The road is closed on Montague Place
and a mobile crane has been engaged
to sift through the contents of the lorry
and hoist up particular blondewood boxes.
Anonymous, they sail upward with a slow spin
steadied by the neon orange safety straps.
Bodies inside bandages inside caskets
inside boxes, the artefacts return.
A folded boarding card from a flight long completed.
The train ticket from the airport into Stockholm central station
a stream of small print in Swedish. Suddenly:
the clacking of the departure boards. How the American
came up to me pointing in his guidebook
and I watched him smile as I told him
directions to Sergels Torg in English.
If I forget the morning brightness
of his laughter, the particularity
of his kiss,
at least I’ve kept these papers.
A till receipt from fika,
the entrance tickets
his old email
Bunched up in the front of the white van
he smirks tapping the cigarette,
loosening ash out of the slit
in the window, onto the road.
Smoking is his excuse for delicacy.
His long fingers are allowed extension,
his wrists can move with grace. Still stained
from the day on site.
He sits dishing the goss about Alan’s failed affair
and Stevo’s dodgy brother. As Pav sits in the middle
with The Sun, absentmindedly singing along to the radio.
The way Queenie smokes is why they call him Queenie,
ballet-poise along his whole arm out to his held fingers.
Long sensuous drawing up of the smoke into his lungs,
a gentle letting forth of smoke from his mouth.
The rasp to his laugh rattles his belly
squashed tight into his stained t-shirt.
In the rain, I swoop down on my paraglider, line myself up directly above the giant ogre, then I plummet downwards, thrusting the sword into the ogre’s ugly head. This woke him up. After battling for a few minutes, shooting arrows into his one big eye, he dies and leaves me a cache of very good weapons (also some toenails), which I collect.
Walking on, I realise, in the fight I had got myself turned around and I was actually going back the way I came, I keep going anyway and climb up the hill heading to the ridge I’d climbed earlier, before it had started raining. Now it is night time, I reach the lip of the ridge and see the wide valley below, quiet in darkness. Suddenly from above, a shooting star streaks across the sky and into the valley. A bright yellow beacon of light shimmers at the point where it landed just ahead. I jump off the cliff edge, engage the paraglider and fly towards the beacon. As I get closer to it an unworldly humming gets louder. When I get up close, the beacon disappears and the point on the ground becomes a golden yellow nugget of star fragment. I collect this and keep running on.
On Friday 3rd March 2017, I was excited. I went to work slightly earlier than usual and walked a tiny bit out of my usual way to stop by the Argos on Tottenham Court Road, the staff out numbered the customers quite significantly. I shook off the rain from my umbrella and walked straight up to collect my pre-ordered item, having panic-ordered it that morning. I had received a last minute email from Amazon to say that my pre-order which had been in place for months was delayed and I wouldn’t be getting it on the day of release. Immediately at 6:30am by the light of my phone I ordered the same thing from Argos before I’d even received the refund from Amazon. The guy working at Argos saw what it was as he handed it over and said, “nice one”. After years of waiting I’d finally got my gay hands on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I walked to work under my umbrella and tried to focus on whatever student problems I was facing that day. After work I headed home and had a pretty normal evening with my boyfriend (now Husband). By around 10pm he said, “I can’t believe you’ve waited this long, if you want to play the game, you-” before he even finished the sentiment I was unwrapping the plastic case and firing up my Wii U console. I hadn’t the money or excuse to buy myself a Nintendo Switch, which was also released on 3rd March, but I was happy to play the game on the slightly inferior Wii U version, with plans to replay the game much later once I had acquired a Switch (this plan is still in progress…) Immediately I was overcome with the excitement and emotion that is hard to describe, something that reminded me of the excitement of going to the cinema to see the last Lord of the Rings film or the last Harry Potter films, or reading a new book from a beloved living author. I knew I was going to love it, the reviews had all been so ridiculously good, there was no way I wouldn’t. I was excited to get into this world I was so fond of, for another adventure.
