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Miss Motivator

On Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance".

"When I'm writing music," says Lady Gaga, the provocative electropop princess whose song "Bad Romance" is enjoying a second spell at the top of the UK singles chart, "I'm thinking about the clothes I want to wear on stage. It's all about everything altogether - performance art, pop performance art, fashion . . . I want the imagery to be so strong that fans will want to eat and taste and lick every part of us."

Well, quite. But while it's true that a piece of music is always heard in context, that context may not be the one intended by its creator. So it is with "Bad Romance", which has reached number one partly because of its repeated airing on MTV. Now, MTV may like you to think that it is the soundtrack to a never-ending party stuffed full of good-looking consumers with toothy smiles and nice trainers, but the reality is more prosaic: the channel is commonly little more than an accompaniment to half-empty pubs with sticky tables and the waft of stale Fosters mingling with disinfectant; wasted hours spent at home, alone, meaning to turn off the television but lacking the moral fibre; arguments between couples in crowded shops, their anger tweaked by the looped music videos. None of these is something you'd like to lick, I'd imagine.

Lucky gym

Where "Bad Romance" really finds a home, however, is at the gym, the kind that has TV screens dangling teasingly (think Tantalus and the bunch of grapes, only sweatier) above the heads of treadmill-bound runners. Britain's 21st-century economy requires that many of us do time-consuming jobs which demand minimal physical exertion, so we are encouraged to maintain our fitness for working life by cramming exercise into short, machine-aided bursts.

And a pop song such as "Bad Romance" plays its part in this circuit. The backing track, assembled by the producer RedOne, alternates between two key elements. The first is a thumping four-to-the-floor rhythm, with a bassline playing on the off-beat - the musical equivalent of the squat thrust, if you will, which can be found in numerous chart dance hits. The second is a euphoric rush of synthesiser chords that appears immediately before and during the chorus. Combined, these two effects simulate a process of repetition and release that remains sufficiently mechanical-sounding to stimulate good gym behaviour. (After all, if the song were too funky, you might be distracted from your fitness regime. You might even want to dance.) These are accompanied by chants and "woah-ohs" from Gaga herself, a kind of disembodied personal trainer, urging you to go for the burn. "I'm a free bitch, baby," Gaga shouts at one point. She may be, but we're not.

Crotchet notes

As a song, "Bad Romance" is similar to the darker moments of Depeche Mode, or Marilyn Manson's Goth-rock cover of the northern soul track "Tainted Love". The lyrics tread familiar territory: love, revenge, disease, a "leather-studded kiss". In other words, sex is naughty but nice. A cliché, but one just racy enough to wind up the fanatical Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, which has accused Lady Gaga of leading a "rebellion against God". In fact, the lyrics are largely incoherent, although one verse tries to cram in as many lewd references to Hitchcock films as possible ("I want your psycho/Your vertigo stick/In my rear window/Baby I'm sick") which suggests that Gaga, if not actually "sick", is at least a fan of Slavoj Žižek's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema.

What is more important - and what makes this song slightly more diverting than the average frug - is the delivery. Gaga's voice flits between an insipid croon and a kind of deep roar that gets increasingly harsh as the song reaches its climax. In the final chorus, she accompanies the main vocal line by shouting "Wan'yer bad row-mance" in such a way that suggests her whole body is convulsed with the effort.

In his essay "The Grain of the Voice", Roland Barthes writes of Russian church singers who are "brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages". He identifies the point at which body and language combine so that the sound no longer expresses an individual personality, but a symbolic quality. At its most strained, Gaga's voice suggests something similar - only in her case, the sound is pure gusset.

The Art of Listening runs fortnightly

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously