Lady Gaga and Ke$ha battle for pop supremacyLady Gaga Vs. Ke$ha!

By Wil Forbis

June 1, 2010

If one finds oneself retiring to the dark corner of a bistro, martini in hand, and ruminating upon the state of the modern recording industry, one's ruminations will not travel far before having to contemplate the effects of technology on music. The music business --- an industry primarily concerned with printing digital information representing sound onto shiny discs --- is very dependent on technology, and thus prone to violent shifts when the seas of technology change. The current seismic shifts in technology are causing some noticeable disruptions in the music industry, such as...

  • Technology now enables nonprofessional music producers to cheaply and efficiently create music which can compete with what the industry offers. The legendary million-dollar recording studio of the 70s can now be replicated on a $700 iMac. The result is a lowering of the perceived value of music.

  • Technology enables nonprofessional music producers to much more easily distribute their product. Additionally, there is been a rise of distribution networks which enable the dissemination of other people's music e.g. piracy. This also has the effect of lowering the perceived value of music.

I've thought about, and written about, this topic for some time. My sense is that the music industry is going to have to undergo a considerable downsizing to survive. The cheapening of music will slash revenues, forcing record companies to trim their staffs and substantially reduce their budgets for marketing, cocaine and prostitutes. In the post-MP3 world, only the lean, mean and hungry can survive.

But survive how? If the power to create and distribute music has been handed to the people --- like Prometheus handing fire to man --- record companies may be doomed. There's certainly nothing they can do about the new distribution model --- the cat's out of the bag on that one. But what about the fact that "weekend warrior" musicians can now use technology to create music of the same quality as being produced by the record industry? There may be something the industry can do here: build a better mousetrap.

By this, I mean that the industry can try to create better music. Of course, what constitutes "better" music is a subject of endless debate. Many professional and armchair critics --- often possessed of anticorporate tendencies --- will argue that there's no way the capitalist system can create music better than that which comes from the soiled fingers of the common man. I disagree, but I'm not going to argue it here. By "better" I simply mean songs that are better produced, and perhaps better written (according to the understood laws of what makes a good pop song (a catchy chorus, utilization of a song structure structure that is largely familiar to the general public etc.))

I would argue that the industry is already doing this. While I've been disinterested in pop music over the past 10 or 15 years (an understandable development: as you get older, your taste for the saccharine sweetness of pop music often sours), lately I find it piquing my curiosity. This is partly due to mere ear candy: the tones of many of the largely synthesized instruments seem new and improved, and I respond to them the way I imagine people responded to the Moog when it first appeared. But there's more. The producers of modern pop have a confident command of the stereo spectrum, and know just the right place to put that electronic bird call or flanged harmonic swell within the chorus. As a result, pop music has taken on an almost symphonic nature.

My sense is that there is a new philosophy at work here. For years, much of pop and rock production seemed to be about capturing the sound of a live band. Overdubs were added, but the music seldom strayed from the kind of thing that could be replicated in a performance setting. Much of modern pop, however, seems to be not so much played as painted by choosing from an endless palette of shaded tones and stylistic colors. The result is music with a depth that is far beyond your average home recording artist, he or she being an individual who may have the technology but not the skill.

Innumerable recording artists are utilizing these technological evolutions in their work; two that have captured the moment are Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. Both blonde, both babes, and both dance divas, the pair have dominated the music and video charts with their similar versions of club dance music.

Lady Gaga is the better known of the two; she's attracted as much attention for her oddball aesthetic as her music. The iconography of her videos borrows liberally from various cinema movements --- Hitchcock, Blaxploitation, foreign film --- and she often presents herself as a pastiche of extreme fashion, human disfigurement and robot parts. While this random contextualization is hard to decipher, you get the sense that Lady Gaga understands it completely. There's an intellectual edge to her music, so much so that when she seems to be advocating simple mindless hedonism, as in her "Just Dance" video, it isn't convincing. It's obvious this woman wants to more with her life than "just dance."

Ke$ha is less substantive --- it's quite possible that just dancing is all she wants to do. While her music is in the same vein as Gaga's technopop, Ke$ha's lyrics and videos enumerate one theme --- that she's hot (which she is, in an understated way) and likes to party. She has a certain eccentricity, presenting herself as a ribald tomboy, but there's not much to figure out.

That said, it might come as a surprise that of the two, I prefer Ke$ha. Why? Her songs are better. "Tik Tok," her first single and its follow-up "Blah, Blah, Blah" are unavoidable earworms that quickly wriggle into your cochlea and set up permanent residence. The musical (harmony, melody, rhythm) aspects of her songs are admittedly rather pedestrian; it's the intriguing application of synthesized tones and inspired production that makes the songs so captivating. While Gaga shrouds her songs in a similar aural force field, she can't distract from the music's flimsy core. Her tunes have the sound of music that someone put too much thought into, re-writing choruses over and over, slowly draining away the power of the initial spark. As I listen to many of Gaga's hits --- "Paparazzi," "Telephone," "Poker Face" --- I find myself channeling the character from the Tom Petty song who said "I don't hear a single."* (Of course, all those songs were singles, and very successful ones, which explains why I'm not in the record business.)

* I will note that I find "Just Dance" to be pretty catchy.

However, despite my preference for Ke$ha, it's likely that Gaga will have a greater impact in the long run. Ke$ha is fundamentally a novelty act, capturing attention with her bawdy conduct. ("Don't be a little bitch with your chit chat, just show me where you're dick is at," she commands a male suitor, during a verse of "Blah, Blah, Blah.") Such behavior is intriguing (the articles analyzing Ke$ha from a feminist perspective practically write themselves) but destined to run out of gas. Gaga, on the other hand, is surrounded in mystery. Why does she have a handicap fetish? What does she mean when she sings, "I want your disease" during "Bad Romance?" Just as Ke$ha's music gets stuck in your head, so too does Gaga's imagery and (occasionally) words. Lady Gaga realizes, that in the modern era, music is about so much more than music. It's about image, it's about product (and, judging from her videos, product placement), it's about networking (Gaga had the good sense to team up with urban it girl Beyoncé for her latest single) and it's about context --- tying yourself to the current era while pointing towards the future. In this sense, Gaga owes a debt to another blonde superstar, Madonna, a woman who kept the public guessing for years with her recurring identity shifts. Whether Gaga can duplicate the material girl's longevity remains to be seen.

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