Is Lady Gaga The Closest The Mainstream Gets To Avant-Garde?

In the world of pop tunes, presentation is–arguably–much more the “product” than the music. In that respect, there’s almost no question that Lady Gaga is pushing boundaries. Unless of course you count Marilyn Manson as a pop star. But as you know, he doesn’t make pop music, he makes industrial goth. What Gaga lacks in doing it first, she makes up for with doing it in a far less adventure-ready arena. And whatever “it” is, she ain’t bad at it. I’ll bet it’s with no fully dissolved solution of respect and envy that Manson watches the video for “Bad Romance” with a twisted grin on his face.

But courageousness aside, can we really call Lady Gaga a member of the avant-garde?

TheFreeDictionary.com defines the avant-garde as “A group active in the invention and application of new techniques in a given field, especially in the arts.”

Okay, if the given field is pop music, which we’re defining–cynically–as the packaging of a singer for mass consumption… Then yes, we can say that at least part of what Lady Gaga does is completely new.

But is it actually a technique? Or is it just the glorification of flinging stuff at the wall because the market is ready for it? Let’s look at the definition of “technique.”

technique (n): “The systematic procedure by which a complex or scientific task is accomplished.”

I don’t know whether Gaga’s procedure can be called systematic. Hell, I don’t even know if we can call it a procedure. This ain’t Claude Monet developing more exaggerated brush-strokes of light and shadow to render a stylized impression of landscapes. If anything, the Gaga schtick seems to flourish by virtue of it’s sharply asystematic, “WTF”-appeal.

Is it rebellion that Germanotta taps into? If so, then why does she keep the music so effortless to hear? Remember, the music is still part of the equation, and if she wanted to be really rebellious, she would have stayed with her earlier rock or hip-hop songwriting instead of re-tooling Madonna and Michael Jackson for an easy swallow by the millions.

I guess that “m” word really explains it. Lady Gaga knows how to feed the machine with the tunes necessary for pop universality. She knows that fashion, photography and music video are far more avant-ready mediums for the bizarre or unusual. Music, not so much. That’s the key to pop-song success: instant familiarity. It’s why the same four-chord structure comprises half of the songs you hear on the radio. The ear and the eye are such different animals. The eye is hungry for more data. The ear wants to maintain the status quo. Why do you think alarms are so… alarming? Evolutionarily, the ear “stood watch”, protecting us from predators and rival tribes. The eye worked on hunting, learning and reproducing. Advancement. The eye is the offensive squad, and the ear is the defense. Ever hear someone listening to really weird music and then joke that they’re on drugs? The phrase, “you have to be high to enjoy Phish” is not entirely un-scientific. When music has too much color, complexity and other variables, our primal ear turns off from it. Illicit substances, for better or worse, are known to boost the visual qualities of our other senses. By the same token, have you ever honestly been thrilled by looking at a picture of a tree in a field? BORING! I’ve seen that like a thousand times by now! Show me something interesting, like melting clocks drooping off the side of a mesa!

Does this mean anything?

Does this mean anything?

But I digress. Lady Gaga is not an avant-garde artist, she’s a marketer. She certainly meets the standard of an “artist”–she’s definitely expressing herself in a way that could change how you look at the world. But her strategy of connecting unusual sights to the same old sounds are nothing short of a marketing strategy. She’s a shrewd businesswoman, a supposedly postmodern creatrix whose craft is the attachment of contrasting packages to each other, in order to increase demand for the “product”.

I tell you what though, she IS “active in the invention and application of new techniques in a given field”, but that field is making millions, not shedding light on the inner-life of the world.

Unless of course marketing is an elaborate–and coincidentally profitable–performance piece about modern humanity…

For the record, I love Lady Gaga. TC mark

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper/ image – Domain Barnyard

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UQ6BAXXS7OV3XEA7JNI7PRLCSI Matt

    It’s “avant-garde”. Geez.

  • http://twitter.com/iamtheboyking Trey

    Does Radiohead count? 

  • Adam D

    Huh. After reading this, I’m not sure what to say except that the writer loves to overcomplicate things.

  • Aaron

    please!  Dali was avant gardé.  Picasso was avant gardé. Elvis Presley was avant gardé.  Lady Gaga is a recycling media whore with no musical talent.  The masses satisfy their need of avant gardé by enchanting “Alejandro”.

