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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Edge of Banality?

By Robin James

This is the sixth piece in our series on “The Edge of Glory.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.

In this post, I argue that the music in “The Edge of Glory” deconstructs, or at least destabilizes, the song’s superficial “cheesiness” or banality.

I’m going to focus more on the song itself rather than the video. However, I do want to point out two visual references that others may or may not have already picked up on. First, Gaga’s eye makeup is very Siouxie Sioux.

Second, dancing around on the steps of a walk-up wearing black leather and studs is very reminiscent of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message.

Here, around 0:38 and again around 1:04, Melle Mel, wearing some leather studded gauntlets and hat, raps while he and the rest of the group sit around on the steps of a walk-up. Interestingly, right at 1:04, he raps, “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge.” I wonder if the visual reference is an intentional gesture toward this specific lyric?

The visual aside, let’s focus on the music. I want to talk about two specific features of the song: (1) its referencing of female electronic musicians, and (2) the role of camp and irony as what distinguishes this successful performance of an otherwise highly cheesy and formulaic song from an unsuccessful performance of a song that remains stuck in its corniness and banality (e.g., Rebecca Black’s now-infamous Friday). In fact, TEOG’s referencing of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” in (1) is evidence that there’s something more to the song than its superficially cheesy, formulaic composition and lyrics.

(1) “On the Edge” with Avant-Garde Female Electronic Musicians

Everybody’s been all excited about the sax solo in this track. But it’s not the only 80s musical reference. The music itself references two female pioneers of electronic music. First, the intro’s repeated vocalizations on “oh” or “ah” recall Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.”

This vocalization reappears throughout the song; it is especially prominent around 0:33, 2:20, and 3:50. Interestingly, “O Superman” ends with a little bit of saxophone. Another similarity between “O Superman” and “The Edge of Glory” is the use of noodly, Baroque-y arpeggiations (here, by a flute).

“The Edge of Glory” uses arpeggiation in a somewhat different way. The arpeggiated synthesizers around 1:20 (and again at 2:44 and 4:19) break from the usual formulaic arpeggiation (this is a standard feature on synths) to a more overtly Baroque-style breakdown. What makes Gaga’s use of synth arpeggiations more “baroque” (i.e., in the style of 17th and 18th c European art music) than your average dance track’s use of synth arpeggiators is that in “The Edge of Glory,” these particular arpeggiations (so, not all the arpeggiations in the piece, only this specific line at the end of the choruses) move along with the underlying harmonic progression, much in the same way that a Baroque-era harpsichordist would have ornamented his or her performance. There is also somewhat of a “spinning-out” effect, which is also characteristic of Baroque music. Wendy Carlos invented Baroque-style synths – her Switched On Bach played some of Bach’s Inventions and Brandenburg Concerti on the then-new Moog synthesizer.

These references to Anderson and Carlos are certainly subtle, and are likely lost on listeners without at least a passing history of 20th-century avant-garde and/or electroacoustic music. However, as I argue in the next section, they are among the key indicators that Gaga (or at least the song) is in on the joke, so to speak, and that the song is not reducible to its cheesyness, formulaicness, and banality.

(2) Not as Cheesy as It First Sounds

I’ll admit, the first few times I heard this song I couldn’t stop laughing. Both the lyrics and the overall form of the piece made it sound like the alternate theme song to Top Gun. “The Edge of Glory” could be the name of some Top Gun clone, staring Emilio Estevez or Rob Lowe instead of Tom Cruise. (It doesn’t just evoke Top Gun, but also Days of Thunder, even Karate Kid – any of those brash, young hero films of the 80s/early 90s.) Which is to say: It sounds tailor-made for one of those 80s hero narratives, where some young brash underdog puts it all on the line, struggles a bit, but ultimately overcomes whatever loss or difficulties to have an even greater triumph. It’s in the music itself, not just the lyrics or the video: with its builds and drops, its swooping and “swooshing” harmonic progressions, the air stunts and dogfights almost choreograph themselves. For example, in the chorus, Gaga sings “It’s hard to feel the rush/brush the dangerous…”, the music swells, there’s a cymbal roll, and right here you can imagine jets screaming across the screen. Then, as the melody climbs with the repetitions of “the edge,” we can imagine jets climbing, climbing, climbing higher into the atmosphere…

All this rhapsodizing is to say that the music is really, really cheesy and formulaic. BUT, the music is not odiously distasteful. I laughed along to it, but I didn’t find the song utterly unbearable. Why?

TEOG is not reducible to mere cheesiness, banality, or formulaicness because it transcends its superficial lyrical and musical meanings, offering another layer of meaning in addition to the most obvious one. We don’t laugh at it, we laugh with it. How can we tell it’s laughing at itself? There are several ways.

First, Gaga sells this performance: she uses various performance strategies, including camp, to push the idiotic lyrics and music to a sort of argument ad absurdam. This is similar to the strategies Angela Davis identifies in the work of Billie Holiday. According to Davis, Holiday was often given the dregs of Tin Pan Alley, but she performed them in ways that drew critical attention to what could be merely banal, unremarkable, or vacuous (i.e., by pointing out what was banal about it).

