Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gaga For Gays

About a month ago, I went away on a week-long family vacation (Cabo!!!...or not).  One night, a few of us were sitting around talking, and my cousin wondered what I thought of Lady Gaga. I already had an opinion on her (which I briefly discussed on this site), being that I originally (and incorrectly) thought she was a typical pop artist that had risen on the wave of a couple hit songs and would be largely irrelevant in a few years.

As it turns out, I hadn’t realized (or even really considered) the degree to which a kitschy, contrived pop singer with catchy dance tunes would be able to both amass and activate such a devoted audience. Yeah, she knows how to write singles that people will like and will get air time, but that is only part of what has propelled her to stardom. What has kept her there is a combination of her (self-actualized) weirdness and the mobilization of her audience, especially among those in the teen/young-adult homosexual community. Lady Gaga is a global icon because she knows how to write pop songs, wear weird outfits, and most importantly, appeal to her “Little Monsters.” But it is the inherent dissidence of these “Little Monsters” that make Gaga’s mainstream success so intriguing.

Ever since Lady Gaga established just how powerful an entity she is (and presumably will be) in the realm of popular culture, her reverence in the gay community has been her strongest and most obvious support system. The manner in which she has embraced individuality and self-expression endeared her to that faction of people immediately, and it has yet to ebb. However, what makes Gaga’s popularity so remarkable (and what I just recently realized) is that the voice and support of this counterculture is what largely vaulted and sustained Lady Gaga’s fame in popular culture. The top catalyst for Gaga-palooza has been the voice of a subculture mired in decades of stifled distinctiveness and notable subjugation, and for the longest time, I didn’t even realize how shocking this truly is. And I suspect that probably says a lot more about the current state of society than it does about the singer of “Alejandro.”

Please understand, the purpose of this piece is not to examine the morality or treatment of homosexuals. It is simply to recognize how implausible it is that a community representative of gays  and gay culture has had such a sizeable mainstream impact, and what that means for Lady Gaga and pop music, both historically and moving  forward. In terms of Gaga, part of the sensation surrounding her and the strength of her audience is due to some great timing. She has risen to fame (to a significant extent) on the back of her homosexual fan base and the support she has continually shown to it, all during a time when the counterculture gay community has become much more vocal and accepted within pop culture. Things like Glee, the “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, those commercials with Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes that warn against using the word “gay” in a pejorative manner – all of these and more have either contributed to or are a byproduct of the changing tide of how homosexuality is viewed in the mainstream media, and Lady Gaga is certainly in that mix. Yes, it is without a doubt still a counter-and-sub-culture, but the general reaction to alternative lifestyles has become more receptive, with Gaga enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship. She is both an initiator and beneficiary of that new direction.

(Side note: Since the program’s inception, I always assumed “Rizzoli & Isles” was a show about lesbians. I’ve never seen a single episode, but I just figured that the two girls were lesbian detectives that had to balance their work of solving crimes with their personal lives. Needless to say, I was shocked to recently discover this was in no way even close to being true.)

In a historical sense, Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” share similarities with the Grateful Dead’s “Deadheads.” The timing factor for the “Deadheads” is evocative of Gaga’s fan base, with the explosion of hippie culture and free love deeming the Dead both initiators and beneficiaries in their era of popular society. Furthermore, the dedication and (extreme) loyalty that Gaga’s “Little Monsters” have exhibited in recent years is in many ways comparable to that of the “Deadheads,” other than the hardcore Dead fans being more mellowed out, what with the LSD and all. Despite how popular or well-known a musical act or artist becomes, very few ever accrue an audience as intense as the “Little Monsters” or “Deadheads,” which is as much a testament to the fans as it is to the artist(s).

One thing that makes Lady Gaga’s popularity different from that of the Grateful Dead, though, is the gap between the so-called “diehard” fans and the so-called “casual” fans. Lady Gaga has a lot of casual, mainstream fans, many of which can name and sing-along with her hit songs. The divide between those conventional fans and the “Little Monsters” is much smaller than the one between mainstream Dead fans and the “Deadheads.”