    • http://twitter.com/iamtheboyking Trey

      why was elvis avant garde. 

      and i don’t really like Lady Gaga but calling her a recycling media whore with no musical talent seems to be a bit off base. 

      • RECK

        yeah just a bit lol

    • Anonymous

      Why does garde have an accent on it?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1384901502 Lana Ray

        Because Aaron doesn’t understand the french language.

      • Aaron

        Lana, neither French nor English are my mother languages, but I speak both fluently.  I make mistakes every now and then but I guess that it is hard to understand for someone that only speaks her mother tongue.  Otherwise you would not make such a childish comment on a simple misplaced accent.

      • silly

        I don’t speak French (but I can if you like?) and it was blatantly obvious that it was misplaced to me. It just makes you look affected and pretentious. Appropriately so! (Not to mention “enchanting”… if that’s your description of fluent English, I beg to differ.)

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        I once mentioned “Debussy” (as the composer of the piece of music someone had hummed and wanted a name for) and heard a guy, in a stage-whisper, “correct” me , to his boyfriend:  “De-bew-SAY”.  I think people think a terminal “ay” is more fancy.

    • ams

      At this point, it’s almost impossible for any artist to create something that can’t be compared to the past. Even Elvis Presley was drawing inspiration from music that wasn’t well-known or accessible to his fans. And even Lady Gaga knows that she’s not breaking any musical ground. At the very least, she has a great voice and is a great performer.

      • ams

        And the temptation to be a bit immature here is too tempting: your accent is as misplaced as your comment, Mr. Gar-day.

      • Aaron

        immature big time.  And probably someone that only speaks one language.

      • no bai

        Do you not grasp the irony of using “immature big time” as an insult? (And I speak five. XOXO.)

      • Sippycup

        I don’t think that’s true. The artists of the future will be scientists.  Think genetics and robotics.

    • Raguner

      Personally, I believe avant-garde also applies to synthesizing old material through new inventions. For Picasso, he heavily borrowed inspiration from African masks  and Braque, the other pioneer of Cubism, for his Guernica-style works, or the use of inverted color schemes from Matisse.

      Gaga appears to be marrying rock beats with electronic pop records, which honors, reinvents, and reintroduces artists like Queen and Michael Jackson to a generation that hasn’t been exposed to this musical history.

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    Which part of GaGa is “avant”?  Ugly doesn’t equal Innovation. America is so corny that it always mistakes its Designated Freaks (David Lynch, Marilyn Manson, Mister T)  for Trailblazers… when, in fact, it’s across the supine corpses of the genuine Trailblazers (Beefheart, William Greaves, Charles Fort, Lenny Bruce, Zoe Lund) that the house-broken “freaks” march into the Arena.  Even the career arc of Scott Walker (from Top 40 dominance in The Walker Brothers to “Tilt” in 30 years) is freakier than Fauxhemian GaGa’s cynical exploitation of Queer alienation.

    • Adam D

      Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        Sure, and De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum. Plus “Everything is beautiful in its own way”,  “Everything is relative” and “One man’s meat dress is another man’s publicity stunt”, etc. 

    • guest

      Mister T????

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        That’s right, Sucka!

  • Anonymous

    I like the way you think. Very smart article. And, I also like Lady Ga Ga, I just don’t take her seriously. 

  • http://www.visakanv.com Visakan V

    “marketing is an elaborate–and coincidentally profitable–performance piece about modern humanity…”

    Bingo. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1255470116 Sean Duffie

    “…she IS ‘active in the invention and application of new techniques in a given field’, but that field is making millions…”

    If we’re going to analyze the true merit of her success… shouldn’t we first figure out when this lens was first applied? When was the tipping point that our pop artists became agents of million-dollar revenue rather than expression?

    If that tipping point is Lady Gaga, then maybe, ironically, she is avant garde. I think the tipping point occurred around 30 years ago, so I don’t think Gaga is to be alone brought into light under these terms. But the Gaga example, nonetheless, seems to hold water.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1255470116 Sean Duffie

      Three mimosas deep, did that make sense? Amirite? Amirite?

