Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back: On Lady Gaga
“How not dumb is Gaga?,” asked the New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, in the first flush of Gagamania. Almost exactly a year later, his question still furrows the American brow. Okay, I’ll bite: Not? As in: Not in the least not dumb?
After a close study of Frere-Jones’s 2009 apologia for Our Lady of Perpetual Pantlessness, I still can’t help but read his headline as Protesting Too Much. I know it’s a textbook example of what grammar geeks like to call litotes, a figure of speech in which an affirmative is expressed through the negation of its opposite, but since litotes is used to drily funny effect, as ironic understatement (as in: “Lady Gaga is not unintelligent”), the headline makes it sound as if Frere-Jones is Damning with Faint Praise. Reading it, I was suddenly reminded of an avant-garde composer I once knew, a hyper-cerebral Vulcan whose veins ran with antifreeze. When I asked him, in an interview, about some diva on the downtown-music scene, he paused for effect, a predatory twinkle in his eye. Then came the headsman’s blow, delivered with undisguised relish: “Not overly burdened with intellect.”
Which is to say, not not dumb.
Most of the comment-thread flame wars between Gaga’s Kiss Army of “little monsters,” as the Lady calls her devout fans, and her no less devout haters are ignited by the Great Debate: Is she a rarified being who has more talent in her clitoral hood than you can even dream of, little man? Whose Art for Art’s Sake raptures us out of our stonewashed lives, into a disco ball-flecked Bubble World, a Studio 54 in the Sky where gay teens, pillow-biting scenery-chewing* emo boys, and high-school weirdos are waved into the VIP lounge while all the Mean Girls and haters mill outside, crazed with envy? Or is she just some Tisch drop-out who watched Grease one too many times, pickled her brain in Britney, and now thinks she’s some cross between Madonna and Leigh Bowery, just because she forgets to wear pants and name-checks The Night Porter (Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” for people who don’t read)? In other words, is Lady Gaga the last, best hope for pop smart enough to beat the Society of the Spectacle at its own game, sell out with a shamelessness that would shock the pants off her patron saints (Warhol and Dali, who perfected the complimentary notions of self as brand and art as marketing) and still snooker a generation of cultural-studies profs and nth-wave feminists into a deconstructive swoon about her Judith Butler-approved gender performativity? Or is she something thuddingly dumber: Donatella Versace in the remake of Blow-Up? Liza Minelli in a Vegas revue inspired by The Reluctant Astronaut? Perez Hilton sings the Human League songbook? Is she pop, or Pop Art? In on the joke, or just a joke?
*(Author’s Note, added May 17: My use, above, of the expression “pillow-biting,” in the throwaway line “pillow-biting emo biters,” turned out to be a gift to rabid Gagaphiles everywhere—proof positive of the homophobia that, in their eyes, lurks just beneath the surface of my critique of The Lady. Initially, I was baffled by their response. As I wrote in the comment thread below, “the modifier ‘pillow-biting’ is a funny way of saying ‘melodramatic,’” an adjective adequately earned, in my opinion, by the neurasthenic shut-ins known as emo boys. Then I stumbled on a blogger who turned the volume of the charge up to 11, ranting, “anyone who thinks that ‘pillow biting’ is a valid insult in the year 2010 is a homophobic asshole who can FUCK RIGHT OFF.” The vociferousness of the post, and the gravity of the charge (which I take seriously) sent me to UrbanDictionary.com, where I learned that “pillow-biter” is a derogatory slang term for an effeminate gay male, “likely inspired by the notion that a [submissive] male engaged in anal sex would be face-down into a pillow, biting into it.” Naturally, I was aghast. Color me generationally clueless, too hetero to be believed, or idiomatically challenged, but I simply never knew. I’d pulled the phrase out of thin air, vaguely aware I’d heard it somewhere, and thinking it was a synonym for “scenery-chewing” or “carpet-chewing,” meaning: melodramatically over-the-top; ridiculously emotional. In fact, it’s a hateful phrase, which is why I’ve crossed it out here, and will go and sin no more. Not that the scenery-chewing wing of Gaga fandom will be persuaded that I’m not homophobic, as opposed to not not homophobic.)
