"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Monday, November 29, 2010

From "Dance in the Dark, Little Monsters: On Gaga's Post-Goth Posthumanism"

By Robin James

The following is an excerpt from a longer article to be published in Gaga Stigmata’s forthcoming book. In that piece, Professor Robin James argues that Lady Gaga’s main aesthetic ancestor is goth. Gaga’s work not only has direct musical debts to goth bands, but also takes indirect visual and thematic inspiration from the goth genre. In the following excerpt, James examines how one of Gaga’s songs takes musical cues from the goth tradition, and then demonstrates how Gaga’s work goes beyond that tradition: that is, how Gaga performs post-goth posthumanism.


The most obvious similarity between any one Gaga track and any one goth-y track is between “Dance in the Dark” and Depeche Mode’s “Strangelove.”[i] Both songs are composed around essentially the same treble synth hook. Gaga’s track pulls an “Ice Ice Baby” on Depeche Mode’s original, altering the hook’s melody by turning a quarter note into two eights on the same pitch (basically, making the antecedent phrase a more exact mirror of the consequent phrase).[ii] Overall, Gaga’s sound shares a lot with Depeche Mode – and, to an extent, Yaz (which splintered off from Depeche Mode in the early 1980s). Early Depeche Mode was very synthy and proto-industrial, particularly their 1983-1984 releases Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward.[iii] The videos for “People are People” portrays band members playing parts of the manufacturing process, e.g. corrugated metal, as instruments.[iv]

Screenshot from the video for “People are People”

This use of factory machines and raw materials as musical instruments is more or less what defines industrial music as such. So, while Depeche Mode might not be the most “hardcore” industrial act, the band clearly writes some properly industrial music. In fact, Depeche Mode’s combination of industrial and mainstream synthpop is actually quite similar to Gaga’s own music. “Strangelove” appears on the 1987 album Music for the Masses, which takes the earlier albums’ industrial and synthpop sounds in a more mainstream, poppy direction. “Dance in the Dark” uses guitars in combination with synths and drum machines, as does Depeche Mode’s work on Music for the Masses and Violator. Yaz was even more distinctly synthy and electronic, but, like Gaga’s work, was and still is received and treated as belonging to the post-Moroder electro-dance-pop tradition. Gaga’s powerful and soulful alto vocals are quite obviously reminiscent of Yaz’s lead singer, Alison Moyet. Although her voice may sound like Moyet, Gaga’s songwriting, especially her approach to vocal melodies, is closer to Dave Gahan’s (Depeche Mode’s lead singer). Unlike many industrial bands, which rely on either more aggressive, closed-throated metal-influenced vocals (like KMFDM), or more minimal, often effected, vocals (like Kraftwerk), both craft long, very melodic vocal lines that require some serious singing. Although Moyet was a very strong and expressive singer, her phrases were relatively short and distinct.

So, while Gaga’s image might lead some to think of her as a postmillennial Material Girl, her sound demonstrates that she’s more like a twenty-first century update of Depeche Mode and Yaz: strong female vocals and synthy industrial darkness combined with a pop melodic sensibility. She acknowledges this influence in a press release for The Fame Monster: “this album is a pop experimentation with industrial/Goth beats, 90's dance melodies, an obsession with the lyrical genius of 80's melancholic pop.”[v] Depeche Mode encapsulates all these influences, and is perhaps the clearest and closest of Gaga’s musical influences.

In this section, I’ve discussed Gaga’s music as such, and put her compositional and performance choices in the context of both specific goth/industrial songs and the goth/industrial aesthetic more generally. Above and beyond anything her visual or textual presentation does, Gaga’s music is grounded in a goth dance tradition that stretches from Joy Division to Nitzer Ebb to Wax Trax to Attari Teenage Riot. Like Depeche Mode and Yaz – and, more recently, Nine Inch Nails – Gaga combines industrial instrumentals with long, sung melodic phrases with a classic pop or even musical theater sensibility. Both because Gaga’s own work combines specifically goth references and aesthetic choices with influences from a wide variety of other genres (thus “watering down” the goth references), and because mainstream pop itself bears the influences of industrial and EBM (thus making mainstream pop more “properly goth”), Gaga’s latter-day Wax Trax pop diva sound is stylistically “post-goth.” In Gaga, goth is no longer an indie subgenre, but chart-topping and download/page-view-record-breaking music for the masses.

In the next section, I turn to Gaga’s visual and textual production. Not only is her post-goth status more evident in these contexts, but this is also where her post-goth sexual politics are most evident. Gaga’s sexual politics are more properly “goth” than, say, Depeche Mode’s because the latter artists’ songs often positively represent (and even incite) sexual desire as such, Gaga calls into question the very desirability of sex and sexuality (as an act, as desire, as an identity).

For example, “Dance in the Dark” emphasizes the grotesque and debilitating effects that the performance of heteropatriarchial constructions of femaleness and femininity has on women’s bodies and psyches. The first lines of the song describe the normatively desirable and “sexy” female body as the “monster” created by a Frankenstein-esque beauty industrial complex: “Silicone, saline, poison, inject me.” Moreover, the refrain offers a fairly traditional white feminist critique of the male gaze: “baby loves to dance in the dark/cuz when he’s looking she falls apart.” “She” does not experience pleasure in men’s scopophilic objectification of her body; she cannot bear its weight, and can experience a coherent (rather than shattered) corporeal schema only when she is certain “he” (i.e., patriarchy) can’t see her. A later verse presents non-patriarchal constructions of female desire as monstrous: “Run run her kiss is a vampire grin/The moon lights away while she’s howling at him.” Under the light of the moon – which is traditionally identified with women and their menstrual cycles – rather than under the Apollonian light of patriarchal truth and reason, female sexuality appears inhuman (and, notably, as a classic goth icon, the vampire).