For instance, Rolling Stone ranked the Grateful Dead as #57 on its list of Top 100 Artists of All Time back in ’04-’05. When you look at some of the list’s comparable artists of similar ranking (Aerosmith at #59, Clapton at #55, Queen at #52), it is obvious that those bands/musicians have a much bigger presence and following among mainstream music listeners than the Dead do, and yet I don’t think any of those bands/artists have a faction of their audience as loyal or passionate as the “Deadheads.” And in turn, this is yet another thing that makes Lady Gaga’s popularity so impressive. She has managed to gain a casual following on par with a band like Aerosmith or an artist like Clapton, and yet the zeal of her “Little Monsters” is analogous to that of the legendary “Deadheads.” The burgeoning gay culture has somehow managed to make Gaga both a cult hero and popular superstar, all at the same time.

(Another side note: If you in any way think that I am equating the musical accomplishments and significance of Lady Gaga to Clapton, or even Queen and Aerosmith for that matter, then you obviously don’t know a damn thing about me.)

But as much as I am shocked at how popular and prominent Gaga has become – thanks in large part to her “Little Monsters” and the mainstream heights to which they have lifted her – I can’t help wondering if this is actually the best thing for Gaga and her music. At this early stage in her career, Gaga has only released two full-length studio albums (The Fame and Born This Way) as well as one highly successful EP (The Fame Monster). Her popularity, success, and branding as a voice for the young, alternative-lifestyle community manifested with The Fame and was well established by the time of The Fame Monster. This all became clearly obvious with the release of Born This Way, which Gaga has admitted as having the subject of sexuality as a key theme. Just listening through the album, it's apparent how much of an impact the topic of personal lifestyle and homosexuality had on many of the different songs, most notably the title track. The whole record kind of plays like the soundtrack for a drag show or something, and while it is certainly not a terrible album, it isn’t as cohesive or impressive as the other two I’ve mentioned. It all leads me to contemplate if Gaga’s music is suffering at the hands of her attempt to be this representative and spokesperson for the gay society that has so strongly supported her.

There are countless examples of artists making albums entirely based around a specific message or cause. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Born This Way, it’s not that I necessarily think it doesn’t work at all, but just that it isn’t on the level of Gaga’s previous efforts. Her music suffered a bit on this most recent album, seemingly as a result of her trying too hard to represent this enormous gay voice that has been so steadfast in making her what she is today. And I can’t help but ponder whether this will continue for the rest of her career, or whether it’s simply a phase, a one-time venture to (in some way) repay her gay and alternative sexuality fans for all they have done for her.

Will Lady Gaga be pigeon-holed as this gay rights activist that can only write songs with a specific message – the Yusuf Islam of homosexuality? And if it isn’t just a one-time thing, will it really be that bad for Gaga? The album received good reviews, spawned a couple hit songs, has already had three or four singles get radio play, and has sold 5 million copies in only a couple months’ time. Plus, the release was lauded in circles for the awareness it brought to the gay community and how favorably it represented that faction of people, a great deal of which make up Gaga’s most boisterous fans.  So if she’s still going to sell a bunch of records, continue to receive critical acclaim (even if it’s less than before), have a few hit songs, remain incredibly relevant and popular, and further endear herself to her most loyal fans – a collection of people who have long felt oppressed and discriminated against  – why would she change anything? Why should she?

The lore of Lady Gaga is very intriguing. Her pop culture status was achieved thanks to a counterculture voice; her mainstream popularity is indebted to her subculture deification. One would think that she now has to appease both sides, remaining an ambassador for the “Little Monsters” while also maintaining her mainstream clout. But maybe not. Maybe the two sides are no longer as separated and divided as they once were. Maybe the homosexual counterculture that helped propel Gaga to stardom was simultaneously propelling itself into conventional acceptance.

That future path remains to be seen, as does hers. In the meantime, we should recognize what has taken place, and how incredibly rare it is on a societal level. Musical preferences and personal convictions aside, the popularity and sensation that is Lady Gaga is impressive, shocking, confusing, remarkable, groundbreaking, and historical. It’s also pretty gay.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What Is and What Should Never Be

In my opinion, one of toughest things for an individual to do is admit that something sucks when they have a strong personal or emotional connection to it. This is far from profound, and yet people largely resist to even acknowledge it. In fact, this negligence is probably the greatest evidence of my point: people are so unwilling and uncomfortable with admitting the failures and tribulations of things they support and stand behind, they simply avoid the discussion altogether. Ok, that’s fine. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

For instance, I am a huge fan of the show Lost. During the show’s run, I was fully engrossed in the plot and the mystery, following the network TV show with an incredible (and at times, ridiculous) amount of intrigue on an episode-to-episode basis. Even today, I consider Lost one of my favorite shows of all time.  But if I’m being honest? The 6th and final season of the program pretty much sucked. I still love Lost as a complete show, still watched the last season with just as much interest and enjoyed wrapping up this incredible television journey, but standing alone, the overall season was almost entirely grade-A crap. For a while, it was tough for me to recognize and subsequently admit this, yet it was true the whole time. But this article is not about Lost. It is about me, and it is about my acceptance of something that (in spite of my affinity for it) totally sucks. Unfortunately, this one is a little tougher to accept. Opposed to the 6th Season of Lost (which lasted only 18 episodes) this one will more than likely haunt me to my grave.

