Saturday, February 19, 2011

The timbre of sincerity

Just to be clear: Lady Gaga is about (primarily visual) spectacle, not about music per se. That's not to say that her spectacle is necessarily immersive in the sense in which we classically think about spectacle. (By "we" I mean people who sit around thinking about panoramas and wax museums and are very fond of the work of Alison Griffiths and Vanessa Schwartz and spend rainy weekend afternoons leafing through The Arcades Project, which is to say all of us.) Her videos are not made for IMAX; they're made for YouTube. They are miniatures in their bigness.

To me the canonical Lady Gaga video remains "Bad Romance." I haven't even heard her new single; there's no video yet, so what's the point?

Notwithstanding the primacy of the visual in Lady Gaga, there's something that continues to fascinate me about the sound of "Bad Romance." I'm sure the observation has been made better elsewhere, but I'm still trying to figure it out. There is something about Gaga's vocal timbre that sometimes conveys irony, sometimes sincerity. Compare "love, love, love" at 0:55, 1:12, 2:16, and especially 2:32 to "I don't want to be friends" at 3:50 and especially at 4:05.

"Love, love, love" is gritty, a little nasal. It doesn't care. The air is contained; it's high in the throat; it's whatever air Gaga happens to have sitting around in her upper respiratory system. Nothing's being pushed. The quality of the sound tells us that "love, love, love" means something like a casual if ruthless desire.

In contrast, "I don't want to be friends" is open-throated. There is diaphragm involved, projection, technique. It is what they call "belting." It's a little Broadway, a stylized sincerity augmented by the reintroduction of the "unadorned" Gaga close-up.

"I don't want to be friends" is the video's emotional climax, the sticky moment of investment and utter, fixed attention in an otherwise brittle, aggressive performance. Compare. The video starts with Gaga covered in a metal façade, and ends with her character, accessorized by matching flamethrower and cigarette, absently reclining next to a charred corpse. Most of the time the Lady Gaga character isn't "all there," whether her eyes are hidden behind a variety of shades or masks or popping wide open in a head-lolling stupor.

In contrast, "I don't want to be friends"--that belting of air from the bottom of the lungs--physically performs focused, self-possessed, fully conscious desire. It constitutes a break, and it's a break that you hear. The thorough integration of vocal texture with narrative is part of what makes this video brilliant.

It took a highly creative extended reading by Jack Halberstam to get me at all interested in the "Telephone" video. But "Bad Romance" belts its artful construction very loudly.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland, and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

Griffiths, Alison. Shivers down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

---. Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology & Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print.

Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

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