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    “The eye is hungry for more data. The ear wants to maintain the status
    quo. Why do you think alarms are so… alarming? Evolutionarily, the ear
    “stood watch”, protecting us from predators and rival tribes. The eye
    worked on hunting, learning and reproducing. Advancement. The eye is the
    offensive squad, and the ear is the defense. Ever hear someone
    listening to really weird music and then joke that they’re on drugs? The
    phrase, “you have to be high to enjoy Phish” is not entirely
    un-scientific. When music has too much color, complexity and other
    variables, our primal ear turns off from it. Illicit substances, for
    better or worse, are known to boost the visual qualities of our other
    senses. By the same token, have you ever honestly been thrilled by
    looking at a picture of a tree in a field? BORING! I’ve seen that like a
    thousand times by now! Show me something interesting, like melting
    clocks drooping off the side of a mesa!”

    This bit definitely deserves expansion… I just think it’s wasted on GaGa, who (imo) only yields interesting returns if she’s analyzed in terms of the political (ie, her career’s connection to the out-of-nowhere-ness of Obama)…

  • http://acidloudacid.blogspot.com/ PIQUO.

    “Rainbow
    Manifesto”
    by Ay-o

    Cover your head with a yellow hat because Tristan Tzara didn’t cover his head
    with one in 1916, 1918, 1919 and 1920.
    Wear a violet coat because Jean-Paul Sartre, who said it hasn’t been sufficiently
    noted that the constructions, paintings and poem-objects of Surrealism were the manual realization
    of sterilities by which the sceptics of the Third Century B.C. justified their perpetual
    “epoche.” After which, Carneades and Philo, sure of not compromising themselves by an imprudent
    adherence, lived like everybody else. In the same way, the Surrealists, once the world is
    destroyed and miraculously preserved by its destruction, can shamelessly give full play to their
    immense love of the world never wore one.
    Wear red gloves because fifteen years ago I was blamed by a Japanese
    Communist for not painting a red flag.
    Wear orange pants because Circumference = 2 ¹ r
    Wear green socks because the area of the circle = ¹ r2
    Put on blue shoes
    but ¹ = 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884
    197169399375105820974944592307816406286208998628034825342117
    067982148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128481117
    450284102701938521105559644622948954930381964428810975665933
    446128475648233786783165271201909145648566923460348610454326
    648213393607260249141273724587006606315588174881520920962829
    254091715364369036001133053054882046652138414695194151160943
    305727036575959195309218611738193261179310511854807446237996
    274956735188575272489122793818301194912983367336244065664308
    602139494639522473719070217986094370277053921717629317675238
    467481846766940513200656812714526356082778577134275778960917
    363717872146844090122495343014654958537105079227968925892354
    201995611212902196086355441911971602977461130996051870721134
    9999998372978049951059731732816096318475024459455 . . .

    • guest

      this is the only good comment in the comment stream and also this article was fucking terrible and the author should kill himself

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        Guest is always the cruelest commenter

  • Lou

    WHY IS THIS ON A WEBSITE FOR PEOPLE TO READ

  • http://thetangential.com Becky Lang

    i thought people couldn’t write interesting things about lady gaga. aside from the freedictionary parts, this was pretty cool.

  • http://kilakilakila.blogspot.com/ brittany wallace

    i don’t know i don’t know whatever

  • jollymelancholy

    The conclusions don’t follow the results. You say that she meets all the criteria in your dictionary definitions, then try to explain it away because she makes money.

  • Anti-Climacus

    I do have a soft spot for bizarre fashion, but musically there is nothing avant garde about her. 

  • Woyzeck

    Lady Gaga’s music is shite.

  • TO

    If you’ve heard interviews with her, she doesn’t seem to be self aware, or, frankly, smart enough to really be consciously avant-garde. It’s more like she just throws some Rocky horror + Madonna costumes over some euro-pop beats, and calls herself different, an alternative to the other “normal” pop out there.

    Kanye West is, I think, the only mainstream artist that I know of that shakes things up enough to be considered innovative; I still don’t feel he is avant-garde.

  • Cockyrocky

    IS LADY GAGA THE CLOSEST THING TO A RETARD? PROBABLY!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/baronholbach Nathan Tompkins

    I usually don’t comment on things I read online unless it’s in a field that concerns me directly in some way, but I’m compelled to make an exception here.   Even halfway through this piece, I knew I was beholding something exceptional: the dumbest article I’ve read all year.

  • Andy

    Stefani Germanotta is one of the most remarkable avant garde artists I’ve seen. Her performance-art piece “being a pop star named ‘Lady Gaga'” (as well as the recent companion piece “being a pop star’s boyfriend named ‘Joe Calderone'”) is an elaborate and stunningly deft accomplishment.

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