Within a few moments, I was stood in front of that first grand vista, from the Great Plateau across this new Hyrule. The music swelled like it did in the trailer I’d watched a thousand times and I remember thinking, oh thank god, finally, I am here. That first night I spent shambling my way around the contained opening area, the great plateau, not really knowing what I was doing, where I was going or what to do next. All the reviews had said it, but it was true, this was a very different game to the other Zeldas. A little directionless, I kept on talking to the mysterious old man, to see if I had missed some info, but he said rather pointedly, “you can figure it out yourself!” He had given me the original task of finding these four shrines on the plateau and it was up to me to find them, unlike in other Zelda games, there wasn’t a prescribed order, there wasn’t a guiding voice that would stop you if you went towards the wrong one, you were left to just find them yourself. Once you’d done all that work, you would come back and see him and he’d give you the paraglider, allowing you to glide down off the plateau to explore the rest of the massive world.
I have always wanted to play games like this, fully open world games where, if you wanted you could just go on a nature hike (I have a great route across the western portion of Hyrule, scaling the mountains). Back in the day on the rare occasions I used to play Grand Theft Auto, I wouldn’t like to do missions (too much violence) I would just enjoy driving around, following traffic signals, watching the landscape change. Maybe I’d cut loose every now again and drive really fast and cause some car accidents, but I never did much else in the game. As with many other nerds my age, playing Ocarina of Time on N64 was an incredibly important moment for me, the freedom, the adventure, the whole living world that was so detailed and so full of humour, it was incredible. Alongside The N64 Zeldas (I played Majora’s Mask so much it actually gave me nightmares) I used to spend hours and hours at weekends playing Pilotwings 64. Pilotwings was a release game for the N64 back in 1996, released to showcase the 3D capabilities of the N64. Flight simulators were a jazzy way of doing this with new systems at that time (Microsoft’s Flight Sim 95 and Playstation’s Ace Combat were other examples). Pilotwings gave you various different aircraft to fly around various island landscapes. I spent hours and hours flying around these vast landscapes, the largest was a scaled down version of the USA, including a few major cities, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the plains of the midwest, Washington DC and Florida (complete with a rocket launching from Cape Canaveral). I flew all of the missions available, but I spent more time flying around just exploring the landscape. The potential to do this was almost infinite, there was no time limit and though there was only so much petrol in your aircraft you could land at the petrol station and fill it up again, then take off and keep flying. I loved the peace of flying and I loved exploring the landscape. I would set myself challenges, landing on roads and driving down them, or manoeuvring in between buildings, or flying from one city to another and landing carefully at the other end, imagining I had passengers. I loved spending my time doing this. I wanted more games that did this, but more and bigger and better.
Playing Breath of the Wild now, long after I have finished the story, I feel the same as I did when I was exploring in Pilotwings. Sometimes I consult the map and plot out a route, wishing to explore some mountain or valley I don’t think I’ve been to. Other times I will just wander, or ride a horse, following a path until I see something that peeks my interest. Breath of the Wild encourages this by placing shrines within the landscape with their distinctive orange glow, you might spy one of these and follow it not realising you will be walking for a long time (and have to battle through a enemy camp or swim across a river) to get there. One incredibly inventive way Nintendo encourage you to explore the landscape is through collecting Korok seeds. All over Hyrule there are 900 hidden little Korok creatures, some hide under rocks, some at the tops of mountains, others reveal themselves once you’ve mastered a little puzzle. They pop up, give you a seed and then you move on. It is necessary to collect the seeds early in the game as this is how you can expand your weapons inventory. After a while, once you have collected a good number of slots for weapons, the need to do this becomes less pressing. I have only recently started hunting Koroks for their own sake and now I am playing the game with a new purpose (I have found only 250 of the 900 available). Now, the game is about being within the landscape, consulting the map, looking at the signs, is there something suspicious about that tree? Does that little hillock look out of place, or have I scaled that particular mountain yet?
