"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Just Dance" and "Telephone" as Two Sides of the Same Coin

by David Hall

An obvious question to commence with is why specifically are these songs two sides of the same coin? Lady Gaga released Just Dance as a single in April 2008, both a Billboard Hot 100 Number 1 and UK Number 1 single, and reaching chart-topping positions internationally. Whilst Just Dance initially seemed a disposable single concerning a vacuous perspective of city center nightlife, Gaga quickly revealed herself as an accomplished performer and nuanced songwriter. Her achievements arguably culminated in February 2010’s Telephone – with its Thriller-esque promotional feature – performing similarly to Just Dance by peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number 3 and again Number 1 on the UK singles chart. The common subject matter and to a certain extent the themes of the two songs are self-evident from their lyrics, and it is easy to tease out both similarities and oppositions in their ideologies.

Both feature narrators commentating on various occurrences during an evening in a club, relatable to anyone familiar with modern urban nightlife. In Just Dance, the narrator briefly worries that she is too intoxicated to function properly (“I’ve had a little bit too much”), before concluding the only sensible way forward is to forget such problems, become lost in the moment and "just dance." Telephone more complexly opens with what the listener is to imagine as a clipped telephone conversation between the narrator and her significant other. The narrator quickly grows tired of being hassled by her partner, however, and wishes to stop communicating, presenting various thinly-veiled excuses (“you’re breaking up,” “I cannot text you with a drink in my hand”) as reasons to cut short the exchange. In what seems to be an internal monologue, the narrator maligns the haranguing she has to endure from an item of technology, before wishing to disconnect from a cerebral existence to the purely visceral one presented in Just Dance, “Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t want to think anymore, I left my head and my heart on the dancefloor.”

Both songs are written in unusual keys for popular music; Just Dance is composed in the key of C# Minor, Telephone in F Minor. Just Dance is arguably the more upbeat from a purely theoretical point of view, with two minor chords in its main progression, despite having a more negative thematic outlook. C# Minor has fallen largely into disuse in the popular era, considered an ‘awkward’ guitar tuning which usually requires the use of a capo. Nonetheless it was regularly used in classical music, with some notable modern exceptions such as Shakira’s Whenever, Wherever, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and The Beatles classically-informed Lennon composition Because, itself inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. F Minor is relatively more widely used, indeed in some of the 20th Century’s most famous songs such as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Green Onions by Booker T and the MG’s, but again is mostly a classical staple. F Minor’s use in balladic (Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You) or melancholy-sounding songs (2+2=5 by Radiohead, Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach) demonstrates C# minor’s comparably more upbeat cadence. As such, the songs as compositions both exhibit Gaga’s classical sensibilities with regard to songwriting.

Living Hedonistically or Rationally, Acquiescently or Rebelliously
With a background established, some broad observations may now be offered to begin an analysis of the two songs, in order to prompt thought and discourse. The first is that Just Dance is symptomatic of living vicariously, and Telephone of living calculatedly. Secondly, if Just Dance is to be viewed as a surrendering, then Telephone should be regarded as defiance. A discussion with which to support these inferences may now begin.

As previously stated, Just Dance deals with a surrendering and a vagueness, and is generally opposed to Telephone’s definite agenda. The song is made up of impressionistic glimpsed images which flash through the narrator’s mind. Perspective bounces from anxious glances around an alien environment – “All of the people start to rush” – to lucid and almost poetic observations ostensibly about social life, “Control your poison, babe/Roses have thorns, they say.”  The lyrics are representative of a mind under the influence of alcohol, mood and confidence often swinging in the space of a single line, “Keep it cool, what's the name of this club?/I can't remember, but it's alright” before surrendering to the song’s motif. Everything seems wrong, indistinguishably meshed and vaguely interspersed together; many themes connote inebriation, particularly the breakdown near the end, “Half psychotic, sick, hypnotic, got my blueprint it’s symphonic.” Telephone concerns itself with the specific; although the song comes to largely the same conclusion as Just Dance, it presents and addresses a particular and dissimilar problem. It linguistically and stylistically limits its scope, narrowing to a definiteness missing from Just Dance. If a clear example of this is needed, compare Beyoncé’s strident, punchy R&B middle eight with Colby O’ Donis’ ethereal and perhaps superfluous contribution to Just Dance. Both ‘guest sections’ act as totems to the songs as entities, Telephone unambiguous and clearly-defined, whilst Just Dance is informed by unreliable sensations. Telephone only deviates from its scheme once, in the ‘Grand Central Station’ reference, the effect of which is discussed later.