Second, the identity of the sax soloist indicates that we ought to be careful not to misinterpret the song. The sax player is Clarence Clemons, of the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen’s backing band. This band is famous for its early 80s “Born in the USA.” This song mocks late Cold-War American exceptionalism, but is famously misinterpreted as a pro-American anthem. We should be similarly cautious about TEOG: though it might first sound like a Top Gun style hero narrative, it’s not.

How do we know it’s not? Well, there’s the argument ad absurdam I just talked about, but there’s also the “O Superman” references. Anderson’s piece is, especially as compared to Springsteen’s “Born…”, a more aesthetically bleak and critical tale of Cold-War dystopia. With allusions to F-16s and nuclear winter, “O Superman” is not an anthem of victory, but apocalypse: “Superman” doesn’t come back from the edge, but falls off it. So, if the Top Gun style narrative is the story of the liberal self overcoming challenges to be reaffirmed in its autonomy, authenticity, wholeness, and indeed supremacy, the “O Superman” narrative is one of the undoing of the liberal self (similarly, Anderson’s song avoids musical “narrative” conventions, i.e., tonality and harmonic development). All of TEOG’s references to “Superman” – the repeated vocalizations, the arpeggios, the sax – indicate that TEOG’s narrator falls over the edge. This falling is not a falling in love, but a more bleak undoing. The song is haunted by an ominousness that a superficial listen belies – much in the same way that the “me” decade, the quintessence of which being hero flicks like Top Gun, is haunted by HIV/AIDS, Iran-Contra, the War on Drugs, etc.

So TEOG laughs with us. We know this primarily because of Gaga’s over-the-top performance. She doesn’t just perform it “correctly” – she pushes the cheesiness and banality of the song to its extreme, thus pointing out the song’s own limitations. It is this performative argument ad absurdam that distinguishes TEOG from unsuccessful performances of similarly banal and formulaic songs. Right now everybody knows about Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” This song is the current poster-child for bad, formulaic, banal music. The problem is, it’s hard to identify what exactly is so awful about it. While Black’s performance certainly isn’t world-class, it’s not inaccurate: her vocal performance is, for all intents and purposes, correct. So if the problem isn’t her singing, maybe it’s the songwriting? It’s a formulaic song, sure, but other artists’ covers of it have uncovered a decent song behind Black’s correct but “uninspired” performance. So if it’s not the singing, and it’s not the songwriting, what is it that is so awful about Black’s “Friday”? I would argue that Black’s “Friday” doesn’t laugh with us: it doesn’t strive for anything beyond the merely literal. It tries to be too “authentic” and “sincere,” and thus discourages or prevents any of the campy argument ad absurdam that we see in TEOG. While TEOG pushes the “edge of banality,” it pushes itself right on over that edge into irony and critique. Black’s “Friday,” on the other hand, remains a safe distance from that edge.

Author Bio:
Robin James is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte. Her research engages contemporary continental philosophy with musicology and popular music studies, feminist theory, and critical race/postcolonial theory. Her book, The Conjectural Body: Gender, Race, and the Philosophy of Music, was published in 2010 by Rowman & Littlefield, and she is currently working on a manuscript provisionally titled Sound and Sensibility: Moving Feminism Beyond the Visual. She is also working on several projects related to feminism, queer theory, and popular music. She blogs about popular music, feminism, and race at http://its-her-factory.blogspot.com.

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  1. Great piece but I do disagree on a couple of points. I don't think the opening vocalization is a reference to "O Superman". The songs are far too different in every possible way. It's a heartbeat and choral heart monitor, referencing the fact that her grandfather's death inspired the song. This reference simmers underneath the song until the white noise-like ending which signifies the monitor has gone flat-line.

    And of course you hear Baroque-like arpeggiation on this song (you also hear variations and similar kinds of arpeggiation in some of the work by Queen and The Who, just to name a couple, and she's clearly not referencing either group in TEOG). Gaga is a classically-trained pianist and in her formative years, she only played Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart et al. She's frequently said that architecturally, classical music and pop use the same kinds of chord progressions and melodic components. And let's not forget the Bach organ solo she threw into the middle of Born This Way. Her classical roots shine very clearly in the entire album. In fact, there's a quasi-neo sonata embedded in the record, with the first and second movements being separated by an interval of songs not belonging to the larger piece.

    Banal? Really?

  2. So, Gaga's 'The Edge of Glory' and Black's 'Friday' are equally banal for their music and lyrics? Hmmm... confused... :(

  3. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    @khamsin64: I want to clarify that I'm not interested in Gaga's intended meaning. I'm looking at how the song signifies above and beyond any author(s) intention(s). The song evokes these references--it is "intertextual", to use some PoMo jargon. In evoking these references, it gives rise to interpretations that differ from the standard and/or intended ones. It's these additional layers of meaning that "rescue" it from the song's superficial banality.

    @Anon 2:45--It's precisely these additional layers that make Gaga's performance more-than-banal, and the absence of them that relegate RB's Friday to mere banality. Other artists have covered "Friday" to much greater success than RB. Perhaps another artist could cover "TEOG" less successfully than Gaga performs it. I'm arguing that Gaga's performance of TEOG includes a flat, banal layer _in addition_ to other, less banal ones.


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