Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lady Gaga And The Monstrous Art of Pop

Davide Panagia
Trent University

The issue is one of coming to terms with one’s relation to one’s culture.
Nothing less is what the intensity of Lady GaGa’s feats of the spectacular make available. Her songs and videos – and her artistic life in general – relentlessly pursue the limits of Pop, not as a representational genre but as a medium. It is in this sense that she is an inheritor of the Warhol legacy; but, I would say without reservation (though with an awareness of the unpopular claim I am about to make), she surpasses Warhol through her discovery of the medium of Pop. For where Warhol transformed art into Pop and thereby created a new representational genre, Lady Gaga has transformed Pop into an art with a set of aesthetic convictions, possibilities, and ambitions all its own.

As absurd as this might sound to those lackluster critics who will (and do) insist that Lady GaGa is all style and no substance, the simultaneous release of two major concept albums – The Fame and The Fame Monster – prove the extent to which in our contemporary condition style and substance are incompossibilities of one another. And before readers think that I am claiming that the incompopssibility of style and substance means a kind of postmodern irony at the heart of Lady GaGa’s performances, please allow me to correct any misapprehensions of the sort: the claim about the irony of performativity wants to grant purpose to multivalent objects of aesthetic worth and thus betroth to them an intelligibility that makes them accessible and available to our understandings. My point, instead, is that what defines an aesthetic object is its ability to place the listener or viewer (in this case, both) in an uncertain situation where one’s capacity to give priority to either style or substance as the ground of judgment is disoriented. This, because our modes of sensorial apprehension are discomposed by the experience of the object. Aesthetic experience, in other words, occurs at the dark precursor, somewhere between sensation and reference. And the incompossibilities of sensation and reference are the tools of Lady GaGa’s art.

But I digress.

As we are incessantly reminded, Lady GaGa’s music follows a line of descent with and homage to some of the more relevant music and videos coming out of 1980s MTV pop culture, most notably the rhythmic flows of Madonna, the dance hooks of Michael Jackson, and the lyrical voicings of Cindy Lauper (though, as a note of personal insight, I would also add the profound influence of Cameo’s “Word Up” song and video). “Dance in the Dark,” from her recently released The Fame Monster, is most explicitly indebted to Madonna’s lyrical montage with its free-flow rambling in the middle of the song that revisits Vogue’s “Rita Hayworth gave good face” moment:

Marylin, Judy, Silvia
Tell him how you feel girls
Ramsey, Lamont, White, Liberace
Find your freedom in the music
Find your Jesus; Find your cupid
You will never fall apart
Diana you’re still in our hearts
Never let you fall apart
Together we'll dance in the dark

But her successful partnership with the Swedish director and video artist, Jonas Åkerlund, betrays another line of descent in her aesthetic stylings found in some of the more progressive of the current Swedish synth-pop disco bands; including (I would say) Fever Ray and The Knife, but also ABBA (listen to “Alejandro” and you will hear “Fernando”) and Roxette.

Like her collaborations with the recently deceased Alexander McQueen (who premiered Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” in his Spring 2009 show) and the Italian installation artist Francesco Vezzoli (at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), the videos that Åkerlund has produced and directed for Lady GaGa screen her insistence that what is crucial to our contemporary condition is our capacity for interface: that is, that our handling and beholdings of the objects of our culture speaks to our willingness to handle and behold one another. The simultaneous release of the song and video “Telephone” (on March 11, 2010) is a case in point.

Telephone’s lyrics are about a young woman at a dance club who does not want to be bothered by people calling her on her cell phone because she is too busy having a good time. “Stop callin’; Stop callin’; I don’t want to talk any more! I left my head and my heart on the dance floor”, proclaims the ritornello. Simple enough.

The song, however, announces something different than the lyrics. Upon first listening to it, I was disappointed by GaGa’s use of Auto-tune, something I didn’t think she needed given that she has an excellent voice. Auto-tune is the controversial audio processor (used by many in the music industry) that allows anyone to sing at perfect pitch by adjusting off-key performances through the use of a phase vocoder – it is the device that made Cher’s altered vocal effect in “Believe” possible and catchy. Upon second listening, however, I realized that the placing of the Auto-tune alteration in “Telephone” is not intended for pitch correction, but is an attempt to mimic through voice the sound of a ringer and to give emphasis to the artificiality of everyday life. The prominence of Auto-tune and the fact that “Telephone” lyrically and melodically swings to the beat of a busy dial-tone makes available our integration with multimedia technological culture so that the “Stop callin’” of the ritornello isn’t merely a request but is also a marker of our cultural interface: there is no naturalness to voice, especially in the digital age.

