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. Continue reading