Gaga and Joe

The inauguration’s two headliners were made for each other.

Lady Gaga’s got some talent, I guess. There’s this trend with a certain kind of female pop star: the kind that shows up at first on your radar as a vulnerable little weirdo singing quirky songs, then morphs predictably into what Gaga herself might deem a “Fame Monster.” It happens over and over again. 

Ingrid Michaelson is the saddest case: her sophomore album, Girls and Boys, was genuinely endearing. She was a scrunch-nosed indie kitten with such amusing lyrics as “I’d buy you Rogaine / when you start losing all your hair; / sew on patches to all you tear.” Ingrid had a wistfulness about her; you were never quite prepared for how her disarmingly simple melodies and lyrics could snuggle their way into your heart. 

Well, she got big, and mostly ditched her signature ukulele for the usual top-40 wash of overproduced noise. By her sixth studio effort, Lights Out, she was bellowing out gender-bending pieties such as “’s all the same thing / girls chase boys chase girls” in a banal “homage” to Robert Palmer. I always thought Ingrid looked not so much defiant as uncomfortable in her new role as mega-kween: under the layers of makeup and photoshop, it just seems like there’s a sad girl desperate to find a woolen blanket somewhere and watch the snow fall outside. 

You could tell the same story, mutatis mutandis, about any number of household names. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, even Regina Spektor to a certain degree: they all started out goofier or softer than the world would let them be. Remember “You’re So Gay” and “I Kissed a Girl”? Those were weird songs, man! I have a hard time imagining the belter of such drab anthems as “Roar” would ever sing something so wry and self-aware these days. 

Gaga has always been quite canny about the extravagant stunts she pulls to get attention, but she too has an actual artist hiding somewhere underneath the meat dress. Her duet with Tony Bennett on “Cheek to Cheek” has class and élan; it almost sounds like she’s grateful for one chance, any chance, to let the music speak for itself. 

But there are few such chances to be had in the market as it stands, especially for a young woman with a nice figure. When Perry recorded a music video for “Bon Appétit” that featured her being tenderized and chopped into bits as if her body was a piece of meat, it was an uncomfortably apt metaphor for what we do to talent in this ailing society of ours.  

We have been impoverished in soul by the self-righteous hippie bromides our elders substituted for the profundities of the Western masterpieces, which they disdained and dismissed. Small wonder that we now demand only the blandest and most puerile forms of entertainment. Unaccustomed to the heights of rapture that accompany great art, all we know how to demand is cheap titillation—and what we demand is, to our routine misfortune, what we get. 

It’s not that mainstream American pop culture is inherently degraded: I will be the first to defend the artistic merits of Joni Mitchell lyrics and John Wayne movies. John Mayer and Sara Bareilles have done some stuff that I bet will last. But a culture that derides the canon as elitist and passé, that adopts as its mantra the Jesse Jackson chant, “hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go,” will eventually find its spiritual resources depleted and its citizenry too shallow to care.  

The other day at the gym I was listening to a club song that was supposed to be sexy, and all I could think was, “have the people who made this song ever...had sex? Like, with someone they know?” Every word was delivered at a hyper-serious extreme of sultry languor, as if lovers who sleep with each other never smile. That is an adolescent’s idea of sexuality, presented to an audience that doesn’t know how much it’s missing. 

Which brings me back to Lady Gaga, who will perform at the inauguration today. I’m writing this before the show, so I don’t know what it’ll be like. But I do know that Gaga’s own interactions with Joe Biden to date have exuded a distinctly strained enthusiasm which perfectly epitomizes the state of both American culture and American politics.  

The pose Gaga struck with Biden before the election looked less like an endorsement than a mutual hostage situation: I don’t think either of them wanted to be there very much. Like them, the American people are stuck reading from a script we all hate, sure we know what the ending is but feeling powerless to do any different. We are forced every day to choke down another litany of falsehoods, another helping of trash TV, music, and straight-to-streaming “cinema,” about all of which we are supposed to shriek with enthusiasm like bearded wojaks. The economy’s about to tank, but OMG Kamala’s converse! And have you SEEN Wonder Woman?? I don’t think any of us wants to be here very much.

This is the sort of thing that will not long endure. Our legacy media—both fictional and supposedly nonfictional—are so failed, so disconnected from the truth of things, so obviously corrupt and hypocritical, that every day more people come to feel there must be something better out there. Over at least the next two years, the most urgent task for anyone who loves this country will be to offer that something better: to build the servers, to write the screenplays, to perform the reporting, to fund the schools, that will make reality available to anyone hungry for it. I don’t know if we can do that. But I know we have to. So we will.