Hagen, Galas, Gaga: The evolution of the post-punk chanteuse

Like many witness to the Lady Gaga phenomenon, I saw the burgeoning celebrity popping up here and there in her eye-catching, show-stopping ensembles, and I had no idea what her music sounded like. I pictured a possibly screeching and borderline unlistenable (in the best possible way, of course) new incantation of opera-slayer Diamanda Galas: a modern, mini-Galas, using her voice and some complex backup noise to alienate and enrapture listeners all at once.

I was in for a surprise.

Gaga collage

Clockwise from top left: Wendy O. Williams, Lydia Lunch, KatieJane Garside, Amanda Palmer. Center, Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga may not be the first to apply an avant-garde, performance-art sensibility to pop music (i.e. Grace Jones), but she is the first to do it with music and theatrics that seem, at the outset, so shockingly dissimilar. Evidence of her amazing success proves it a shrewd move—like John Waters said genially of his barely-predecessor, Andy Warhol, “[He] finally had the idea to put homosexuality and drugs together for the first time.” Often the public doesn’t know what it hungers for until it’s smack-dab in the middle of eating it up.

This marriage of mainstream music and high-art pageantry is the very thing that confused me about Gaga the moment I finally tuned in to one of her music videos. Aging hipster that I am, and coming from a post-90s, post-Riot Grrl setting, I was used to music and style that were as consistent with each other as the pot and the kettle. Bikini Kill sounded like they looked. L7 sounded like they looked. Courtney Love—as the front woman for Hole&mdah;sounded like she looked (at least then). And PJ Harvey evolved fluidly between looks, all of them so very ‘her’. But Gaga sounded like Top 40 and dressed wackier than Nina Hagen. This. . . did not follow.

Lady GaGa Live at The Tacoma Dome The subversion of the counter-culture, alterna-girl “look” into mainstream music started with the Spice Girls, and with the tongue piercing sported by Melanie Brown (a.k.a. “Scary Spice”). At that time you rarely saw people with facial jewelry who weren’t pretty committed to one of any number of left-of-center lifestyles attributed to those who moved into and out of the piercing world. “But the Spice Girls are British,” I thought. “Maybe piercings are more common over there?” By the time Christina Aguilera got a labret, it was all over (nothing against Aguilera, of course).

With the added advent of the Hot Topic mall stores where you could suddenly purchase garb previously only available in big-city sex shops, the music industry began to notice that people liked the punk, post-punk, alternative and bad-girl styles without having to be saddled with the pesky experimental music that went with it. A girl who’s crazy-bad and hawt’, but sings something I can dance to, dude. Jeez.

Some sort of musical entity or truth I found in the consistency—or predictability—of style-matching-music was suddenly becoming outdated. And gone, too, was the entitlement or ownership that went with it. The idea that through experimenting with or abandoning feminine artifice, being shunned for wearing too little makeup or called names for wearing too much, being honest and raw and most of all, making insane music, female musicians somehow earned the right to look this way: the red badge of misfit courage. And that’s not meant to be snobbish or elitist, it’s just. . . if all the regular girls dress like the outcasts, what’s left for the outcasts?

I tried to consider the angle that a decline in stereotyping of any kind was technically and obviously a good thing, even if it was stereotype I sort-of liked. But I was seeing the dichotomy that spawned so many of the female musicians I admired becoming obsolete too. Wendy O. Williams—who was so sexy, so angry and so dangerous she could go onstage topless and destroy a car and men were frightened instead of titillated. Or Lydia Lunch, whose fierce sensuality challenged mores and sexual classism whether she was singing her own volatile work or acting in the renegade films she co-wrote with Richard Kern. Or Amanda Palmer, a contemporary of Gaga and a musician I’m such a huge fan of it’s a joke, who refused to Photoshop her belly in the music video “Leeds United” when her record label told her she was too fat, saying they wouldn’t back her album with any more promotion or financing if she didn’t either cut or alter the shots in the video of her stomach, to make it look thinner.

Lady Gaga Lady Gaga also has a bit of the Damsel-In-Distress syndrome so romanticized by our car-wreck-peeping, dirty-laundry-seeking society. America loves women who lay themselves bare as damaged goods and unapologetically invite others round to watch them burn. KatieJane Garside did it, as the front-woman of the band Daisy Chainsaw in the 90s, Queen Adreena in the early 2000s and Ruby Throat today. I’m a longtime Garside fan, and have watched her act out the libertine unraveling of many different identities throughout her career, with great vulnerability and distress. But also with outrage, weaving weakened pleas with unhinged screaming. Lady Gaga’s music is not without antagonism, plotting and caginess, but she doesn’t use raw anger in the way that so many Angry Women preceding her did (inspiring the 90s book of the same name). And that is a clever business move, because raw anger is too off-putting for most consumers and limits your audience, no matter what. Whereas crazy-acting women can seem hot-to-trot as long as the craziness manifests itself in passivity and self-destruction, and not in aggression or acting out in a way that’s threatening.

I try to explain these things, and worry I begin to sound like a crotchety Pete Seeger, horrified by Bob Dylan’s infamous electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And as Seeger and others ranted that Dylan was a traitor to ‘pure’ folk music, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary) allegedly yelled, “This is what the young people want! We have to go with the change!”

Lady Gaga The young people. Nothing could’ve endeared me to Lady Gaga more than the Glee episode devoted to her music, or the reactions of her young fans, for whom she is ground-breaking, iconic and freeing. They have never seen anything like her before, and she inspires them to imagine bigger versions of themselves. And I’m reminded of myself sitting in my bedroom, listening, motionless, to The Cramps’ Songs the Lord Taught Us while staring at the cd insert, unable to believe the riveting new sounds I was hearing and overjoyed that I had discovered music so unusual and alive. And I’m sure generations before me could have rolled their eyes and said, “Oh honey, Link Wray and The Trashmen did that first.”

Lady Gaga works hard, and I respect her drive. The main thing she makes me feel, is old. And I’m totally ok with that. Music is how young people work away at carving out both their similarities and their differences to their parents, their peers and to the world around them. If everyone liked the same thing, talking to others about the arts would be insufferable. And if the values of one music genre or music itself stayed static from to one decade to the next, it would stagnate. I want young people to be creative and headstrong and try new things and firmly believe—just as I did—that they are the first people in the whole world to feel all the things that have inspired songwriting for over a hundred years. I want them to feel they can claim an artistic realm that that should always, and hopefully will always, inspire great passion, movement and ideas, not feel apathetic about it because it’s been marked and hoarded by the generation before them. Everyone deserves a turn to feel as though the music they love can change the world, because it all does; at least a little.

One Response to “Hagen, Galas, Gaga: The evolution of the post-punk chanteuse”
  1. Aggronautix says:

    We love Wendy O. so much, we made a limited edition figure of her circa ’82:

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