So there recently appeared on the Internet two interestingly similar, and otherwise mostly uninteresting, attacks on female pop stars: a drawn-out sneer at Lady Gaga and her face, performed by Mark Dery, and a video featuring Paul Muldoon and a student from The Princeton Tiger pretending to critique Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK”:
Of this video, one YouTube commenter writes: “Poets need to do things like this more often. I think it would really help to tear down that whole barrier of exclusivity a lot of people feel about poetry.” If only, Lethkar2000! If only. I can’t see this conversation as anything but a desperate effort to keep that barrier standing, partly by setting in place a neat opposition between the effortlessly, consummately “trashy” singer of “TiK ToK” and a Pulitzer-winning male poet, barricaded by shelves densely packed with serious books, who can only “tr[y] to be trashy,” never knowing whether he’s really succeeded. And there are a few reasons why I can’t respond to this video with unqualified love for Ke$ha, but that’s just the thing: to suggest that her work, and by implication most pop music, is manifestly unworthy of analysis, which is what this video does, is one way of shutting off conversations that need to happen about genuinely troubling aspects of that music and its performance.
As for Mark Dery, there’s a great post on it’s her factory that basically says what needs to be said about the tired misogyny of his Gaga critique. I’m interested in one little additional thing, a bizarre commonality between Dery’s essay and the Ke$ha video: both of them feature a kind of stunningly misguided dismissal of one particular vocalization. And in both cases it’s Shakespeare on one side, and “O” on the other. Here’s Dery, comparing the erudition of Queen’s Freddie Mercury with the “vacuity” supposedly represented by Lady Gaga, an emptiness that his essay relentlessly codes as feminine:
In the radio-mandated two and a half minutes, Freddie gave his listeners a whiff of Shakespeare, an introduction to what would now be called Outsider art, and some brain-stretchingly arcane vocabulary words. (Queen Builds Word Power!) Gaga gives us “rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! Rom-mah-rom-mum-mah! GaGa-oo-la-la!” (“Bad Romance”) and “Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh/ I’ll get him hot, show him what I’ve got/ Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh…”
And here’s the Tiger with Muldoon on “TiK ToK”:
STUDENT: One of the most prevalent motifs in the piece seems to be this idea of “O.” For example, in one of the lines, the speaker says, “O, o, o, o … o, o, o, o”—what do you think that could be? Is that a yearning desire for some sort of deeper level of trashiness?
MULDOON: I think that’s probably a reference, well, to a couple of things. It’s a reference to King Lear—you know, there’s a line where you hear—
STUDENT: Ke$ha’s referencing King Lear?
MULDOON: —”No, no, no, no, no, no.” Which she has kind of transmogrified into “O, o, o, o, o, o” … or something along those lines.
LEAR: […] Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
O, o, o, o.
Or maybe just of the wrong play:
HAMLET: […] The rest is silence.
O, o, o, o.
Of course a whole lot has been written about those O-groans, especially Hamlet’s, but I think there must be some reasonably clear sense in which it isn’t a contradiction to have them follow the words “The rest is silence.” The groans really might have more in common with silence than with those words. In these lines, “O” is the sound of dying; elsewhere in Shakespeare, and in pop songs, it might be the sound of feeling so happy I could die. Or it might be the sound of something else. Regardless, there’s obviously nothing wrong with not liking Lady Gaga or Ke$ha, or with criticizing what they do as lyricists—but it seems to me that you really don’t want to go about this by saying that “O” is a bad lyric. (Let alone insinuating that its badness or “meaninglessness” as a lyric results from its having been composed by a “trashy” or “dumbfounded” songstress who just isn’t smart enough to write like Shakespeare.) Because “O” isn’t (quite) a lyric; in its full emptiness, “O” is more like the lyric itself—which, I would say, has always been closer to “a yearning desire for some sort of deeper level of trashiness” than The Princeton Tiger might like us to think…
Oh, forget it. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop thinking about these guys and go listen to “Telephone” again.