“POP. MUSIC. WILL. NEVER. BE. LOWBROW,” growls the voice, bellowing through the concert hall. The wrap-around Terminatoresque goggles flash up these same words in LED lights. This piece is a response. A stick-em-up. In September 2010, The Sunday Times Magazine published an essay by Professor Camille Paglia entitled: ‘Gaga and the Death of Sex.’ Highly critical of the late noughties cultural icon, her article challenged the primary readings many tend to make of Lady Gaga as a modern, mainstream and truly globalised star: pop, female, sexy, creative, controversial, iconic.
“…with her spindly physique and wobbly moves, Gaga seems overwhelmed by her frenetic production…”
Lady Gaga is set to release her third album – perhaps her most difficult to date. The Haus of Gaga promises further controversy. However, it must impress the current fanbase and somehow garner even more fans without watering down the bullish, artiste-but-popular sensibilities. Given the server crashingly huge response to the Born This Way video release on VEVO, opening wider arms to a new Gaga crowd should not be taxing.
Perhaps now is the time to figure out how right was, and is, Paglia: is Gaga really the Death of Sex?
In a word: No. In two: No, Camille.
To suggest Gaga is blameworthy for ‘The Death Of Sex’ is bold and unjustified.
“But for Gaga, sex is mainly décor and surface,” states Paglia.
Maybe so. Yet more so, Paglia has handily described how Gaga is the embodiment of a highly sexualised, Western advertising tradition – one that the generation of Gaga’s followers have been forced to consume from childhood. Clever, much, that she is now a highly critiqued, self-conscious bastion of it?
It would be better argued that Gaga follows in a tradition of neo-burlesque. Instead of using costume purely for the aesthetic, it is often loaded with cultural reference and connotations. For Gaga and her Haus, as with her muse Andy Warhol, these can be obsessive. A twenty-first century Dadaist, she uses neo-burlesque’s ethic of subverting the acceptable in order to ridicule the modern, plasticized, biased-heterosexual notions of sex and more crucially, the sexual. It is this notion which we frequently see for sale. (Food, sofas, glasses, cars, cigarettes: enter sexy woman, billboard right.) No logo: just sex. That was its ‘death’, and it happened long ago. Gaga, in her own lyrics: “When you give me k-kisses/That’s money, honey.”
Sex definably ‘died’, or rather, lost its repressed, religious inscrutability in the latter half of the twentieth century when Christian ideology was questioned more. In the 1970s and 80s, pornographic publications were no longer surreptitious glossies kept under the counter. The burlesque shows of the age were displaced with strip joints.
To even suggest that sex can ‘die’ is to term it as a limited concept capable of being destroyed rather than transformed or renegotiated in both its denotations and connotations. Gaga/Germanotta herself allegedly worked as a stripper in her native New York city – and so is a most experienced subject of the openness of sex in the late 20th century.
Yet, it is Generation X and the Boomers (Paglia’s generation) that are responsible for objectifying sex and pushing the advent of easy porn. It’s Generation X and the Boomers who continue to make money from it all. Gaga is single-handedly taking on the scarcity of sacredness in sex, using iconoclasm, gore and her own flesh to reveal and empower – or expose and ridicule – common perceptions of fetishes to the mainstream.
Indeed, only art and philosophy can be an examples of how an audience member is allowed to subjectively form their own opinion of a universal idea: everyone can comprehend, or project what they wish, onto her work. No-one is forced to listen or take her music, videos, shows or bootlegs to heart. And yet millions do.
“Drag queens, whom Gaga professes to admire, are usually far sexier in many of her over-the-top outfits than she is,” Paglia says, after successfully listing the pop icons of the past who caused similar disdain in the ordinate circles of highbrow aficionados, back in the day (Bowie, Madonna.) Surely, none of them would want to now be seen as the opposing elite to Gaga. Gaga clearly – and this is key – nods to this pantheon, and yet never claims to being the originator of their ideas.
