“Perfect Illusion” – The Downfall of Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga first broke, I heard decent but not unique Pop. Then the The Fame Monster and Born This Way came and suddenly, she was some sort of icon for outcasts. Her fanbase was called ‘monsters’. The myth was, Pop was a genre with zero originality and weirdness dominated by conformists. Lady Gaga brought a revolution and made Pop accessible for the nerds, goth kids, ugly people and so forth. If you were ever bullied in school or didn’t fit in, Lady Gaga was here to elevate you.

I never bought that. Sure, her music videos featured a lot of weird outfits. They were also always sexual outfits. Lady Gaga confirmed nicely to the ‘sexy woman’ imagery. No matter how weird an outfit was, it always provided people something sexy to jerk off to. She didn’t look weird or dress weird. Her music was even worse. It was as generic as Pop can get. Lady Gaga has a nice, smooth voice with no real personality. She sang about sex, but so did everyone else. All her teasing and tough girl posturing are hardly any different than what Rihanna or Katy Perry did.

Lady Gaga isn’t just unconvincing because beneath lyrics of ‘be yourself’, she’s as conformist as you can get. Her image is misguided. She took desirable traits – strength, beauty, dancing – and wrote songs about them. What defines outcasts are undesirable traits – vulnerability, weirdness, perversion, anger, intellectualism. ‘Vulnerability’ is a key trait. Vulnerability is undesirable for evolutionary reasons. A vulnerable individuals is a burden on the pack, and we learn to hide our pain and weaknesses so we won’t get cast out of the tribe.

Artists who did sang for outcasts, or at least had such a fanbase were proud of this. Compare her to Marilyn Manson who also predicted his fame in Antichrist Superstar. His stomping anthem, “The Beautiful People”, is hateful, angry and a cry of distress. He sang from a position of weakness, of being ugly and undesired. His whole image is about that. His look is, on purpose, disfigured and often androgynous. While Gaga sang about the virtue of sex, Manson mocked us with “User Friendly” and “Slutgarden”. Manson also had a raspy, slightly mechanical voice so that every song he sang would sound odd. The newbie that is Melanie is another great example. Song like “Cry Baby”, “Dollhouse” and “Pity Party” take all these undesirable qualities and bring them to the surface. When Martinez makes strength anthems, she takes pride in admitting how vulnerable she is. Lady Gaga never does it. She’s everything we expect from a Pop star – in love with guys, perhaps girls, having a lot of sex and dancing at parties.

Imagine if the excellent “Government Hooker” was performed by Manson or Tove Lo, artists with a better sense of darkness than she. Songs like that hinted that perhaps there was a weirdo there waiting to come out. There is aggression flowing through that song, chopped vocals and a sense of dread that the sex isn’t all positive.

The new song is ironically titled “Pefect Illusion”. It describes Gaga perfectly. All my suspicions about her were confirmed. She got tired of posturing like a party girl, pretending that drinking and sex is new. So now she imitates Sia. Sia was already a pale imitation of Lady Gaga, singing with ultra seriousness, showing off her voice without a hint of emotion (“Chandeliar” isn’t about alcoholism but about Sia’s ‘awesome’ voice).

Lady Gaga looks back on the disco songs of heartbreak and triumph. She takes the sound and themes with none of the fun. The song barely has a melody or a chorus. The hook is a repetition of “It wasn’t love/it was a perfect illusion” and behind it only a banging drum. If this sounds minimalist, it’s not on purpose. You’re supposed to dance to that dull drum. Gaga sings with technical finesse, pointing out that she’s, in fact, not that hurt at all. Heartbreak may have been tough, but she can still try to impress the judges at American Idol.

Truth is, even if she brought actual pain to the song it wouldn’t be anything original. A little after Gaga came Lana Del Rey, who was sexier, more vulnerable and more dangerous. She was also a party girl, but she stared straight at the dark side of it too. If “Perfect Illusion” was the comedown from her image, she’ll just be running against Lana. That’s a race she can’t win, since Lana has a concept she develops and plays with. Lady Gaga has anthems of strengths and seriousness, like any other Pop star.

