And then there were two: Lady Gaga and Kanye West – the only two.
Lady Gaga and Kanye West are the artists of the decade not only because they embodied Pop culture, but because they were integral catalysts engaging and propelling those artists and works that built this decade’s Pop landscape. Madonna and Jay-Z set the blueprint from a dictating parental standpoint. Gaga and Ye set the blueprint directly blazing the path, as conductors leading the way for the new creative class of which they themselves are members. They didn’t need a subtitle outside of their own names because their names are Pop – however, one can’t resist an alliterative play-on-words.
Lady Gaga: Pretense: Lady Gaga as we know her was created – not born – in 2006. Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” depicted the goddess’ epic emanation from the ocean. Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passions, blew the goddess of love, sexuality, and beauty onto the shore. Lady Gaga emanated from Stefani Germanotta. Bowie, Warhol, Queen, and Lady Starlight – symbols of pure Pop Glam passions, blew the modern iconography of love, art, sexuality, and beauty onto the world’s greatest stage: New York. Gaga is only three years old, but her creator was as integral to Pop Art – within this or any decade – as her creation – if only because of the masterpiece she made.
Her bio: “Half psychotic, sick hypnotic; got my blueprint it’s symphonic. Half psychotic, sick hypnotic; got my blueprint electronic.” Her blueprint: “Go. Use your muscle. Carve it out. Work it. Hustle.” Brilliant, basic.
In an era where – more than ever – age is nothing but a number, Germanotta started the decade as a 13-year-old composing piano ballads. She was just another Catholic Italian-American New York doll, but – as she would prove to be in so many ways – this “just another” was like no other. By 2000, she was a student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and just two years prior had turned down admission to Juilliard – at 13. A protege beyond musical excellence, the student walked the same hallowed halls as Paris Hilton – the Pop gods had this one pinned. At 14, Germanotta began producing, and working the New York bar scene on open mic nights. By 17, she was attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Germanotta later dropped out of school at 19 to pursue music. Dropping out of art school to pursue art. This would prove to be true to Gaga form, as she would later again turn her back on conventional process, in pursuit of authenticity and a new way. She broke into the music industry – and onto a new music scene – in 2007 when she signed with Def Jam Recordings, and started performing on the L.E.S. club circuit. After L.A. Reid (yes that L.A. Reid: winner) dropped Germanotta from Def Jam three months into her short-lived career, Germanotta began focusing on her own stage performances – and Gaga was born. Collaborating with Lady Starlight, the two tapped into Glam Rock – and later Pop – for their burlesque live performance “Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue.” During this time producer Vincent Herbert signed Gaga to Interscope Records imprint, Streamline Records – brings up memories of the epic “Paparazzi” intro, doesn’t it: no? Fair enough. Gaga was also signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV Records, where she began writing songs for Britney Spears, The Pussycat Dolls, Fergie, Christina Aguilera, and New Kids on the Block – the Pop gods had this one pinned. It was at this time where Akon saw Gaga’s potential – and profitability – and got Jimmy Iovine to work a joint-deal for her with Kon Live Distribution. Then, for good measure, Gaga signed on with – another – Interscope imprint, Cherrytree Records. So, that’s what she did this decade – before you knew who she was.
Enter 2009: The Year of Gaga. Last year her name was Lady Gaga and this – all of this – was her Haus. After the success of 2008’s – okay, maybe you kind of knew who she was – “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” Gaga released the bombastically hypnotic single, “LoveGame.” More importantly though, she brought Pop Art back formally with the epic single, “Paparazzi.” In a decade of hypercelebrity, flashing hot lights with global warming-causing frequency, and the loss of the artist in the midst of said celebrity, no one was able to capture the substance behind this shallow style. No one could convey the humanity behind the seeming fluff. No one portrayed the macabre reflection on the assumed unaffected general public – the everyman in the face of the star. Enter the genius that is Gaga; this – this – is why she is the best Pop Artist of the decade:
Before the decade would end she would, yet again, top herself by creating a new cinematic paragon… yet again. As Gaga’s destiny was seemingly hand-written by the Pop Art gods, her birthday, March 28th, is the day De Pascha Computus credits with The Nativity, and the creation of the sun and moon. True to fate’s form, Gaga released her sophomore studio production, The Fame Monster, in 2009. The album can stand alone, but is complete when combined with its predecessor, The Fame. The Fame and Monster are extensions of Gaga as much as they are the culture – our culture – of which she, and we, are products. The Fame is the light – the perception. The Fame Monster is the dark – the reality. They can exist separate and apart, but as we saw with the ebb and flow that was this decade, they do exist together. We saw the best evil had to offer, and the worst of the good. More importantly though, we were in constant pursuit of both at all times – our greatest desire was desire, and we swam and showered in it
In a decade where Pop lost its Art, Gaga found it’s heart.
