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Jun. 1 2010 - 11:40 am | 1,238 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Gaga 101: Academic theory on why she’s more than just a pop star

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent many a night at the bar in a heated debate, trying to convince your music-snob-friends that Lady Gaga is somebody worth caring about.  Or maybe you’re more like my music-snob-friends, and you’re not sure why this person at the bar won’t shut up about this Lady.  For me, what’s always been fascinating is her queering of pop culture– from her purposeful ambiguity around the hermaphrodite rumors to her costumes, Gaga consistently fucks with gender and sexual binaries.

But I’ve had a hard time making the case.  Usually my music-snob bar friends will hear me out, but end up saying something like, “She’s just a pop star.”  Well, maybe the wonderful world of academia can pick up where I left off.  For I am just a casual Gaga lover talking gender in a dive bar, and Meghan Vicks is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature. 

Margaret Eby over at Broadsheet spoke with Vicks and her Gaga-analyzing partner, Kate Durbin.  The two of them started a website, Gaga Stigmata: Critical writings about art and Lady Gaga, which they describe as a “new technological breed of journal”– an online academic journal devoted to thinking about Gaga.

I couldn’t be happier right now.  For any Guy Debord nerds out there, buckle your seatbelts, because we’re about to talk about the spectacle.  Here are some of the fantastic excerpts from Eby’s interview with Vicks and Durbin.

On why Gaga inspires academic readings more than other pop stars:

She embodies a number of oppositions: sacred and profane, man and woman, sexy and horrifying. Her performances continually underscore her ambivalent nature; she can’t be defined. She complicates categories of gender (masculine or feminine?), sex (does she have a dick, or not?), body (where does her body end and costume begin?), and human (is she human or monster, and is there a difference between the two?).

On the spectacle and deconstruction:

She also demonstrates the way fame functions; how we’re obsessed with spectacle. Lady Gaga enjoys the benefits of being a pop star while simultaneously revealing those trappings to be poisonous, frivolous, murderous and fake. It’s something that many conceptual artists do: they deconstruct ideology by too loudly chanting ideology’s slogans, or too blatantly displaying its symbols.

More on the spectacle, and Gaga showing it to us, and Barbara Wawa:

Gaga dressed up as a queen when she performed for Queen Elizabeth, and fashioned herself as Barbara Walters when she was interviewed by Ms. Walters herself. These official figures are thus brought face to face with a spectacle of themselves.

On the destruction and creation of identity:

Gaga is engaging in a deconstructive performance of the pop star, but this doesn’t amount to Gaga erasing the pop star. Rather, she demonstrates how fame is something created and costumed and declared, just like many aspects of contemporary identity.

If you’re a critical theory wonk, I think these guys do a pretty incredible job of talking about Gaga’s choices– her appropriation of pop culture symbols, gender signifiers, and performance of identity.  If you’re a Gaga fan, maybe this academic analysis helps you realize or articulate what it is that you like about her.  As for me, I’m a little bit of both.  Needless to say, I’ll be visiting the online journal of Lady Gaga again.

Let’s close on one more sweet quote about how she’s holding a mirror (probably a weird looking one with frogs attached to it) up to society:

Lady Gaga doesn’t announce the death of the pop star; she demonstrates the strength of the spectacle in our culture.

Hot damn.  What an interesting time for pop music.


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  1. collapse expand

    So other than the fact that Lady Gaga is purportedly female, what territory is she exploring that wasn’t covered by Marilyn Manson a decade ago?

  2. collapse expand

    I got your fix right here: Librarians Do Gaga

    These are Freeda’s fellow iSchoolers. I didn’t recognize any of them except Rachel Woodbrook, who is Freeda’s good friend, and apparently sucker for group stunt. That is until Friday night, when I witnessed them all getting hammered at their year-end fling, the iBall, which was held in a f’ing natural history museum with huge woolly mammoth and stegosaurus bones, lots of NW tribal art, all manner of stuff too priceless to be in the same room as red wine. I was the DJ, but nobody wanted to dance, they all wanted to Karaoke. Man, those nerds love them some Karaoke. They did two versions of Poker Face: the real version and the dorked-out library version, complete with original cast. I’m on the fence regarding the whole thing, but I also can’t hear the song anymore without thinking “Ca-Ca-Ca-Catalog”.

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    About Me

    I am a stand-up comic and writer living in Brooklyn. I also teach theater and comedy to elementary-school kids in the Bronx. My writing and comedy videos have been featured on the women's comedy website Funny Not Slutty, Punchline Magazine, and EDGE.

    I co-write and co-star in a web series with my brother called John and Molly Get Along, which can be found on Youtube.

    I really enjoy a lot of goofy pop culture stuff, but I'm also a feminist, which makes things difficult. That's what I like to write about.

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