Annals of the Overrated: Lady Gaga and The Tree of Life

Last week I saw Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Then I saw Lady Gaga on Saturday Night Live. And I had the same reaction to both:

Why are there so many people out there willing to declare this stuff great art or the epitome of the current zeitgeist -- or both? Sorry -- I'm putting them both in my Overrated Hall of Fame.

Most of the current attention for Lady Gaga has to do with the release of her second album, Born This Way, her recent HBO special (which documented her concert tour) and her Saturday Night Live appearance on the show's May 21 season finale.

For Malick, it's the long a-borning The Tree of Life, which opens today (5/27/11) after winning the Cannes Film Festival. Beware of Frenchmen bearing gifts.

And, to me, there's very little there - in either case. Yet both have seduced the critics into singing their praises. In Gaga's case, it's the celebration of mediocrity that has achieved mass popularity. In Malick's, it's the critics offering intellectual hosannas in ways that are meant to make the average shmo feel he's missed some crucial point if he doesn't appreciate Malick's work.

Let me start with Gaga first, a homely Italian girl from the Upper East Side who essentially stole Madonna's shtick (and Janet Jackson's, for that matter) and somehow convinced people that she created something new.

It's no trick to fool the mass audience. This is music aimed at a demographic that has no sense of history - and to them, the Like a Virgin/Material Girl/Papa Don't Preach/Vogue Madonna is exactly that: ancient history. Before their time. Not part of their cultural context.

Madonna has been around so long that people think of her as a classic - and even enshrined her in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Like Madonna, Lady Gaga's music is yet another rehash of the kind of dance music that was called disco in the 1970s and was given other labels in the intervening decades. Though technology has tricked it up without really changing it, it's essence is beat-heavy, melodic and nothing new.

Gaga's voice is solid and, when she played the piano and sang on Saturday Night Live, she gave off a whiff of Laura Nyro, another Italian-American singer-songwriter, one who had genuine talent but lacked the exhibitionistic chutzpah and media-manipulation skills that Gaga has. No meat dresses for her.

Gaga's music is merely serviceable; not awful, not exceptional, just mid-range dance music. But it's dressed up by her self-promotion -- or rather, she plays dress-up on stage and the music skates by because people are so caught up in her outlandish visual presentation.

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