Friday, June 11, 2010

Gaga's new video for Alejandro: an unfulfilled cultural event

Seeing Gaga’s video for Alejandro, and reading some blog reactions, has gotten me thinking about Media again. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about how the transition to on-demand, easy-access, Internet-based mass media has changed the way we relate to artists and their products. Because I think Gaga’s approach to video-making is struggling against a climate that’s not favorable to it, even though she seems to embrace the very paradigm that’s oppressing her.

Gaga’s approach is epic, sensational, landmark-seeking, and stage-stealing. Alejandro was preceded by a lot of hype and anticipation, and the payoff is there: the video is shameless, sensational, and totally committed to its vision. Lady Gaga is constructing herself as the purveyor of the big premiere, the major media event, with all the attendant decadence of insane staging and lighting, outlandish costumes, spectacle, glamour, and publicity. Her premieres and awards show appearances are things that want to be noteworthy, given a chance to attract crowds and incite editorial reaction, and they deserve a date and time, a “first showing,” if you will, when the whole world gets to see something authentic at the moment it actually happens. This isn’t about Live or Pre-Recorded… it’s about having a true premiere, where her work is pinned to a particular historical moment.

In the age of YouTube, this is getting very difficult to do.

I think there’s a demonstrable progression from movies to television to Internet media. It’s a progression of accessibility (the carrot at the end of the stick, keeping the change going) and of specificity, a slide from the historical to the immediate; it’s about having your content whenever you need it, and about making every place “the right place” and every time “the right time.” Meanwhile, it’s rapidly taking the bite out of the concept of the “big event.” This is a progression that’s good for talent and bad for cultural gatekeeping; it’s a transition from market-based flow control to truly conversational, democratic media.

Film inherited something from the world of live entertainment: the idea of the “premiere,” which was dependent on a time (the release date) and a place (the theater or auditorium). Mystique still surrounds the big Hollywood premieres, which is why Cannes totally dominated film blogging last month, but the red carpet romance feels a bit nostalgic these days. Those beautiful dresses and photo sessions are Hollywood’s tribute to its own golden age, but it’s being infiltrated: important filmmakers are claiming they’re not going to do press screenings, and films are appearing illegally online before they can muster up a big opening. Hollywood used to be desperate to start conversations; now, conversation is so ubiquitous, they’re struggling for control in the face of it.

Television was the first step back from this “opening night” paradigm. With broadcast TV, there’s still a “big night,” but there’s no special place to go… you can get the premiere dropped right into your living room. Nonetheless, the premiere is still an event on television, because it’s still a one-to-many information flow, from the distributors to the consumers. Nielsen Ratings have replaced the Box Office Take, but the role still gets to be filled, because everyone who wants to see the premiere gets to do so at the same time. There’s still a long-lasting ripple that radiates from an on-screen premiere, reaching entertainment magazines and water cooler conversations the next day. The importance of the event is still absolutely apparent: how long are people talking about it? Will they remember the date and time? Can they say they were there, in their living rooms, at the moment the first episode was shown?

This was also the birthplace of the music video, which was able to participate in some of the cultural conventions of the television premiere. The great music videos – Video Killed the Radio Star, Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time – were able to reach the status of cultural events with their first screenings, and they’re still remembered for “rocking the world” (or whatever). But it seems that music videos have abandoned this prime-time philosophy in favor of the higher volumes of the Internet. They probably reach a LOT more people at once, and they can create a massive, albeit very short-lived, amount of buzz. However, they’ve lost something in the process: they’ve lost the historicity that television premieres gave them, the ability to be marked as cultural events that people related to certain times, places, and moments in their lives.

Music videos moved their premieres to the Internet, and this has had a profound effect. With some exceptions, streaming videos are viewed at small resolutions (standard or less) on high-resolution screens, which makes them look very small. They can be accessed whenever, in any free scheduling gap, and easily forgotten about. Further, they’re now tied to a hyper-accelerated news cycle driven by the manic world of blogging and reposting and status messages. As Joe Reid points out, they now create a flash of discourse that spends all its energy and gets old almost immediately. And for such a small video, watched over a lunch break, why would you expend any more effort than that anyway?

I think Gaga’s sense of spectacle deserves a much bigger space than YouTube provides. I mean, don’t get me wrong… you can get a ton of buzz out of an Internet premiere. That recent Mortal Kombat video did a pretty fantastic job of generating conversation. Even so, it’s such a saturated medium that it’s hard to stay relevant for more than five seconds – and a video like Alejandro isn’t just an isolated meme. The Lady Gaga groove was already carved out by Bad Romance and Telephone, and a video like Alejandro will drain away much quicker because of these precursors.

This “size of the screen” thing may seem pretty silly, because the digital world seems to have decided that it can watch movies on its computer, or its iPod, or whatever. But don’t underestimate how much this affects our perception of the media. On a larger screen, any work of media will seem to go slower and take on greater importance, even aside from the fact that it’ll be less disrupted by distractions. And Alejandro was made for a big screen, even more so than its predecessors… it takes place in a vast, empty, black interior, defined by its scale, and the dance sequences have fewer jarring close-ups than the previous videos, so the video ends up depending on the on-screen gesture and movement itself. The stomping boots and isolated noises within the empty, echoing space really beg for an immersive viewing environment. At least the player on YouTube has a black background… it’s a small step in the right direction.

But wouldn't this look better on a television screen in a living room, at the very least? I know those old TV's weren't HD, back in the time of Thriller and Black or White, but they certainly got the job done, and "premiere" really meant something. As much as the Internet has tried to undercut Broadcast television, TV is still capable of turning something into a cultural event, as evidenced by final episodes like Lost and American Idol, and major awards shows like those MTV Movie Awards. Premieres themselves may be flagging, but it's been a while since I knew of anything that generated the buzz of that final Lost episode. Seeing Alejandro on the television screen for the first time ever, with its intense stomping and graphic, shocking sexual dance moves -- it would bring out the real power of the video, its power to inspire shock and awe, at least for the duration of the next commercial break. It could be attached to another cultural event, like an awards show... at this point, that might be required for it to seem relevant.

But even better, wouldn't it be great if Alejandro could premiere on a HUGE screen, in a dark theater, before a major film release? Pixar has done a decent job of premiering awesome shorts before its motion pictures, but these are never really promoted... I think Gaga's media apparatus could make a music video premiere seem almost as important as the movie it was attached to, and sometimes more so, if they picked the right film studio to work with. Where would it have been appropriate? Maybe before a movie like Inception, or before Tarantino's next film; maybe before Splice, or a uniquely buzzworthy flick like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity. If it premiered in this context, Alejandro could have made a truly resounding cultural impact, with that goose-stepping, BDSM insanity, that lengthy Madonna tribute, and those elements of concept and narrative hiding in the cracks of all the sensationalism.

This all leaves the question that I can't answer: does this make Lady Gaga an anachronism of a previous media generation, when the cultural event was truly alive? Or is she the artist of a future that needs this kind of epic spectacle to return? We'll have to wait and see, I guess.

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