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5 February 2010

Gaga as gesamtkunstwerk & Fever Ray’s melting face: a short attention span essay on operatic gestures in contemporary pop music

I. THE KNIFE’s SPECTACLES

Let’s lead this post with a bit of theater: Karin Dreijer Andersson aka Fever Ray (or maybe it’s a stand-in?) accepting an award for best dance artist at that country’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards. (They’re called the Grammis. American cultural imperialism is no joke.):

Let’s follow that up with a bit of music by The Knife, the Swedish electro-pop group which Dreijer co-stars in with her brother Olof. It’s from Tomorrow, in a Year, the new opera about Charles Darwin they created in collaboration with Berlin-based artists/musicians Mt. Sims and Planningtorock and the Danish theater group Hotel Pro Forma:

The Knife: Colouring of Pigeons

When it begins the 11-minute long song equally recalls Bjork’s “Human Behavior” and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach — a Greek chorus-like panoply of voices sings wordless oohs, ahhs & doots over a pattering of light martial drums. It’s the sound of spectacle and gravitas, unfolding more like a story than a self-contained pop song. The larger work from which this was drawn debuted this past September in Copenhagen; a download of the recording was released earlier this week, and a physical manifestation will arrive in in March — quite unlike most operas which are rarely documented so soon after their debut. If you like what you hear, there’s a lot more where that came from right here. (Admittedly the rest of it offers far fewer pop thrills than the song posted above.)

So, this thing — This Work — it calls itself an opera, a work of spectacle and gravitas. But why would a group who perform on television award shows and have their songs selected for global advertising campaigns even bother? This Work begs some questions: in today’s entertainment landscape is their room for operatic spectacles of the old-fashioned kind? Or do such productions need to take on a newfangled form? Or, finally, is something weirder happening — are lots of artists naturally aspiring to create some as-yet-unseen amalgam of old & new?

Jose Gonzalez: ad for Sony Bravia tvs
(a cover of The Knife song “Heartbeats”)

II. LADY GAGA’s SPECTADEBACLE

More thoughts about as-yet-unseen amalgams.

Perhaps you saw our own Grammys this past Sunday, and thrilled to a different kind of spectacle, the kind only televised award shows can deliver. Let’s call them spectadebacles, one of those special compound words the Germans produce with the same unique flair they do operas. The New Yorker‘s television critic, Nancy Franklin, certainly had a good time with the show if the posts on her Twitter feed are anything to go by. Lady Gaga (given name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) was an especial target:

“Well, maybe next year I’ll be seated behind Paul Simon,” he said to himself with a sigh.

Even better was a series of jibes related to Gaga’s ashen-faced duet with Elton John. It inspired three one-liners:


Sir Elton sez: “How wonderful life is with Gaga in the world”
Fame: a dirty, dirty job
My my fireplace-poker face

But wait a second, is this kind of spectacle so different from the ones that The Knife have produced collectively and individually? Though Gaga’s means may seem laughable to a sophisticated viewer like Franklin, her ends should not be dismissed by the rest of us.

Some think of Gaga’s career a mere extension of Madonna’s ever-shifting project of guerrilla-bombing the culture for fun & profit; some think she merely tarts up fine artist Matthew Barney‘s aesthetic for fun & profit. Viz:
Lady Gaga: “Bad Romance”

Matthew Barney: “The Order From Cremaster”

Sometimes, though, an echo is more than an echo: Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal had a more subtle take on Ms. Germanotta’s act in an article called “The Lessons of Lady Gaga”:

    “Underneath Gaga’s haystack wigs is a case study of what it takes to succeed in the music business today. Gaga, 23 years old, has made shrewd use of new digital platforms, while still leveraging the clout of a major label, an institution deemed obsolete by many proponents of DIY culture. She is a product of a new kind of recording contract which goes beyond just selling records to encompass everything from touring, merchandise–even her make-up deal. Though she writes her own material, she is as focused on visual theatrics, fashion, and global appeal as she is on the music.

Ignore the fact that lot of the article focuses on Gaga’s implications for old-line businesses (“a new kind of recording contract”!). Because the WSJ‘s readership runs these old line businesses, the paper need to pay heed to that kind of stuff. What’s more interesting about WSJ‘s take, however, is that they grasp how Gaga’s contemporary peers could give a shit about older metrics for success. Quote: “she is as focused on visual theatrics, fashion, and global appeal as she is on the music.”

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, if Gaga were to pantomime a lesbian kiss or commit a wardrobe malfunction, you can be damn sure the intended aim would be more than a one-week sales bump for her new single.

For another sense of how Gaga differs from old-model pop stars let’s compare her to a generational peer who models herself on the more classic ideal. Let’s compare her, for example, to Beyonce:

Beyonce herself is described in this week’s New York Times as “a spokeswoman — usually a dancing and singing one — in commercials for DirecTV, American Express, Wal-Mart and L’Oréal, among others.” So she is multi-platform. But Beyonce’s multi-platform attack is different. It is merely a brand extension, not an extension of her art.

