and Dolls in high school, and has said she is particularly proud of her performance as Adelaide in the latter. She was accepted in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, in the highly competitive musical theater program CAP21 (Collaborative Arts Project 21), where she stayed for three semesters. I'm unclear whether or not it was through musical theater training that she acquired the skills of a . . .
DANCER – in the current style of concert/show, pioneered by Gaga's role model Madonna, a singer is surrounded by a group of impossibly agile dancers. Gaga holds her own, moving with remarkable physical control. In any case, one gets the feeling that the restrictions of the musical theater may not have been congenial to her, because she left school to become a . . .
PERFORMANCE ARTIST – most notably, she teamed up with another, more experienced New York performer, Lady Starlight, appearing wherever possible in free form performance events, often including appearances as a . . .
SEXUAL PROVACATEUR – wearing as little as possible, partly because performance art is intended to shock, partly to draw attention and crowds. However, many who have worn a bikini have not succeeded in the arts. Gaga is also a remarkable . . .
SINGER – she has a vocal range of several octaves, and to my mind is particularly effective in her lower registers, but she can raise the roof with practically any note she hits, and there are plenty of those. She is marvelous in her recent duet with Tony Bennett on the Rodgers and Hart song "The Lady Is A Tramp." But she doesn't have to depend on singing other people's songs, because she is also a first-rate . . .
SONGWRITER – her first professional job in the recording industry was writing songs for others, including Brittany Spears. (A producer who heard her demonstrating songs she wrote for others signed her to a contract as a singer herself.) She has had three best-selling, award-winning studio albums. But music isn't all she does. To my mind she also is a remarkably gifted . . .
ACTOR – she hasn't made any films, although one assumes they may be in her future someday, and she hasn't been in a play or musical since college, but as a performance artist she has demonstrated impressive acting ability. In particular I'm thinking of her spooky characterization of Jo Calderone, a slouching, smoking little male street punk who claims to be her boyfriend and is almost frighteningly believable. This particular role, incidentally, is one of the few times one sees her "dress down," since she is a major . . .
FASHION PLATE – her extravagant, boisterous, sometimes revealing, always surprising clothes – costumes? – are famous, or, in the case of her "meat dress," infamous. She seldom wears the same outfit twice, as far as I can tell; she has said that she keeps an archive of them, and they should make a valuable addition to the Smithsonian some day, if it can find a wing big enough to hold them. But it's not just clothes that define her look. She is also a remarkable . . .
MODEL – she has a real "photographer's face," meaning that she is capable, using makeup, wigs, and so on, of a variety of looks ranging from the frightening to the stunningly gorgeous, with numerous stops in between. Coming up with so many looks on one's own could be daunting enough, but Gaga is also a formidable . . .
CREATOR OF SPECTACLE – video of her tours can be seen on the web. They include remarkable stagings of her songs, and astonishing performances of them by her. I am also told that she is an important . . .
VIDEO ARTIST – music videos are hardly my field of expertise, but a friend who has studied the field says that hers have revitalized it. Fortunately, Gaga has help and support in designing her costumes, shows, and videos, because she is a . . .
TEAM LEADER – she has gathered her creative friends and associates in a collective called the Haus of Gaga, consciously modeled on Andy Warhol's famous Factory, which serves as an inspiration and brain trust, ensuring that she doesn't have to depend only on herself for ideas (although, as she told Jimmy Kimmel on his television show, "I didn't get here by agreeing with everybody"). She is also a . . .
FAN FAVORITE – she calls her fans her "little monsters" and has a remarkable two-way relationship with them, often over the Internet – they suggest ideas for outfits, many of which she accepts, and she is known for her graciousness to them. And of course she is in fact – and, as we will see, this is not irrelevant – a . . .
PHILANTHROPIST – she puts in extensive time, effort, and money for causes she believes in, notably for relief in Japan after the earthquake, and she campaigns against bullying and for self-acceptance among people whose self-image is battered. And speaking of time and money, she is an astounding . . .
MARKETER – her art is located firmly in commerce, and she works the marketplace like few before her. The campaign to make a number one hit out of her sensational latest album, Born This Way, was exhaustive – she did everything but sell CDs door to door, and I'm not positive she didn't do that. I don't follow her on Twitter (or anywhere else), but it wouldn't amaze me to learn that she'd tweeted, "Met a nice couple on Elm St. Sold 3 copies."
I've undoubtedly missed several components of Gaga's background, and who knows what else she'll come up with in the future. My point is not that she has a remarkable range of skills, although she does, but that, at least at this moment in her career, she uses these skills at the service of her central skill, which is that of the performance artist. She conceptualizes the various public encounters in her life as artistic events, and arranges live, one-time performances (except for concert tours, of course, where the staged numbers, however novel, repeat themselves) within those events, which she herself acts out. These performances are full of surprises in content and presentation that startle and awaken the audience. She seldom does what one would expect. She is hard to anticipate.
The observation that Gaga is essentially a performance artist is not exactly unique to me. It is important to make, however, for the reasons I outlined at the beginning of this article – because boundaries within the arts are continually shifting, and because a reviewer's or critic's first task is to understand what the purpose of the artist is. Thinking of Gaga, for example, within the traditional boundaries of "a singer" or "a songwriter," although not wrong, misses the main thrust of what she's doing.
A performance artist's purpose is to refresh the world, at least the part of it that the artist is able to intrude on. Gaga ambitiously wants to accomplish the purpose of performance art on a large scale, and she has the tools for the task. She may decide to use them in some other way later, but at the moment that's what she's doing.