It’s not just Korok seeds, as you go through the game, even just idly wandering as I do, you’ll encounter beasts you need to kill and in turn your weapons will break, meaning you’ll need to seek out other monsters to kill in order to get weapons again. Sometimes you’ll be walking along and you’ll hear some distant accordion music playing, which means there’s a special little quest nearby set by a Rito (a bird man) who sings clue-laden songs about different parts of the world. Sometimes a character will just run up to you and tell you to do something, ask you to find their lost friends, or get a recipe from a book in the library in the Hyrule Castle (now overrun with horrible monsters). The game’s world is complex and sings with life. Along with the daily cycles of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the weather conditions change every ten minutes, it rains a lot, meaning you cannot climb rocks or buildings until it stops and when you’re in certain tropical areas there will be spectacular thunderstorms, on the tops of mountains it will snow. The world of Hyrule is so vast, you can explore areas which suit your particular mood. If you tire of the epic sandy deserts of Gerudo in the South West of the map, you can adventure to the North East where you find the green rolling hills of Akkala, where the trees seem constantly to be brown and orange with Autumn. In Akkala there is a vast side quest where you end up helping to build an entirely new town on the lake. Venture further north in Akkala, following the coastal cliffs and, where the land runs out, there is a huge labyrinth across the water, where you can paraglide and then get lost and probably get killed by the mechanical monsters stalking its corridors.
What I am saying is, even months later, I am still exploring this huge world. I am still finding new characters I’ve never spoken to before and still very much finding more of the 900 Koroks that are hiding across the huge map.
Standing on the edge of the Great Plateau, in front of me was the vast Lake Hylia, with a huge bridge crossing its span, with a clutch of small islands on the lake over on the right hand side. Night had fallen earlier I was admiring the view on the clear night. Suddenly from somewhere down in the lake, a dragon came out of the water and serenely moved itself up into the air, a long ribbon of a dragon, with talons clawing at the air and a back spiked with blue ridges. The dragon didn’t attack me it just rose up into the air, circled the lake and then returned back into the water.
Successful poems, like successful pop songs have a strong central conceit or metaphor, this is like a central gravitational point which as the piece orbits sometimes closely like Mercury around the sun, sometimes distant like Pluto. The song or poem is a journey of exploring this central point up close or at an obscure distance.
In this post I will be casting my poet’s eye over Lady Gaga’s music to comment on what makes these songs so successful and interesting within the context of lyrical analysis, performance and Gaga’s career at that time.
Poker Face (Nadir Khayat / Stefani Germanotta)
The central idea of Poker Face is evident from the title, it is a song about deception. It is about the struggle of withholding the truth but also the joy in being in control of the truth. The song seems to embody these two sides of the deception, stating in turn that the protagonist is in control of the lie (“he can’t read my poker face”), but also that the protagonist will “show you what I’ve got”. This tonal shift between the verse and the chorus expresses the duality of truth and lies in the song. This is further expressed through the stuttering of the title lyrics in the chorus, the catchy hook “p p p poker p p poker face” sets out this sense of waivering or uncertainty.
“Can’t read my
Can’t read my
No he can’t read my poker face”
Ultimately the song is incredibly catchy, as well as covering a subject matter through the central metaphor that is incredibly relatable to a pop audience, the idea of secrets, deception, and deciding to reveal or not reveal the truth is something that will always chime with teen audiences and those within the LGBTQ community. This was the first song that many people heard from Gaga, it is a great introduction to her music, lyrically it has a strong central relatable message and musically it is catchy and well performed.
