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When rock stars fake it

It's not about just the music. Lady Gaga, Katie Perry, Janelle Monae and others never break character. But is it real or merely an elaborate act?

July 12, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

Lady Gaga wants you to know she is not a Method actor. The 23-year-old ingenue behind hits like "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi" does believe in cultivating what thespians call "theatrical truth." But while devotees use the exercises developed by the late Lee Strasberg and others to go deep into character and pull themselves out again, Gaga has made artifice her permanent home.

"Hated Lee Strasberg," Gaga says in a behind-the-scenes video on her website, reminiscing about her youthful studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "You create sensory scenarios for yourself," she explains. "Like, I'm gonna feel a coffee cup right now, or feel the rain, and when I feel rain, I feel this way. Then you go into that state, and you stay there. And then you have to learn in the classes how to get out of that state."

"But that's what I don't do," she concludes. "I'm in a permanent state of Gaga."

The former Stefani Germanotta, who tells every journalist she encounters that Lady Gaga is "not a character" and who gets offended when someone calls her by her given name, is only the most insistent in a wave of pop artists actively questioning the value of an old and often-debated artistic standard: authenticity.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Katy Perry: In a photo caption with an article on music and theatrics in Sunday's Arts & Books, singer Katy Perry's first name was misspelled as Katie.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 19, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Katy Perry: A caption under a photograph of singer Katy Perry last Sunday misspelled her first name as Katie.

The balance between "real" and "fake" in pop has run in cycles. Rawness and spontaneity come into fashion, then formalism and glitz. In fact, both extremes are always present, with some artists aiming to express unfiltered emotions in unstudied ways, others adopting a deliberately mannered, costumed, referential style, and most combining elements of both approaches.

Since the dawn of the popular music age, the nature of authenticity has been debated by artists, who've battled in rhyme and punched each other backstage over the matter; fans, who tend to think whatever their community does is the most real; and critics and theorists, who've written enough on the topic to sag several bookshelves.

Lately, though, the split between "real" and "fake" seems to have closed. It sometimes seems that all of pop is in a permanent state of Gaga. This isn't because the quest for authenticity has been abandoned. It's because, for artists like Gaga, fake has become what feels most real.

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Artificial conventions

Across nearly every genre in pop, artifice, theatricality and synthesized sound rule the day. The biggest group in the nation is the Black Eyed Peas, hip hop's answer to both the Monkees and Cirque du Soleil. Green Day, formerly your basic snotty punk band, has gained renewed respect and commercial success by writing rock operas; now the band's Billie Joe Armstrong and "Spring Awakening" director Michael Mayer are turning one into a musical. And Slipknot-style masks and pseudonyms have returned to the hard rock underground via the band Hollywood Undead.

Theater veteran Adam Lambert turned "American Idol" on its head by wearing glitter and metal wings and performing with KISS; he reportedly is working with Gaga's producer, Red One, on his upcoming album. Lambert's friend Katy Perry became the most talked-about female artist of last year by resurrecting classic styles of feminine masquerade, including burlesque and Lucille Ball-style screwball comedy, and releasing songs like "UR So Gay" and "I Kissed A Girl," which make provocative hay from the hot topic of fluid sexual identity.

Even college rock, once a bastion of frumpy sincerity, has been taken over by the drama club kids -- from the kitchen-sink epics staged by bands like the Decemberists and Of Montreal to the fairy tales spun by alter-egoed fantasists Bat for Lashes and St. Vincent (real names are not cool these days, unless your mama called you Panda Bear).

Country music too has gained a synthetic sheen: The hot new single by crossover band Gloriana kicks off with what sounds suspiciously like a drum machine, while industry standard-bearer Brad Paisley celebrates video chatting and smart phone Super Pac-Man on "Welcome to the Future."

This giddy embrace of the world as a stage seems to go beyond where glam rock and disco took pop in the past, partly because it's assisted by more sophisticated technology. Auto-Tune, the software program that alters vocal pitch, has become ubiquitous both as a corrective and a kind of carnival mask, used by artists like T-Pain to upend listeners' expectations about what a love song -- or a party song -- should sound like.

Auto-Tune is so overused that it's engendered a backlash. The first single from Jay Z's upcoming album, "The Blueprint 3," is called "Death of Autotune," and similar polemics have been issued by his fellow hip-hop veterans Wyclef Jean and KRS-One. But these efforts are akin to the apocryphal story of Pete Seeger trying to cut the power lines with an ax when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.

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