In the past, Lady Gaga at least tries to be weird. It was easy to see through, but there was effort. “Bad Romance” had scat singing. “Government Hooker” has already been mentioned and it’s quite excellent. She took influence from Latin music on “Americano” and other songs – “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.” were unbashedly about sex. It wasn’t subversive, but it wanted to be and if you’re unfamiliar with Pop music it is attention grabbing. “Perfect Illusion” is a regression to “Just Dance”, a song so unimaginative that it becomes memorable because of that. Remember, that song had the lyrics of “Just dance, gonna be okay, dodododododo”. I love songs about dancing, but they need to be passionate about dancing.

To her defense, it’s better than her competition. If Lady Gaga tries to amaze me with her voice, she does a decent enough job. There is vulnerability in that song that’s startling and more naked than Sia. She doesn’t hide the weak lyrics. Hearing her bellow out “I can still feel blow” sounds like she’s dying to be over it. Although her singing is triumphant, there’s something very noisy about it too. Some said the song is about a recent break-up, which wouldn’t surprise me. It’s generic, derivative and nothing original but Gaga occasionally sound like she’s trying to heal herself with singing. Maybe that’s why it’s so original. It’s a vehicle for Lady Gaga to vent. At least she beats the horrifying Sia in her own game.

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John Corey Whaley – Where Things Come Back

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Someone decided to mix John Green and Chuck Palahniuk. He even decided to place his story in a dead end town that gave Local H their talent and their fear of failure. It’s a good thing I didn’t know all of this before I read the book. The disappointment would’ve hit harder.

Whaley borrows some stylistic choices from Palahniuk, but barely scrapes what made him worthwhile. He doesn’t borrow his shock antics, but that’s not much of a praise. Chuck’s choruses are here, only they’re not as inventive or informing as before. The purpose of this repetition is to inform us about the character. Victor uses the clinical “see also:” because he’s viewing the world in a detached way. Tender kept referring to cleaning because it was in his docile nature.

Cullen is an angry teenager, but this is where his personality ends. As an angry suburban teenager I recognize I was born to privilege, but it doesn’t automatically make for a happy life. You can give your parrot a safe environment and food, but ignore him and you might find that he discovered self-harm without Nine Inch Nails.

There is more to life than physical well-being. The psychological is just as important. Once we don’t have to fight for survival, we still need a reason to keep going. That’s one reason we get all these depressed teenagers. What do you expect when you put them in an isolated community where they spend most time studying and with little human interaction? Do you want to be the parrot who stares at people talking, joking and laughing while never noticing you exist for a second?

Other problems can strike suburban life, but this is a common one that’s easily brushed off as nothing by ignorant people (if they’re your parents, then the situation worsens). Cullen suffers none of that. He’s not a jock who gets all the girls, but he has a best friend with a girlfriend who feels comfortable kissing him. He has sex with two girls in this novel, one is slightly older than him and the other is the town’s main hottie (both of which make the advances). He also had a thing going on with another before the events in the book started.

Cullen’s life is kicking. Why he’s so angry is never made clear. He dislikes people, but no one is an outright asshole. Nothing about him makes him an outcast or a weirdo. He has no weird hobbies or habits. He can’t even get angry over being bored. If girls and driving around are available to you, then you have some joy in your life.

The whole disappearance thing is an external event that isn’t a part of Cullen’s personality. What’s important is not the tragic event but how it affects the character, and we don’t see it. Cullen stays angry without change. He doesn’t become more detached or more social. He manages his sexual opportunities like everything is fine. Sex is a positive force in his life. He’s neither encumbered by sexual frustration or relies on it too much like Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini.