And seen in such a light, her philanthropic activities and in particular her championing of people who feel odd, marginalized, and bullied, fit a pattern that makes it clear what her performance art is about. Much contemporary music, including rock in many forms, shares a common theme: "Look at me – and accept me for what I am." Gaga is very much in this tradition. In the title song of her new album she sings:
I'm beautiful in my way,
Cause God makes no mistakes.
I'm on the right track, baby,
I was born this way.
Interestingly, while many rockers have made this point by taking what we might call the low roads of grunge, animal passion, and glumness, Gaga makes the same point through the high roads of fashion and art. (In my favorite performance of hers on YouTube, a literally foot-stomping rendition on the talk show The View of her song "You and I," she wears a black and white patterned dress suit, for heaven's sake, with matching hat, purse, and sunglasses, although to be fair her piano is wearing the same thing.) She bypasses many familiar ways of shocking the public; in particular, her more outré costumes may be revealing but they are less sexy than they are about sex, her position on drugs (which she says she once abused) is responsible, and she keeps her private life remarkably private.
Gaga is sometimes presented in the press as, basically, a sort of flake. "Flake" is what she is not. She is purposeful. There is a concept behind each costume she wears, each public appearance, each presentation of a song. She aims for a deliberate effect in everything. The effect doesn't always come off the way she intends – the meat dress overpowered whatever intention she had – but she always has a plan. (For the record, she related the meat dress to the right to fight for what one believes in, and for her opposition to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the military.)
So, leaving Gaga aside for a moment, what kind of criticism is appropriate for conceptual and performance art? Criticism of conceptual art is difficult because the "art work" exists only as a process. Reviewing of performance art, as an extension of conceptual art, is difficult because ordinarily a reviewer singles out unpleasant elements of a work for negative criticism, but in performance art the uncomfortable is the point. If a piece of performance art isn't irritating, it probably hasn't done its job. We may say that performance art "pushes the envelope" or "challenges the boundaries" but it really does more than that – it reaches out into "real life" and disrupts it in some way.
There is always the possibility that a piece of conceptual art, with its cerebral nature, or performance art, with its ability to irritate and disrupt, may simply be poor work. Almost any stupid idea can be justified as conceptual art; almost any baffling performance can be justified as performance art, a claim that one could make, perhaps, for example, for the singing of Florence Foster Jenkins, "famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability" (Wikipedia). Is something a lousy idea? Call it conceptual art. Is it a lousy performance? Call it performance art.
Even with conceptual or performance art, however, the principles of reviewing are always the same, and they are what sets criticism apart from merely having an opinion. A reviewer first needs to experience the work at hand for what it is – not for what the reviewer imagines, remembers, or wishes it were. In the process the reviewer tries to determine what the purpose of the work is, and then whether or not it achieves its purpose. Finally, the reviewer is in a position to tell us whether the effort was worthwhile in the first place.
Eventually a consensus forms around ability, and listeners as different as Barry Manilow and Alice Cooper have said that they consider Gaga the genuine article. In general she's received terrific press, not to mention a cartload of awards, but it's interesting to look at negative criticism she’s received. The most extensive such piece I've seen, posted on Slate.com (September 11, 2011) by Nathan Heller, is titled “Lady Gaga: Pop’s leading conservative,” a title that strikes me as an overreach. Heller says in the article that she's conservative "every way but politically," which is kind of like saying that people in church are materialists "every way but spiritually." "Conservative" doesn't seem to be the right word anyway for someone who's designed and worn a dress made out of meat.
Heller does understand Gaga's core role as a performance artist, but he doesn't apply that insight to her songwriting. Instead he uses the hoary method of quoting lyrics to demonstrate a song's faults. Many lyrics sound silly quoted out of context, and a song isn't just a lyric anyway; it's also melody, arrangement, and the way the music and the words fit together and interact with each other, as well as the performer’s delivery of the material. More to the point, Heller doesn't seem to understand that Gaga's songwriting also fits under the heading of performance art. However genuine the feelings in her songs may be to her, she still writes the songs (frequently with collaborators) "as if" she were in a particular situation. Her songs are written, so to speak, within quotation marks.
But much of the negative criticism that Gaga receives simply misses what she's trying to do. For example, she participated in a recent awards show as her Jo Calderone character, and remained in that character throughout the show and on through the following press conference. One reviewer said she had stayed in the character too long – that she should have dropped it after using it once. No doubt from the standpoint of show biz that observation is canny. Gaga, however, was engaging in a piece of performance art, and its purpose was to disrupt and make uncomfortable (which it certainly did, at least for me), not to glide along well-worn entertainment paths. Similarly, she recently sang her song “Bad Romance” to Bill Clinton at his birthday party, raising many eyebrows. If you want somebody who will do nothing but carry in a cake, smile, and blow out the candles, Gaga’s probably not the one you want to invite.
A performance artist continually takes chances by risking offence. It can be difficult to be a performance artist and also beloved. (Laurie Anderson has probably accomplished this feat.) Gaga has achieved popularity despite the risks she takes, through her use of the attributes we've discussed, including talent, energy, and the ability to plunge ahead no matter what. Remarkably, she has used her skills not to make us comfortable with her, but to make us more alert, more uncomfortable, more uncertain what's going to happen next.
A lesson that performance art by its nature presents to the reviewer, the critic, and even the ordinary listener or viewer, then, is: listen first, understand next, evaluate intelligently, judge last if at all.
[For those interested in the book from which Kirk quotes himself, The Art of Writing Reviews, he’s mentioned where it’s available. For further thoughts on the subject, I posted a four-part commentary on Kirk’s book, “The Art of Writing Reviews,” 1, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009.]