Yes, she brought dance music back to the mainstream airwaves. Yes, she set the record for most Number One singles off a debut album. Yes, she was Pop’s pacemaker this year. Lady Gaga not only got Pop back on track, she set the pace, and revived the heart of the Art. She wrote “Quicksand” for Britney Spears’ triumphant comeback album, Circus. The inverted relationship between Spears and Gaga is noteworthy because of their relationship with their contemporaries. Britney was the fundamental pedestal, propping up and cementing her many collaborators. Lady Gaga is an active catalyst, a chameleonic crux of limitless creativity and life. She sparks – rather channels her own – genius within every contact, and propels them into The Fame’s stratosphere – fans and colleagues alike, as to her they are one in the same. She was noted by Madonna herself, as a new version of Pop’s matriarch. She refers to The Fame Monster album concept as that of The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse. She was called on by Beyonce to cameo on Sasha Fierce’s massive single, “Video Phone.” Her signature blonde locks? Motivated by the need to change her brunette look after being referred to as Amy Winehouse. Her wardrobe is accurately self-reflective in color, versatility, and volume. Her fashion is the avant-garde New York doll, to M.I.A.’s guerilla bamboo banga. Her complete depth and panoramic breadth of crossover, parallels that of Lil’ Wayne’s – Wale, Kid Cudi, Kanye, Marilyn Manson, Christopher Walken, South Park, Semi-Precious Weapons, Rihanna, Trina, Google the rest. Her music hearkens to the electronic-with-a-soul. Like Radiohead, her work is not afraid to dwell in the distortion, and delve into discord to make something so new, and so multi-layed minimalistic.
In the midst of people looking to 2012 for the apocalypse, Gaga laid out the reality of Pop culture’s impact on the Armageddon. In the midst of desperation, depression, and deviations from truth, we immersed ourselves in Pop culture. We denied attachment to the very celebrity culture that embodied our true selves, acting as our inner-most escapist fantasies in the face of the bleak reality. While we were killing our stars – those through which we live our own vicarious lives – we were in turn killing ourselves. Stars are our dream selves, our idealized beings, this decade saw us commit mass mediated suicide. Gaga did not dwell on the deaths of a culture, and society; she turned 2009 into Pop’s post-apocalyptic platform – and a party. She gave us the death and rebirth of Pop in 2009; true to form, she lived – and died – her art to make her point, at a pivotal point – on Pop’s pre-eminent platform
My brother once said, “Lady Gaga is the Barack Obama to Britney Spears’ George Bush” – that is this decade’s paramount Pop Artistry.
Lady Gaga once said, “I’m just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time.” Yet it was a little monster of hers who put it best, “Fxxk one sequin at a time, she practically nuked the fxxking place with glitter.”
Kanye West: West is Pop’s ego and alter-ego. He’s the Jekyll and Hyde. He is our hero, and our horror. In a decade of skeletons and pseudo-selves, Kanye was our Pop shadow.
Born in Atlanta, GA, West moved to Chicago at three. He attended art classes at Chicago’s American Academy of Art, and was enrolled at Chicago State University. He would eventually drop out to pursue music – sounds a bit familiar. Kanye entered the music scene this decade producing for everyone including your postman’s chiropractor’s pastor’s mom. To print his production credits this decade would require three times the amount of ink on Lil’ Wayne and Amy Winehouse’s collective derma. He made his greatest foray into the general consciousness with his work on the critically-acclaimed classic, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Over the past ten years, West has worked with: Dead Prez, Beanie Siegel, Lil’ Kim, The Diplomats, Trina, Talib Kweli, Scarface, Nas, T.I., DMX, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, Twista, Janet Jackson, Brandy, Jadakiss, Shyne, John Legend, The Game, Mariah Carey, Paul Wall, Three 6 Mafia, Lupe Fiasco, Thom Yorke, Diddy, Michael Jackson, Lil’ Wayne, Madonna, Kid Cudi, Lily Allen, Common, and Google the rest; this decade Kanye produced Pop culture’s soundtrack.
Like T.I., West’s discography would project his identity through his work. His discography is not so much a collection of commercial recordings, as it is a portfolio of his life, development, progressions, and transgressions. His first solo album, was 2004’s The College Dropout and the world was turned on to the genius that is Kanye West. Lyrically, it was so poetically apropos, and yet approachable and relatable. Like Gaga did with The Fame, West used past experiences to project a future self into being. In an age of YouTube making a celebrity out of anybody, West did not lose the art in self-expression, and the use of art as a means of development in his creation of The Fame. He did the opposite, and made an album that turned the academic almost into a cultural king. He flipped urban stereotypes upside down with his pink Polo swagger, and candy coated style. Like Gaga, he gained massive crossover appeal without compromising – rather in fact emphasizing – his, literally, unconventional self, image, and sound.
