I’ve always been a Lady Gaga fan somewhat despite myself. I held out a while: despite the frustrating catchiness of Paparazzi and Just Dance, despite the kinky undertones of Poker Face, I was *determined* that liking somebody quite so purely and unashamedly popular, populist and pop-orientated was totally below my largely obscure, melodic and alternative-orientated musical dignity. And then there was Bad Romance, and she got me. That wonderful rolling backbeat, the sheer unashamed kink of the song and the video, the surprising cleverness of the lyrics (who else could fit a nod to Hitchcock and a cock joke in the same two words?), the captivating brutality and simplicity of it all- I was sucked in, and I haven’t looked back. Even songs I hated on first listen (Telephone, what the FUCK was that all about?) were lifted by the wit, self-awareness, humour and cultural commentary of the videos into something I actually enjoyed listening to. Kinda like magic, but mostly in latex. There are still a significant number of songs I actually can’t stand, but Gaga herself, bless her cotton socks, um, twelve-inch stilettos, I would fight to the death for.
Many reasons for my personal dedication. There’s her unabashed sexuality and self-assertion, there’s my personal affinity with her take on femininity and what it means, there’s her taste in shoes, her playboy mouth, her sexually explicit and knowing songs, her strange combination of earnestness, humour and savvy, my baseline admiration for *anybody* willing to be that weird, that kinky, that vulnerable and that experimental in public, my empathy with her food issues and the psychological pressures that inevitably result from the way she chooses to use her body, and there’s the subject of this post, my sheer frustration and annoyance at the inevitable and infinitely predictable backlash now that she’s fairly established rather than the up-and-coming kookster that she used to be. Be a bit fucking *original*, folks. If you’ve always had an intense personal dislike for her music or her projected personality or the artificiality of her constructed personae or aesthetics, then fair dos, I can see why she wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But the sheer number of articles out there (and people one meets) saying something along the lines of ‘she used to be clever but she’s not original any more‘ and thinking they’re clever is just fucking ridiculous.
But it doesn’t just piss me off because I find it unfair or because I disagree, although both those things are true. It pisses me off because I think we, as a culture, *need* Gaga.
Partly, because she seems to be the only mainstream person out there doing what she does as well and as unashamedly and as carnivalesquely and *bizarrely* as she does, and *what* she does seems to be precisely what she set out to do.I like and need Gaga the same way I like and need fetish clubs or Camden Town, because she/they are spaces for and full of ‘freaks like me’, for the freak in everyone. (And I find it endearing how devoted she seems to be, genuinely, to her fans; the adorably loopy monster mother/little monsters thing, the way she’d actually come out and make that ‘freak’ speech on Ellen, her twitterfeed, etc.)
But not only that. She does other things too. Her sheer popularity, frustrating as it must be to those untouched by Gagaphilia, means that girls (and boys) growing up have her as another competing voice in the clamour telling them who and what they have to be to grow up, to be acceptable, to be loved. She seems to reach everyone, from kids taken to her gigs by their parents (I met a mother on a train, a lawyer, who took her 7 and 5 year old children to every tour ‘because she puts on such a good show’) or who steal my walkman every time I go to their parents’ for dinner so they can listen to Telephone on repeat, who might not even understand the lyrics but mouth words of self-worth and self-assertion anyway, to tweenagers and teenagers faced with the well-nigh-impossible task of trying to grow up comfortable in their bodies and their sexuality amidst the overwhelming commodification and commercialisation of everything sexual in contemporary culture, have her voice in the background saying implicitly not only that being weird is ok, but that you’re worth something anyway. Not only implying that ‘I always felt like a freak, be a freak, it’s ok, you’re still loveable, and hell, being a freak’s made me a fuckton of money by now’ but also saying women have the right to define their own desires and sexuality (Bad Romance, Teeth, I like it Rough, Poker Face), that they have worth, that she understands feeling that one *doesn’t* have worth (Dance in the Dark), that they have the right to choose and don’t have to submit to men just because they want them (Teeth), that they can choose to have sex promiscuously if they want and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if nobody gets hurt/is taking it seriously (Lovegame), that romance isn’t the be-all and end-all, that they have the right to be treated decently (Telephone). That if expressing themselves involves wearing dresses made of hair or bubbles or a full-length white cloak or bright red eyeshadow or painting a lightning bolt across their faces, then that’s cool and they can do it if they want. (To one of her gigs, if nothing else.) That at the end of the day they have the right to power, even if it’s dangerous (cf the end of the Bad Romance video, where the enslaved, manipulated, alluring Gaga actually shoots the very man who she’s enticed to buy her with her breasts. Fucking A.) There are other women out there doing this kind of thing – Pink, for example, makes similarly humorous/emotionally loaded videos and did a fabulously hot and sexually loaded duet with Peaches containing the immortal line ‘we’re all pink inside’ – but she lacks both the attention Gaga’s OTT aesthetics draw to femininity as a contemporary cultural construct and her sheer *weirdness*, not to mention the unabashed mainstream pop appeal (I don’t know many tweenagers who’ve heard of Pink. All those I know – admittedly not many – know and like Gaga). Without Gaga, who’d they have? Florence and the Machine, if kids are into that kinda thing, but honestly, the Sugababes? (Anyone wants, I’ll do a feminist dissection of the lyrics I link to there. Go on. I dare you.) Ke$ha? I fear for the world. Gaga gives teenagers an example of somebody in control of their own representation, using it to challenge cultural norms, and being lauded and loved for it, and this cannot but be a good thing. (Not only that, but for adult eyes, the artificiality of her aesthetics draws attention to the extent to which authentic or appealing femininity is perceived to require such artificiality, and therefore how many demands contemporary culture places on girls. Whilst i’m sure that your average 8-year-old is not down with the critical theory sufficiently to parse this, they might just go away with the message that wearing weird shit and painting your face is fun if you feel like it, but you don’t have to do it.)