The Cincinnati Bengals suck. There are certain caveats and explanations that are required in making this point, but it’s true regardless. I don’t necessarily mean they suck at football (although that tends to be the case more often than not) or that they suck as individual players or human beings (although that could be the case in certain situations). I am also not making this point as a Bengal-hater, some pompous, crab cake eating snark from Baltimore rooting for a murderer-turned-minister middle linebacker, or a troglodyte block-head from Pittsburgh rooting for a bearded woman-defiler or drunk-driving salsa dancer, or even a delusional fanatic from Cleveland, pretending to wallow in self-pity and yet secretly enjoying it. Nope. I come to you as a diehard and lifetime Bengals fan – and one that is actually a fairly consistent under-reactor in a city of over-zealous, overreacting sports fan with a slight inferiority complex. (Come on, I couldn’t (accurately) bash every other AFC North city and then just give mine a free pass.)

Anyways, back to my original point: in saying that the Bengals suck, it is not implying that they simply suck as a team or as specific players and coaches. It is much deeper than that. In stating (and simultaneously accepting) this assessment, it encompasses the Cincinnati Bengals as a complete entity, a singular professional sports franchise, a solitary business model. It’s like, instead of saying Metallica’s song structure sucks, that actually every aspect and characteristic of (or even a band reminiscent of or similar to) Metallica sucks. The scale of error is much broader than you might immediately associate. And it is because of this broad scale that, ostensibly, the Bengals would suck for a myriad of different reasons. Really, it’s just one.

That reason is Mike Brown. To describe Brown as one of the world’s most selfish, oblivious, and heartless owners of a professional franchise would be letting him off easy. Four-letter words and petty insults don’t deserve to be uttered in his direction. Demanding accountability for his actions is as useless and futile as an umbrella in the eye of a hurricane. And yet he presses on, General Manager and Owner of the newly crowned “Worst Franchise in American Professional Sports.” ESPN the Magazine recently unveiled their annual ranking of sports franchises, listing each team from the four major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) from number 1 to 122. The Bengals clocked in – not at terrible, awful, or sub-par – but at the absolute bottom: #122. Now the merits or accuracy of this survey can certainly be questioned (as the Bengals attempted to do) but that’s just another example of failing to accept that which is true when we wish it wasn’t. You can certainly argue other franchises into that 122nd spot (Clippers, Mets, Redskins, Timberwolves, Maple Leafs) but you can’t convincingly argue the Bengals out of it. And our fearless leader is the reason why.

It may initially seem harsh to paint Mike Brown as the sole reason for the Bengals’ futility…then you look at the facts. The Bengals were not always this putrid. They made two Super Bowl runs in the ‘80s, had two separate NFL MVPs at quarterback (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason), and had one of the greatest football minds in the history of the game steering the ship (Paul Brown). Then, in 1991, everything changed. Paul Brown passed away, giving control of the team to son, Mike. After coming just minutes short of a Super Bowl victory in ’88 and then successfully securing a playoff run in 1990, the Mike Brown-led organization was somehow able to rattle off 14 consecutive non-winning seasons and only two winning seasons in the past 20 years. The team’s pair of playoff appearances (’05 and ’09) each ended in first-round losses and were followed by below-average seasons. And in November of 2010, Brown became the fastest owner in NFL history to reach 200 career losses, doing so in only 314 games.

These accomplishments weren’t in the NBA or MLB where lax or non-existent salary caps put small-market teams at a disadvantage. This was in the NFL, where revenue sharing bestows parity and every team has a legitimate shot at success.  After taking over from his father, one of the top pioneers and leaders in the history of football, Mike Brown managed (no pun intended) to disgrace his family’s name and destroy the hope of an NFL franchise in less than two decades. He concurrently held a city hostage and crushed its spirit, and yet still managed to pad his wallet and keep himself in power. You know that saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Yeah, Mike Brown is the opposite.

