12 November 2009

Radio... ummm Lady Gaga

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine wanted to know why I hadn’t written about Lady Gaga in any extensive way – I thought to myself, “Has this schmuck even read any of my postings? Does this dunce have any idea of the range of musicians we have covered here?” Well… honestly, that range is ever shifting, really depending on who is writing and what we are exposed and grooving to at the moment. Originally I thought about more “underground” or unknown (barely known) musicians in the States, but the range kept getting larger and larger – and, yes, I do have plans on continuing to increase that range. (Lately, a good friend has really gotten me into the blues.) However, ultimately, the one common thread between all of the musicians on this site is that they favor substance to glitz, artistry to gimmicks. At the end of it all, we are "singing the unsung heroes," giving credit to unsigned, unknown, and/or major artists that have not gotten all the credit they deserve. And while suffering from writer's block the other night, a dear friend of mine sent me an article from the “New York Post” about Lady Gaga (link), and it inspired me to write – not specifically about her, but I think she is the perfect symbol, allegory really, of what I want to say.

A few weeks ago I was hanging out and someone asked, “Who determines the Top 100 singles?” The generic babble of it is based on radio play, requests, and some sales configurations got regurgitated. But then I remembered the Cure, among bands, ranking on the top ten of the Hot 100 Singles Sale, but not being on the top 100 singles. The only conclusion then is that airplay is more significant in the ranking than sales (ironic really). And ultimately, airplay is not based on the requests that come in (go ahead and call your local pop stations and ask them to play “Papillon” by the Editors, but don’t hold your breath). It is based on a narrow play list selected by program directors. If you are not on that list, you are not going to get played. And perhaps that list is really about the least offensive music (marketers paying for commercial time have to be kept happy, which would explain satellite radio's broader range of music), perhaps it is payola and other incentives (major corporations have an invested interest in pushing products – ever wonder why most of the music on the radio is from major companies compared to the percentage of independent label artists?), or perhaps it is the result of continuing a trend of consumable “pop” instead of doing research of what is out there. Regardless, I replied to this naïve person, “Program directors, of course.”

So it is almost appropriate that Lady Gaga would be named after Queen’s song “Radio Gaga”: “So don’t become some background noise, a backdrop for the girls and boys, who just don’t know or just don’t care and just complaint when you’re not there. You had your time, you had the power, you’ve yet to have your finest hour. Radio. All we hear is radio gaga, radio googoo, radio gaga. All we hear is radio gaga, radio blah blah, radio what’s new? Radio someone still loves you.” Regardless of the “gaga” the radio is going to play, someone is going to love it, regardless. Because if that is all that is on offer, you either have to get acclimated to it or do some searching of your own (which most people do not have the time or desire to do). And though most people I know cannot even name one song by Lady Gaga, she has risen as a pop icon. She is not the only person, just the latest, and will not be the last. Furthermore, I am not saying she does not have talent; she had a very interesting career before her transformation into Lady Gaga. But she, as many other artists, became an entertainer, lowest denominator, for record sales and radio play.

What really got me about the “Post” article was the lead sentence – comparing her to David Bowie, Cher, and Bjork. (I am not going to touch Cher, I promise.) David Bowie and Bjork are not just musicians and artists: they are musical institutions. Both have created music and personas that exist outside of the box, and both have used visual image to express the depth of their music. Both have influenced countless musicians (Bowie: The Cure, Placebo, Duran Duran; Bjork: Kate Havenevik, Lamb), and both have done so by not selling out to the radio. Actually, both could care less about radio play. But the comparison I hate the most is when any new “diva” comes along and she is instantly compared to Madonna.

Is Madonna a great vocalist? No. Is Madonna a great musician? No. Is Madonna original? No. You would immediately think that I have nothing good to say about ole Maddy, ha? Madonna knows her limitation as a vocalist, and though she has pushed her own boundaries, other than the one time rapping (unforgivable!) she has never written or recorded a song that is not perfect for her voice. Furthermore, what she may not know as a musician she makes up for with the ingenuity of working with the right people. And is she original? One moment Marilyn Monroe the next Marlene Dietrich? It does not matter, for everything she does she owns – it is not homage or imitation, it is usurpation and incorporation. It is not the assimilation into something foreign, it is forcing the foreign to be part of her. Add that to being an amazing performer (whether riding a mechanical bull, simulating masturbation, or singing in a German accent), she delivers the perfect performance for the interpretation of the given song. Moreover, and the Madonna fans are going to hate me now, couple that with the fact that she is one savvy business woman, making marketing into an art form, none of these little divas can compare to the career she has had. (It is also wise to remember that Madonna started in the 80s, when pirating music was not as common as it is now. Artists back then sold millions upon millions of albums, and now just one million is considered a miracle and a great day. Furthermore, she was never safe to play on the radio, considering her antics. Yet, she busted through to radio play and forced the pop world to elevate her to pop icon. Can you think of any other person to accomplish that? I can’t. When Michael Jackson became questionable, program directors ignored his new material, while Madonna continues to get into the rotation with newer singles, while generating new scandals.)

To this point, Lady Gaga is no David Bowie, no Bjork, and no Madonna. This is not to say that she, and others who program directors select, will not leave a positive mark on music; this is not to say that she will not give up antics for substance – Alanis Morissette started as a teeny-bopper and quickly made a transition to serious substance after winning a Juno Award. But ultimately, this is why I really do not write about much “mainstream” music. I really do not feel comfortable with a program director, seeking corporate commercial time, determining what I should be listening to. (And this is no fault of theirs; they are running a business that has to sustain itself the way the infrastructure for getting new music out there is currently structured.) And that is not to say that radio friendly music and I have not crossed paths (I love Little Boots, La Roux, Frankmusik), but I do question glitz, gimmicks, and antics over substance and craftsmanship. Did a band like Muse rise from obscurity to getting radio play in most major markets in the world? Yes, but they did so on the merit of their craftsmanship. Yeah, the latest album is not up to par with their pervious work, but “Uprising” as much as preaches revolution and entered the US top 40. But what does the majority of the top 20 music really have to offer in terms of genre, craftsmanship, and artistry? Not much for the most part. Ironically, the most iconic musicians in history, for the most part, were not chart toppers; sure some were (the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Madonna), but those are the exceptions to the rule. Most of the iconic musicians may have had one or two hits, but not a string. You may never have heard of Kraftwerk, but I assure you, you hear them in the work of others. The Doors only had three top 10 singles in the USA, while Jimi Hendrix had none. The Cure and Depeche Mode have never had a number one single in any English speaking country. And “Bohemian Rhapsody” was more successful the second time released in the USA, shortly before Freddie Mercury past away, than the first time, and still did not hit #1.

The lesson to learn about this: radio gaga may be fun to listen to, but it is not going to have sustainability for the most part. Radio gaga may be fun to listen to, but it is the choice of a program director and not the listener. And Lady Gaga may be fun to gyrate around to and even laugh at with some of the costumes, but you are not going to hear any praises from me (at least not at this moment). Her fame is predicated on program directors thinking that she is safe to play, safe to sell commercial space, and commonplace enough to sound familiar to an audience. And perhaps my collaborator here on the blog, Bloodybones, may be right and her next album may take her in another direction, but until that happens, I will always favor musicians and bands that prove their craftsmanship as composers, performers, and artists. And I will never forget that just because it is getting played on the radio it does not mean that it is the most selling, the best quality, or “art” that challenges genre, society, or our own ideas. As in all things, I am weary of the status quo and those that support it, blindly or consciously.

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