Rather, Gaga has successfully created a cult, reflecting the techniques many global brands adopt when establishing a core demographic. Even by following her Twitter page for just a few days, it is clear that the definitions are part of a language used by a community which finds comfort within itself; the outsiders are the ‘They’ versus Gaga’s ‘We’. Gaga is ‘Mother Monster’, and the fans are ‘Little Monsters’. What Paglia fails to understand is that the Little Monsters are Generation Y and the iGeneration; crucially: monsters of their parents’ creation. The collective forefathers and foremothers are programmers who formed a world where it is possible to hide behind a screen, behind closed doors, away from the threat of the external world. These screenagers then gather instead around a representative figure of perceived alienation – Gaga – who collects all of these outsiders, and keeps them inside her community.
In this year’s ‘Born This Way’ video, the fantastic, the camp and the literal meet the grotesque as a sketchy parable about good and evil is the voiceover for a sequence filled with yonic imagery and birthing images. It is here that Gaga readily defines herself as ‘Mother Monster.’
By utilising everything that is widely available to her, she is the most postmodern and prolific member of Generation Y. She inspires a young audience which is cynically fed dollar signs (illogical, lazy Ke$ha comparisons, anyone?) and artists who ‘definitely’ write all their own songs. For the older audience, Gaga is a smart stage manager and PR powerhouse, effortlessly, even anxiously, mixing up laughably easy conspiratorial mystique (there are many, many Illuminati accusations,) with the obvious (headline-grabbing clothing) and finally, the piss-take (see the ‘Sandwich’ scenes, Telephone, Jonas Akerlund, 2010). All the while, fairly moving social statements within her songs are made by the pop singer who essentially understands that which Paglia can only describe:
“They communicate via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages…Gaga’s fans are marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty. Everything is refracted for them through the media.”
But this is entirely the point. For Gaga’s fans, this may be completely new to them, but they know: in a hyperreality and hypermediated world, information and imagery are ephemeral, throwaway – and Google cached. Magazines make up stories. People live through others. The camera always lies. Fiction births fanfiction, and both are readily consumed without prejudice.
In similar vein, given the ubiquitous ways Gaga’s fans, and the rest of the internet-accessible world consume culture, Stefani Germanotta and Lady Gaga are as real as each other. Every piece of biographical information about her and her are equivocally within reach. “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me”; and Generation Y cannot just accept one person, one symbol, one idea. It is boring. It is religious. And it does not accept the fluidity of the deconstructed (and self-constructed) 21st century personality which can cut and paste itself on social networks in various guises.
“Most of her worshippers seem to have little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, with their huge personalities and deep wells of passion.” Whilst not detracting from this statement as both of these women are powerful women, Paglia is flawed in assuming that Gaga’s fanbase is confined to one generational group born in the 1980s and 1990s anyway, and that “most” will have not read up on comparably strong female role models.
It is also a naïve statement: the beauty of the internet generation is the sheer easiness which it finds when catching up on what was missed from not being born yet. [Insert winking emoticon here.] Shameful, then, that Paglia’s essay sometimes comes across as envious and contemptuous of an empowered generation that can access the biographies of popular and even highbrow artistic culture – within seconds. And unfortunately for Paglia, her words speak true. The “worshippers” have been brought up in a world where art, music, video, books and film constantly borrow from each other and are used to sell each other in what could be termed as collage culture. Gaga collages too, in almost every music video produced. Points of reference are ever-integrated and proudly ignore generic boundaries.
If anything, she takes from the great men of the age, appropriates their symbols and signs within a female narrative, and assigns new meaning to the traditionally canonical pop pieces. From Tarantino (Telephone video: 2010) to Bowie (thunderbolt iconography: 2007-present); Salvador Dali (Born This Way, 2011) to Marilyn Manson (Bad Romance, 2010); Saul Bass (Paparazzi, 2009) to Rilke (inner arm tattoo, 2010)…
…Lady. GaGa. Will. Never. Be. Lowbrow. For as long as the academic elite, its students and its rebels continue to talk about her…
Jane McConnell is not a Professor of Humanities or Media Studies. M+MAGAZINE: http://mplusmag.co.uk FUTURE ARTISTS: http://www.futureartists.co.uk