It would take me far too many words and be far too detrimental to my health to run down each and every transgression of Mr. Brown, so I’ll just hit the highlights. I already mentioned how terrible the team has performed since he was put in charge, which he has done as one of only three owners in  the entire league to also serve as a General Manager. He has complete job security (his daughter is next in command, and she appears to have a lot more of her father in her than her grandfather), and is just stubborn and egocentric enough to keep it that way. He quickly fired adored head coach Sam Wyche in 1991, replacing him for the next decade with the “Murderer’s Row” of head coaches Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, and Dick Labeau, all of which were inadequate at doing the job, on top of being given an insufficient roster of players because Brown was too cheap to shell out cash. Which leads to another problem: the way the NFL is structured, teams are always going to make money, regardless of how well they play; so for Brown, the less he spends, the more he then makes. It’s why the Bengals have the smallest scouting staff in the NFL, constantly have players and draft picks holding out for more money, and rarely shell out enough to land notable free agents, electing instead to pick players off the scrap heap with extensive criminal records or behavioral issues for a fraction of the normal price. Sure, sometimes this works (see: Cedric Benson**), but more often than not (see: a list so long it would break the internet) it doesn’t.

**Ed's Note: As if by some divine intervention, sent down to help validate the assertions of this article, Benson was arrested for assault roughly 24 hours after I posted this.

Back in the ‘90s, the Bengals shared Riverfront Stadium with the Cincinnati Reds. Admittedly, the place had become an ancient dump, and Brown felt the Bengals needed a new stadium. According to him, this new facility would increase revenue, attract better players and coaches, and ultimately lead to a more successful franchise…except he didn’t want to help pay for it, so he called for it to be publicly funded. When the local tax payers were hesitant about pouring millions upon millions of their hard earned dollars into this project, Brown cocked his gun and put his hand on the trigger, threatening to relocate the team if the ordinance didn’t pass. The city’s residents ultimately voted to keep the team. Ten years later, it’s resulted in North America’s worst franchise and the most expensive publicly funded stadium in the league, racking up an estimated $555 million in costs to local tax payers. And all this time, Mike Brown just keeps getting richer.

I could continue to throw out stats and figures that would only further prove my point, but it’s unnecessary. The plight of the Cincinnati Bengals over the past two decades is obvious, and putting the entirety of that blame on one man makes a lot more sense when you simply look at the facts. It’s unfair to claim he’s a bad person (or is it?), he’s certainly not a bad business man (he’s rich), and you can’t really say he’s stupid (he keeps getting richer). But he is a terrible owner and a dreadful GM. He is ignorant, negligent, selfish, conceited, short-sighted, and has no semblance of self-awareness. He is inadequate at his job and has absolutely no consideration for the fanbase he (allegedly) serves. He is a crook, a curmudgeon, a hack, and a cheap, cheap bastard. And in 20 years of complete and utter failure, squander, and hopelessness, Mike Brown is the franchise’s one and only constant.

The worst part, for me at least, is that despite what I have just laid out, I am and will always be a diehard fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s one of the weirder qualities of sports. No one would continue listening to a clearly terrible band or supporting a divulged corrupt politician, but in sports, loyalties seem to extend beyond rational thought. It’s much more sensibility than common sense. In any respect, it sucks that my favorite team will more than likely remain on this same road of course for the foreseeable future. At least now I can finally admit it.

And yet, things were much easier before, when each new year, new season, new game offered the potential for things to turn around, to right the ship. I was always so certain that things could be reversed at any moment. That’s no longer the case. I’ll continue rooting for the Bengals, just as I always have, holding out hope for a few moments here and there where on-the-field triumph conquers the front office incompetence.  But my dreams of a consistently successful football franchise will remain hollow and void as long as Mike Brown and Co. remain in charge.

By no means am I a huge Bob Seger fan (I don’t think anyone is, other than cross-country truck drivers) but one of my favorite lyrics of all-time comes from his song, “Against the Wind.” He sings, “Wish I didn’t know now, what I didn’t know then.” It might be the most honest, introspective, and perceptive line ever uttered, and it pretty much sums up how I feel about the Cincinnati Bengals. Wishing they could just be good or proficient would be more gratifying, but that’s a little too far-fetched. And it’s my lack of ignorance that now makes this fact ever so obvious.

So I suppose instead, I’ll just keep running against the wind.

Thanks for reading