Both Gaga’s and goth’s sexual politics turn on the figure of the monster. Like goth, Gaga uses images and figures of posthuman monsters to critique heteropatriachial norms governing gender and sexuality.


[i] Lady Gaga, “Dance in the Dark” on The Fame Monster New York: Interscope 2009. Depeche Mode, “Strangelove” on Music for the Masses, London: Mute, 1987.

[ii] Vanilla Ice’s early 1990s track “Ice Ice Baby” samples the bassline from Queen and David Bowie’s single “Under Pressure.” However, Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) has claimed in several instances that the bass loop in his track is in fact not the bassline from “Under Pressure” because his bassline has an extra note. See Stillman, Kevin (February 27, 2006). "Word to your mother". Iowa State Daily. http://www.iowastatedaily.com/articles/2006/02/27/news/20060227-archive5.txt.

[iii] Depeche Mode, Construction Time Again, London: Mute, 1983. Depeche Mode, Some Great Reward, London: Mute, 1984.

[iv] Video available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzGnX-MbYE4, accessed 27 November 2010.

[v] See “Lady Gaga Returns with 8 New Songs on ‘The Fame Monster’ from the website “PR Newswire”: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/lady-gaga-returns-with-8-new-songs-on-the-fame-monster-63780227.html. Accessed 28 November 2010.

Author Bio:
Robin James is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte. She specializes in contemporary continental philosophy, feminist theory, critical race/postcolonial theory, and the philosophy of music (particularly popular music). She has published articles in journals ranging from Hypatia to The Journal of Popular Music Studies, on topics ranging from Rihanna's Afrofuturist critique of traditional philosophical aesthetics to a comparison between Judith Butler's use of "autonomy" and Peaches' use of the electric guitar.

7 comments:

  1. I would never have heard 'Strange Love' if I hadn't read this; thanks! I look forward to reading the entire piece...

    I do find representations of female sexuality as monstrous quite interesting, whether through vampires or werewolves (Buffy had instances of both). It's fun to play with, and probably meaningful for a lot of women.

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  2. As a major DM fan I have one problem, though: Gaga has stated that she did not discover Depeche Mode till recently (after she started dating someone who was a DM fan), first hearing the song "People are People". This was after she had acquired fame, and after Dancer in the Dark was out. So it is difficult to argue that her primary influence is DM, or at least with regards to that song.
    Also, I'm not a Gaga fan, but I know she writes her own songs, but I don't know to what extent she is responsible for the instrumentation of her songs. Could it be that the producer/engineer, who is an expert on pop quality, will have recognised the "catchiness" of Strangelove, and thus included it in one of her songs? This would then be similar to what Hilary Duff did with Personal Jesus; altering the song/samples just a bit, so that they cannot be consided to be genuine copies, although everyone recognises the source.

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  3. Thanks for your comment, anonymous. I think it will help if I clarify some of my assumptions:

    1. Authorial intent doesn't matter, or, as Foucault would say, "the author is dead." I'm not really concerned with what the person/artist Lady Gaga consciously intends to do in her work. I only care about the work itself. The work can do things that the author was not aware of/did not intend.

    2. I'm not arguing that any artist in particular is an "influence" on Gaga. My argument is that Gaga fits within a "goth" tradition. So, she can participate in the tradition (i.e., meet criteria for qualification, or be similar in various ways) without being directly influenced by anybody in that tradition. Wagner and Brahms were both "Romantic" composers, but we don't say that b/c they share mutual influences, but b/c they share a style.

    3. "Lady Gaga" is not Stephanie G., but the whole team (producers, stylists, collaborators, video directors, etc.) that works on the products ultimately labeled "Lady Gaga." So, it's not about the individual person. In academic popular music studies, this is a pretty well-accepted premise. Nor is it particularly new. For example, all the "teenage mutant ninja turtles" renaissance painters (Michaelangelo, Donatello, etc.) had studio assistants who did a lot of work for them.

    I hope that clarifies some things!

    Robin

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  4. While I do strongly agree with the overall sentiment of your article, I do have to take issue with the comparison of Strangelove to Dance in the Dark. I'm a huge fan of both Gaga and Depeche Mode, and I don't really see why you're making this comparison. Dance in the Dark is just arpeggios (going up and down a 4th) whereas Strangelove actually has its own melody.

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  5. @Tony: My claim was only that the initial synth hook in Dance in the Dark was a crib of the synth hook in Strangelove. I was not arguing that they were the same song. The vocal melodies are most certainly very different. I would also argue that Dance in the Dark's chorus has a vocal melody that's not just arpeggios, and, moreover, that a melody can be "just" arpeggios (take, for example, your average Eddie Van Halen guitar solo).

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  6. I am a long time DM fan and i love Lady Gaga too. I can readily see DM influences on Gaga's music and that is something that makes me happy. Both DM & Gaga are GREAT artists. RESPECT.

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  7. When I first heard gagas dance in the dark, I thought I was listening to "strange love" by depeche mode.
    That's how similar the intro to the song is. But, I'm familiar with all of their music. The younger generation has never heard of them. It's sad to hear gaga didn't know of them during this album. It goes to show that someone else that loved the DM hook put it into her song. It didn't just come out of thin air. It came from music for the masses. There is nothing to argue about here. Just listen to the song. Both are great. There is nothing wrong with a little sampling.

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