Lady GaGa — “Born This Way [Country Road Mix]”
(from Born This Way [Country Road Mix]) — Born This Way (The Country Road Version) - Born This Way (The Country Road Version) - Single

GaGa’s Monster Ball tour — as garish and gaudy a spectacle as you could ever hope to witness — rolled through Austin the night before last, and A — the biggest GaGa fan I know — and I took in the show from the nosebleed section of the Frank Erwin Center. The night started off in the hole with a plainly heinous opening act (New York City’s astoundingly atrocious Semi-Precious Weapons, whose clueless lead singer clearly thought we wanted to spend forty minutes watching him writhe around in assless pants and being serenaded by his deafeningly shrill screams), but once GaGa took the stage, the night hurtled pretty violently between boldly brilliant (say what you will — I’ve said plenty, and will continue to do so! — but when this gal takes to the piano all by herself, you can’t deny that her raw talent is the real deal) and brutally bizarro (not that the whole rest of the presentation made a hell of lot more sense, but near the end of the show, during an otherwise energetic turn on “Paparazzi,” a giant man-eating squid entered from stage left with no easily identifiable purpose, leaving me so mystified I literally had to plop down in my seat for a second, lest my brain actually shut down from the incapacitating strangeness of it all).

GaGa spent precisely the entire evening trying like hell to convince us — even going as far as to tell us, multiple times! — that she is authentic, that she is revolutionary, that she is a true original, and it crystallized exactly what bugs me about her: I can’t tell you that I’ve ever seen a pop star who is so clearly and cleanly a product — which is to say, a wholly and triumphantly integrated amalgam — of all the superstars that have come before her, of all the women that this woman must have spent years studying and studying intently. You watch GaGa live, and you see clear as day how affected she has been by — and how closely she has taken to heart — Madonna’s whims for reckless provocation, Pat Benatar’s bitchin’ badass-itude, Bjork’s hauntingly ethereal flair for the utterly insane, Courtney Love’s balls-to-the-wall, emotionally unkempt velocity, and even — in the rare but intensely invaluable quieter moments, when GaGa strips away the wildly flailing artifice and bravely brings her focus back to the music — my beloved Ms. Amos’ killer instinct for enrapturing her audience; not to say that she doesn’t do any or all of the aforementioned better than her predecessors — likely, it’s too early in her run as pop’s latest crown princess to pass so final a judgment — but nonetheless, does that make GaGa an original, or merely a shrewdly stitched patchwork of influences and intangibles?

Shrewd, the woman most definitely is, and her deliberately-played moves toward making herself the icon of choice for the disenfranchised walking among us (most specficially, misunderstood gay and lesbian youth) certainly constitute a noble (and, apparently, quite lucrative) endeavor. But I can’t help but wonder about her somewhat sketchy strategy to appeal to said disenfranchised by passing herself off as one of same. Whereas we, as a society, watched Madonna transition herself from snotty club kid to Material Girl to self-obsessed heretic to mellow yoga mom, and we watched, say, Janet Jackson grow from a gawkily precocious child star into an all-woman sex bomb, we have no personal history with Lady GaGa, we have no milestones to track in her evolution as an artist (and, perhaps more crucially, as a person): she burst into our collective consciousness three years ago already molded, seemingly sprung full-blown from the mind of Zeus, and though she tells us valiantly and in her loudest tones that she, the eternal outcast, came from nothing to conquer the world, we haven’t seen that take place. What we do see when we look at her — what we can gather empirically from her posture and her presentation — is an exotically beautiful woman with an impossibly staggering body and a soulfully engaged imagination — either of which can scarcely contain inside their fraying seams her gargantuan talent — who carries herself as though she is entitled to her enormous fame, as though, simply because she rises from her bed urry morning (and, okay fine, sets dancefloors the world over ablaze with her defiant, tightly executed jams, and, oh yeah, says, swears, “I’ve walked a million miles in all of your shoes!”), she deserves the adoration of her acolytes. We hear a woman telling us she’s one of us, but we see a woman who is the envy of millions, a woman who floats in rarefied (and impeccably stylized) air above her agog minions, who transmits what sounds like empathy but what looks like the calculated arithmetic of an artist who knows she’s stumbled upon the correct formula and is itching to remain the Queen of Fat City as long as possible. And — for me, at least — in this age of perception-is-reality mentality, that’s a tough disconnect to fully transcend. (I can admire, and all day long, the brilliant breadth of commercial success she has managed to accomplish for herself in such a brief period of time, but I find it awfully tough to root for someone whose every move, step, idea, and breath seem so painstakingly manufactured, someone whose poker face we can read, and with such disappointing ease.)

Nonetheless, the end product of all this toil and trouble — the music, yeah? — remains astonishingly solid, in spite of GaGa’s best efforts to bury it beneath her attention-stealing antics. “Born” seems destined to become her signature single, and rightly so (particularly since it does indeed crib so much of its architecture and arrangement from one of Miss Madonna’s touchstones, “Express Yourself”), and you’ve gotta love her willingness to futz with it without reservation: at the concert the night before last, in the absolute highlight of the night, GaGa sat before her piano, knocked out a tender, heartfelt take on this tune, and slayed us with her pointed passion. And then there’s this, the so-called “Country Road Mix,” on which she lightens up the mood, swaps out the throbbing synthesizers in favor of a fascinating steel guitar, and creates something fun, something frisky, something approaching… original.

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