Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

EDGES BLOG: Our Gaga, Our Selves: A Star if Born, Part 1

Professor Roger Lancaster discusses the rise and fall of Lady Gaga in the first part of his two part analysis.  Check it out below. 

Part 1: Rise and Fall of the Haus of Gaga

The first thing that ought to be said is that Lady Gaga’s new album, ARTPOP, is actually quite good. It counts fifteen tracks: mostly high-octane, EDM-influenced numbers, with the occasional obligatory nods to hip-hop, confessional, and romantic modes.

It also bears noting that there are some interesting musical innovations here. At a time when pop music is increasingly bland and formulaic, ARTPOP serves up odd syncopations and complex compositional structures that defy the prevailing verse-chorus, verse-chorus structure. Catchy dance-hooks seem to come out of nowhere. Not one of the numbers overstays its welcome.

Of course, Gaga (née Stefani Germanotta) has set a tall order for herself. She aims to insert pop art—imbued, alas, in this version, with uplifting messages and therapeutic values—into pop music.

burqa_ladygaga

Occasionally, the effort fails: for example, when the art school dropout belabors a gratuitous familiarity with second or third languages — or worse, in “Aura,” when the singer appropriates the burka as part of her gender-crossing, sexually ambiguous, multi-culty rap on sex, fashion, and self-revelation.

Often, however, the effort succeeds, as in the title track’s spooky, infectious meditation on allure and ambiguity: “The melody that you choose can rescue you. A hybrid can withstand these things. My heart can beat with bricks and strings. My artpop could mean anything.”

To sum up: Even the weaker offerings are exquisitely produced and catchily rendered. The stronger sets are among the performer’s best work. There is no preaching to the choir (as on the previous album): the album’s gender-bendings and sexual fluctuations are neither belabored nor are they explained. They simply are. The album can be played in its entirety, from start to finish, without straining the ear of the listener. And it’s good to dance to.

Notwithstanding its debut at #1 on the charts, ARTPOP has been dubbed a commercial failure and has been thoroughly drubbed by the critics, not necessarily in that order.

Album sales tanked after the first week, and successive singles releases have struggled to find their way into the top ten. There are no mega-hits here: No “Paparazzi,” no “Poker Face.”

Buzz on the blogs has been especially vicious, labeling the pop star a “washed-up has-been” while following the record company’s internal conflicts and tracking its varied tactics for goosing sales (among them, deep discounts, and convincing tabulators to combine the sales figures for two different versions of “Do What U Want”).

The press got so bad that at the beginning of January the performer issued a public apology for the ARTPOP debacle and begged fans to forgive her. “Let me be for you the Goddess that I know I truly am,” she implored fans.

Why go into all of this? Pop culture, fandoms, even subcultures are a bit of a bore, really—perhaps never more so than when scholars pore over self-contained snippets and samples of commercial work, as though they were working out the meanings of a Joyce novel or a Heidegger essay.

Thus, the recurring preamble to serious cultural studies: “Why this? Why now?” The couplet is just a summary way of asking: Of what significance is the cultural object at hand? How does it relate to other cultural objects and social events; how it is embedded in historical happenings; and what might analysis of it hope to achieve?

Here, then, I shall try to explain….

I’ll start with the obvious. Gaga means—or at any rate, meant—a lot to the gays.

Her sleeper-hit debut-album, The Fame, came out in 2008, and before sales took off, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter played in mostly gay venues—many of them small, and some of them not especially glamorous. We had the sense that we had discovered her.

More importantly, the album and its videos consciously evoked disco-era antinomies: there were sex, drugs, and conspicuous consumption, to be sure, but also reckless romantic surrender, to the point of self-abnegation.

In capturing this combination of scandalous excess and exquisite vulnerability, The Fame tapped a deep vein of experience in urban gay life and rubbed against the prevailing public ethos of the times.

That is, it asserted club-hopping nightlife as The Good at a time when mainstream gay rights organizations were urging marriage, suburban domesticity, and stable family life. It reveled in decidedly unstable, short-lived, even “unhealthy” forms of love, including rough sex. And it served up spectacles of wealth and fame while the country was in moral revulsion at Wall Street excesses. (The album’s most shocking images are from the video version of “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”: Gaga forces dollar bills into her mouth—at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis.)

