I love pop music. Always have. Part of becoming an adult for me was the realization that I will always love pop, that I don’t have to apologize for it, and that Prince is, in fact, a genius. I will swoon for a good biblical reference by The National, as I am demographically expected to do. But I crave pop like I crave chocolate and caffeine. I need it in my ears when I’m running, or too tired to do the dishes that need doing. I have always recognized that it is ear candy, it will give you a rush and then sometimes let you down and give you a headache. But I cannot imagine life without it.
Now I am a mother of a daughter, so I have been thinking about the different versions of femininity embodied by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and Adele and Shakira and even Taylor Swift. I look at them and I imagine my daughter dancing in front of her mirror, memorizing the choreography from the latest video, telling her friends that she loves the new Death Cab for Cutie but secretly knowing all the lyrics to She Wolf. She is only three, and she already requests Lady Gaga. What personas, what versions of sex and power will be on offer when she is a teenager?
I was already hoping to write an essay about all this, and then Sasha Frere-Jones, the music critic for The New Yorker, wrote a piece about Lady Gaga and Beyoncé so breathtaking in its condescenscion that I have to write about his review instead.
He begins the review by claiming that three women run the pop world: Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Adele. Of Adele, he writes that her music is “unperturbing soul”:
Her career is likely to be long, because she is selling to the demographic that decides American elections: middle-aged moms who don’t know how to pirate music and will drive to Starbucks when they need to buy it. The rest of the population has Gaga and Beyoncé.
And that is all he has to say about Adele. Literally. In the rest of the piece, he uses her only as a point of comparison for record sales.
Evidently, we middle-aged moms are so technologically unsavvy, so middlebrow, so inherently Starbucks by virtue of our gender and age, that should we choose to buy your music, you are no longer worthy of critical attention.
Adele is a fearless talent. She is still very young, and was raised by a teenaged single mother who let her dance to the Spice Girls in front of the mirror. She is not thin. And she is the first living artist since the Beatles in 1964 to have two titles “simultaneously in the top five of both the U.K. singles and album charts” according to Billboard. Her voice is huge and keen and she fills it with raw emotion. Her seemingly undefeatable hit Rolling in the Deep is a ballad of rage and redemption, a pounding I Will Survive sung to an ex-boyfriend.
As a musician, as a phenomenon — as a pop star who announces: I am young and in pain and I am not a size two but I am still beautiful – she seems to me to matter. Oh, but wait. Soccer moms like her. My bad.
Frere-Jones get some aspects of Lady Gaga right. He gives a passing nod to Gaga’s work on behalf of the LGBT community, but as an after-thought, as if she does it in spite of her pop persona. But Gaga’s queer attitude is central to her pop persona. The reason that Gaga is ground-breaking is not because she is the first pop star to like the gay. She is interesting because she has managed to embrace queer so loudly, and yet remain mainstream. She promotes LGBT causes at her arena rock shows and still sells millions of records. She is both weird and sexy. And yet Frere-Jones writes that her “exquisite camp and mild transgressiveness” do not “cheapen the advances she has made in terms of acceptance on behalf of the L.G.B.T. community.”
What? How can those advances be cheapened by camp? Camp is the point. David Bowie and KISS and Prince have had camp open to them for decades. The point is that Lady Gaga seems to have cracked camp as sexual power for girls. Have you lost your copy of Susan Sontag, over there at The New Yorker? “Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
Powerful female pop stars have for decades seemed hemmed in by convention, by perfect bodies, by displays of vulnerability, by sincere standing-by-the-men, by heteronormativity. The whole point of Lady Gaga is the way she uses camp to push at the boundaries of conventional gender norms but remains a huge pop star and therefore sex symbol. Drag queens have done it for years, but Gaga is wearing meat to the Grammys.
By the time he gets to Beyoncé, the true irrelevance Frere-Jones finds in how and why these women relate to feminism is revealed:
Beyoncé’s politics are much less clear than Gaga’s. The album’s first single, “Run the World (Girls),” is supposedly an empowerment anthem, but it’s unlikely to convince anyone that women ‘run this mother.’ The beats are pleasantly fractured and spiky, though Beyoncé is lost in a stew of noises and sounds. Her voice keeps switching registers and tonal filters, until we’re distracted into a puzzled stasis. What’s the fuss?
