Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Jody Rosen on Eva Tanguay:
The Googoo(gajoob) of (Lady) Gaga

December 1st, 2009

“This is where the received history of popular music begins to crack open.”

At long last, F.O.Z. Jody Rosen has followed up on his ace 2008 Pop Conference presentation and given the world the lowdown and dirty on “the first rock star” (I’d prefer “pop star” myself), vaudeville diva (and anti-diva!) Eva Tanguay. Go read it now. It’s a lengthyish piece - and one of the most significant works of music writing you’ll read this year - so I’ll try not to add too much verbiage here, except to [concision fail! - ed.] make a couple of pedantic points and a couple broader ones. Which do you want first?

1. I’d quibble with Jody’s cherrypicked list of Tanguay’s spiritual heirs and heiresses - a hell, yes! on Johnny Rotten; this is like a missing, rebalancing chapter of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: Punk, you’ve met your Euro Dada, now meet your (Red Hot) Mama, who of course came yapping straight out of vaudeville and New Yawk. But to be fair, when Jody mentions Lena Lovich and (especially) Bjork, I think one has to say that they are more animated by the ghosts of European cabaret (and music-hall in Lovich’s case) than by turn-of-the-century American showbiz. On the other hand, presumably because it doesn’t boost the “rock star” thesis, Jody doesn’t mention the likes of Bette Midler, who gets her shot of Tanguay passed directly mouth-to-mouth from Sophie Tucker.

2. Speaking of Tucker, besides the recorded legacy, I wonder if in part the reason she’s better remembered than Tanguay in the public imagination is that she had an ethnic community with a vested interest in preserving and promoting her memory. Tanguay was a French-Canadian expat whose act reminded nobody of hearth and home. (And thus too her heart-wrenching end-of-life.) (To digress from my digression, I’ve heard tell that she may have been a relative of Therese Tanguay - better known today as the mother of Celine Dion. Fun, at least for me, though Celine could never be called an “I-Don’t-Care Girl” - more like the “I-Care-So-Very-Very-Much Girl.”)

3. Most shocking though is that somehow Jody managed to get through that entire piece without saying the word “Madonna.” [Later: Mea culpa! There is one mention of Madonna. I tried to double-check but missed it because I didn't know my browser's text search was case-specific.] Although he did say “Lady Gaga,” so maybe Madonna is just automatically implied? (By the way, my current working Gaga thesis: She is to Madonna what Bowie was to Mick Jagger, i.e., the art-school version.) Also m.i.a. - not so much M.I.A., but Lil Kim, Missy Elliott, Kathleen Hanna (”Suck My Left One” = “I Don’t Care” in 1991ese).

4. Wanted, the secret history of “madcap.”

5. Jody passes pretty fast over the fact that Tanguay’s signature number emerged “in the musical comedy The Sambo Girl. Playing the lead ‘brownface’ role …” Combine that with “her rumored romance with black vaudeville star George Walker,” in whose case vaudeville is at least partly a euphemism for minstrelsy, and one begins to wonder about the minstrel influence on what she did, and indeed whether there are any female minstrel characters who might have served as a template for her persona, which otherwise seems to bloom surprisingly full-grown into life. Of course, that’s just how stars do seem, almost by definition, but the genealogy is always more complicated. The continuities and/or breaks with 19th-century minstrelsy-centric pop culture (if we can call it that: see next point) are an important part of any account of early-20th-century U.S. pop culture, particularly if you’re going to make a case for the ragtime era as Rock’n'Roll Mark I. Not that Jody isn’t aware of all that, but again, it seemed underplayed.

6. That said it’s beginning to seem like the claim for “first pop/rock star” can keep being backdated and backdated, so long as anyone is intrepid enough to dig. (Or simply imagine it, the way Sophia Coppola did with Marie Antoinette, for example.) My sense of when mass culture began seems to jibe roughly with Jody’s, and we share a supposition that mass culture is a necessary precondition of the category “pop star.” But a plausible counterproposal could be that the pop/rock spirit is inherent to civilization (in part because it is the anti-civilization impulse) and that every culture’s had performers who embody it - to twist a proverb, it’s Elvises all the way down. Discuss.

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  2. Matt Collins says:

    Is it possible that in looking at mass culture it’s difficult to pin the tail down because the mass-”est” (sorry, “most massive”?) mass culture is the body, and to look for the beginning is like looking backwards down the length of a comet?

  3. scott says:

    re: first pop/rock star, don’t forget Lester Bangs’s (half-joking) assertion that “punk” can be traced back to Lady Godiva’s horse.

    “By the way, my current working Gaga thesis: She is to Madonna what Bowie was to Mick Jagger, i.e., the art-school version.”