In 2009, Gaga followed up her initial success with the release of a polished pop masterpiece, still in neo-disco mode, The Fame Monster. (The earlier album was folded in as a bonus, in case purchasers had missed it.)

The new singles and their wonderful, visually arresting videos cemented her standing as an international star, not to say her close connection with international urban gay communities at a time of intensifying “globalization.”

One could hear the opening tune of “Bad Romance” belted out on the sidewalks of Mexico City’s Zona Rosa no less than on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.

Lesbians in North Carolina trailer courts closely analyzed “Telephone,” a video collaboration with Beyoncé, which featured evocations of lesbian prison porn and a Thelma-and-Louise ending.

Gay kids in Puebla mimed the dance moves in the video, “Alejandro,” whose male dancers alternate between butch military uniforms and black fishnet stockings.

The question, “Gaga or Madonna?” served as a conversation starter in far-flung gay communities.

Now ponder a certain mystery here, a tension between word and image.

imgresGay subject matter might be deduced only with great effort—if at all—in the lyrics of the songs from The Fame and The Fame Monster. These songs are “gay” in keeping with an old formula, pithily put by David Halperin in his new book, How to Be Gay. “Nongay forms,” he writes, “are often gayer than gay-themed ones.”

By contrast, all manner of queer images populated Gaga’s videos, especially those from The Fame Monster.

This distance between sound and vision implies that Gaga fans in gay subcultures performed a two-part work: first, audiences appropriated standard pop tunes to render them “gay”—this sealed the contract of “insiderly” knowledge; then, through the latter videos, audiences performed the sort of gay mimesis usually seen in drag shows or leather balls: we acted-out ourselves acting-out certain costumed parts.

We, denizens of gay nightlife in diverse settings, thus not only discovered what was gay in Gaga; we also could see ourselves, imitating ourselves, populating the videos, in leather and drag….

Consider all of these points together, properly embedded in their social and historical context. Try to understand something of the moment’s aspirations, conflicts, and limitations — perhaps especially the hardships associated with the Great Recession — as these reverberated in varied subcultures and scenes. Try to think of these elements as being held in tension, rather than being laid out in tidy, self-consistent packages, and you can understand something about the rise of Gagamania, its significance.

Gagamania tells us something about some of the ways that we live and make communities in a commodified, media-saturated world.

However, Gaga released the tension and broke the spell when queer content crossed over from video images into lyrics—worse yet, lyrics that offered supportive, uplifting messages as opposed to ironic or playful ones.

That is to say, Gaga conflated gay appeal with gay content, even gay advocacy. These are not the same things; in fact, they are often productively opposed to each other. David Halperin thus dubs the 2011 album Born This Way a “fiasco.”

The video version of the title track is introduced by a trite, belabored cosmo-mythology that drags on for the better part of three minutes, while the song’s lyrics derail anything that might actually be fun or creative, much less radical, about queer genders. “Rejoice and love yourself today,” the singer urges, “’cause baby you were born this way.”

No doubt Gaga was trying to be helpful. But this was the degree zero of banality: Oprah-style self-affirmation combined with a bio-reductionist version of identity politics. It didn’t help that her metaphor for queers was some sort of monsters—and not even very interesting ones, at that.

The music, too, suffered from obviousness, replete with pop-rock power chords worthy of a post-middle-aged Springsteen and a grating, simpleminded habit of forcing four syllables out of two (“Ju-das, Ju-da-ha-as; Ju-das, Ju-da-ha-aas”).

Born This Way was a commercial success: It sold more than a million copies in its first week. But it was an aesthetic failure, and it was this album, not the subsequent ARTPOP, that marked the disenchantment of an icon: her loss of gay appeal.

That clicking sound you thought you heard in the summer of 2011? That was the sound of gay clubs worldwide turning off the album’s singles and advancing the video queue past the dreadful, pompous hideosity that was “Born This Way.”

And by this time, no one would pose the question anymore, “Gaga or Madonna?”

(Up Next: Part 2: A review of J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism.)

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