When I think of Zola Jesus, I can’t help but think of Lady Gaga. The two have a fair amount in common, beyond having wonderfully interesting bone structure: they are singers, rather than vocalists, possessing (or possessed by) truly killer pipes; they came to pop music through the unusual conduit of classical forms (Gaga is a classically trained pianist, Zola Jesus a former opera singer); they both enjoy covering themselves in unusual substances. But only one of these women really pushes pop music into strange, often uncomfortable places.
The accepted line on Gaga has become one of Stefanie Germanotta’s role as provocateur, an experimentalist who somehow managed to upset conventions and become a true pop sensation. And I suppose I could accept that as true, if I only paid attention to Gaga’s media presence, the photographic evidence of her predilections toward angular hats on the runway, her appealingly surreal set pieces (she once wrote a thesis on Damien Hirst, after all). But, and the secret’s not really a secret, Gaga’s avant-garde spirit presents itself in her music—where? I suppose the wordless chorus of “Bad Romance” might, unbeknownst to me, have its roots in a little-studied Esperanto dialect, but I doubt it.
And I’m a fan of Mother Monster. In fact, I like her most when she’s at her least contrived. “Just Dance,” her breakout track and one indistinguishable from its brethren in the Euro-pop trend muscling its way across the airwaves these last several years, is still my favorite of her songs. I couldn’t say whether Nika Danilova, when she’s writing as Zola Jesus, thinks of Lady Gaga. If I were her, I’d at least feel a twinge of resentment, mixed with love, like a sister jealous of another sister's greater success. Gaga, for mainstream audiences, occupies the rightful place of Zola Jesus, the latter a songwriter who actually makes something challenging—but still vital—out of her acquaintance with industrial music and new wave. Pop music doesn't need to have anything of the avant-garde in it at all, but when it does, it's pretty damned interesting.
I didn’t feel quite as strongly about this comparison until I finally saw Zola Jesus live this week, at Washington, DC’s wonderfully forward-thinking, electro-minded U Street Music Hall. Onstage, Zola Jesus sounds more human than she does on record, her voice still just as technically impressive but less chilly, less remote. And, you know, she can work the dance floor. This latter talent, something I wasn’t necessarily expecting from Danilova as a live performer, made me finally think of her more as a pop star than some sort of indie chanteuse, recording in her bedroom for a acceptably limited audience. Zola Jesus seems born for a stage as big as they come. Whether or not a mainstream audience will accept angularity in their pop singers when it comes in the form of music rather than headwear is another question, entirely.