The book is darker than John Green’s novels (excluding the cancer book). Whaley is more comfortable looking at the darkness and the story is less convenient. His characters are also more flawed than quirky. Whaley’s outcasts aren’t odd angels. Lucas has his Green-esque charms, but both he and Cullen are portrayed as stubborn kids who need to expand their horizons a little.

Whaley also questions Cullen’s hatred of everyone. Green tended to cast everyone out, put them on the bleachers so they’ll watch how cool the nerd is. Whaley has moments where we’re exposed to the others’ humanity and their flaws. A great moment like this is with John Barling. Cullen views him as a punching bag, but Barling’s scene shows he’s just another guy trying to find some value in his life. When the bully’s life gets wrecked, Whaley doesn’t celebrate.

In fact, the side characters are the best part here. Each has a little arc of its own, and a novel about them would be more interesting. Barling has a story about escaping failure and trying to do something big. If Quitman starred in his own novel, it could be a revealing one that gives us the bully’s point of view. How Cullen’s parents deal with grief is fascinating. Each deals in his/her own way and these means change with time. This is how Whaley brings a character to life:

“”Yeah, we used to fight over your cookies. And Dad would always come in and say, ‘Now, now, the only way to settle this is for me to eat the last one,’ and he’d snatch it before we could stop him.””

Such deeds can inform us about who these parents are. There are better moments here. If Whaley had so many, why aren’t they the stars of the novel.

It may be the brisk pacing. Every description of Cullen’s parents is insightful, but they’re not lingered on enough. Whaley moves quickly, as if afraid that lingering on characters will somehow boring. His story never resorts to lame action to make us feel something is happening. He knows better than that, but he doesn’t understand that a good enough moment is worth lingering on.

Unnecessary details still find their way in. Whaley gives a biography of a character whose only importance is its death. The specific details of his background, his time in Ethiopia have no effect on the story. Start from the death and drop a few mentions of his harsh family and you’ll have enough. At least Whaley’s antagonist doesn’t fit the role of evil asshole who ruins things for everyone. He couldn’t make the instigator’s madness understandable, though. Cabot felt more like a plot convenience. Again, Whaley should have slowed down and wrote more moments that define who this character is.

Whaley shows potential. His view of Young Adult is more mature. He wants to be up there with Catcher in the Rye (which is name-dropped, of course) and he wants to reach its depth, not just quirkiness. It’s halfway done. Whaley left enough annoying cliches, but the good stuff that remained are just seeds.

2.5 woodpeckers out of 5

Ping Pong the Animation

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By the sixth time the characters talked about how talented and brilliant Tsukimoto is, I had to make sure I wasn’t watching a battle shounen series. At least the observers in Medabots looked anxious and worried. Ikki fought against tough enemies and had to find chinks in their armor. Here, Tsukimoto hits the ball a few times, push up his glasses and walks away. Not smiling did not add depth to the character.

There’s a brilliant story here somewhere. The story follows a cast that each has a different approach to the sport. This is an archetype that gives you so much do it never gets old. Often, the series understands how to use it. There are about five different viewpoints here. Each is unique in its way, and each is presented as reasonable. The creators never rely on caricatures. They rely more on super-talented protagonists and an unorthodox art style that adds nothing.

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No comment

Tsukimoto and Peco are both talented people who we are supposed to cheer for because they’re talented. While Peco’s lively energy is fun, it’s not enough to drive a main character. It’s barely a quirk for a supporting one. Tsukimoto is supposed to be unique with how he refuse to smile, but his character never settles on pretentious moron or angsty teenager. Both would’ve been fine, but at best the series makes him the former. It also takes his pretense seriously.

There is nothing exciting or valueable in being unenthusiastic about life. Tsukimoto walks around with an apathetic expression and doesn’t seem to like anything. His attitude towards life is the same thing that made Joy Division successful, but Joy Division didn’t just sell indifference. They explored that attitude.