One thing is certain: much of the hair-pulling about the goggle-eyed vacuity of her music, the self-consciously Warholian Inauthenticity of her persona, her Barbarella-from-Jersey Shore get-ups, and her unashamedly derivative career moves and media poses is really, deep down, a debate about how not dumb—or not not dumb—she is.
Evidence for the prosecution begins with the name, lifted from one of Queen’s ditziest tunes: “Radio Ga Ga.” Gaga, as in: “Excessively and foolishly enthusiastic: The public went gaga over the new fashions.” Or: “Completely absorbed, infatuated, or excited: They were gaga over the rock group’s new album.” The word’s rattlebrained connotations aren’t helpful. Nor is Gaga’s mouth-breather gape, which combined with her slight overbite gives her a vaguely dumbfounded look. She looks permanently agog, like Paris Hilton after a ministroke.
And then there’s the music. Color me rockist, but there is something profoundly, throbbingly dumb about Gaga’s music, an exuberant stupidity that wants to vogue its way into our hearts but makes our minds throw up a little.
Listen to the best songs by her cited influences—Bowie, Queen, Grace Jones—and you’ll hear, beneath the virally unforgettable melodies, a percolating intelligence that isn’t just a musical sophistication but is equally a cultural literacy. Listen to Gaga and you’ll hear the sound of IQ points molting.
Consider “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke,” from Queen II, an object lesson in the cultural distance between 1974 and now—and between genius and Gaga. In two and a half glorious minutes, Freddie Mercury reminds us, as all great Aesthetes do, that nothing succeeds like excess: laser-sharp harmonies by robo-seraphim, heavy-breathing glam-metal harpsichord that sounds like Scarlatti shtupping Liberace, guitarist Brian May doing Paganini impersonations, and a gong to top things off. (The only thing missing is the ritual sacrifice of an underage hermaphrodite, naked and gilded in gold leaf. And Freddie was just getting to that when management pulled the plug, citing cost overruns.)
But the music is just the movie soundtrack for the lyrics, which narrate a slow, close-up pan across the titular subject, the Victorian madman Richard Dadd’s obsessively detailed, almost anamorphically distorted painting of a fairy revel. There’s the “politician with senatorial pipe,” and the “pedagogue squinting,” who “wears a frown,” and a “tatterdemalion and a junketer,” “a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter,” a satyr peering naughtily under a lady’s gown. It’s all there, rendered with miniaturist precision, right down to “Oberon and Titania watched by a harridan/ Mab is the queen and there’s a good apothecary-man/ come to say hello/ fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend/ the nymph in yellow/ what a quaere fellow/ the ostler stares with hands on his knees/ come on, mister feller, crack it open if you please…”
In the radio-mandated two and a half minutes, Freddie gave his listeners a whiff of Shakespeare, an introduction to what would now be called Outsider art, and some brain-stretchingly arcane vocabulary words. (Queen Builds Word Power!) Gaga gives us “rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! Rom-mah-rom-mum-mah! GaGa-oo-la-la!” (“Bad Romance”) and “Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh/ I’ll get him hot, show him what I’ve got/ Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh…” How many electro-disco divas does it take to screw in an ostler? How many could define “harridan” or “junketer,” much less weave those words into a narrative rich in literary allusions, historical memory, descriptive detail?
Speaking of which, how many dance-pop singers can tell a story about anything other than themselves? Freddie teleported high-school pariahs languishing in ’70s suburbia into the aesthetic otherworld of the Yellow Book Decadents and the Bloomsbury scene, a Bubble World of escapist Victoriana to be explored more deeply if you were an intellectually omnivorous library rat. Gaga is the poet laureate of the supremely banal: porntastic fantasies about riding your disco stick and bluffin’ with my muffin, “getting shit wrecked,” dry-humping under the disco ball, dreaming of fame, becoming famous, world-wearily lamenting the Faustian bargain of—yawn—fame, and popping a wide-on worthy of the Sex and the City crew over “Louis, Dolce Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, eh ou,” and of course Manolo.
