Is Lady Gaga Wrong?
Lady Gaga was recently interviewed in Rolling Stone (issue 1108 - July 8, 2010). It was a good interview, but there wasn't much spectacular in there. She's well aware of her persona and isn't too fast to drop her shield; it may seem like she's being "open and honest" but I feel like it's part of her stage personality, just a different part that isn't seen as much.
There was, however, one section that caught my attention: In response to a question about her song Speechless she said:
Not everybody gives a shit about your fucking life. Music is a lie. It is a lie. Art is a lie. You have to tell a lie that is so wonderful that your fans make it true. That has been my motivation and my inspiration for the longest time, and the new album is a lie that I want to become true so desperately.
"Music is a lie. It is a lie. Art is a lie."
Is Lady Gaga right? Is art - including music - a lie?
The easiest answer to this, in the most general terms, is "yes ... at least pop music is." That's one reason that there is so much backlash towards people like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, who "simply" sing every night. They didn't write all the music they sing, and it was written (so we assume) simply to make money. This trend, though, has been occurring in pop music for decades, as well-documented in Elijah Wald's book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll.
Much of pop history, reaching back to the early 1900s with the start of the radio and recording industry, and even before that with touring vaudeville shows, has dealt with people singing songs that were not written by them, and in many cases written and performed to either sell sheet music, records, or draw in radio audiences. Even fondly remembered performers did this, from Bessie Smith to Rosemary Clooney, from Duke Ellington to Frank Sinatra. And yes, even the Beatles.
But when we turn to other styles of music, the answer isn't an easy "yes," and most people would say "no, music is not a lie."
In this context it's easy to forget that our Western classical ideology is based around the same basic concept of performing other people's music. Yet we consider these composers and performers more authentic than pop musicians doing the same. Over the years we have come up with ways to determine authenticity in music (Nicolas Cook spends more time on this topic in his very fine book Music: A Very Short Introduction), but the basic idea is that music is authentic if it was written or performed "from the heart." Singer-songwriters may not be as famous and bring out crowds as much as manufactured stars like Britney Spears or Justin Bieber, but they are typically more respected by critics and fans.
But, as Lady Gaga said, do we - can we, should we - lie through art?
As much as I want to say "no," I can't. We do lie through art, as creators, performers, observers. It's how so much music exists, how so much music still lives, even 200+ years after its creation.
Let me cite a few examples:
- Jason Robert Brown's Flying Home, from Songs For a New World:The song is sung by a man about to die, and is incredibly moving. Jason Robert Brown wasn't writing this from a personal perspective, though, as he was on his death bed. The many performers who have sang this song weren't basing this on personal experience either, and I know that I haven't be in the position of the man in this song, yet I get the experiential "chills" nearly every time I hear or perform this song.
- Beethoven is oft-cited as the "ultimate" composer, one who wrote what he wanted, when he wanted, often times struggling to get the correct notes on the page. He is the proto-typical Romantic Genius. But what about those who perform his music today? Do we expect an Alfred Brendel or Maurizio Pollini to have near-manic mood swings while performing a Beethoven sonata? To jump from a mournful opening of the "Moonlight" sonata to a boyant minuet to a stormy final movement? If we can accept these performers having manic mood shifts, why do we then find something wrong if someone were to change moods this drastically in other aspects of life?
- Elijah Wald cites an example from the 1950s, quoting A&R man Mitch Miller: "Emotion never makes you a hit. I always tell this to singers: Emotion is not something you feel. It's something you make the listener feel ... You get a little tear in your voice, you put it there if the lyric calls for it ..."
But I actually think the last part of Laday Gaga's quote is the most important part. Music and art might be a lie, but it is something that we want to be true. Taylor Swift is popular because a lot of us, in even a small way, want a fairy tale romance. We might not have experienced death close-up, but Flying Home is moving because of the sentiments and emotions it evokes.
It is our challenge as performers and creators to figure out how to lie to the audience so they believe us. It is our challenge as educators to teach how to appreciate this lie for all the incredible things it's done and given us. It is our challenge as listeners to let ourselves get taken up in the lie.
Lady Gaga was right. Art is a lie. But she was also right in that even though art and music is a lie, a beautiful lie, it is a lie we want so much to be true.