Paparazzi (Rob Fusari / Stefani Germanotta)
Paparazzi, though a song in a darker mood, is no less catchy than Poker Face. It is a song which is more narrative driven with the a central metaphor which draws comparisons between the fervour of the paparazzi with that of a lover. The fact that the song is written from the perspective of the person pursuing their potential lover / paparazzi target give the song an interesting perspective. This song is about fame as much as it is about obsessional love. Lady Gaga was in the early days of her stardom when this was released, this being one of the songs which helped her build her profile and success. It is a fantastically wise move to release a song like this (which is catchy and memorable) which deals directly with fame and love in such an explicit way. In terms of building her career, it worked hugely to Gaga’s advantage. The subject matter of the song placed Gaga within the context of fame with all the trappings. She was not quite at that level of fame at this point, but the song suggested she was. In a way which may have been at best a mixed blessing, this song was courting the paparazzi. Through the success of the song, Gaga’s growing number of fans took on the mantel of the protagonist in the lyrics, with Gaga herself becoming the person being pursued. You can imagine the power of a crowd of obsessive fans singing the lyrics:
“I’m your biggest fan
I’ll follow you until you love me
The perspective of this song, whether intentional or not, encouraged a movement of fans to grow and galvanise. The work of the video in tandem with the song cannot go unmentioned and was the first major event music video of the many Gaga would do over her career. It was filmed by Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund and starred actor Alexander Skarsgård along with Gaga in a narrative which played with ideas of fame, death and unrequited love. The video referenced (amongst many other things) Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Madonna’s music video for Vogue. The video worked intentionally (in a similar vein to the song) to place Gaga into the mainstream of popular culture, with memorable costumes and iconic video moments. It worked brilliantly.
Applause (Stefani Germanotta, Paul “DJ White Shadow” Blair, Dino Zisis, Nick Monson, Martin Bresso, Nicolas Mercier, Julien Arias, William Grigahcine)
Much later in her career, after the huge success of her album Born This Way, Gaga’s career moved in a much more self-conscious direction, the result of this was the album ARTPOP. Although it can be argued that for her entire career her decisions have been skilled and artful, ARTPOP’s release was self-conscious to the point where it was harmful to its own success, Gaga made a more intentional and sustained bid for mainstream success, something, arguably, she did not need to push for. The song Applause (a simple song written by EIGHT people, including Gaga) is a song which continues the threads of Paparazzi but in a different way. Gaga is now acknowledging herself as the idol at the centre of it all and is singing about the affect this extreme success has had on her:
I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause
Where the video for Paparazzi (and Telephone, which I don’t have time to get into!) worked hard to place Gaga within the pop cultural landscape, Applause does the same and attempts to elevate Gaga above pop culture into the contemporary art world. Her collaborations at this time with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramović served both sides as a way of seeking legitimacy for Gaga as well as introducing her younger fans to these well-respected contemporary Artists.
What is interesting about Applause, when looked at compared to the other Gaga songs I’ve mentioned, is that it seems to dispense with the layer of metaphor entirely. It is brazenly upfront about the subject, whilst still being a very catchy and well put together song. It is an impressive move which once again feeds into her own legend and status as a “POP STAR”. It could be argued that this is the point of the song Applause, that it is a self-conscious, self-referential critique of Gaga’s own career and her own desires for validation, which drove her accelerated rise to prominence. It could be read as a hard critique of herself, that she has nothing else important in her life because she lives “for the applause, applause, applause” the repetition does instil a shade of almost manic desperation into the song. Whether this was clearly the intention, is up to the listener. The song itself also works as a catch all song which can be played in various contexts, it works as a song which could be played to encourage a crowd to applaud or get excited about an act about to perform. It’s not just Gaga’s crowds who can be encouraged to applaud with this song. Along with being catchy, it is an incredibly useful song. It’s not Happy Birthday To You but it is a song which was written to have a clear use, a way of setting the stage, this which means Applause will continue to pop up in this context for a long time.
The song ends, rather cynically in my view, by spelling out the name of the new album the song was introducing the world to A-R-T-P-O-P. This worked in the same way that music videos often now feature product placement, like a bright red pair of Beats headphones, sign posting listeners towards the new album. It was a clever move but perhaps a little too calculated.
Ultimately what I’ve learned about Lady Gaga from looking into her work in this way is that she is someone who has engineered her career incredibly well (with perhaps the ARTPOP slump as an exception). The work is written closely and carefully and with a bold and sometimes complex intention at the heart of it. Gaga and those collaborating with her were aware of the song’s potential uses and made sure they worked hard to strength Gaga’s mystique, career, and legend. Whether this explains why Gaga became so successful is unclear. I do think that no matter how the songs were written, their slick production and broad appeal would have brought success in some form. However this extra layer of interest that is at the heart of the songs is what has kept me interested.