If you’re a devout Gagaphile and, improbably, have made it this far, let me channel what you’re thinking, right about now: as a Person of a Certain Age, and, even more unconscionably, a more or less heteronormative male, I’m incapable of appreciating the gifts of a neo-disco diva whose target audience is—I’m guessing, here—girls eight to 18 (the Gossip Girl/Sex and the City demographic) and gays who like Madonna. I should be femdom’d by the Lady, then thrown to the tender mercies of the butch-est of the Caged Heat babes in Gaga’s Telephone video. I’m guilty of rockism, that unbecoming affliction that causes middle-aged, strenuously straight white guys like David Brooks to subject us, periodically, to a column’s worth of mawkish, rheumy eyed cornpone about the irony-free pleasures of the real Bruce Almighty (Springsteen, of course), and how it ain’t no sin to be—sob—glad you’re alive, goddammit. (Brooks quotes Springsteen rhapsodist Jon Laundau approvingly: “There is no sarcasm in his writing, and not a lot of irony.” I knew there was a reason I couldn’t stand any Springsteen album but Nebraska, despite the better angels of my political correctness, nagging me—lapsed Marxist that I am—to join the Boss Cult. How can an American artist understand the darkness that’s always there, on the edge of Disney’s Mainstreet, U.S.A., without recourse to irony? Twain knew that. Mencken knew it. Burroughs knew it in his bones. David Lynch is all about it, in his inimitably Zen Eagle Scout way. It’s Springsteen’s excruciating earnestness that makes most of his records unlistenable. Okay, that and those goddamned sleighbells.)
“Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher,” Kelefa Sanneh writes, in his essay “The Rap Against Rockism.” Worse yet, he argues, rockism may be a stalking horse for “ older, more familiar prejudices,” asking, “The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the ‘awesomely bad’ hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.”
Actually, Richard Dyer got there long before Sanneh, in his canonical 1979 essay “In Defense of Disco.” A gay lefty, Dyer isn’t buying the Frankfurt Marxist dismissal of consumer culture’s throwaway pleasures as just so many weapons of mass distraction. “The anarchy of capitalism throws up commodities that an oppressed group can take up and use to cobble together its own culture,” he writes. “In this respect, disco is very much like another profoundly ambiguous aspect of male gay culture, camp. It is a ‘contrary’ use of what the dominant culture provides, it is important in forming a gay identity, and it has subversive potential as well as reactionary implications.”
True that. Yes, we’re all lost in the supermarket of commodity culture, and yes, there are pockets of subcultural resistance lurking here and there; the alchemy of audience appropriation can transmute even the most banal or brain-dead pop flotsam into something rich and strange. For all I know, bedroom-wall shrines to Gaga, all over America, are serving as screens for the projection of empowering fantasies by teenage weirdos who will grow up to remake pop in their own, even weirder images. And yes, much of rockism’s “Disco Sucks!” contempt for dance-pop’s brazen “inauthenticity”—the cyborgian bloodlessness of its machine-driven beats and electro-zap hooks, more sound effect than melody; the “talentlessness” of its button-pushing producers; its social role as the soundtrack of anonymous, drug-wrecked sex in nightclub bathrooms—is often shorthand for homophobia or racism, since disco, ever since it caught the white mainstream’s ear in the 1970s, has been associated with the gays, blacks, and Latinos who created it and consume it. For good measure, Gaga defenders might point out racism inherent in reviewers’ stereotyping of the Lady as a skeezy “guidette”—a grenade she catches and lobs back at us in the video for “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else Can I Say),” which features her vamping on a Vespa in front of a bodega called Guido’s Meat Market.
All of those points being readily granted, I still say it’s disco, and I say the hell with it. It’s an error of logic to argue that, simply because some male-menopausal rockists think Gaga is the unholy progeny of Kim Kardashian and Klaus Nomi (a record I’d buy in a heartbeat, by the way), they must be criminally clueless, if not homo-negro-Latino-Italo-phobic, and Gaga must be the best thing to happen to pop music since Bowie had his nipples rotated. She isn’t, at least not musically. Her songs manage the impossible feat of making craptastic New Romantic clotheshorses like Visage sound inspired.Yes, she’s more than modestly gifted as a singer and pianist, but until her music sheds its Madonna-isms and lives up to the mind-shriveling weirdness of her most demented video moments, I mean, who gives a disco stick, really?
