When I wrote this in December 2009 (for Tank), it felt a little less quaint than it does now. But I (think I) hold on to its principles. If not entirely what happened afterwards. Though something of substance is embedded in this finely staged interview-performance-thingy. Warhol could not have put it any better: “I want to be relevant and irrelevant at the same time.”
“Periodically, a new pop persona appears from nowhere and provides answers to questions that until then your unconscious hadn’t even known were conceivable. This was how I felt upon first seeing, and hearing, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, also known as Lady Gaga. Yes, she of the endless parade of kooky, sculptural peroxide-blonde wigs and spangly stage outfits that mirror her eccentric, passive-aggressive offstage person- ality. She of the array of face-covering acces- sories that make Taliban-sanctioned burkas seem liberal. The woman who has made being a pop star about being heroic and unreal again. Lady Gaga is ridiculously ridiculous, but always the good ridiculous, the meaningful one, the one that denotes value and substance as opposed to cheap novelty. Fireworks infamously erupted from Lady Gaga’s Madonna-referencing conical bra at the MuchMusic Video Awards in 2009, a silly pyrotechnic metaphor mingling maternal and sexual emissions.
Gaga’s ridiculous rhetoric – often delivered with a kind of deadpan Warholian drawl – invokes Bob Dylan’s thorny insouciance from the 1960s, as well as Salvador Dali’s refusal to be anything other than surreal. She’s difficult and self-aggrandising one moment and girly sweet the next, but goes out of her way to champion gay rights in public appearances. Gaga tows the critical fine line beloved of pop, between being a serious artist and a ludicrous loon (even her dad calls her “loony,” lovingly). She is the current manifestation of a persistently contemporary phenomenon: seeing true authenticity in the most over-the-top behaviour. And, other than the grotesqueries of megalomaniacal dictators, pop is where this kind of hyper-ridiculous authenticity can matter the most.
It is true; I have been roused by Lady Gaga’s warbling and wobbling. Not only in the predictable way you might expect a partially clad, gyrating blondshell to arouse me (and Gaga is famously bisexual, so appreciation needn’t be limited to straight guys only), but also in the manner of a rousing manifesto. Lady Gaga makes me wonder why I still adore pop music so fervently. The easy answer is that it’s the seduction of the superficial sheen, that old escapist oblivion. i believe, however, that this only partly explains the pull. What if it’s really to do with pop’s uniquely enduring depth as a cultural medium? What if pop ought to be consumed on its own silly, garrulous terms? only on this basis can we experience the inimitable kind of freedom that it promises us.
Lady Gaga is currently at the frontier of pop. If she is such a brazen construct, it is only because pop has always meant the most to us when it is as explicitly constructed as possible, and therefore utterly unlike our humdrum lives. Gaga is an astute student of pop with higher aspirations to enter its pantheon. She has written songs for Britney and the Pussycat dolls; her name is taken from a Queen track; I even heard a Boney M. reference in “Bad Romance.” Gaga’s tracks are polished pieces of pop perfection, muscularly produced and musically evoking the best of the worst in pounding Europop. Her lyrics, when decipherable, are oddball ensembles of erotica and celebrity, knowingly aimed at a generation that measures fame by whether you’ve got a celebrity sex-tape out online.
Madonna told Rolling Stone that she sees “[her]self in Lady Gaga.” But which Madonna? And which Lady Gaga? Of course the greatest pop stars are always “Many and One,” flouting Neo’s monotheistic logic in The Matrix, and instead inhabiting successive bodies and souls that are reincarnated with each new album. What if pop is capitalism’s most beautiful frontier and Lady Gaga proves it? She has said, “What I’m best at is my pop-cultural-art-performance quality – I know what’s coming next. I’ve got that intuition… I marinate on this vision.”
Isn’t this ability to reinvent yourself while staying the same person not only one of the key qualities of the legacy of both David Bowie and Madonna, but also the core logic of how capitalism replenishes demand by the constant supersession of one ideal consumer good with the next, better, must-have?
