Features | Festivals

Lady Gaga Versus the Arcade Fire

By Clayton Purdom | 16 August 2010

Lady Gaga was the only reason to have given, going into the weekend, a hint of a fuck about Lollapalooza; and coming out, despite the riot and bluster of so many other acts, she was the only reason to think of returning. Don’t get me wrong: it was a fine festival. Lollapalooza is what it is. I can complain about the crowd or the curation or whatever else, but it’s a money-maker, and it’s fine. Nobody’s really there for the music, but the music’s pretty good, so who gives a shit? Go, if drinking beer outside is your thing. And to the organizers’ credit, this year they doubled the festival space without doubling the crowd, making transit between stages a possibility rather than a sociopathic clusterfuck and making the sidestages into legitimate venues rather than echo-clogged back closets.

But the festival’s edict remained this year as last year: Which middle-aged white dude do you want to hear play guitar? Throughout the afternoons younger white dudes played their guitars convincingly, some of them on their way to someday taking up one of those glorious middle-aged headlining spots to which we were all, as the days turned to evenings, eventually funneled. The Strokes hit the exact notes they did a decade ago; Billy Joe Armstrong played classic rock medleys; Soundgarden performed in front of what looked like a circa 1997 back tattoo; Phoenix, the most delightfully wtf headliner present, kicked new wave jamz with anachronistic aplomb; and the Arcade Fire, the most vital and musically interesting of any of the headliners, were still the Arcade Fire, i.e. new-millennium Dad Rock. People that came got what they came for, and what they came for was comfort. Loud comfort.

Lady Gaga, on the other hand, dressed like an Imperial Trooper, fought a literal monster, bathed in blood, joked about having a penis, referenced both her biological and heavenly Father, played an obelisk-shaped key-tar while floating in mid-air, also hid a keyboard at one point in the trunk of a car, also (oh yeah) had a car onstage, also also had a train onstage but only at a separate point (for narrative purposes), and briefly, inexplicably, danced to Metallica. I hereby retire the phrase “hot mess.” Her music yielded ample opportunities for the crowd to alternately shriek and pulse in unison—even for me, who doesn’t know or like very much of it. I gave The Fame Monster a spin about six months ago and moved on, and even though it’s still not going on the iPod I now get it, in this sort of complete, shuddering way. “I heard she started preaching and shit,” a friend of mine, who wasn’t at the show, said later. “And crying and stuff.” Well, sure—pretty much everyone was, caught up in a giddy rush of affection for the Chicago skyline and the sense of valediction which careened off the stage and resonated like lightning rods in the audience. Yeah, people were crying.

I understand the other headliners had light shows, or something.

And the thing is this: I hate spectacle. I abhor it. Green Day, who I did not see and could not have been paid enough money to go see, were awful, I assume, with their Important Songs About America and their Eyeliner. I never want pyrotechnics or costume changes, I hate KISS and the Flaming Lips and Of Montreal and Mucca Pazza; I hate funny faces, posturing, showmanship, audience interaction. I hate it when otherwise likable indie bands do the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” word-sign thing. I hate being forced to rap or sing along. I hate cuteness and a lot of the time I hate smiles. I hate it when I can tell a band is wearing clothes they didn’t buy. The musicians I like are typically talented musicians, even if noisy or low-brow, and when I pay money to go see them I want to see them be talented musicians, something I am not. Even when great shows I’ve been to featured spectacle it was as an extension of that talent: Kanye rapping his brains out in a neon glow that enhanced the virtuosity we heard.

There are those who would maintain that spectacle on the scale of Lady Gaga’s Lollapalooza show is perfect for pop music, but I disagree. That reasoning falls in with the “just”-pop-music line of thinking, as though it were something disposable and trashy and fun, which undercuts “Holiday” and “P.Y.T.” and “Senorita” and “Little Red Corvette” and many of the other greatest songs ever recorded, which were all also trashy fun pop music but the exact opposite of disposable; which is to say, Art. But Lady Gaga delineates carefully and cleanly between pop and rock—she did it several times during her Lollapalooza set, even namedropping Marc Bolan at one point—and, in light of that show, I will allow this “just”-pop-music argument for her. I believe it is how she views her own music. Because she sets up these fun, funny, utterly disposable little pop songs and then rips them to shreds. Her music is disposable, sure, but it is a prop. She attacks it and the image of the pop star with Johnny Rotten rock and roll viciousness, recreating Madonna’s Catholic self-consciousness and Britney Spears’ cheery hedonism but then covering that stage show in blood, reveling in her own failures (at 2007’s Lollapalooza, for example) and exhorting throughout all of this preposterous bloodshed that she and her audience are one and the same.

It is a thoroughly self-aware, post-modern idea. This is the key to her appeal, something she made explicit during an onstage back-and-forth with one of her dancers: that she turned into Lady Gaga but was once not. There is always an awareness of Stefani Germanotta, who was, like most people, insecure, unpopular, and weird, and who longed in self-loathing to be like her idols, the stars—the very people Gaga has now eclipsed. (This part of the show was sort of a fever pitch as far as the whole everybody-crying-thing went.) But it’s this insistence upon a transformative backstory that I find so interesting, and hadn’t quite realized until seeing her live. Like Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga’s appeal is in her everygirl origins, which she reminds her audience of constantly, but unlike Kelly Clarkson, she has a pyrotechnic brassiere. Unlike Kelly Clarkson—who I’m not picking on, but using as an example—Lady Gaga isn’t still the same old girl, now at the top of the charts and headlining Lollapalooza. Lady Gaga got to the top of the charts and the main stage at Lollapalooza and then unleashed hell. She’s like a duckling that skipped being a swan and turned into a velociraptor.

Indeed, this every-person pluralism in the midst of superhero pop stardom reminds me not of David Bowie or Queen or Madonna, all frequent reference points when people praise Gaga, but rather Bruce Springsteen, only for a very different audience than the Boss’s. And this is also what makes her different—and better—than the Arcade Fire, a band many would name Springsteen’s heir. The manly American dreaming of those expatriates provided Lollapalooza’s other clear highlight, because this festival is about big, broad-swipe rock music. But while I celebrate the way the Arcade Fire aim for big-issue, zeitgeisty stuff, I think they have as yet proven too weak to fully do so. The zeitgeist bats them away; they conclude, always, with their original hypothesis; they teach us nothing. They aim to electrify The Suburbs but only conclude that it sucks—something of which their suburban listeners are already keenly aware, I believe. It’s terrific music for arenas but in the end it only serves to place an epic frame around a preexisting mass ennui.

Springsteen, of course, found a solution to this popular dissatisfaction, which he pinpointed to the three-word phrase “born to run” and its corresponding record—the point at which his art actualized. Arcade Fire may do the same someday, but Lady Gaga already has through her knowing, ecstatic effacement of the pop star and her unerring adherence to the origin story. There is very little hint of this transformative narrative within her actual music, which is why it is boring but also why she, decidedly, is not. In one of her most sly bits of schtick, she exhorts her fans as “little monsters,” a pet name that (to the converted) must feel almost individually personalized, and I am either preaching to those monsters at this point or just garnering more hate-mail for myself. Gaga will remain divisive. She is violent and vulgar, fucked up and intense. She is also utterly manufactured. But I don’t believe we will ever see her, shaved-head, pilled out and attacking paparazzi with an umbrella, as we have previous pop stars, and that’s because Lady Gaga is—for once—a pop star comfortable with both normalcy and stardom, conversant with both NYC and The Suburbs. She sees nothing there to vilify or bemoan, just the place she and her fans—of course, inseparably—call home.