Monday, November 30, 2009

Deconstructing "Bad Romance"

When Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” hit a few weeks ago, it was an event in a way that is rare nowadays. For one thing, her video not only got coverage—lots and lots of coverage—but it was actually anticipated, actually viewed, multiple, multiple times. “Bad Romance” exceeded hype, and the love for the freaky, weird, psychologically confounding, hyper-symbolic, sexy video only continued. Deconstructions of “Bad Romance” are all over the Internet, with many including a play-by-play using screen captures. “Bad Romance” has symbolism and sex written all over it, and really, the video is just incredible.

So what is Gaga saying? Like many of her other songs, the theme here is hard love—rough love, a bad romance, wanting something so badly that she’s caught up in something terrible but she doesn’t care. She’s upfront about her freaky side, and in her wanting, there is anger: “I want your everything / as long as it’s free.” The low growl of her voice, the thumping tone of the music, underscores her feelings. James Montgomery of MTV calls “Bad Romance” the bridge between the old “The Fame” Gaga and her new “The Fame Monster” Gaga, now with additional sex and spookiness. Some focus on the "sex slavery" aspect of the song and video or the occult imagery. Still other interpretations play off her quote, “That tough female spirit is something that I want to project. It's meant to be, 'This is my shield, this is my weapon, this is my inner sense of fame, this is my monster,' “in that she embodies different facets of womanhood through the stories she devises.

“Bad Romance” is practically several videos at once, and that makes it so wonderful and so difficult to deconstruct. There’s a basic narrative—in the singer’s words, she is “kidnapped by supermodels. I'm washing away my sins and they shove vodka down my throat to drug me up before they sell me off to the Russian mafia," but she escapes by blowing up the head guy in a fiery blaze—which is intercut with various other Gagas, each with its own look, every one easily a separate video. I love Gaga dressed in black, her yellow stringy hair falling down, those big black sunglasses obscuring her face. I love the babydoll Gaga, Kewpie doll eyes, innocence in a tub. I love Gaga, vulnerable, broken down, hysterical with (nearly) no makeup on, crying “I don’t wanna be friends!” There’s the alien Gagas, in Alexander McQueen ensembles, in diamonds and white latex and shiny gold, with snazzy headpieces and razor-blade sunglasses, in fabulous black lingerie and only-acceptable-in-a-music-video-this-artistic white thong underwear. Gaga, at various points, is all of many things: alone, vulnerable, innocent, dazed, wistful, childlike, terrified, satisfied, sexy, powerful, defiant, strong, beautiful.

Despite the diverse Gagas, she uses many of the same symbols and motifs as she has in earlier videos and public appearances—encasing her body in shiny orbs, spikes on her head and heels, weird lines on her body, either through clothing or through effects, faces and eyes covered, surrounded and studded in diamonds. The video itself borrows from many sources—some of her choreography, like the crawling, is directly from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video, and in the opening there are allusions to her other videos and to “True Blood”. In the lyrics, there is a nod to Hitchcock: “I want your psycho / Your vertical stick / Want you in my rear window / Baby you’re sick”, though the whole song is about wanting in a psychologically damaging romance. She ends her performance on "Jay Leno" by grabbing her crotch, another move defiantly done in “Express Yourself”. She knows how crazy she is—she does call herself a “freak bitch” several times—and she wants all sorts of freaky things besides love, hard to quantify things, not to mention that she trills her own (stage) name in the cheers that surround the song. Then there are the animals—the dog that has appeared in all her videos, the bare cat hissing away, the goats on display over the bed, the bear peignoir she wears to present herself to her captor—and the death, violence, and alcohol that have shown up in other works.

The video moves between gray, dark lighting and bright white. The darkness finds her hidden away, in alien mode, but the blinding brightness is her exposed, in the man’s world, until she claims it. Gaga follows the same pattern, extremely pale to note her vulnerability and innocence, ending outfitted with red lace and strips of cloth, with black boots and gloves to symbolize the breaking away (Viva la Revolución!), her own power. The dancers clap around her, in celebration.