In 2005, he matured along with his music – and mouth – with the critically-acclaimed Late Registration – enlisting on Fiona Apple partner-in-criminal-rhyme, Jon Brion for the sophomore effort. West, beyond all biases and false assumptions, hold immense levels of depth and substance beneath his vast stylish surface. Moreover, the two sides are constantly ebbing and flowing with one another. West is a man of great juxtaposition and dichotomy; thus breeds the tense relationship with he and the general American public, but so it also breeds the essence and aesthetic of his work. We were at great odds with our perceived and real selves this decade – and our frustrated confusion reflects itself so clearly in our bond with Kanye West. Late Registration’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” was a vivid portrayal of the dark side of our obsession with image and status. Its message resonated both in a literal isolated sense, and a greater abstract sense – through the lens of a diamond, our greatest commercial symbol of true love.
Kanye reached past the sweets, to the streets, with another brilliant track that would combine social realities with sonic mastery to convey a cultural truth behind a Pop polish, “Crack Music:”
How we stop the black panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer
You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin
When our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin. Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland/We invested in that it’s like we got Merril-Lynched. And we been hangin from the same tree ever since
Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine
So we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it,sell it
The fiends cop it/Nowadays they cant tell if that’s that good shit
We ain’t sure man/Put the CD on your toungue yeah, thats pure man.
In 2007, West propelled himself from Earth into the great beyond with his transcendental Graduation.
“Graduation is that “October Song” masterpiece: a piece of art that needs no external interpretation because it is complete in and of itself. It is a fact that when immersed in the surreal, people’s ability to make sense of the world around them is increased. The fragmented fantastical enhances our ability to connect themes and build structure — when given fantasy we are best equipped to perceive reality. Thus is Kanye’s Graduation. An artist of West’s caliber is beyond “this world;” his ability to connect words, ideas, art forms, the abstract and concrete is unreal. Nowhere is this more present than in his masterful encapsulation of modern life — above and below — Graduation.
This is unforgettable because it is legendary, literally. Twelve tracks from Good Morning to Homecoming — from Drunk and Hot Girls to The Glory — illustrate the tale of how Kanye “Devil wears Prada/Adam Eve wear nada/I’m in between but way more fresher” West became a pop demigod; twelve great labours from the Nemean Lion to capturing Ceberus — from slaying Hydra to stealing Hesperides’ apples — illustrate the tale of how demigod Hercules became a mythological icon: epic.”
He then went to the depths of the electronic soul to produce his – and Pop’s – own apocalyptic requiem, 808’s and Heartbreak:
If Graduation is Fame, 808s & Heartbreak Kills. In the wake of Graduation’s superlative indian summer high, 808s and Heartbreak is the inevitable comedown — the crash of the coldest winter. West described this album as “Pop Art” in its ability to merge hip-hop credibility with mainstream appeal to innovate authentic music in a way only paralleled by Pink Floyd, welcome to heartbreak — the dark side of the moon.
[Kanye] spoke from the broken heart. Any time someone of Kanye’s caliber, within his capacity, can boldly go to their closet and display their skeletons — en route to expelling their inner demons — overlooking gratuity and pity in light of artistry and connection, it is more than noteworthy — it is unforgettable.
Then, there was 2009. Fast-forward to September – Google January through August if you must know his happenings then – Kanye became a pariah, a prophet, a svengali, and a social iconography in one night. When Kanye went on stage at the VMAs his more-of-a-how-you-said-it-not-what-you-said rudeness earned him a set of horns for his head and a bullseye for his heart. He also correctly predicted the Video of the Year – bookies were irate. West propelled a young, naive, girl into superstardom, and in doing so became the face of evil. If nothing else, this brought America back to the Disney days of Pop storytelling. This was a look back at the days of evil villains donning “all black everything”… everything, and a bottle of liquor. Fairy princesses wearing all white to their big night out on the town. The fairy godmother in red, ready to grace the princess and send her onto a fairy tale future. Then, the eventual collision of all parties in a pseudo-tragedy-to-triumphant moment. Yes, we still believe in fairy tales. More importantly though, Kanye became, at that moment, the catalyst for everything Pop since then.
Kanye is the artist to whom one’s work pledges undying allegiance, and to whose person one preaches Devil. However, like his Lady fair, West is as much a part of his work as his heart – yes, haters, he has one – is a part of him. People hate him because of his ego – the very thing propelling his artistic sonic and aesthetic.
Kanye knows this and he embraces it for the sake of performance art, and its impact – on both his ego, and ours. The hungry need of Kanye’s ego is the flip-side to Lady Gaga’s insatiable need to constantly have her Pop Heart be fed.
Lady Gaga and Kanye West are the most significant true Pop Artists of the decade – and our generation. They are reflections of our truest selves as Pop figures. We cannot escape the pull of the lights; and like so many before us, we cannot help but follow the stars when they shine brightest in the darkest hour of the night. West and Gaga are the channels siphoning the Art before them – canvases, chameleons, composers, and companions encompassing and embodying the most authentic elements of Pop Art. They are The Fame, they are the kamikaze killers. She is a monster, he is a maven; they are one in the same — and that is this decade in Pop.
Watch This Space.