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Friday, June 24, 2011

Song Incarnate

By Cheryl Helm

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

As best I can tell, most people seem to dislike “The Edge of Glory” video because it doesn’t have a story-line. That’s because they’re looking for it in the wrong place. The story-line is not in the video. Rather, it is in Gaga’s body. For the first time in her video career, Gaga has created something organic, in which the music and the visual are one. She is both the song and the singer. She becomes the Song Incarnate, music made flesh.

Watch her move.

Soundtracked by a pulse and choral heart monitor (which indicates that the song is driven by the flesh, is synonymous with the body), a hand extends around the corner of a building on a street billowing with white fog gently bloodied by the backlights. A hand appears at the window, sliding back a white curtain backlit in red and warm white. The woman becomes shadow behind a veil, a woman striking a sultry pose on a street corner. In the window, she is form obscured by the glare. She leans hipshot against the stoop as the beat bleeds into the song. As the song takes its beat from a heart’s pulse, Gaga takes form as the music swells – they are together in a symbiotic relationship, body and song dependent upon each other for existence.

This the moment when you realize that this video is going to be something very different and you’re not sure you like it. It feels uncomfortably intimate, as if you’re actually seeing Gaga, the woman behind the glitz and gimmickry and a dozen dancers. Gaga as she is, in her element, at home, on the streets of New York City. The Street, complete with Street Musician.

This is the Woman Behind the Curtain.

Gaga has become such an iconic figure in short films brimming with eye candy, stuffed full of content and replete with dozens of visual and cultural quotes, with each release launching a veritable scavenger hunt by some of the most innovative, freethinking art critics and cultural analysts (yes, I’m talking about you, Gaga Stigmata). Consequently, we’re just not used to seeing her so unembellished, unaccompanied, and seemingly unrehearsed.  And this time, that’s all we get. Just Gaga. Just the Song. As epicenter of the performance, which is why there is so little to distract us from the song itself. That’s not accidental. It’s intentional.

There is a story-line, but it’s visceral, told in the ancient language of music wedded to flesh: Gaga is both storyteller in the singing of it, and the story itself in the way she tells it through her body. The medium is the message and Gaga is both.

The video is set in Gaga’s artistic, as well as physical, birthplace. This is her life. This is who the fuck she is, and where she came from, embodied in a glorious song about the glorious feelings of winning at Life, even if you are near the end of it. In reality, the Edge of Glory is not a complicated state. It’s an elemental state, whether you’re standing at the edge of love, a momentous career or geographic shift, or the very edge of life itself, and you’re about to throw yourself into the embrace of your future, your destiny. It’s something that can only be experienced, not explained.

Gaga embodies that elemental joy and passion and sense of freedom, and honors its simplicity. She does it mostly with her body, which aside from a few hair flips, playful head tosses, and sultry Vogue expressions, is relatively unencumbered by the poses learned on the runway and in front of the fashion cameras. Also unobscured by elaborate sets, eye-popping costumery, and head-scratching manifestos and religious metaphors.

Watch her move.

As she saunters toward the camera from the corner, she’s completely in her body in a way we don’t normally see her. The shoulder movements are organic, and her walk is more sashay than casual runway strut. Still holding the camera’s gaze, she walks backward, drawing you toward the corner, then turns with a head-toss and walks away with natural swag, tossing a look over her shoulder just to see if we’re following. She’s animated by the song, unfettered by anything but the need to move to the music. It’s physical and it’s visceral because she wants us to feel the music the way she does in that moment.

And that’s what we see. Gaga dances in a way we rarely see her, except in candids shot at after parties. This is Gaga dancing before The Fame. It’s the dance of the Street, the dance of the Club, the dance of Burlesque and the heavy-metal Go Go. She’s utterly physical in a way we’ve not seen before. She makes love to the bricks and mortar, to the front stoop, to the rain-slicked walk, to the streets of New York City itself. She’s in her element, she’s in her body, and in her body is the song, the lyric, the momentum, and the bone-deep memory of being on the Edge of her own glory. She makes her body the message of the song. She is the story-line. She is the joy and liberation and euphoria when there’s nothing behind and only a leap of faith ahead, with only a song to carry you forward.

She is at her most spontaneous as she dances to Clarence Clemons’ deep-roots sax solo. There is nothing to distract her, nothing to do but dance. And dance she does. Moving as the music, not as a choreographer, tells her body to move, and in her body are the memories of seminal moments in her musical history: movements she may have seen in the old school music videos of her childhood, movements she claims for herself because she owns the emotions that created them. She is at her most free and most joyous in this section of the video. You can almost see her heart and soul take wing and soar. She is entirely herself and no one else. She is Gaga before we knew her, the historical Gaga before the onslaught of her public Fame. She is Gaga as private person before the private/public joint venture persona whose life she art-directs in every moment of visibility.

Much has been made (on the basis of very few actual facts) of the fact that this was not the original concept for the video. There were nod-and-a-wink hints about “something fishy,” rumors of mermaids, photos of a subway set and what looked like a surgical suite, and clearly something typically-Gaga and complex was being planned. This plan came to a screeching halt after one day of shooting. Some have called the resulting video “boring” and “crappy,” and blamed it on being a hasty, slapped together project. I can’t think of anything more insulting to Gaga’s innate talent and prodigious ability to create something out of nothing, time and time again.