    Hmm, Madonna strikes me as pretty “art school” herself, regardless of whether or not she attended such an institution (arguable, but I say yes: she attended U of Michigan on a dance scholarship, dropped out and starved for a period). From the get-go she always came across like a student of Warhol — fully comprehending of how to use media to her advantage, etc. — even if she didn’t push the angle quite as hard (some might say “belligerently”) as Lady Gaga.

    Not that I have a counter-argument as to what Gaga is in relation to Madonna, mind you.

  4. zoilus says:

    I wasn’t meaning to suggest Madonna was equally non-art-school to Jagger - obvs she was waaaaay more media-twisting, Warholian, post-Bowie. But in a similar ratio, Gaga takes Madonna’s career path and makes it a conceptual project (ie. she is not so much constructing images as constructing images of someone constructing images) the way Bowie took Jagger (and Dylan, who was far more Madonna-like) and made that a conceptual project. Madonna/Jagger/Dylan = concept as means of production; Gaga/Bowie = concept as product.

    Also arguing from biography doesn’t help us much here - would you call the early Beatles art-school because Lennon & Sutcliffe had dropped out of one?

  5. scott says:

    Well, Lennon is one of the archetypal art school rockers, no? I never did read that entire Simon Frith book (Art into Pop), but I thought Lennon was a central figure in that? But no, that doesn’t necessarily apply to the entire Beatles (though it does in the sense that it applies to one of their most important members). I’m not sure where all this is leading. Anyway, you clarified your Madonna/Gaga point; I see what you mean now. And “concept as product” does make sense to me (though moreso than “concept as means of production” which I think applies across the board, but maybe I’d have to rethink that).

  6. Matt Collins says:

    I am not sure if the Bowie/Jagger model works- I think Bryan Ferry does a much better and infinitely more accurate Jagger, right down to dating the same models and masterfully aping Jagger’s ironic detachment (Bowie’s detachment has always been too earnest), moreover, Bowie is not nearly as art school as Ferry (it took him years to get that close to Eno, which is about as art school as you can get).
    I realize this looks like splitting hairs, but bear with me: where Gaga pushes Dadaism into identity politics is where she succeeds- whereas by the end of the 1980s, Madonna had arguably become a heterosexual male (see: the video for Justify My Love, baiting Matt Dillon in Truth or Dare) because she tried to make too much sense of it, and sexism-as-product sort of devours her.
    In order to avoid being devoured by Jagger, Bowie literally becomes Bryan Ferry (he goes and gets Brian Eno, cop’s Ferry’s sophisticated Euro-fashion, seriously starts African Americaning it up, I could go on- I mean, what is Let’s Dance if not a more listenable Flesh And Blood?).
    All this is to say, concept-as-product leaves out the important part for all these artists; after all, Rick Wakeman and Alan Parsons Project crank out some absolutely terrible concept-as-product, mostly because they miss the most important part (though, interestingly, Pink Floyd find it late and really piledriver it)- the formulas are, concept-as-self-as-means-of-production (Mick Jagger, Dylan), and then concept-as-self-as-product (Bowie, Madonna).

  7. zoilus says:

    Fair nuff Matt.

    Scott - UK art schools seem to have been (at least 60s-to-80s, the period Frith covers) a lot closer to artsy trade schools, an alternative to university for more working-class kids much of the time. Lennon went to art school but he probably didn’t read, say, Kant there. So I muddied the waters by using UK examples. I meant “art school” more like an MFA program.

  8. Matt Collins says:

    If we’re going with this thesis, though, it’s really likely that Lady Gaga’s essentially a less prolific* Tristan Tzara, which is a lot less dreary than Warhol.

    *Less prolific in that she hasn’t written a dozen manifestoes of “GAGA”, directed any films, engaged in regular polemic denouncements of other artists (when will this finally come back in fashion?) or earnestly moonlighted as a journalist despite her fame.

  9. The GooGoo(Gajoob) of (Lady)Gaga « Chaotic Soul says:

    [...] this article, written on popular blog Zoilus by Globe & Mail editor, Carl Wilson, discusses the different tastes in music that people [...]

  10. john says:

    Just got back from a trip to China, where pop music is small, but is discussed regularly in the Eng.-lang. “China Daily News” (free in tourist hotels, and not a bad, though in some respects very weird, paper, with “news” squibs like “The government plans to restore confidence in the lending sector by cracking down on corruption,” with no details). I don’t know Lady Gaga (my bad, I know), but was intrigued that, according to China Daily News, she’s hugely influential there, with hordes of imitators.

    My take: Jagger is as art school as anybody, as is Madonna. Irony, distance, persona, projection, the whole nine. (Yards, not muses.) Also, good on ya, Carl, for the ups to Bette Midler. Streisand too, whose early stuff was tres insouciant, funny, and sexy (as for example her burningly slow, salacious take on Waller’s “Keeping Out of Mischief Now”).

