Friday, 13 May 2011

What a way to make a living

With just over a week to go until its release, Lady Gaga is pulling out all the stops to ensure that everyone knows that her new album is almost here. Given the speed at which she attained world-wide fame, there's a considerable weight of expectation resting on her curiously attired shoulders. Since she's been talking it up for the last 12 months, anything less than the musical equivalent of Christ's second coming will be considered a disappointment.

Meanwhile, the obsessive Madonna fans who continually accuse Gaga of ripping off their icon, will be sharpening their bras ready for all-out war. But in this game of pointy tit-for-tat, one key fact has been overlooked. Gaga may well owe Madonna a considerable debt, but there's another blonde music legend who can surely take some of the credit for influencing the self-proclaimed Mother Monster's career. Dolly Parton, take a bow - just remember to bend with the knees.

The two stars actually crossed paths back in February at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, where Dolly was finally receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her five decade-long career as a singer, songwriter, actress, author, philanthropist and wig seller. Of course, Gaga managed to steal all the limelight by turning up in a giant yellow plastic egg, like the world's most self-involved Kinder Surprise.

Since releasing her first single back in 1965, Dolly has steadily grown into one of the world's most recognisable recording artists - the country singer it's OK to like. It helps that she's got a back catalogue of mucic that's testament to her incredible talent, not to mention a self-deprecating wit and larger-than-life persona that invites audiences to laugh with, rather than at her.

And then there's that image of hers. Like a Rubenesque beauty sculpted in Anchor squirty cream. She's always been unflinchingly honest about her tacky glamour (inspired as a child by the local hooker in her hometown of Sevierville) and her enthusiasm for plastic surgery. As she sings in her recent autobiographical song 'Backwoods Barbie', "I might look artificial, but where it counts I'm real." She's been through more faces than Lon Chaney, and at times her eyebrows almost appear to levitate above her head, like Penfold getting a nasty surprise. But she's always unmistakably Dolly, slathered in more make-up than Ronald McDonald's pillow case.

Gaga, on the other hand, has to resort to increasingly outlandish displays - not everyone can carry off an outfit inspired by Jim Henson's recurring nightmares of a muppet mass grave. However, one thing both artists share is a belief in the importance of appearances. You'll never see either of them getting papped putting out the bins in a pair of pizza-stained sweatpants.

Lady Gaga gets a lot of credit for being an accomplished pianist, but her musicality has nothing on Dolly who plays guitar, banjo, autoharp, piano, dulcimer and drums. In fact, if it weren't for a couple of prominent obstructions, she could probably take to the stage as a one-woman band. And despite never learning to read or write music, she's composed over 5,000 songs, many of which are considered classics in both the country and pop genres.

Everyone knows her most successful song is 'I Will Always Love You' - butchered in the early nineties by Whitney Houston, who wouldn't know subtlety if it surreptitiously tapped her on the shoulder. Not only did Whitney over sing the life out of the song, she also completely missed its meaning. If you've never heard Dolly's original, give it a listen and marvel at the definitive passive-aggressive love song - "If I should stay, I would only be in your way... so goodbye, Oh please, don't cry, we both know I'm not what you need." Now that's a bad romance.

There's no denying that Lady Gaga is happy to use her international celebrity as a platform to advocate for gay rights, an issue she clearly feels passionate about. Again, the critics who argue that Madonna did it first overlook the fact that Dolly has long been an outspoken enthusiast for equality. Asked about how she reconciles her devout religious faith with her healthy gay fan base, Dolly once said "God and I have a great relationship, but we both see other people." Sometimes, a little wit is more powerful than political grandstanding.

And several years before Gaga's 'gay anthem' was released, Dolly wrote and recorded 'Travelin' Thru', the Oscar-nominated theme song from TransAmerica. Coming from a sector of the music industry not known for its progressive world-view, it took incredible courage on Dolly's part to sing from the perspective of a pre-operative transsexual: "I'm out here on my journey, trying to make the most of it. I'm a puzzle, I must figure out where all my pieces fit..." Likewise, consider the line "God made me for a reason, and nothing is in vain". What she's saying is, "I was Born This Way baby, but what's a little remodelling between friends?"

Dolly's list of accomplishments is too long to list here. But it's worth also mentioning her Dixie Stampede restaurant chain and the Imagination Library - a book donation fund established in 1996. The scheme has now grown into one of the world's largest book gifting programmes, distributing over 30 million books worldwide since its inception. Plus, of course, there's Dollywood, the theme park in her home county which provides employment for over 3,000 people. As well as countless folksy diversions, the park also has a credible range of thrill rides. Although as yet, there are no plans for an Appalachian log flume that culminates in a brutal gang rape at the hands of a bunch of inbred locals.

At the grand old age of 65, Dolly is showing no signs of slowing down, with a European tour and a new album in the works. If Gaga wants longevity from her career, she could do far worse than modelling her approach on the country grand-dame. When I first met Dolly eight years ago, I'm afraid I got a little gushy, admitting that I'd loved her since I was a child. Grasping my hand in hers, she looked up and in that distinctive southern trill, said "Oh honey, don't stop now." I hope Gaga takes the same advice.

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