Is Lady Gaga an artist?
Sure, she can play piano. She's got some songwriting talent, too. But music isn't what comes to mind when the former Stefani Germanotta is discussed. Instead, it's the attention-getting antics: The controversial videos. The in-your-face sexuality. The crazy concerts. The meat dress.
Is it about the music, or the Fame Monster?
Rachel Weingarten wonders.
"I don't consider Gaga an artist," the New York style consultant says, then reconsiders. "Well, maybe she's an artist for our time. Every generation gets the artist it deserves."
If that's the case, Gaga has a lot of company.
"They want to be famous, not make music," says Lyndsey Parker, managing editor of Yahoo! Music, of some of the new breed. "The music is just one facet of the celebrity."
It's an indicator of societal shifts, she says. Now you can upload a video and receive immediate fame. So much for learning three chords and working your way up the ladder.
"Now everyone expects overnight success, whether it's because someone discovered your video on YouTube, or you went on a reality show," she says.
Has the gimmickry gone too far? Have we become numb to the emotion and the power of music? The stuff used to be about something, dammit, not a soundalike drone of manufactured robots, lip-synching amid falling tinsel.
Art and authenticity
Well, they call it "show business" for a reason.
Previous generations made less of a distinction between art and entertainment, observes Georgia Tech professor Philip Auslander.
"In the '40s, and I believe well into the '50s and the rock 'n' roll era, the idea of what it was to be a musician wasn't as pure and pristine as we seem to want to think of it now," says Auslander, who's written a study of glam rock. "The idea that to be a popular musician is not just to stand up there and show off your ability as a musician, but to entertain in other senses -- that was very much a staple of what popular music performance was about."
Even the Beatles, who became much more decorous performers after Beatlemania hit, dominated the local scene during their Hamburg residency by turning up the volume, smashing stages and -- in a famous incident -- doing a show with John Lennon in his underwear, wearing a toilet seat around his neck.
Of course, pop musicians have long been as much about entertainment as art -- but as times have changed, so have perceptions of where the line is drawn. To critics, MTV -- which arrived in the 1980s -- heightened the value of looks and slickness over "authenticity," with the image becoming more important than the music. And nowadays, in our 24/7 world of rapidly posted YouTube videos, instant MP3 releases, reality shows, lurking paparazzi and meat dress one-upmanship, it's easier than ever for spectacle to overwhelm singing.
It can be a false divide -- a glitzy video or elaborate stage show doesn't mean the performer can't play -- but it's one that's come to define some of the differences between rock and pop, says Auslander.
"I think a lot of this stuff is specific to particular genres and subgenres of music, and the old distinction between rock and pop, where the people on the pop side are not expected to be authentic in the same way as the people on the rock side," he says.
It's what's led to the so-called "rockist" point of view, he adds: that rock, which was album-oriented and ranged from earnest singer-songwriters to classically inspired progressive bands, was somehow superior to pop, which was found on singles and included bubblegum, disco, easy-listening and anything else likely to make the Top 40. Nowadays the genres are more blurred, but the prejudices remain: Rock is Serious and therefore Art; pop is unserious and therefore ephemeral.
It's a distinction that's long been disdained by performers themselves. As the old dictum, variously attributed to Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, states: "There are only two kinds of music: good and bad."
"I love a show. I want to be entertained," says Matchbox Twenty's guitarist, Paul Doucette, who praises the energy Lady Gaga brings to her concerts (and observes that "she can back it up" with her talent). "Don't get up there and look like you're not having a good time. I've seen enough of the shoegazing in my life. I want fun back in rock."
A new road to fame
The same goes for Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, whose band has been known to put on a show themselves -- complete with avant-garde, big-screen visuals, falling balloons and a giant "space bubble," a transparent ball containing Coyne from which he walks over the crowd.
"That's part of the fun of being in a rock band," he says. "If you're lucky, you get to create an image."
And as for the image overwhelming the rest of it, he points out that, if he's done his job right, every element works together so that the band and audience are satisfied. When this interview was conducted, the Lips were about to attempt to break the Guinness world record for most live concerts in 24 hours -- an arrangement that, despite the stunt aspects, the Lips were taking as seriously as any individual show.
"People are going to pay real money, people are going to give us a lot of their time, so we don't want it to be just hype -- it's really got to be great," he says. (For the record, the band got its record.)
Coyne has an open-minded view about what characterizes "art."
On the Lips' latest CD, "The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends," the guests include such indie favorites as Nick Cave and Bon Iver, as well as Ke$ha, the "Tik Tok" pop rapper disdained by the music press ("a faceless, anonymous pre-fabrication of a pop star," wrote Slant's Jonathan Keefe).
"I think the world can have all kinds of things in it, and just because someone is popular doesn't mean they're more important in people's minds," Coyne says. "(The audience) should pick what they think is speaking to them the most. If that's a Lady Gaga, great for you. If that's an obscure little artist that you know in your hometown, use that.