Pop Baroque Extraordinaires: the line of beauty through Lady GaGa, Queen, David Bowie, Prince and Madonna

English: Lady Gaga performing at "the Baz...

English: Lady Gaga performing at “the Bazaar”, 654 Peachtree Street Atlanta, GA (next to the Fox Theatre) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A performer holds aloft a hand to an adoring crowd, glimmer of jewels on a black leather glove. “Do you like my claws? They’re real diamonds. It’s a present from the devil himself.” You can almost imagine Lady GaGa saying this, but not quite. Perhaps one day she will, to paraphrase what James McNeill Whistler said to Oscar Wilde.

In fact it was Freddie Mercury, during a filmed Queen concert in 1974 – a mischievous sparkle before a thunderous rendition of Stone Cold Crazy. Thirty six years later, more than 22 million people watch the newly-released Telephone video in just a few days: nine and a half minutes of dizzying costumes, a lesbian kiss, a mass poisoning, and two of the world’s most glamorous megastars belting out an impossibly catchy tune.

This isn’t another hand-wringing cultural commentary, or another brief history of the music video. It is a fairy tale of New York, London and Minneapolis.

All art is at once surface and symbol

Pale creatures, glinting beneath blazing lights. Pop music glitters, is in love with its own reflection. It is the 1970s.

Queen’s music and live performances are living up to the majesty of the group’s name. There’s a thrilling exuberance about Freddie Mercury on stage, something at once delicate, and then ever, ever so powerful. Heady cocktails of genre: mad music hall on Bring Back That Leroy Brown; opera, cappella, rock in Bohemian Rhapsody.

They leave the stage after a concert in 1977, the audience strike up You’ll Never Walk Alone. The band exchange stunned glances: there’s something going on here. They go on to write their own national anthems: We Are The Champions, We Will Rock You, Radio Ga Ga.

Elsewhere, a strange, thin otherworldly being appears in do-not-adjust-your-set sequins, and a million young things shriek with excitement. David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust, androgynous rock star, alien, addicted to the fame, shot dead on stage. Then soul and funk, and the glam fans wonder what’s going on; increasingly lavish theatrical live shows, choreography. The Diamond Dogs record makes use of material from a shelved musical based on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He becomes another character, the Thin White Duke.

In the 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor a pallid and paranoid monster disintegrates in the back of a car. Is it all real, or is it all part of the performance? We don’t care, we just can’t stop watching. Then it all goes Berlin, the post-future of Low, Heroes and Lodger. Bowie as New Romantic Pierrot for the performance art video of the Ashes to Ashes single, in 1980. The following year he co-writes and records Under Pressure with Queen.

By 1985 and Live Aid the make-up and dazzling costumes are gone. At Wembley Stadium and in front of a television audience of 400 million, Queen steal the show, Freddie Mercury owns the world stage. It is the final achievement of all performance. David Bowie, now portrayed as a consummate 1980s megastar since the triumphant success of Let’s Dance, also performs at the concert, and premieres a fundraising video single duet with Mick Jagger.

Bowie had been a movie star since The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), and has also been cast as Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol, Nikola Tesla, a vampire, and himself. I saw him first as the Goblin King, in Labyrinth (1986). In a nearly empty cinema in Slough, I was an entranced eight-year-old: who was this singing and dancing creature? The reefs of synthesizers in Magic Dance and other gems from the soundtrack call to mind the Prince of Paisley Park, Minneapolis. Time to cross the Atlantic.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things

Funk, rock and pop produced, arranged, composed and performed by a fin de siècle Parisian poet. Wild curly hair, ruffled shirts, velvet. Sweet, Saturday-night-in-any-American-town Little Red Corvette: the lyrics aren’t as innocent as the music sounds. Royalty requires retinue: the Revolution. Dirty prettiness blooms into bestselling magnificence with Purple Rain. The title track of the album and film is nearly nine minutes long, epic yearning as requiem for love games that went before. Al Gore’s wife hears her daughter listening to Darling Nikki, record covers are thenceforth decorated with obscene lyrics warnings.

