The New International Blindness: All Agog over Gaga Makes One Gag
by MARTY PERETZ
This year I watched the Grammys at the home of a good friend and midway through the night thanked him that he had provided me an excuse to give away TNR's annual invitation. It came as no surprise that music's ritual celebration of itself turned a self-congratulatory gaze inward and away from the international stage yet again. That it again celebrated a re-branding of the old should also come as no surprise. But this year that it did so with such sybaritic glee seemed appropriate, fiddling as the children burned CDs of their own creation, another district of the New Rome of Hollywood ablaze and consuming revenue. It was the only satisfaction of the evening.
The undoubted star of the affair was pop idol Lady Gaga, pop manufacture's soi-disant queen of the new decade, but to old vinyl collectors and industry watchers, she's another batch of the same pabulum. Much as our current President churns out new and dizzying-seeming rhetoric—a wise ear knows it is assembled from the nobler passages of the Kennedy Inaugural, FDR's fireside chats and even some beats of Reagan—what passes for substance in Lady Gaga cannot be sustained past an initial listen.
Gaga's glam lays out Bowie and Queen filtered through Madonna Magic and glistened with post-production synth and derivations of more animate hip-hop beats. Like our Commander-in-Chief, at first blush, the background might seem like it comes from the street, but instead it comes from studio magic—musical veneer, like repairing a house divided by surrounding it with a new layer of vinyl siding.
These effects try to obfuscate the atavistic decline that her music presents. Bowie is over 40, Queen over 35 and Madonna over 30, and their glam poses have all faded with the harsh judgment of posterity as disinfectant sunlight cleans off the rot growing on Western decline. Gaga offers us a new glam shellacked over a crumbling structure. With a little house spun by Usher, her edifice will surely fall.
Beyond the dead breeze of her music, the undeniable frisson of the night came from Gaga's outfit, so tight as to be considered less sartorial than labial, her answer to the question of whether a pipe lay hidden instead of a velvet glove. Of course, that old metaphor of iron lying in velvet has never applied better to a people than to the tenacious Israelis. Tragic then that it was Gaga's nomination for "Poker Face" for Song of the Year that undoubtedly prevented Israeli hip-hop master, Subminal (סאבלימינל) from being nominated, delaying that people's resiliency in dropping devastating beats from being recognized another year.
Subliminal (real name: Ya'akov "Kobi" Shimoni, or יעקב "קובי" שמעוני) released a stunning track this year, "Alay" (עלי), which in its power and rawness instantly pointed up the difference between the bold outlaw/lawman frontier mentality of advancing Israeli hip-hop and the antiquarian death rattle of Old World glam and "rockism," whose banners of change and announcement of New Frontiers cannot compete with sick bass and rimshot resonance.
The song, the first off the highly anticipated forthcoming Westbank Killah album (most of which was written, rehearsed and recorded on his 2009 "Dead from the GZA Strip" tour), seduces the listener with precisely the glam sheen that Gaga hopes to evoke, yet here it comes naturally. It extends the velvet glove before the beats drop like rain and sick bass loops encircle you behind a wall of sound that's no specter—no, this one is real. Just as Subliminal made the Star of David a clothing emblem and conversational byword from the hottest of topics, the disparate elements of sweet femininity, a machine-gun flow that pops with precision, hooks and samples that work their way into you and take up residence and a thundering beat come together in a dynamic unity of sound that drives out any other MC or rhyme that might already have been stuck in your head.
Of course, I have no doubt that the album, too, will be ignored by American media too enamored of its own concerns and preconceived notions of hip-hop to look past its biases to authentic new musical trends arising from the embattled streets. The Rolling Stones and Pitchforks will join with the superannuated opinions of NME to turn European ears toward the conceptual product of the Anglo-American alliance forged first when Muddy Waters went East and reinforced when the British invaded West.
They will celebrate any act that represents even a token gesture of newness, especially if it can co-opt an internationalist sound and clutch at the swaddling legitimacy of world music. In this, the beats of Subliminal, his message and his countrymen are marginalized and spurned by the world around them. Not categorizable as the only Israeli music the West knows—Klezmer, the jolly dancing tunes of defamatory stereotypes of the culture, Hasidim and a cracked wine glass at weddings—it will become just the Other, music that is wrong because it does not embrace the rhythms and narratives of the Anglo-American dialogue... music that goes ignored.
As I remarked to my friend at the time, if the fading lights of the RIAA and the Grammy marquees tell us anything, it is that they are beats that the West ignores at its own peril.