Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lady Gaga, and "Your Hit Parade"

Lady Gaga (who is, I think, a terrific singer, and performer) will be interviewed on tonight’s telecast of CBS's 60 Minutes. She will also be appearing on tonight's Grammy Awards, also airing on CBS.

Here are a few thoughts about her—and about the Hit Parade TV show from the 1950s. (I am going to try, here, to briefly establish a connection between Lady Gaga, and the TV show.)

First, Your Hit Parade:

There was a difference in intent, between the Hit Parade radio show, which made its debut in 1935, and the TV show, which appeared in 1950.

The radio show (which notably, for a time, starred Frank Sinatra) featured vocal and orchestral performances of each week’s hit songs. The television show, on the other hand, featured not simply music, but dramatizations of the songs.

Hit songs routinely appeared on the Hit Parade for weeks at a time. The TV show’s producers, in creating the television version of the program, decided that song dramatizations—storytelling treatments, which changed from week to week—could serve to attract, and maintain, the interest of viewers.

In 1981, I spoke with Ted Fetter, one of the television show’s creators, and one of its producers in its early years; the interview with him appears in my book. He told me (as noted in the book) that while viewers of the TV show might enjoy learning which song was the number one song each week,

the greater appeal of the TV show, for viewers—“the point of the show,” Fetter said—was the stories themselves, and viewer curiosity regarding how the same songs—appearing week after week—would be presented; what the stories, the fictional treatments, would be.

And now, to Lady Gaga.

I like her singing a great deal, she dances/moves nicely on stage, and is a fine musician (she not infrequently accompanies herself, on piano).

She is also (as has often been noted by others) very theatrically-oriented: she often seems engaged, on-stage, in a kind of performance art.

Which perhaps explained, to some degree, the outfit, made of meat, that she wore to last year's  MTV Video Music Awards. While she offered, indeed,  a socio/political explanation of the outfit, I think there were probably a lot of people (I would include myself in that group) who thought the idea of it was pretty unpleasant.

(She explains, here, her motivation for wearing the outfit: )

Yet, nevertheless: I think  Lady Gaga is extremely talented. One of the things I particularly like about her is the changing nature of her performances.

The staging of her songs often changes, from one performance to another. Sometimes it is more minimal, straightforward; at other times, it is elaborate, spectacle-like.

In the first YouTube video, below (from a 2009 MTV performance of“Paparazzi"), Lady Gaga emerges from a volcano-like construct; the pieces of the volcano move, and shift, during the song (the people operating the pieces, from behind, are occasionally visible).

In the second video, below, also from 2009, Gaga performs “Paparazzi" by herself, at a piano in a radio station studio—what she calls her acoustic version of the song.

As the presentations of her songs regularly change, so, too, frequently, does Lady Gaga change, in a physical sense. There is, I think, something of a chameleon-like quality to her; she often looks markedly different, from one appearance to another—because of hair style, say, or costuming, or makeup. Her look can change, too, within the same performance, as she removes, say, a mask covering part of her face (also part of the first video, above). She puts me in mind (to some degree) of photographer Cindy Sherman, and how (in Sherman’s “film stills” series) her physical appearance regularly changes.

There are, certainly, great differences in tone and style between Lady Gaga and Your Hit Parade. The Hit Parade was part of a dramatically different era; the TV show did not, for example, contain anything approaching the sexuality which has been a part of Lady Gaga’s performances.

Yet there is nonetheless, it seems to me, this commonality: that in a manner similar to the Hit Parade, in which the dramatizations of songs changed from week to week, and viewers tuned in to see how the song productions would change, Lady Gaga pays heed to the idea of variation, on stage—altering, with regularity, how she presents a song to audiences, how a song is staged, choreographed, performed. She thus avoids, in this way, a sense of pre-conception: her audiences are not sure what to expect.

Here are two videos of Lady Gaga performing her 2009 song “Bad Romance.” The first is from Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show. The second is from the British TV series, The X Factor. (In the second video, the performance of the song begins at approx. 1: 15.)

(Photo above:  Lady Gaga performing "Paparazzi" on MTV, via YouTube)