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Monsters of Fame
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's always a dicey proposition when you choose to make rock and rollers your personal heroes, for they'll invariably do something so destructive or disloyal that you'll hate yourself for ever trusting so blindly in them. In my impressionable, music-worshipping years I latched on to three distinct rock and roll personalities — Johnny Thunders, Springsteen, Paul Westerberg — and eventually, each one let me down with a thud: Thunders by dying, Westerberg by getting boring, and Springsteen by getting too damned important and lecturing all the time. Of the three, I'm most bitter about Springsteen, for I liked him best, and his ascent into the realm of Significant Artiste always seemed like the biggest betrayal.
I don't know what it's like to have millions of fans and I'm sure it's a tricky, seductive thing when everybody wants your opinion on virtually everything. Still, it's a sad day when you recognize that your personal rock hero is taking himself too damned seriously. With Springsteen, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped listening: 55 seconds into the song "American Skin (41 Shots)," which was released in 2001. First time I heard it, I knew my hero worship for him was over. And it's nothing against the song — "American Skin" is Springsteen's response to the killing of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999, the guy who was shot 41 times by the jacked-up cops, and it's a great song. Controversial, at the time, for the song concerned a lightning-rod event in NYC, but in typical Springsteen fashion, the song shows both sides of the killing with great humanity, showing the cops and the victim in similar, empathetic ways. It's one of his best songs of the decade, a haunting, poetic retelling of an important and incendiary moment in the city's history.
What I found intolerable about "American Skin" was Springsteen himself, and what he said during the live version of the song. After the slow, moody bass lines that kicked off the tune, and after the band members sequentially intoned the words "41 Shots" to great effect, the crowd started to clap along — because that's what crowds do when they hear moody bass lines and cooly chimed words. But "American Skin" was apparently too important for typical crowd behavior, and after a few seconds of spontaneous response, Springsteen put a stop to it: "We need some quiet up here," Springsteen said, like a hall monitor, like a substitute teacher, like a martinet, and the crowd stopped clapping. Only after the proper amount of reverence had been restored did Springsteen begin to sing the words. No fun allowed here.
In the history of live rock and roll misbehavior, this hardly registers, when compared to Axel Rose's hissy fits and Courtney Love's psychotic screams and Shane McGowan's junked-up ramblings. But to me it seemed like the clearest act of contempt for an audience imaginable, and I can never forgive Springsteen for it. When artists start seeing themselves as oracles or visionaries, when they start referring to themselves in the third person, when they start believing that the world is hanging on their every utterance. . . well, somebody needs to remind them that their true calling in life is to make beats and sell records.
Which is why, until very recently, I've learned to love Lady Gaga. Here was an artist who seemed to have the proper perspective, someone who didn't take herself too seriously. When writing songs, she always said that her "feelings" or personal viewpoints or whatever were unimportant — what really mattered was the hook. And that's what I loved about The Fame and The Fame Monster — the songs were just hook after hook after hook. I couldn't really discern any sort of ruling personality or distinct artistic voice, and that was okay with me. I've always loved pop music for the shimmer and the gleam, for the three minutes of beats and hooks and catchphrases. Nowhere on the The Fame CD's is there any reach for profundity, and good for her — there's something to be said for a pop star who knows the rules of the genre.
After "The Fame" broke out, I wondered how long Lady Gaga would be able to continue to dominate the pop culture spotlight without becoming a beast of self-importance. It's a notoriously fickle and difficult position, being the uberstar of current music, and the shelf life is never long. But Lady Gaga looked to be that rare star who always seemed a step ahead of both the competition and expectation--with the hits, the videos, the lobster hats, the meat dresses, the egg chariot, the bloody performance pieces, et. al., she kept surprising her audience while never appearing to repeat herself. And for the longest time, she didn't even seem to take her massive celebrityhood too seriously.
Slowly, though, and probably inevitably, with the release of "Born this Way," it looks like things are starting to change and not in the way I was hoping. When the song "Born this Way" was released in early spring, Lady Gaga took offense at the critics and fans who thought that it too closely resembled Madonna's "Express Yourself." It's a hard position to understand — I know songwriting is a difficult task, but come on, even the most rudimentary listener can't help but recognize that the two songs don't just resemble each other, they sound identical. But who cares? Rock and roll has always been such a cannabalizing art form that thefts are sort of expected — Keith Richards stole everything from Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, for God's sakes, and frankly, The Fame Monster is littered with dozens of thefts from easily identifiable sources. What's the problem? Stealing from Madonna is hardly a crime, and besides, "Born this Way" re-uses the hook with genius. But Lady Gaga's strong response to the criticism made me realize that perhaps she's starting to develop an "artiste's" seriousness about her place in the world.
And then, oh boy, the quotes started to roll in. Lady Gaga on gay marriage. Lady Gaga on bullying. And this: "I consider it part of my life's work and music to push the boundaries of love and acceptance." Okay, I guess, but I didn't buy "Born this Way" and "The Fame Monster" to have my boundaries expanded. I bought them for the hooks, for "Pokerface" and "Judas" and "Government Hooker," for the fact that they sound great on the dance floor or in the car with the windows down. I recognize that she has the right to speak her mind, like everybody else, and frankly I agree with a lot of her opinions. And I like the new CD, which I think it will dominate the summer's soundtrack. But I just don't think her "social activist" suit looks nearly as good on her as the lobster hat. Or the bubble dress. Or the meat frock. Or the egg thing.