Åkerlund’s music videos are known for their mock movie-trailer stylings. And though at times humorous, their real effect is not one of parody but of intensity. The colors, contrasts, and close-ups throughout the “Telephone” video, for instance, are exaggerated to the point of the monstrous. It’s almost as if Åkerlund is trying to show the viewer what a video can do, and not simply what it can represent. And, indeed, with “Telephone” this disconnect is especially palpable given the fact that the video has nothing to do with the lyric’s themes of being in a dance club and not wanting to answer one’s phone. 

Correction: Lady GaGa is in a club of sorts – a rough trade women’s prison in the middle of a desert – and we can surmise why she ended up there if we think of “Telephone” as a sequel to the other GaGa/Åkerlund collaboration, “Paparazzi”, wherein Lady GaGa kills a boyfriend who, in turn, had tried to kill her by throwing her off a balcony. A further disconnect: GaGa’s collaboration with Beyoncé in the song “Telephone” is turned into a “Thelma and Louise” partnership when the two ladies – in full dis/fashion regalia (including makeup whose colors recall the pastels of their automobile) – board their “Pussy Wagon” (the pick up truck that Uma Thurman had used to escape the hospital in Kill Bill, Vol. 1) and go on a highway diner killing spree. Once again, a monstrous disconnect that is perfectly in-line with the theme of The Fame Monster – the ugly side of fame where makeup is transubstantiated into black tears, or even spilled blood. 

That Lady GaGa has made a concept album with both The Fame and The Fame Monster worthy of a Patrick Bateman monologue is a notable achievement; even more remarkable is that this conceptual artifice ties into some of the best instances of American popular culture, especially the pulp crime genre that Robert Warshow had written so elegantly about in the 1940s. In “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Warshow claims that “What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans.” (The Immediate Experience) It is universal to Americans, he goes on to explain, because Americans react to it immediately, at once sympathizing and dissociating themselves from it: the gangster, Warshow says, “is what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become.” 

The persona of the gangster is morphed, for Lady GaGa, into the persona of the Fame Monster (notably, a trope Michael Mann has also explored in his most recent film, Public Enemies): the fashion icon/victim, the doer and the sufferer, the one who projects an image and is defeated by that same projection. And isn’t this what we all do? Do we not all project images and bear the weight of others’ projections? Facebook, the iPhone, wi-fi, and 3-G (soon to be 4-G) wireless networks are not merely the ornamental contexture of contemporary culture, they are the instruments of interface with it; they are the mediums through which events of relata emerge in our contemporary condition, they are the objects we handle and behold when we handle and behold one another. It’s in this sense that Lady GaGa has provided Pop with an aesthetic ambition. Through The Fame and The Fame Monster she has made the claim that Pop commands an immediate attention that no other medium of art can pretend to or duplicate, and it is precisely the immediacy of her stardom, and Pop’s availability through it, that marks for Lady GaGa one of the cornerstones of our contemporary condition: our interface with culture as opposed to our usurpation in it.



  1. Excellent article, Davide. You've managed to describe many of the reasons why I love Lady GaGa myself, and why she is such an important figure, not just in music but in pop culture. A Blondie for the new millennium, as conceived by David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.

  2. Davide, I watched your video link to "Telephone" with Gaga and Beyonce. It made me squirmy, and disgusted, but it didn't make me curious about why. It seemed clear why: misogyny, exhibitionism, cult of the dead, the continual probing of how obscene is obscene. All to a dance-track beat, since that's the venue of enjoyment/sales. The pop video you linked to last week, the amazing marble-run video from the band OK Go, rather than making me want to slink away in self-loathing for our culture, made me want to share it with everyone I know, and my six year old has now seen it twice (which is two more music videos than he's seen in his short life), plus their amazing marching band video to the same tune ("This too Shall Pass"). More, Ok Go makes me want to make art, whereas Gaga's video makes me want to turn away. Where to start in this assemblage of horrorism? How about the Michael Jackson choreography after the mass murder in the diner with all the dead foregrounded? I stopped watching this sort of thing after Tarantino, and it's his sensibility that I detect here, but admittedly I don't keep up with this side of youth culture. I can't get over the repulsive "content" of the video where an argument about a "shift in perceptual orientation" wishes the viewer/analyst to take the content for granted (Gaga's wardrobe to the side, which, apart from the bikini underwear, is hugely imaginative, especially her cigarette and telephone hair).

