Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lady Gaga

Trading places

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John Updike

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What famous person’s life would you want to assume?”

“Celebrity,” John Updike once wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” And Updike would have known, having been one of the most famous—and the most envied—literary novelists of his generation, with a career that seemed to consist of nothing but the serene annual production of poems, stories, essays, and hardcovers that, with their dust jackets removed, turned out to have been bound and designed as a uniform edition. From the very beginning, Updike was already thinking about how his complete works would look on library shelves. That remarkable equanimity made an impression on the writer Nicholson Baker, who wrote in his book U & I:

I compared my awkward self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

Plenty of writers, young or old, might have wanted to switch places with Updike, although the first rule of inhabiting someone else’s life is that you don’t want to be a writer. (The Updike we see in Adam Begley’s recent biography comes across as more unruffled than most, but all those extramarital affairs in Ipswich must have been exhausting.) Writing might seem like an attractive kind of celebrity: you can inspire fierce devotion in a small community of fans while remaining safely anonymous in a restaurant or airport. You don’t even need to go as far as Thomas Pynchon: how many of us could really pick Michael Chabon or Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy out of a crowd? Yet that kind of seclusion carries a psychological toll as well, and I suspect that the daily life of any author, no matter how rich or acclaimed, looks much the same as any other. If you want to know what it’s like to be old, Malcolm Cowley wrote: “Put cotton in your ears and pebbles in your shoes. Pull on rubber gloves. Smear Vaseline over your glasses, and there you have it: instant old age.” And if you want to know what it’s like to be a novelist, you can fill a room with books and papers, go inside, close the door, and stay there for as long as possible while doing absolutely nothing that an outside observer would find interesting. Ninety percent of a writer’s working life looks more or less like that.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

What kind of celebrity, then, do you really want to be? If celebrity is a mask, as Updike says, it might be best to make it explicit. Being a member of Daft Punk, say, would allow you to bask in the adulation of a stadium show, then remove your helmet and take the bus back to your hotel without any risk of being recognized. The mask doesn’t need to be literal, either: I have a feeling that Lady Gaga could dress down in a hoodie and ponytail and order a latte at any Starbucks in the country without being mobbed. The trouble, of course, with taking on the identity of a total unknown—Banksy, for instance—is that you’re buying the equivalent of a pig in a poke: you just don’t know what you’re getting. Ideally, you’d switch places with a celebrity whose life has been exhaustively chronicled, either by himself or others, so that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. It’s probably best to also go with someone slightly advanced in years: as Solon says in Herodotus, you don’t really know how happy someone’s life is until it’s over, and the next best thing would be a person whose legacy seems more or less fixed. (There are dangers there, too, as Bill Cosby knows.) And maybe you want someone with a rich trove of memories of a life spent courting risk and uncertainty, but who has since mellowed into something slightly more stable, with the aura of those past accomplishments still intact.

You also want someone with the kind of career that attracts devoted collaborators, which is the only kind of artistic wealth that really counts. But you don’t want too much fame or power, both of which can become traps in themselves. In many respects, then, what you’d want is something close to the life of half and half that Lin Yutang described so beautifully: “A man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity.” Take it too far, though, and you start to inch away from whatever we call celebrity these days. (Only in today’s world can an otherwise thoughtful profile of Brie Larson talk about her “relative anonymity.”) And there are times when a touch of recognition in public can be a welcome boost to your ego, like for Sally Field in Soapdish, as long as you’re accosted by people with the same basic mindset, rather than those who just recognize you from Istagram. You want, in short, to be someone who can do pretty much what he likes, but less because of material resources than because of a personality that makes the impossible happen. You want to be someone who can tell an interviewer: “Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me…So long as I have a roof over my head, something to read and something to eat, all is fine…What makes me so rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere.” You want to be Werner Herzog.


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Heroes by David Bowie

If a rock star survives long enough, there inevitably comes a point in his or her career in which every new album is hailed as a return to form. It can be amusing to see this little drama played out every two or three years—as it did, for instance, throughout R.E.M.’s last active decade—but it isn’t hard to understand why. Rock criticism is a singularly thankless job: it’s written on deadline, often with only a few days to consider the work in question, but it concerns itself with a form of art defined by its effect on us over months or years. When an established star puts out a new album, it tends, at minimum, to be polished and professionally produced, with a handful of exciting songs; at first listen, we naturally compare it to our memories of earlier works that have sustained the same qualities over decades or more, and the initial comparison tends to be favorable. Before long, however, the new release is invisibly absorbed into the rest of the artist’s discography, while the older material, tested by time, retains its staying power. And when the next album comes along, in that first blush of excitement, it’s easy to see it as, say, David Bowie’s best work since Scary Monsters.

This is why it pays to be a little cautious with the reviews hailing The Next Day as one of the strongest albums of Bowie’s career. In this case, we need to be especially careful, because it’s his first new album in ten years. Bowie, to put it mildly, is an interesting guy, and it’s been so long since he’s given us anything new that it’s easy to give his latest album more love than it deserves, if only because provides an excuse for us to think and talk about him again. That said, even after a few listens, I think it’s a very good album: my favorite tracks are probably “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow?”—the latter largely for its cheeky vocal appropriation of the bridge from “Apache,” the greatest of all rock instrumentals. All the same, I’d probably place it slightly below some of Bowie’s later work, notably the wonderful Heathen, or even Hours, an uneven album that nonetheless contains what I think is Bowie’s best song. And although I’ll continue to listen to this album a lot over the coming weeks, it’s just too soon to say how it will hold up over time.