In scrapping the original, elaborate, high concept for “The Edge of Glory,” Gaga tapped into her deepest musical and artistic instincts and memories. The necessity of doing it quickly called up something deep in her artistic soul and she honored it    “honored her vomit,” committed to it, married herself to it. Spontaneity is part of Gaga’s creative process. There are many behind-the-scenes stories about her tendency to change her mind about something and throw the entire company into disarray as they rush to make manifest her last-minute vision.

Case in point: the costumes for the 2011 Grammy performance of “Born This Way.” The Fresno Beehive cited an AP fashion story (no longer available unfortunately) that quoted Gaga as saying:

“You know I plan months in advance, but unfortunately I always change my mind at the last minute. Actually the outfits for the Grammys we made two days before and all the material came from a trucking company in Fresno.”

She does this, not because she has the power or authority to make such expensive and likely panic-inducing decisions, but because her most singular article of artistic faith is to honor the product of her inspired moments.

“The creative process is approximately 15 minutes of vomiting my creative ideas, in the forms of melodies, usually, or chord progressions and melodies and some sort of a theme lyric idea. It all happens in approximately 15 minutes of this giant regurgitation of my thoughts and feelings. And then I spend days, weeks, months, years fine tuning. But the idea is that you honor your vomit. You have to honor your vomit. You have to honor those 15 minutes.” [Gagavision 43]

She never seems to labor long over the creation of a project. For example, she said she wrote the title track, “Born This Way,” in about ten minutes. But then she spent the better part of a year stroking it, tweaking it, together with every other song on the record. “I licked and touched and kissed and made love to every single note and melody and lyric on that album,” she told US Weekly.

But as she herself has noted, there’s a period of artistic pregnancy between conception and birth. And the newborn is always as flawless and perfect as she wants it to be, with very few exceptions, usually circumstantial. “The Edge of Glory” video appears to be one of those unforced exceptions. It’s not perfect in the way her previous videos have been. Its conceptual and constructive seams are showing. You know you’re seeing a set and not New York itself. You know the steam rising from the drains is machine-generated, and the video is making an statement about the “who and what” of the Gaga we first see. She is visibly lip synching, and we all know how she feels about that. Which is the most emphatic clue that the way this video looks is deliberate and not accidental, not merely slapped together at the last moment. And it’s done for a purpose.

It is precisely this unpolished imagery coming at us that makes the video seem unnervingly personal and intimate and spontaneous. Even her approach to the camera is intimate. She’s allowing herself to be shown instead of commandeering the lens and giving you the feeling that she’s watching you watch her. There’s none of that sentiment here. Rather than performing her characteristic videographic Show and Tell, she seems to simply say, “See me. Watch me. Here I am.”

What the video lacks in long, deep deliberation is more than compensated by its spontaneity, which is precisely what gives music its raw power and emotion. Rejecting elaborate and complicated symbolic discourse, Gaga created something elegant in its simplicity, pure in its intentions, and deeply tethered to her own instincts and influences.

Culturally, in doing what can fairly be labeled as retro inasmuch as “The Edge of Glory” is an old-fashioned honest-to-God music video, Gaga has shown us again what is good, even great, about our musical heritage that need not be archived or abandoned simply because newer forms exist. The ways in which music is packaged, presented, and experienced are part and parcel of the cultural heritage of the music itself. In “The Edge of Glory,” Gaga clearly rejects the notion that her frequent use of complex short-film presentations for some songs should preclude her embrace of the ancestral roots of music videography for other songs.

In this case, the video is both medium and message. Her use of classic music videography was meant to honor the musical heritage of an art form that can be made relevant today. Her choice of incorporating saxophone into “The Edge of Glory” was meant to honor her musical heritage. Featuring Clarence Clemons as the ONLY other person in the video was meant to honor the musical heritage that he embodied.

In the glory days of MTV, music videos were all about the song, nothing more. Little was done or allowed to detract from the power of the music. That may seen like ancient history but sometimes, a song deserves nothing less than to be let alone, unfettered, free of artifice and complexity and cinematic angst, the kind of song that should be all that you see and hear. “The Edge of Glory” is exactly such a song. TEOG is exactly the right kind of video to honor it.

And lest we forget, one of Lady Gaga’s most iconic, epic performances consisted of standing still and striking fixed poses, mostly in silhouette, on a fixed platform (the Monster Ball’s opening, “Dance in the Dark”). And another of her most poignant and beloved performances was created spontaneously in less than 48 hours after throwing out a full-scale production number at the last moment (2010 Brit Awards).

Sometimes less is more, and simplicity can be the most elegant art form of all. It says everything by saying almost nothing at all.

Author Bio:
Cheryl Helm is an unapologetically unreconstructed hippie and devoutly politically incorrect. She sold her soul to rock n roll in the 50s, bought her first good electric guitar from Patti Smith's husband in Detroit, and never looked back. She writes poetry, prose, L-Word fan fiction, essays, editorials, music criticism, and some things she can’t quite define. She’s been published in obscure feminist literary journals, alternative presses, newspapers, Creem Magazine, and blogs, leaving behind digital traces like glitter.

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1 comment:

  1. Well, when it comes to intentionally unpolished production -- look no further than the Born This Way cover art! Not to mention, the Judas artwork was created on her laptop and photographed. That kind of instantaneous behavior is something we should expect from the Gaga by now!


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