Like sports fans, music fans will rarely shy away from an argument. So when Ann Powers, one of my longtime favorite guests on Soundcheck, wrote her article for NPR’s website on the new Lady Gaga record, and actually compared Gaga to young Bob Dylan, you could sense she was just spoiling for a fight. Well, she got one, as you can see from the responses to her post.
Ann actually makes a number of compelling points, after admitting she’s being “deliberately provocative with that comparison.” I think she’s right in saying that you can’t simply dismiss Lady Gaga as a dance floor queen with a freaky entourage and even freakier wardrobe. There is substance here: a still-young woman thrust into the glare of a truly global spotlight has found a way to balance a successful pop music career with an apparently heartfelt message of tolerance.
I guess for me, there are two main distinctions that make the Gaga/Dylan comparison a non-starter. The first is a matter of taste. In music, as in food, I quickly tire of the sweet, and come back to things that are sour, even bitter. Some of those early Dylan songs are positively acidic – and there is no way to listen to them without having the message thrust in your face. Lady Gaga’s message is couched in conventionally appealing, and occasionally sugary, dance music. This means the message can reach a huge audience, but also that much of that audience can simply bop along without thinking twice about tolerance, or gay rights.
The second distinction is trickier, because it only becomes apparent after the passage of time. Will we be listening to anything of Lady Gaga’s songbook 50 years from now? “Poker Face” is a well-constructed pop song, and I mean that as high praise. But will it live as long as those Dylan songs from the 60s – “Positively Fourth Street,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “The Times They Are A’Changing” – which are nearing 50 and are still potent today? Those songs are likely to outlast their now-70-year-old creator. (Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan.) You could say that it’s an unfair comparison, because pop music is meant to have its moment and then – pop! – it’s gone. But that’s my point: Lady Gaga is no Bob Dylan… and I don’t think she’s trying to be.
But big kudos to Ann for starting an unexpectedly enticing musical debate!
Do you view Lady Gaga as a protest singer for the new generation? Leave a comment.