Prince is the creator of beautiful things: the dreamy sweetness of the song Paisley Park; an exquisitely European funk in Parade; love songs that show you their teeth. Most of all, he makes music that is almost ridiculously sexy: Kiss; Anna Stesia; U Got The LookGett Off.

Wembley Stadium, 1993: I never saw so many people dancing at once. I don’t remember it becoming dark, because it was almost impossible to take your eyes off the little figure in the distance. Prominent sponsorship from Pepsi. The luxurious souvenir programme was more a portfolio, a portrait shows Prince as lovelorn poet, expiring like Chatterton (Henry Wallis, 1856) in a reverie. A cast of retainers, the New Power Generation.

Brief sparks with The Most Beautiful Girl in the World and Gold, then years of record company quarrels and what music journalism would doubtless call wilderness. Back on top with Musicology and 3121, then in 2007 a run of 21 nights at London’s 02 Arena. Renaissance for a Prince of the pop universe.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art

New York City, early 1980s. A seething churn of disco embers, New Wave squalor, New Romantic glamour. In the video for Madonna’s debut single, Everybody, alongside the hedonism imploring everyone to just dance, right from the start is the low rent / moderate bling tomboy look which would conquer the world. Perhaps perfected, or at least captured forever, in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Give us outrage: scandal courts this glamorous agent provocateur’s every move. Is it her raison d’être? Is Madonna a feminist icon? Who cares, the music’s fantastic: Lucky Star, Into The Groove, Dress You Up, disco heaven. She’s the girl in the back of the bus, your best friend’s older sister, ask her out and she’d have you for breakfast. Marauded by paparazzi, helicopters circle during her wedding with Sean Penn.

Blond ambition. She channels Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Thatcher, Eva Peron. Scandalous costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. She likes it rough: too-hot-for-MTV Justify My Love is hors d’oeuvre to the main course of the Sex book, photographed pursuits of a beautiful, dirty, rich girl. Then Madonna and child; Ray of Light returns her to the top, as does the single Hung Up seven years later. The woman is extraordinary, where there were previously only ideas she laid a blueprint – and will come back with another hit album long after we are gone: those whom the gods love grow young.

One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art

A water lily sits at a piano and begins to play a song of heartbreaking beauty, leaving the audience speechless. An intensity builds, this is not a water lily but Lady GaGa attired in another remarkable creation. By the end she stares fiercely beyond the stage into memory; a heel slams onto the keys.

The blonde strutting around a party in sunglasses urging everybody to Just Dance makes for an absolutely cracking tune, but by only her second single there’s already something unusual going on. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus: she emerges dripping from a villa’s pool in a masque of mirror shards and what appears to be a black spandex catsuit, for Poker Face. Lady Stardust as Donatella.

For the seven-minute baroque cinematic feast of Paparazzi, she’s a Killer(-heeled) Queen of pop, innumerable fantastical outfits, a poisoned lover, police mugshots as photocall. Royalty’s collective: the Haus of GaGa. Chainmail, eye-watering leotards, more masques, outfits made of artfully-placed bubbles, Muppets, and concentric metallic circles. This is not your average pop singer. Also a rock star: Dance In The Dark is the greatest stadium metal song never recorded by Def Leppard or Mötley Crüe. Glam slam at the Grammys, a duet with Sir Elton John.

Across the universe, to the past, future, cinema, fashion, dance: for inspiration. She has said she is trying to change the world one sequin at a time. Looks like she’s on her way: the traffic-stopping Bad Romance – like something from 2015, as my wife described it – is the most watched video on YouTube, with over 238million views.

Magnificent creatures glide by in jewels and frocks of perfumed luxury. Venice, early 19th century, carnevale, La Fenice theatre. For one night only: a blonde, striding purposefully on stage beneath a domino masque and ball gown composed of porcelain, glass, and Château de Versailles curtains. Piano strikes up, she performs a work of heartstopping power, of a crazed lover she kills stone cold. Silence. Then thunderous applause.


This article gratefully makes use of Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock & Co, 1891), A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated (Saturday Review, November, 1894), and Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (The Chameleon, December, 1894); as well as Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine (1998).

First published in April, 2010, in Lucid Magazine; available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine articles (2010):  http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html 



About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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