    First rock star (and played by Roger Daltry in the movies, no less, though I’ve never seen that movie): Liszt. Or was it Paganini?

    Classical was pop back in the day. Concert halls were pop venues built for middle-class leisure whereas before then, what we now call classical could be divided into church music, court music, and etudes, or exercises, for players to play at home (such as, it seems, most of Bach’s solo instrumental music). Before industrialization and romanticism, no “pop” stars that I’m aware of made it into international consciousness or historical memory, but a lot of the tropes of pop stardom really do go back to that era of classical music.

    Louis-Moreau Gottschalk, 1829-1869, born in New Orleans to a Jewish father and white Haitian creole mother, prefigures a huge array of pop/rock concerns. Virtuoso pianist & composer, he seems to have shagged his way through South America and Europe on his wildly popular tours (very Liszt-ish), often while playing proto-ragtime, with Cuban-influenced rhythms and syncopations. Lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful. . . . “Oxford American”’s music issue did a piece on him 2 or 3 years ago, but he should be a lot huger in the Am.-pop music pantheon. Great stuff.

    Sorry to go on so long. Congrats to Jody for getting the piece into e-print. Haven’t read it yet, but heard the EMP paper, and it was terrific.

  11. zoilus says:

    Gottschalk a terrific suggestion - I do realize that there were “classical” pop stars but I do think Tanguay helpful for that divider of her slogan, “Eve Tanguay sings songs about herself” - which does seem like a major thing, most easily defined maybe as where folk mixes up with previous performance traditions. Seems like before a certain point singing songs about yourself was not a done thing outside folk music - although that said it wasn’t always done in folk music of course, and there was that performer/performance ambiguity where gossip met role with some opera divas and such. And of course pop is cagey about that too (was Ella Fitzgerald a pop singer? or only because of what she did when she improvised, which took her out of jazz narratively? but Billie Holiday sure was because of such ambiguities). I don’t know, these are all tentative partial theses, but strike me as useful ones. Enough so that I might want to pursue them further.

    Matt - your concept-persona marriage is important here. (Of course Floyd & Alan Parsons are pop-rock music, but this seems like what fails about a lot of the conceptual stuff - why Animals and Parson’s Edgar Allen Poe shit seem of so little interest while, as bad as it can be, The Wall still seems like it can’t be dropped out of the story - and why the Barrett subtext of Dark Side/Wish You Were Here seem like the thing that keep them alive.)

    But really you think Tzara is *less* dreary than Warhol? I mean, in their respective times, neither of them are, but … dreary is an energy. Dreary is a pose. While energy itself is, from a certain vantage point, also dreary.

  12. john says:

    Thanks, Carl, the “Eve Tanguay sings songs about herself” line does figure an interesting intervention in pop music history. I’d urge two caveats. First, romanticism was pushing individual self-expression/disclosure in art for more than a century before that: Beethoven & Byron, to name two of the stars, though I don’t know of any particular songwriters or singers to fit the bill. (Schubert’s fans & critics discern that “songs about himself” in his music and choices of texts to set, though he wasn’t popular during his life.) Second, that self-disclosure thing hasn’t been a universal in pop history — some of the biggest stars seem to have elided it as often as not, such as Bing Crosby or Paul McCartney.

    I’m not following the concept/persona/product distinctions. I do get the centrality of “self” in the equations, to distinguish Dylan, Jagger, and Bowie from Rick Wakeman (though he sold his own persona too), but not the distinction between Bowie and Jagger. Bowie, Ferry, whoever all sold songs without which the personae and concepts would not have generated income. All stars sell personae as well as individual works. British poet Thom Gunn’s great line on Elvis Presley, from the 1950s, “He turns revolt into a style.” Poets and painters sold the “rebel” label like crazy for decades before that, and around the time that Gunn wrote his line, American poet Kenneth Rexroth was satirizing Madison Avenue’s adoption of the rebel-artist (or poet) image to sell just about anything.

  13. Matt Collins says:

    John, I would say the key difference between Jagger and Bowie, and especially Jagger and Ferry, is that Jagger is just selling a persona, whereas Bowie and Ferry are selling a persona that in turn also sells personas. To use your own phrase, they are turning revolt into a style that sells revolt against style (eventually leading to albums nobody will buy). That’s a glib assessment, and Jagger in the seventies may or may not be aware that he is doing that.