So what’s the problem with her, then? Afaics, the main objections seem to cluster around two main points, 1) ‘she’s just not original any more’ and 2) ‘it was all a marketing construct anyway.’ I shall take these in reverse order. Yes, maybe it is all a marketing construct, she’s really a shallow bitch and doesn’t give a shit about her fans, she’s just a good actress projecting an intentionally goofy persona on the advice of some canny adman somewhere. It’s all a marketing ploy and you’re very clever to see through it and to have figured it out, you know much more about the world than I do and I bow down before you. However. I also don’t give a shit. Even if it’s a cleverly constructed illusion of a real, vulnerable, suffering person trying to grow up and express themselves and have ideas and analyse how the world works and figure out what femininity means and what food means and what the body means and who they want to be, it’s a *good thing* that that illusion is out there, because it is real and valuable that people, particularly young people, have a figure like that to identify with. That they have an idol whom they can believe loves them and values their individuality and wants them to be their freakish selves. (Scroll down her twitterfeed to see what I’m on about.) That somebody out there with power and a voice is on their side. Even if it’s a cleverly constructed illusion, she offers us not only some rather catchy music and enjoyable videos, but also the spectacle of somebody struggling to marry the reality of life with who they think they ought to be and sometimes getting it wrong, but never apologising for their desires or their sexuality or their ridiculous taste in clothes or – really – themselves, and that is an *important* role model.
And the ‘not original any more’ thing. This seems largely prompted by Alejandro, although if somebody wants to link me to interesting things written before this I’m all ears (eyes). Because it’s a bit like Madonna in the 90s. Well, cultural imagery gets recycled, folks. That’s what it’s FOR. It gets recycled and its meaning change every time and a simple image gets overlaid with the echoes of all its previous incarnations. And Gaga *knows* this. She *plays* with it, most notably in Telephone with its feminocentricity and product placement (cultural commentary anyone? that video’s been quite legitimately described as ‘the biggest budget semiotics essay in history’), which is funny and silly and incredibly over the top and plays with and inverts all the tropes of maternity and feminine caring/feeding and authority and feminine vulnerability through sex appeal and heteronoromativity as it uses them. And no, Alejandro’s not funny in the same way, but it’s not meant to be, by the sounds of it(second essay down) it’s about a baseline tragic identification with and isolation from a minority group who’re still the subject of great hostility in the US and elsewhere, and it’s *not* funny in the same way that a video that basically depicts the successful and hugely enjoyable inversion of contemporary gender/power relations is. And yes, it looks a bit like an early 90s Madonna video. (If you can bear to, there’s some discussion of its symbolism and references halfway down this page, which makes it clear that at least the echoes are entirely intentional.) But it doesn’t look a lot like a contemporary Madonna video (wtf happened to Madonna, anyway??) and would any of the aforementioned young people needing a role model be watching the 90s incarnation, or be able to perceive the same sense of identification if they were? I doubt it, unless they’d followed a link from Gaga. And yes, she may or may not be hugely musically original, that’s not my area of expertise, but she’s a hell of a lot catchier than most of the other poptrash they play in the gym, and her videos a lot funnier and more self-aware, and how much more musically original than Bad Romance is it possible to be these days?
Also, I can’t help noticing that a lot of the Gaga-bashers I’ve come across are men, and straight men at that. (Given that one of the lady’s most notable features is her absolute refusal to play heteronormative, to construct her sexuality like it’s exclusively aimed at heterosexual men, or even to create space where it could be constructed thus, it’s hard not to infer a degree of ‘but i don’t *get* it!’-type sour grapes…) My intelligent, educated, sexually aware female friends, on the other hand, are mostly as devoted as I am to the whole idea of having Someone Like Us (even if that’s middle-class and privileged and prettyish and all the other things we don’t like about ourselves, or I don’t, anyway) out there expressing herself, exposing herself and sending herself up like that. We love Gaga because her desires, her awareness of the commodification of her body and its adornment, her passionate sexuality, her intelligence, her awareness of and yet subjection to the cultural tropes surrounding her, her complete battiness, reflect elements of our own. And there’s nobody out there who does it like she does. Or has better shoes.
*Get The Fuck Over It Already.