Frere-Jones thinks Gaga isn’t dumb because she “opines in public about whether a certain shade of red is ‘Communist’ and has dropped Rilke’s name more than once,” and, uh, because “‘Just Dance’ is about being drunk in a club, which is a great idea, because songs for drunk people in clubs are rarely sharp enough to be so obvious: a lot gets lost in the quest for the clever.” Right, that’s what’s blighting the bumper crop of pop songs about getting shitfaced: too much cleverness. In his Slate essay “How Smart is Lady Gaga?” (also from last year), Jonah Weiner thinks Gaga may be brighter than we know because “she sprinkles her interviews with references to Warhol’s ‘deeply shallow’ aphorism, David Bowie, Leigh Bowery,” and she’s a master/mistress of “gender sabotage,” equal parts Judith Butler and Lady Bunny, as well as “an exquisite horror” who makes American manhood’s ball sac retract by coming on like some Weimar kewpie doll on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Talk about defining deviancy down. What beige days we live in, when mentioning Rilke, Warhol, and David Bowie are proof positive of edgy intelligence. Rilke isn’t exactly obscure, and Warhol and Bowie are two of the best-known brands in pop history. Gaga isn’t all that weird, despite her revisionist accounts of growing up feeling “like a freak,” as she told Barbara Walters. Can we get some context, here? Performance artist Leigh Bowery giving himself an enema, onstage, and hosing the front rows at one of his performances with an anal geyser is weird. Painter and curiosa collector Joe Coleman adopting a pickled anencephalic fetus as his son and naming it Junior is weird. Faking your own hanging at the Video Music Awards because you “feel that if I can show my demise artistically to the public, I can somehow cure my own legend” isn’t weird; it’s a time-tested career strategy, straight out of the shock-rock playbook. In his fame-crazed Ziggy days, Bowie worried—in a stage whisper, with all the eager microphones leaning in—about being assassinated onstage and, alternately, fantasizing about what it would do for his career. And the staged hanging was vintage Alice Cooper. Of course, we all know where Alice ended up: playing golf with Bob Hope.
Of course, Gaga, like Cooper or Bowie, isn’t a genuine Outsider, in the Henry Darger sense of the word. Like both, she markets deviance to Middle America, making true transgression safe for prime time (while simultaneously gene-splicing a little mutant culture into the mainstream) and, oh yeah, getting richer than God in the process. Which is why she’s already justifying her love of the louche to Barbara Walters, earnestly removing her dark glasses and telling Walters she loved her. Babs returned the favor by observing, after the fact, that Gaga impressed her as “quite intelligent,” an impression that may or may not have been cemented by the Lady’s choice of what Walters called a “very serious” Chanel suit, befitting an audience with America’s Mother Confessor.
I asked the music critic Simon Reynolds to situate Gaga’s mega-hyped “weirdness” within pop-music history, specifically the glam rock of the ’70s—a tradition her consciously aligns herself with, through her frequent invocations of Bowie, Mercury, and T. Rex.
“All the ideas are a bit familiar,” says Reynolds. “It’s not like this particular iteration of glam is coming in reaction to a period of dowdiness (as with the original glam reacting against blues-bore bands and drab hippies). In fact, it’s coming after a period of lowercase-g glamor that’s being going on since grunge, really. It’s been one long era of bling rap, glitzy R&B/Beyonce-type fabulousness, slick boy bands and girl bands, American Idol pop. Music that’s totally about dazzle and theater and choreography and costumes and dance routines. Every year, the Video Music Awards is more and more showbizzy—Pink did her song on a trapeze! And then she topped herself at the Grammies with pure Las Vegas/Cirque du Soleil-type acrobatics, spinning on a vertical wire thing that I can’t even describe.
“Even the weird-glamor/arty artifice Gaga’s about is all very familiar, after Leigh Bowery (’80s) and Alexander McQueen and Marilyn Manson (’90s) and Fischerspooner (early Noughties). It doesn’t have the same impact. The one thing she did that really entertained me and that did have a frisson was the whole escapade with the plastic penis, is she a hermaphrodite, etc.