The Next Day by David Bowie

Yet it’s still a major work, precisely because the wait for it has been so long. Bowie spent most of his career evolving in public, and toward the end, the result was often an album, like Outside or Earthing, that felt a few steps behind the sounds it was so fluently appropriating. The Next Day, by comparison, comes from a Bowie that is hard to recognize: it was recorded in private, almost in secret, after what seems to have been an extended period of reflection. It’s tempting, then, to interpret the result as a statement of what Bowie himself considers to be the heart of his career, which is why the album’s sound is so revealing. In the words of Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker:

The problem is that the production that Bowie and [producer Tony] Visconti chose for the songs puts this record, sonically, closer to the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars of eighties albums like Let’s Dance and Tonight than to some of his slightly hidden gems from the past two decades.

Frere-Jones is disappointed by this, but to me, there’s a more profound message here: as great as the earlier songs may be, Bowie seems to understand that his work needs to be recentered, gently but firmly, on the most nakedly commercial music of his career.

Because it’s in his persona as a superstar that Bowie’s legacy endures, if not to listeners, than certainly to other artists. Last week, I posted a quote from Saul Bellow, which reads in part:

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected, must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction. To this we must add, for simple realism demands it, that these same writers, painters, etc., are themselves the children of distraction. As such, they are peculiarly qualified to approach the distracted multitudes. They will have experienced the seductions as well as the destructiveness of the forces we have been considering here.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this perfectly describes Bowie, who, like his disciple Lady Gaga, understands that before you can ask us to reflect on the meaning of stardom and illusion, you first need to achieve the somewhat more straightforward task of becoming the biggest pop star in the world. At his best, Bowie, who took both his name and his earliest creative breakthrough from Kubrick’s 2001, saw the future more clearly than anyone else. And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to “Let’s Dance,” you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Monster of Art

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Yesterday, after watching clips of Lady Gaga’s peculiar drag performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first is that Gaga is the ultimate realization of what Cindy Sherman once promised. I’ve been a huge fan of Sherman’s ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills, with their uneasy but seductive commentaries on roleplaying, voyeurism, and, above all, the importance of movies in shaping our ideas of ourselves and others. Although her work has grown increasingly alienating over time, she remains one of our most interesting artists, and you can draw a direct line from her to Gaga, an acknowledged fan. Indeed, Gaga might be Sherman’s daughter: both women are provocateurs, aggressively intelligent yet fascinatingly blank, famous but unknown, so that either could probably walk down the street unrecognized, after all the costumes and disguises have been stripped away.

Of course, Gaga is far more famous than Sherman has ever been, which leads me to my second realization, which is that we’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in twenty years or more. Gaga is that rarest of pop icons, a deservedly popular artist who also serves as a conduit for smuggling unexpected images and ideas into America’s heartland. The VMAs were seen by the largest audience in MTV history, which means that Gaga’s strange little drag act succeeded, if nothing else, in confusing the hell out of millions. I’m not saying that her performance as Jo Calderone was entirely successful—the reaction of most viewers was probably close to Justin Bieber’s—but the fact that it was staged at all, with such oddness and commitment, counts as a weird sort of triumph, a Whitney Biennial moment in a Jersey Shore world.

And a crucial part of Gaga’s genius is her accessibility. Some have criticized her for linking outrageous imagery to resolutely conventional (if highly accomplished) pop music, but it’s hard to imagine her ascending to her current cultural position in any other way. And her talent as a musician shouldn’t be underestimated. As a lifelong fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I’ve always believed that dance music can be as rich a form of expression as any other, and Gaga comes closer than any arena-level artist in a long time to achieving that magical combination of irony, earnestness, and encyclopedic skill. A song like “Alejandro” is a miniature history of pop music, both good and bad, as well as a movie, a radio play, and a sensational dance song. And Gaga’s art absolutely needs to be part of the mainstream to make any sense. It’s no accident that her first two albums are called The Fame and The Fame Monster.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this heady combination of surrealism and accessibility hasn’t been seen in this country for more than twenty years—since June 10, 1991, to be exact, when Twin Peaks went off the air. Both Lady Gaga and David Lynch used their nimbleness, intelligence, and talent to introduce an unprecedented level of strangeness to a mass audience. Both ended up on the cover of Time. Both were clearly just good kids at heart. And both emerged during recessionary, politically divided, and culturally conservative periods that nonetheless managed to produce at least one exemplar of the outré, as if all the culture’s unresolved weirdness were being channeled into a single icon. Lynch, of course, has retreated in recent years, and where Gaga goes from here is anyone’s guess: I have no doubt she’ll continue to produce interesting music, but it’s hard to imagine her thriving anywhere but in the spotlight. But at the moment, she threatens to make the rest of us seem obsolete.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2011 at 7:59 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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