Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Last Pop Star

This morning I read a provocative article about Lady Gaga in The Atlantic. (It can be found here.) The article essentially argues that Lady Gaga represents the end of Pop.

I'm always drawn to essays like these, which examine an important cultural phenomenon and from it draw a radical conclusion. I happen to think that in this case the conclusion is wrong. I attached the following comment to the article to explain why:
Lady Gaga is not finishing off Pop; she's finishing off Pop for you. Various artists, some of whom you name, have done this for others in the past, and they did it using the same strategies: irony, satire, hyperbole, extravagance, excess, naughtiness—all graced with a note of genius. Welcome to our world. I've lived here since Nevermind.

Like most of my friends, I still venture over to Popland now and then. It's like playing Twister: not as fun as it once was, but fun enough. The pleasures of "Bad Romance" persist, even after all these years.

But your essay raises a serious question: What kind of art puts an end to an art form? Allow me to suggest that ironic art cannot do that. Irony signals an art form's decadence, but irony is not the arrival of something new. And only the new really puts an end to the old. You do not end an art form by replacing it with nothing.

How to spot the new? For one thing, it's earnest. It will absorb what went before it, but it won't merely put quotation marks around what it's absorbing: it will speak earnestly, unironically. Don Quixote comes to mind. Don Quixote possessed all the pleasures of the chivalric romance while adding to them a pleasure that was not merely satirical or self-aware. It saw the world in a new way—novelistically—and we have been seeing it that way ever since.

Lady Gaga is great, but she's no Cervantes.
Radiohead, on the other hand. . . .

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