    Carl: I don’t think of Tzara as dreary at all! Naive, perhaps, but I do concede that dreary is a pose- but part of what makes Gaga interesting )to me) is that she doesn’t subscribe to the cynical part of that pose- there’s a certain glee to, say, firework exploding boobs, that Warhol would be enthusiastic about, perhaps, but too “cool” to bother with himself.
    Also, exactly The Wall- Pink Floyd are at their best (which may or may not be that great, depending on who you’re talking to or which album you’re talking about- Animals is an apt example of Pink Floyd at their most useless and certainly their metaphorical laziest) when the concept is themselves- The Wall, or earlier examples like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. The Wall, however, trumps the rest of the career, because they seem to be dissecting themselves as well, even Gilmour, who is notoriously proud of his soloing, which is no exception to the ruthless self-examination and criticism that makes up the process of the album’s writing. It’s still too self-serious, which would likely be impossible for them to avoid, but it’s also about their tendency to be self-serious.
    At any rate, Lady Gaga seems to have a pretty joyous handle on a history of pop stupidity (particularly 70s, 80s and 90s excesses) that is not being filtered through a reflexive safety net so much as it is compressed into a solid block of pop decadence- I think there are aspects of “stupid” things we don’t like mentioning, like Def Leppard, that take up as much stage as the “smart” things we do, like Bowie, or Madonna- which is what makes the decoding so tantalizing and difficult.

  14. malstain says:

    I’m continually surprised that no one ever mentions Peaches in the context of Gaga - when I first heard LG it just sounded like a diluted, whitewashed version of Peach (the arty/persona angle as well as the dirty-talking minimal electro-rap angle). Gaga is to Peach as Avril Lavigne is to Liz Phair (although I actually like all four artists)…

  15. john says:

    Thanks, Matt, I hear what you’re saying now, though I’d say that Dylan’s game is trippy in that he’s a persona that sells personas that his devotees all continually re-absorb into his Dylan-ness. I suppose that’s true with Bowie too, but Dylan-ism as religion seems more fervent than other classic rock fan-isms, even Elvisism.

  16. Matt Collins says:

    Malstain: what did you think of Liz Phair pulling a full Avril and turning to The Matrix for a hit?

  17. malstain says:

    Turnabout is Phair play? I dunno, I kind of agree with the critical consensus on later Phair, although I have a slight guilty enjoyment of that particular song.
    I was thinking this morning that Alanis Morrisette is a more appropriate analogy for a mainstream/corporate version of Liz Phair (or 90s grrl music in general).
    But I digress.

  18. zoilus says:

    Good call on the Peaches connection w/ Gaga, though the flaw in the analogy with Liz/Avril is that Bad Romance is better than almost any Peaches song.

  19. zoilus says:

    And John: Yeah, Dylan was doing everything Bowie/Ferry/et al would do, ten years in advance, but much more opaquely: Bowie & Ferry telegraphed all their moves (on the Warhol model of self-advertisement and transparent plasticity) while Dylan just made his. Thirty years later the difference looks small but at each point along the way he confused the hell out of people - the best thing about I’m Not There is that it reanimates that sensation. Although maybe for that all you need is to look at the reactions to the Christmas album, like the Sound Opinions radio show calling it “not just Dylan’s worst album but one of the worst albums ever made” - that from the “reliably dense” Jim Derogatis, as (to bring this full circle) Jody Rosen described him in this Slate post: http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/browbeat/archive/tags/Bob+Dylan/default.aspx

  20. john says:

    When Dylan jumped from Columbia to — Asylum? — for a couple albums in the early ’70s, Columbia, seemingly in revenge, released an album of — “Self-Portrait”? — outtakes (!) under the title, “Dylan,” which included a cover of “Mr. Bojangles.” I never heard that record, and haven’t even seen it for a few decades, but I heard tell it’s his worst.

    Thank goodness for the High Rockists like Derogatis. It is good to have an aesthetic “other” against which to bounce.

    And yeah, I see your point about how Dylan confused people, while Bowie and Ferry merely telegraphed rock’s theretofore hidden relationship with showbiz. Sinatra went through a few personas over his career too. As did Streisand. In showbiz, that’s normal. Bowie and Ferry — they called it “glam” for a reason.

  21. caspian says:

    another early source for “pop” would be shakespeare and his globe theatre - it was punk rock up front with the london yobbos hurling vomit & mead while the players went on very much ado about nothing…the art house meets the beerhall

  22. Barry Mazor says:

    I take up the “personna selling personnas” line in “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers,” for what it’s worth-and the Rodgers to Dylan to Bowie multiple image marketing aspect directly. For what it’s worth.

  23. Devin-Weiss says:

    I read gossips all over, that absolutely nothing in Drag queen Gaga is original and that she is a copycat I however love Lady Gaga coZ she roCks!!

  24. Donette Zuchara says:

    So after all talking about her do you guys think she has a penis ?

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