What does David LaChapelle’s Kanye West/Lady Gaga photo say about race?
The question is rhetorical, I suppose. But my first thought when seeing this photo was that David LaChapelle is attempting to deconstruct the longstanding cinematic/societal image of the white man as savior. West, with strangely demonic eyes, is cast as the hero, striking a pose traditionally reserved for the likes of leading (white) men such as Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, et al. Gaga is the damsel in distress, her porcelain-white naked body sharply contrasted by West’s dark, muscular form. It delivers the same type of contrived shock value that LaChapelle has excelled at for years. And like nearly every LaChapelle photo, examine it too long and it turns into a mindfuck.
For example, West’s fiery eyes send mixed signals — treading the line between savior and captor, hero and villain. Maybe that was LaChapelle’s intent, or maybe not. But given the photo was shot for the deluxe edition of Lady Gaga’s new album, The Fame Monster, perhaps West is intended to be the physical — and rather fitting — embodiment of “The Fame Monster.” But that is only one subtext, and the more you look at this image, the more undercurrents clamor for your attention. Take a closer look:
In its simplest form, this could be a portrait of modern American narcissism, with LaChapelle casting two of the mainstream music industry’s most infamous attention hounds in leading roles. However, that interpretation is obvious. It’s the reason the pair were slated to embark on a world tour together back in October — that is, before West hijacked Tayor Swift’s award-show shine, then canceled the tour and entered self-imposed media exile.
The most salient undercurrent of this photograph is race. As I stated above, it may be as simple as LaChapelle attempting to remix the notion of the white man as savior. But LaChapelle seems to also be tapping into an idea much deeper, something I couldn’t place until I read this comment on the RealTalkNY blog:
[B]lah blah blah….same old racist stereotypes. Jungle boy saves pretty blond *yawn*. Only thing funny about this is Kanye’s photoshopped six pack. -Osheezy (via RealTalkNY)
This comment reminded me of a topic Spike Lee has covered in his lectures on film. In his talks, Lee has discussed the role in film/fiction of the “Magical negro” — or what he deridingly refers to as the “super-duper magical negro.” Plainly defined, this character type is “often [a] mystical stock character in fiction who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white protagonist get out of trouble.” (Read: “Movies’ ‘Magic Negro’ Saves the Day, But at the Cost of His Soul” by Rita Kempley for an excellent analysis of the term.)
But can this really be what LaChapelle is attempting to say with this photograph? And to what end — controversy translated into Lady Gaga album sales? Also, it turns out I’m not the only one making the LaChapelle/’magical negro’ connection. The crew over at Throat Chop University have similar questions about the photograph:
So, is Kanye West playing the magic negro? This picture makes me think Kanye is getting his Michael Clark Duncan Green Mile on … “I tried bawse.” Is this rap’s response to all of these movies recently with the white character saving the negro? Apparently this was shot by David LaChapelle for Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster Deluxe Edition album artwork. (via Throat Chop University)
If indeed LaChapelle is attempting to cast West as the ‘magical negro’ in this photograph, it’s questionable how exactly he is ’saving’ Lady Gaga. West seems incapable of saving himself from his own ego-fueled PR blunders. But maybe that’s the genius of this shot. Not only is LaChappelle making a commentary on racial stereotypes, he is also saying West is a victim of his own fame. But probably not. Whatever the motive or intent behind the LaChapelle/Lady Gaga/Kanye West collaboration, there is one sad, overarching truth that has become abundantly clear — I’ve just spent far too much time dissecting this photograph.