That’s it. Beyoncé’s politics get lost in all that noise and sound. Who cares about how or why this is really empowering to girls? I mean, her beats are so spiky. What’s the fuss?
The barely-concealed subtext here is the same as the subtext of the soccer mom comment: Girls buy this music. Therefore, what it actually says or does not say is girl stuff. This is a female artist with a female audience and therefore by definition trivial.
Yes, these artists use frothy and conventional pop beats. But if you are going to address the persona and the politics, then address them. When Beyoncé sings Run The World (Girls) the problem is not in her “tonal shifts.” The problem is that we don’t believe her. Girls are, it turns out, both consumers of pop music and also savvy. Fake female empowerment anthems risk coming off, to girls, as reminders of their own powerlessness.
But why does it seem fake? Why is it that Gaga gets away with being transgressive and yet reaches millions? As women, how do we get past the virgin / whore dichotomy? How can you embrace both your sexuality and your power inside the mainstream?
As a wonderful blog post about Taylor Swift and Gaga once said of the “The Madonna/Whore complex”: “The deep dichotomy in modern culture is used to oppress women via a sexual double standard, establishing rigid categories for female sexual behavior while permitting male sexual behavior to range from abstinence to promiscuity without similarly disparaging social judgment.”
Gaga openly challenges the pressure of the virgin/whore dichotomy us by using camp to dissolve her gender identity itself. Adele may try to face down the culture’s strict beauty standards, it remains to be seen. Beyoncé is trying to sing about power and femininity, if not always succeeding.
But the music critic for The New Yorker has only this to offer:
The album’s best song neatly disables the politics of “Run the World (Girls).” “Countdown” is a sinuous affirmation of a couple’s sexual chemistry, set to a patchwork of backbeat R. & B. and assorted syncopations that color and splinter the song. Beyoncé is so tied to her man that she’s likely to find herself “all up in the kitchen in my heels / dinner time.”
Run The World (Girls) does have a politics, and it does fail, Frere-Jones is right about that. But the reasons it fails remain unaddressed, and he gets Countdown wrong, too.
Run The World fails because of the illusion of control. Lady Gaga’s art-house theatrics and gender-bending make her seem her own. She is blonde and pretty and dances well, but she is crazytown and seems in control of herself and her destiny. What fails in Run The World (Girls) is this illusion. Beyoncé looks like someone else’s vision of sexy, here, definitely not her own, and the result is a cliché. The standard-issue dominatrix clashes with the down-to-earth persona she otherwise displays in the media. The dissonance suggests that there is some conventional male fantasy behind the wheel. She seems like she’s trying to be someone else, for someone else. Because of that, she fails to create the illusion of running her world. So when she then claims that girls run the world, it rings hollow.
Frere-Jones is right that Countdown is a much better song. But Countdown is about both heels at dinner and this:
Yup, I put it on him, it ain’t nothing that I can’t do
Yup, I buy my own, if he deserve it, buy his shit too.
Frere-Jones claims that this song “neatly disables” any feminist impulse because Beyoncé admits to getting gussied up in conventionally sexy attire for her man. Frere-Jones’s age-old implication is thus:
Girls who wear heels at dinner can’t be feminists, or run the world.
Because… why? Because of the heels, or because of the dinner? Or because Frere-Jones missed out on Second Wave feminism? Or because girlie pop is girlie and therefore silly and stupid at its core? Or because he has to get back to writing about the relative soulfulness of music made by and for real men?
Beyoncé, I hear you, girl. I know that in Countdown, you are singing to your loyal man of ten years, and you are wrestling with how to be both his breadwinner and his girl. This song, like so much of Gaga and Beyoncé and Adele, is trying to say:
I am sexy and I am powerful and I am a woman, and I want to find a way to be all of these things at once.
My daughter and I plan to go on dancing to girlie pop in the mirror. And then analyzing it. Hard. As for Frere-Jones… I don’t know anything about him, but I send him this wish:
May you someday become a middle-aged soccer dad, and may the universe bless you with a beautiful daughter.