The more I disassemble Lady Gaga into her constituent pop compounds, the more i see bits of capitalism. I’m muttering to myself that such admissions are, even for a staunch non-Marxist, a little shameful. But as Slavoj Zizek recently conceded, Marx too was obsessed with capitalism. So…
There are Lady Gaga’s WIGS. Blonde one day, black the next; Edo-era silhouettes, then Donatella Versace tributes. Pop feasts on stereotypes, on regurgitating and then under- mining them when it thinks you’re bored with their predictability. So blonde can be bimbette and then blonde can be nuclear scientist. Gaga is recuperating the symbolism of blonde from its many past debasements and at the same time celebrating the stealth potential it gives a woman (just when you expect her to be stupid and submissive, she’ll murder you, as happens in two of Gaga’s videos: “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.”) Gaga wears wigs as if to say, “I dare to not even pretend to be real because the real is the province of the banal!” In case you’re wondering, Gaga is a natural brunette.
There is Lady Gaga as GYNOID, known more commonly as a “fembot.” Gaga continues a long and estimable list of cyborg femmes fatales that begins with Olympia in E. T. A. Hoffman’s story “The Sandman” (1816) and continues through Maria in Metropolis (1927) and Rachel in Blade Runner (1982). Gaga is pop starlet as Bride of Frankenstein, real Realdoll (a life-size sex doll with a PVC skeleton and silicone flesh), the feverish fabrication of Man and Industry taking on God as the only giver of life. Gynoids were likely modernity’s answer to male frustration at increased female emancipation, most perfectly portrayed in The Stepford Wives. in her video for “Paparazzi,” Gaga is thrown off the top of a building by a scheming, gold-digging, sex-tape-authoring scumbag (her boyfriend) and becomes a bandaged, hobbling, crutch-dependent quasi-zombie kept alive only by the marvel of modern medicine.
There is Gaga’s SEXINESS. In 1990, Camille Paglia wrote a celebrated article in the New York Times championing Madonna as, “Finally, a real Feminist.” call it third- wave feminism or anti-feminism, but today’s pop sirens fit just as neatly into the economy of sexualised commodity fetish as Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot once did, except they are now more likely to have a say over how they appear in front of the camera. Pop has always objectified its protagonists’ bodies, but in a way that upholds the best bits of secular free choice without invoking the dark shadow of, say, the more disturbing realities of the globalised sex industry.
There is Lady Gaga’s FUTURISM. Granted, the exaggerated, spacey outfits often feel lifted from 1970s sci-fi (think Logan’s Run with a better budget), but I do think that pop is a portrait of the present, and nothing is more “now” than the projections of the future every era elicits. if there were no future in a capitalist society, there would be no need to spend money on research and development, which in turn produces new things that make yesterday’s things feel crappy and outdated. Without the future we wouldn’t want things as much as we do.
There are Lady Gaga’s VISORS. Belonging to a futurist proclivity, visors suffice when simple sunglasses will not, and everyone from Kanye West to Rihanna will vouch for eyewear that actually occludes sight, while turning its blind subject into that bloke off Star Trek with wraparound plastic vision and Delphic soothsaying skills. Visors are worn in laboratories. Lady Gaga’s laboratory is pop and she’s testing new and weird things out – on us.
“HOW NOT DUMB IS LADY GAGA?”
That’s the question New York magazine asked, and I’d like to think that somewhere amidst the feathers and rehearsed frippery, Gaga is consciously espousing this simple article of faith: that pop can only really thrive on its own heroic and fantastical terms in democracies, and thus, by extension, in free-market economies. Totalitarian regimes may, despite their best prohibitive efforts, nurture powerful and lasting literature, poetry or visual art, usually produced in precise defiance to the surrounding illiberal conditions. But rarely do dictatorships deliver great pop stars – like Gaga – that make grown women faint or young teenage boys sweat and swoon with pleasure. There’s something in the urgent thrill of the knowingly disposable here-and-now, the fuel of capitalism, that is also present in the pounding force at the heart of pop, at the frontier presently straddled, legs akimbo, by Lady Gaga. If I don’t let her have the last word, she’ll probably poison me. “It’s all about everything altogether – performance art, pop performance art, fashion. For me,” she says, “It’s everything coming. I want the imagery to be so strong that fans will want to eat and taste and lick every part.””