I’ve been thinking about Lady Gaga. (But who hasn’t?)
I first became aware of the seemingly unstoppable pop sensation when Gawker sister-site Jezebel began posting paparazzi images of her back in January. (They’ve just published the year-in-Gaga anthology of images; definitely worth a looksie.) She emerged—to me—as a mute, mysterious image; a person fixated on being fixated upon. I didn’t know who she was or what she did, just that she was obviously creating a spectacle that was enticing enough to already leave a gossip trail. And to be honest, I thought the stage name was a little heavy handed.
My first encounter with her music was actually facilitated by Carmine Covelli and Adrienne Truscott during one installment of Kenny Mellman and Neal Medlyn’s outlandish and outstanding Our Hit Parade at Joe’s Pub (the final shows of the year are tonight, and you should try to catch one). Covelli voiced a pre-recorded cover of “Poker Face” while a video of Covelli’s face was projected onto Truscott’s naked torso; her bush serving as occasional soul patch to Covelli’s grinning lower lip. The performance was fun and strangely moving; the song, as rendered by Covelli, had a plaintive, humble urgency. I didn’t know it was Lady Gaga until I heard her version on the radio while driving up 3rd Avenue in Gowanus one weekend with my boyfriend.
Now that we’ve seen Lady Gaga propel herself from fringe pop-star to outright megastar in just under a year—culminating with an interview with Barbara Walters and an introduction to the fucking Queen of England—it might be fun to ruminate some on the artist, her work, why her work works (or doesn’t), and where it comes from.
I will admit that I have resisted Lady Gaga for one reason: The appropriation of queer (specifically gay male) culture that is then recontextualized within a framework of heterosexual theater (regardless of her private sexuality or personal activism,–I know Lady Gaga is an activist for the gay agenda!–the overarching erotic narrative in her music and videos is heterosexual).
Her look draws almost exclusively from drag—whether it’s referencing the freak-drag legacy of Leigh Bowery, the fantasy glam of David Bowie, or literally donning the couture drag of Alexander McQueen, but her cultural situation is one of either a swollen female object of male desire, or an obsessive addict to the heterosexual male’s cold shoulder. It is possible to perceive Lady Gaga as a stand-in for the homosexual male’s position within the erotics of our society, in that she both sexualizes the heterosexual male (which he is uncomfortable with) and then is abandoned by him and left to suffer the impossibility of long-term attachment (because he is in control…isn’t he?), so she plunges into the role of freak, of outcast, and theatrically manifests her condition through costume, camp, persona, and subjective exaggeration (e.g. the persona of Lady Gaga is superficial, only interested in money/sex/power, etc.). This may over simplify a lot of things, or may not apply at all. But what is true, and what bothers me, is that Lady Gaga’s drag is rewarded culturally because she is a woman. What an artist like, say, Fischerspooner (as only one example) does and has been doing with pop music and concert performance only to remain obscure (or localized, however you want to look at it), Lady Gaga has done to mass audience appeal and mass media attraction. This is by no means Lady Gaga’s fault. It’s just the way things work in a society that still gets mad when boys dress up like girls.
Madonna came under similar fire for appropriating queer culture, most notably with the release (and success) of “Vogue.” And my feelings about that are that the appropriation here did far more good than harm. That a closeted teenager in rural northern California (aka, me) could be exposed not only to queer aesthetics, but to actually queer (read homosexual) performers via the music video (and all her videos of that period) was a godsend.
I also think these female, gay-icon pop stars (from Madonna, to Cyndi Lauper, to Britney, to Beyonce) facilitate a real, industrial mechanism for queer aesthetics to enter the popular/professional realm. I don’t doubt that a disproportionately large percentage of the artists Lady Gaga works with are gay men, and through her/with her/because of her, they are allowed to shape part of the world in their image. Think of Lady Gaga (and those like her) as the Trojan Horses of queer culture.
That the masses will admit the dragging antics of Lady Gaga while overlooking the obvious homosexual queerness of her look, is a testament to the public’s willfully ignorant relationship with queerness, because the resistance to male homosexual drag is misplaced on the specificity of gender in the first place (i.e. “Men shouldn’t wear ladies’ clothing!”). In actuality, the aesthetic drag engenders—no matter what sex it is upon—is essentially queer, or, gender role alternative.
We have also reached a place in performative queerness where the performer’s “sex”—even within the drag community—is becoming less essential; in addition to an escalating variety of male drags, there are all kinds of drags in between, from kings, to trannies, to the gender ambiguous, to half-drag, to “F-to-F” trannies (women who drag like gay men). The stew of drag and the people who participate in it is rich and bewildering, and it increasingly resists compartmentalization. Lady Gaga would seem to be part of this happening.
That said, the outer world of mass, popular culture is not privy to the all-in-it-together scenes of queer culture that reside in the metropolitan hubs of New York, L.A. and San Francisco, so when they encounter Lady Gaga, they are only dealing with the particulars of what she does, rather than that she does it at all, which is where the foot comes down on male drag. Again, not her fault, but a fault she is allowed to take advantage of.
This double standard is not restricted to the wearing of elaborate and exaggerated “women’s” clothing/costume, but resonates outward to the subject for which drag sounds an audible warning to the conservative mind: homosexual sex.
In her interview with Barbara Walters, Lady Gaga admits that she has “had sexual relationships with women.” And much to her credit, when Walters coyly gives Gaga an opportunity to take a pass on the question (and it’s such a bullshit, exploitive question anyway), Lady Gaga commandeers her right to answer it. What other male megastar has done anything remotely like this, that is, admitting in a major television interview at the nascent peak of his young career that he’s had sex with men? Cheers to Lady Gaga for standing up for herself (in a way), and boos to our society for reserving its bigoted, punitive counter-reaction for gay men.
But, perhaps with the ever more present consciousness of “the homosexual” in popular culture–from groundbreaking shows like Will and Grace, to the obligatory inclusion of token gays in most reality TV shows, to Ellen, to bellwether movies like Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don’t Cry, to the drama that is still playing out around American Idol’s Adam Lambert, the general prevalence of openly speculating on the sexual orientation of various public figures in the media, not to mention the way the marriage equality movement is literally forcing the issue of homophobia through political activism–even as a woman, Lady Gaga cannot outrun the epistemological misgiving that her look arouses even in the non-queer perspective.
For example, a rumor spread on the internet that Lady Gaga was a transgender, or intersex, individual who, in addition to having a nice upper rack, was also packing some junk under the hood.
This rumor does two things. First, it raises the suspicion one feels about Lady Gaga’s gender representation; that there’s something false, over-the-top, or unreal about her female-ness. But then it goes a step further by speculating that she, the person/performer, is actually a cock-wielding man in disguise. And what more Freudian way could we settle the ambiguity of a sexually aggressive female persona than to psychologically bestow upon her a penis? This slippage is derogatory at its core, and seeks to insinuate the presence of a genital “abnormality” in order to identify “the homosexual” beneath the look and to outcast him at the same time.
I’m not sure that this quixotic proposition says much about how far along our society has traveled in its discourse on gender and sexuality. That we’re able to openly wrestle with the latent homosexuality of Lady Gaga’s look may actually be a good indicator that “The Closet” is eeking open, and in that seemingly terrifying gap, our society is wrestling to tie it shut, no matter how complicated it is to fasten that knot. But hey: At least they’re willing to put on the singlet and hit the mat.