    You write: "Aesthetic experience, in other words, occurs at the dark precursor, somewhere between sensation and reference. " I like this general notion that you give (because aesthetic experience can bring us back to the time of origins, though a 'dark precursor' seems to overdetermine the issue). It's really a question of whether Gaga does what you say she does, and this may have to do with "communities of reception." I may be in error, but if, as you write, Gaga allows to emerge "incompossibilities of sensation and reference," this would actually have to do with "reference." If Michaele Furguson [“I'm not convinced that she's doing anything radically new. It's just neo-burlesque with a big budget”] has "Burlesque" as her reference and I have "Tarantino," it may be that we are just too old to suffer this "incompossibility" because we can come up with references that tame the experience, insulate ourselves, and thus, it does not bring us back to any time of origin. It's not a matter of generosity--of being open to what Gaga offers--but of experience: our frames of perception and reference will fill in over time, and experience is not something simply to be set aside, but to be worked through. Sometimes the aesthetic object doesn't cut it.


    Gregg Miller

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  4. To Ian: many thanks for the encouraging words. I also like the connection to Blondie, which I hadn't thought of yet.

    To Gregg: There are many interesting things about your comment - which I admire and appreciate. To begin, recall that the Michael Jackson choreography that you mention comes from another instance of "horrorism" - the “Thriller” video where MJ is dancing with the undead; which was equally shocking and repulsive when it first came out; so much so, in fact, that he had to make a public disclaimer on MTV that he did not believe in ghosts, goblins, and zombies. But the more interesting thing about the connection (for me) is less the horrorism but the fact that in both instances we have a situation in which video wants to be film. I take this to be of some aesthetic import for those (like me) who are interested in the shifts/overlaps in artistic genre and medium. [Perhaps video not only killed the radio star but the film star too?]

    Even more immediately relevant, though, is your remark that “It's really a question of whether Gaga does what you say she does” and that, as you suggest, to address that issue is to address the question of “communities of reception.” This is perhaps the hardest thing to deal with because as I understand it, it marks a substantial distinction between aesthetic experience and aesthetic criticism, and aesthetic criticism is the attempt to make one’s conviction in aesthetic experience count (i.e., to show that what I say GaGa does is what she does). The point, that is, is not whether GaGa actually does what I say she does, but whether what I experience as her doing can be made relevant – or, to put it slightly differently, whether I can invent a relation between a sensation (my sensation) and a reference.

    This is the problem, in closing, of what I call an “ethics of appearances” – the theoretical project I am currently working on. It is an approach to thinking about politics, aesthetics and culture that does not rely on a moral theory of the image (i.e., Is it a good or bad image? Is what is represented accurate or not? Are images inherently collusive and/or demagogic?); rather, an ethics of appearances attempts to come to terms with our iconophyllic culture of beholding. This was what I meant when raising the point about the role of cultural interface in GaGa’s art of Pop. My concern is that we have become too accustomed to thinking about culture as something we are enmeshed in to the point that our only (or most exclusive and putatively most reliable) account of spectatorship is a passive one. The result is, I think, disastrous as it encourages the kind of disenchanted nihilism that accompanies the neoliberal approach to culture as something we imbibe unthinkingly. That is, because we are passive spectators we are not capable of dealing with the excess of images and we must leave it to experts (let’s call them “media pundits”) to do so for us. This is the picture of media that Walter Lippmann had painted in “Public Opinion” and I believe that it is a misguiding picture of media literacy and a misguided picture of the relationship between an individual and a culture that results in avoidance and retreat.

    In short, my conviction (hope?) is that the aesthetic object (variously and amply conceived) does cut it --- that what it does is generate the kind of experience that cuts the suture between sensation and reference putting us on uncertain ground between reality and artifice. This is the event of advenience that characterizes an ethics of appearances and one that the neoliberal account of the passive spectator – with its reliance on a moral theory of the image – hopes to deny.

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