Both Beyonce and Gaga play a sort of vanishing act, hiding their true selves while in the public eye. But whereas Beyonce’s is expressing her vibe as one of self-effacement (modest, attractive, old-school), Gaga’s vibe is more intense. It’s about self-defacement (mostly offputting, ingratiating only because it’s so bizarre, new school).

Gaga takes the focus off herself as a person and puts it on This Work that she does. That’s something decidedly new school.

Or is it?

III. NEWFANGLED GESAMTKUNSTWERK aka THE PACKAGE

Here’s another German compound word to try on: gesamtkunstwerk sometimes defined as a “comprehensive artwork synthesizing all of the arts,” often used in the context of Richard Wagner’s operas. Some say he coined the term. Is that what today’s most ambitious musicians are increasingly — if unconsciously — re-shaping their careers to pursue? Fever Ray is, for instance, clearly interested in high drama. Here she is striking a Butohesque pose.

Does this count as an operatic gesture? I’m not here to provide an answer so much as I’m here to ask the question, but let’s consider this quote from Karin Dreier’s brother Olof about The Knife’s operatic debut, published on band’s website:

    “At first it was very difficult as we really didn’t know anything about opera. We’d never been to one. I didn’t even know what the word libretto meant. But after some studying, and just getting used to opera’s essence of pretentious and dramatic gestures, I found that there is a lot to learn and play with. In fact, our ignorance gave us a positive respectless approach to making opera. It took me about a year to become emotionally moved by an opera singer and now I really do. I really like the basic theatrical values of opera and the easy way it brings forward a narrative. We’ve approached this before in The Knife but never in such a clear way.

Well, it’s always been pretty clear to me. Here, for example, a live version of “Heartbeats” from  a 2006 show in Gothenburg, Sweden:

I saw a version of this a few years back at New York’s Webster Hall. Performing behind a scrim, one got the sense that that the performers actions on stage represented only a fraction of the show. It was as much about the Robert Wilsonesque play of light as it was about the live music.

Finally, what both Gaga and Fever Ray are presenting is a more total artwork than pop stars of the past. It doesn’t just encompass music, fashion, theater, and aesthetics; it allows the music to be surpassed by the fashion, theater, and aesthetics. Let’s call these newfangled gesamtkunstwerk(s) The Package. The Package is not a sideshow to the music, nor a piece of flypaper to draw people in, nor a way to highlight a pop star’s real personality. The Package is the thing in and of itself. The Package does not evolve into clothing lines, movie roles & Broadway shows as new levels of popularity are achieved. Rather, furthering The Package is the core creative goal these artists have in mind from the start. The artist, in a way, loses themselves within The Package. If you really take the time to compare Fever Ray (at left) and Gaga (at right) side-by-side and you’ll be surprised to find they share far more qualities — or a lack of qualities — than you’d expect.

In a world where the economics of culture no longer allow artists to grow wealthy off of mechanical reproductions, doesn’t it make sense that making yourself a blank canvas for your work, making yourself into an opera — or something like it — would become an attractive option? Total experiences are what audiences are craving. Read here, for example, this article about the unexpected success of high-definition (HD) opera broadcasts at movie theaters:

    “Opera at the movies is a surprise new business. In 2006, when the Metropolitan Opera announced its plans to show operas live in movie theaters, skeptics wondered who would actually pay to go. Plenty of people, as it turned out. The Met program has grown exponentially: For its fourth HD season, the company is transmitting nine operas live and attracting sell-out crowds in over 900 theaters around the world.”

As I was saying, sometimes an echo is more than an echo: it’s a conversation happening within the culture, or among cultural practicioners. I’ll close this post as I began it. Here, again, is Drier (at left) winning an award at the Swedish Grammis a few weeks back, alongside Gaga (at right) winning a prize at the MTV Video Music Award this past September. Compare and contrast — that is, if there’s any contrast to be made.

Like it or not, Lady Gaga is a powerful force in culture. And, as I was saying, American cultural imperialism is no joke. Fever Ray’s appearance was taken by many as parody of Gaga. But every parody has an element of tribute, and perhaps that’s what this was, one cultural innovator tipping her veil to another.

See, also: Dirty Projectors, El-P & Def Jux, The National & the Dessner Brothers

Tomorrow, in a year (excerpts):

The Knife: “The Captain” (live in Gothenburg, Sweden, April 12th 2006)

UPDATED FEBRUARY 7, 2010: And lest we forget that opera remains a very old school business, on Friday came news that the Metropolitan Opera’s current general manager, Peter Gelb, has brought back the former head, Joseph Volpe, to negotiate the most intractable element of the opera venture: union contracts. Though the handover of power from Volpe to Gelb was reportedly quite contentious, the new school Gelb (a former record industry exec and born impresario — his father was managing editor the New York Times) simply could not do without the old school Volpe (a former master carpenter & impresario only via on-the-job training).

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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