I just read a book on Joni Mitchell’s Blue period called “Will You Take Me As I Am.” The book was an analytic look at Mitchell’s so-called confessional song writing spanning from 1971-1976. I walk away from this book reminded of the scope and depth of Mitchell’s lyrics, as well as the flexibility and complexity of her musical compositions. I also walk away from this book knowing there’s no way in hell I am able to attend the Lady Gaga concert tonight in Ybor City, Tampa.
I grew up loving pop music. I was fixated by Debbie Harry in first grade. I acquired Madonna in forth grade. By sixth grade, I’d immersed myself in the lovely world of Prince and all his ladies. In sixth grade, I discovered Joni Mitchell. I suppose my appreciation of music can be divided into two categories – pre Joni and post Joni. I am a loyal fan and listener.
All those artists I grew to love in the 80s I still follow today. Madonna’s inane and simple lyrics spoke very loud and clear to me at eight years old — and due to sentimental value and the fact that Madonna continued to grow and entertain as an artist – I stuck with her. In fact, all of my favorite artists from the 80s have continued to grow as musicians. Cyndi Lauper’s last album was heartfelt and catchy. Donna Summer sounds like she had a blast with her last album.
But after Joni Mitchell, very rarely did I ever introduce new pop artists into my listening pool. If anything, I looked further into the discographies of artists that piqued my interest in the 80s (Kim Carnes)or was impressed by pop artists who later turned experimental and daring (Cathy Dennis). I am hard pressed to find that sense of adventure and risk in any of our current pop artists’ discographies. Somewhere along the way people stopped writing from the heart and began writing with their pocketbook.
Indeed, after Joni Mitchell I found it difficult to find new artists to explore. Many times when I did find artists who intrigued me, I talked about it much less. Pop music is a much easier conversation piece than some of my discoveries in this decade. While my pop culture ramblings might proclaim my love for Janet or Madonna (holdovers from my youth), I have spent the last ten years delving deep into the catalogs of Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithfull, Flora Purim, Sonic Youth and Rory Block.
Mariah Carey was one exception. I fell in love with her music and persona in 2001, when she went crazy. After seeing Mariah fall from grace, I discovered a certain sincere desperation in her music that was endearing. Likewise, being that I took Mariah into my collection during the Glitter years, there was more than a hint of my beloved Teena Marie’s vocal stylings on that album to lure me in. In post-American Idol America, singing stylization has become more affected and mannered than ever. Pure gloss and technique. With the full awareness that Mariah Carey is a complete and commercial trend chasing ‘tart, I still will make the case that there is some pure soulfulness in some of her singing. I would use “All My Life” from Glitter as evidence, or the dance remix of “Fantasy” which finds Carey unleashed like nothing on her full lengths.
In 2009, at 34 years old, I find myself continually trying to be convinced of Lady Gaga’s merits and talents. People flash her credentials and credits under my eyes as bait. I’m not impressed. At a bar last night, one kid talked for five minutes at length about how Gaga has worked with “the hottest musicians over the last 10 years.” My response was quick and easy. “I haven’t enjoyed any of the musicians who came out over the last 10 years, why would I like her then?”
The truth is, my 34-year-old mind has little to draw from a girl in a blonde wig dancing around in a bubble dress. Perhaps if I was in high school coming of age, I’d find escape and creativity in this packaging. At the point I am in my life, being someone who has never been drunk, I find the concept of her song “Let’s Dance” quite at odds with my personal experience. I was never someone who would get too drunk to escape myself and let loose on the dance floor. If anything, I’ve always come at the dance floor from a different angle — I think and analyze too much; therefore, let me bust some moves as a respite.
Someone left a comment on my Facebook page yesterday questioning my dislike of Gaga, stating that I am basically an older gay version of her. I was not offended by my friend’s observation…but it made me question just how people perceive me. It is no doubt that my current album “1987″ is a full-on 80s inspired dance extravaganza. What differs from my album and Gaga’s is that most of the songs on my album, if you investigate the lyrics, are intricately autobiographical. Most of the songs on “1987″ began as acoustic songs and were recast as dance songs for the sake of concept. Listening to Gaga’s album, I found lyrics rife with references to fame, glamour, commercialism, money, status, and the endless pursuit of THE PARTY. You will find none of that on my album. If anything, I find myself repelled and uninterested by the concepts of fame, fashion, social status, and chemically-induced escapism.
I cannot make a case for the lyrics of Madonna’s pop music. But I can say that her lyrics and concepts spoke very loud and clear to my less-developed 10-year-old mind. Let’s have a holiday. Express yourself. Don’t go for second best. The closest Madonna came to the mindset of our modern culture was “Material Girl” – and that song’s delivery was so tongue-in-cheek and camp that any listener knew she was really just a dirty punk rock girl singing in.
I don’t think Lady Gaga is a dirty punk rock girl disguised as a pop diva. I think she is pure marketing and as plain and boring and soulless as everything else that’s come out in these homogenized times. At this point in my evolution as a person, I am offended that people are trying to talk me into finding merit in a young girl with an unoriginal wig (Gwen Aguilera anyone?) singing about getting drunk, losing her self-awareness, and dancing. I couldn’t have related to stuff like that even when I was 17, much less now.
The more time goes by, the more distant I feel from modern pop culture. As annoying as the 90s were, at least there seemed to be a simple kind of distilled sincerity to the Lilith Fair bracket.
I have begun recording my next album. By no means will this be an 80s dance album. It was very tempting to continue dancing around to 80s-sounding songs wearing a boa and acting crazy on the stage. The way people responded to “1987″ was very visual and immediate. When I danced crazy, people laughed. When I humped the stage, people screamed immediately. As I begin to work on a more serious and introspective project, I will have to worn my ego not to be bruised, knowing that people respond differently to more cerebral tunes.
Being that I am fascinated by society and trends, I spent hours watching Gaga and YouTube and researching her. I still found no love, but I spent $25 dollars on a Lady Gaga ticket with the intention of watching her and reaffirming that I don’t like her. After reading about Joni Mitchell and her music, I realized that should I go to this concert tonight, it would be a form of self-torture. I know I’d be very unhappy. So instead, I am going to make $50 profit on the ticket I bought.
Ideally, I’d love to see mass culture shift back towards an emphasis on self-examination, humanitarianism, and sincere communication and kindness. Until then, just dance.