She has performed “Bad Romance” in a number of venues, and they all feature similar choreography, not only making it easier for the performers but also tightening her message. On "The Jay Leno Show", she opens dressed in a black bodysuit with huge shoulders, like a pillow growing out of her upper back. Her hands turn into claws, and her dancers, lying down, now start to claw awake and alive. Lady Gaga claws at the air, at herself, and then holds her hand out as if she wants a ring or a kiss as she sings “I want your leather-studded kiss in the sand”. “You know that I want you, and you know that I need you, I want it bad, your bad romance” she intones, and all the dancers form behind her, clawing their way forward. It’s creepy and cool. As the chorus continues, the dances go psycho, waving and clawing around. All the dancers are male, and they all are wearing masks. Even the musicians in the background are dressed this way.

She twists and stomps, and she shoots off an imaginary gun during “’Cause you’re a criminal as long as you’re mine”, just like in the video. The bridge is more clawing, baring her chest, and her dancers move closer, behind her. They dance in unison, before the lead dancer, a wire cage over his face, lifts her up through her legs, his hand on her stomach. It gives me the willies every time. His teeth are bared, his face menacing. These guys really are creeps. The final chorus, Lady Gaga’s right hand is a fist, and she pumps it up and down, determined.

The entire performance is aggressive, but it’s not just her movements that personify this, it’s her songs themselves. The French lyrics that open the second bridge don’t just rephrase the central lines of “I want your love/ I want your romance”, they demand. She is not polite, she does not use the polite form of “to want”. “I demand your love” is followed by her wailing “I don’t wanna be friends” with “caught in a bad romance” swirling in the background, building up the pain. In a sense, the main storyline and the song don’t match up, because she has no interest in the man at the center of the story. But the choreography of her movements, some of her other selves—mainly the close-up of her face, crying—do fit with the song, and the consistency of her choreography throughout multiple performances suggest something else. As in other songs, she is aggressive and shameless, and the clawing, marching, and twisting only further the interpretation that this is her definition of a “tough female spirit”.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Giving Grudging Props to She Pop

I came late to She Pop, a short-lived blog on a generally female-oriented pop music on Bitch Magazine’s website. Sady Doyle has made a bit of a name for herself in feminist blog circles, and Bitch Magazine expanded her reach by having her comment thrice weekly on whatever was big in the pop music world.

She was not an ideal blogger on this subject, and it came through in her posts, some of which I criticized sharply, since she knew little of what she wrote about, and dismissed it all as spectacle. As she wrote in her opening post,

Pop stars, finessed and manufactured though they may be, are reflective of wider cultural attitudes. They have to be: that's how they get to be popular in the first place. If they weren't speaking to people, no-one would listen. And the way that we talk about them is often extremely revealing.
No kidding, Sady. It’s obvious when reading this that she never before considered the influence that popular culture has on people, why people like pop stars for other reasons besides their music. No wonder, when you equate pop stars—generally, living, breathing, active people—with toasters, inanimate appliances, and then wonder why people get so worked up. I can see why her outlook, curious to a music fan, would be interesting to the editors, but as a reader, it was an insult to those who did think about the messages sent.

In her final post, she acknowledges how naïve she was when she began the project, and how much she’s learned, which was nice to hear. I’m not of fan of Sady’s style; it’s too overblown, and structurally there are too many loose threads. My biggest problem was that she did little research and no fact-checking, a no-no. I also did not agree with many of her feminist principles, though I support the idea of the blog and hope that other guest bloggers will fill the space.

So farewell, She Pop. You inspired a lot of ire, and got me working. I hope you return—there will always be songs to mine, artists to deconstruct, and gender roles to parse.

A Lack of Imagination

She's nothing like a girl you've ever seen before
Nothing you can compare to your neighborhood [girl]
I'm tryna find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful
The way that booty movin' I can't take no more
Have to stop what I'm doin' so I can pull her close
I'm tryna find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful

--David Guetta, featuring Akon "Sexy Chick"

Countless songs describe a wondrous, appealing female, one who moves the male singer. Most try to describe, no matter how crudely, the girl in question, why she is so spectacular. Sometimes the descriptions are trite. Occasionally they are beautiful.

Akon not only does not try (though he professes to), he can’t even fathom words that wouldn’t cause the girl to slap his face in indignation.

Clearly, listening to only misogynistic booty-shakers renders one incapable of seeing a girl as anything other than a whore—the word that replaces girl in the unedited versions of the song. For every neighborhood chick is a whore, every woman is automatically debased: these men have to struggle to be respectful when they actually meet a woman who intrigues them.

So “Sexy Chick” is really a cautionary tale: men, make sure you know how to talk to a woman. Because if you struggle to say something that’s not a gender slur, you’re not going to go too far.