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Color me unimpressed

People who reach such a state probably have something in the past that made them this way. They would also lead terribly dull and sad life. The idea that such a person can be so talented is far-fetched. Wouldn’t winning games require some sort of drive? People sometimes hate what they’re good at, but that’s at least an emotion. Ping Pong wants us to believe that a walking embodiment of Joy Division’s classic album is somehow a champion in table tennis.

A bullying story is tacked on at the end. It’s a predictible story that shows us that the kid was disliked, but never the horrible reality of it. Tsukimoto even gets a cheerful person to stick with him. Both of them turn out to be extremely talented in ping pong. Where’s the struggle?

Peco faces losing for the first time and gets bummed, but this is where their troubles end. They’re celebrities and heroes in the eyes of everyone, but not heroes that are uncomfortable in their position. They’re not like Kazama, who was driven to succeed to cover up his emotional troubles. Kazama is a champion who uses victories as a way to find happiness that he can’t achieve. His talent is part of his struggle.

Ping Pong also has a strange view of talent. Talent is something you either have or don’t, and no amount of practice can make up for it. It’s a fatalist view, and not a good one. It could be talent is something you’re born with, but how will you know if you’ll never try to prove it? Indifference like Tsukimoto’s rarely produces noteable people.

What’s thrilling in such stories is not to see the characters win. All the creators have to do is just write that the characters won. What’s interesting is their struggle, their view on victory and why they’re doing it. Their reaction to losing or winning is what makes things exciting. China, Sakuma and the long-haired dude all have such an arc. One uses the sport to return back home. One uses it to lift up his own low self-confidence. Another one is on an eternal search for meaning.

Their stories are far more exciting and humane than Tsukimoto’s/Peco’s. They are stories of people like us, rather than two people who found out they’re talented. It’s amazing how similar it is to cookie-cutter heroic stories. Substitute ‘talent in ping pong’ with ‘magic sword’, ‘victory’ for ‘saving the world’ and it turns out the anime isn’t so unique as it looks.

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Bruce Willis?

How it looks is a big discussion point, but not that exciting. The only good thing about it is how unorthodox it is. The character design is a weird take on realism that looks grotesque without bridging the gap. What especially sticks out are the lips, which look huge. The sketchiness also makes the character design inconsistent. In too many scenes, the characters look like blobs.

This is not minimalism. They look like shapes drawn in a few seconds. The roughness achieves nothing. It could be an expression of the character’s imperfection, but the story disagrees with that. Peco and Tsukimoto are heroic champions. It doesn’t achieve any type of warmth because it’s too stylized and distant. All the rough lines and emphasized lips don’t give it the elegant simplicity that saved Mushishi’s character design. Being different is great, but if it doesn’t contribute to the story it’s just a fancy cover. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it other than a sketchy look that achieves nothing.

The animation is different, and Ping Pong fares better there. The series overcomes one of anime’s main flaws – its static animation. Most anime are fairly static, with more focus on design rather than motion. While Ping Pong fails in design, it’s a total success in kinetic energy. The Ping Pong matches are stylized action scenes that rely on visual expressions, not coherency.

Animating a sports match as it looks in reality is pointless. If you want to watch a real game, you’ll watch a real one. The only reason we watch a sports story is because of what the sport means to the characters. Each match is animated with focus on its place in the character development. The matches are the same in what happens in them. They all consist of people hitting the ball. The difference between them is the meaning, and so every match is an engrossing action scene that leaves everything else in the dust. It doesn’t just set the blueprint for how to animate sport scenes but how to animate action scenes in general.

Ping Pong is not the peak of anime. It’s not even among the more unusual of its type. Despite trying to create its own rules, not enough of them serve the story and it falls back on sport prodigies. The exploration of that type doesn’t go deep enough. Still, it has a great cast of side-characters and fantastic action scenes. Its attempts at understanding its cast are admirable, and so it relies more on developed characters than emotional manipulation. It’s not a milestone, but there’s enough to enjoy here.

3.5 chinese people out of 5