“The original [glam-rock movement] was very much using artifice and ambisexuality and aristocracy as subversion within rock culture, which at that time was very much on a populist/authenticity/songs-more-important-than-image tip. [Glam] was a dialectical move within rock culture. Gaga’s glam is signifying in a context where pop is already all about artifice, fantasy, aristocracy/bling, and certainly the gender-bendery [thing] doesn’t set off any great shock waves.”
The retro-pomo angle on Gaga—that she is a self-conscious signifier, a performance artist whose real virtuoso talent lies in constructing and deconstructing her public image—may seem sharp as a tack to undergrads who crib their Baudrillard from The Matrix, but we’ve been there before. “Without any solid or ‘real’ self, her identity becomes whatever it needs to be, immune to the toxic shock of the incoming century, fully geared up to party in the ruins,” writes Jason Louv, in his demurely titled essay, “Lady Gaga & The Dead Planet Grotesque.” Tell it to the French academic Georges-Claude Guilbert, the author of the not at all overreachingly titled Madonna As Postmodern Myth: How One Star’s Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream. According to the book’s Amazon blurb, Guilbert “examines how Madonna methodically discovered and constructed herself…It also details the way in which she organized her own cult (borrowing from the gay community)…and cunningly targeted different audiences.” Sound familiar? Boundary dissolution, the decentered self, the Body Without Organs: it’s ’80s’ Semiotext(e) theory, stuck on iPod shuffle. “Andy Warhol, silver screen/can’t tell them apart at all” (David Bowie, “Andy Warhol”). “Is it any wonder that she’s provoked the response she has, both adulation and hatred?” Louv wonders. “She’s the first non-boring thing to happen in pop music for almost fifteen years.”
Actually, not. What’s so non-boring about a dance-pop diva who lifts her platinum hair and dark eyebrows from Who’s That Girl?-era Madonna and her backing tracks from the Human League? About confining your outrageousness to your image while ensuring that your music is safe as milk? About wearing Bauhausian bondage gear that makes you look like Oskar Schlemmer’s idea of Boogie Nights but thinking thoughts that a pickled walnut would think, if it could? “I write about what I know: sex, pornography, art, fame obsession, drugs, and alcohol,” Gaga told an Elle interviewer.” Oh, groan. “I never heard so many kids talk about just doing anything to be famous,” lamented Gaga’s household deity, David Bowie, in a 2003 interview. “I mean, yeah, fame is part of the deal when you’re a kid and you think, I wanna go into music, but everybody that I knew was really doing it because of their love for it. I don’t see so much of that anymore; it’s like, ‘What should I say so that I can be famous?’ It’s like the tail wagging the dog, but music’s just so accessible and given to us in such awful ways now. It’s been devalued tremendously.”
All that said, the “Bad Romance” video shows real promise. The eyeglasses made of razorblades; the gnarled, spastic hand gestures; the mannequin-like dancers in vinyl toques; the wedding dress with the bearskin rug for a train (complete with snarling head); Gaga in bed with the charred remains of her lover, her flamethrowing bra presumably having char-broiled him in flagrante delicto: it’s Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals, as reimagined by Matthew Barney. If Gaga can wean herself from the “deeply shallow” referentiality of Artistic Statements like the “Telephone” video, which channels Quentin Tarantino channeling Caged Heat, and start to think, really think, about her references, rather than just peeling them loose from their cultural contexts and dropping them, plop!, and watching the semiotic ripples spread out, she’ll be truly non-boring. Reading a Deeply Silly commentary on the “Telephone” video by “Gaga blogger and doctoral student Meghan Vicks,” who wheels out the obligatory reference to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to Explain It All For Us, I’m reminded of a lazy afternoon in L.A., sometime in the ’80s, listening to a masseuse to the stars telling me she’d seen Madonna carrying a copy of Foucault’s book in her purse to certify her scandalousness. Apparently, my friend chuckled, the poor dear was under the impression—never having read the damned thing—that it was a bondage manual.
If Gaga learns that thinking is the most dangerous act of all, she’ll really be one scary monster.