Just Dance
begins with an invocation of the producer’s name RedOne – often misheard, perhaps appropriately given the song’s context, as ‘red wine’ – followed by Gaga’s own. In between these namechecking introductions, O’Donis’ voice briefly enters, pronouncing “Konvict”, the name of the record label he is affiliated with. RedOne occupies the same function here as the record label; he is faceless, an extremely effecting yet invisible presence, and crucially a male one. Even if the producer were female, it is an overbearing, patriarchal and definitively masculine role which is occupied. This seems a fairly phallocentric statement at the outset of the song, the male voice sublimating the female voice by adopting and using it to his own end. Just Dance is apparently a collaboration, yet not only does RedOne’s name comes before Gaga’s, but Gaga herself is made to establish this hierarchy. There is a similar occurrence at the outset of Telephone’s video, albeit with somewhat more parity attached to it; the legend “Starring Lady Gaga & Beyoncé” is displayed first, before writer/director Jonas Åkerlund’s name appears alongside Gaga’s. This is despite the performers still being presented within a record company construct similar to the ‘Konvict’ emblem in Just Dance:

Telephone appears as the infinitely more feminist song; Beyoncé is the track’s main collaborator, and is a powerful female influence reinforcing the track's feminist (possibly even anti-male) sentiments. She is the Nietzsche-inspired Überwoman in many ways, embodying a fierce, almost aggressive femininity. In sound, ethic, and appearance, Beyoncé is a personality, image, and artistic influence to match Gaga’s. As if to cement this image further, Beyoncé’s costume near the Telephone video’s climax as she and Gaga dance amongst their victim’s corpses is strongly reminiscent of Wonder Woman, a literal Überwoman embodying all of the strongest character suits of the female gender.

In this respect, she equally recalls the Maschinenmensch, the female agent-provocateur robot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, who embodies not only the strongest suits of the female gender but also the most evil. Beyoncé consciously adopted the pronounced feminine form of the Maschinenmensch for her Sweet Dreams video, at times augmenting her onstage attire with hip padding and even wearing a replica of the Maschinenmensch costume for her performance at the 2008 BET Hip Hop Awards. Gaga’s autonomous, emotionless appearance towards the end of the kitchen dance sequence and as she serves poisoned food in the diner scene also recalls the Maschinenmensch’s blank visage of “calm madness.”

Above photos - Top to bottom, compare: Gaga; Metropolis actress Brigette Helm; and Beyoncé as the Maschinenmensch.

Telephone is a kicking back and a reclaiming of ground from masculine influence, seen both in the video (the prison and diner scene) and heard in the song (the untouchable, unreachable woman). The woman is no longer vulnerable in Telephone, and has unplugged herself from the Matrix. Both songs treat certain similar occurrences with differing attitudes. The narrator losing her phone in Just Dance is presented as a problem to be overcome, as is losing her keys; amnesia is necessary in order to maintain the song's sentiments, but broadly it’s negative to be incommunicado. And yet the narrator of Telephone has embraced, even become addicted to, this freedom. In this respect, the prison in the Telephone video can be viewed in many ways as a maintaining and not usurping of liberty, permitting the narrator her ability to stay ‘out of the loop.’ The inmates are allowed to retain their identities and individuality through their clothing and relationships, and authority figures granting contact with the outside world is presented as a form of oppression.

Telephone’s Deviating Rhyme Structure
Telephone seems the archetypal Monster song in a way similar to that in which Just Dance is the archetypal The Fame song. Despite the video’s garish color palettes and exploitation cinema artwork digressing from the largely gothically-tinged Monster side, Telephone deconstructs the sentiments of The Fame, seeming unconcerned with materialism and subtly twisting convention and reality. Whereas Just Dance can be taken all-too seriously, Telephone’s awkward and clashing rhymes and half-rhymes render it impossible to take at face value; its sentiments cannot be interpreted in the black-and-white meaning of the lyrics, more in the gaps where the structure breaks down, intoning double meaning. The intentionally poor rhymes in Telephone make the song seem tongue-in-cheek, following Gaga’s style of undermining her serious facade with playful alterations of both her music and image.

It is impossible to dismiss Telephone’s vocal tics and undulations as accidental or the product of poor songwriting, debasement of conventional construction being entirely within its remit, and so part of a broader comment on meaning. At the end of the first verse (“Sorry I cannot hear you, I’m kinda busy”), the phrase “K-kinda busy” is intentionally repeated; “I’m kinda busy” could just as easily have been repeated, but instead the word (which of course isn’t strictly a real word) is usurped and broken up. The effect of this is that the listener is warned that all may not be as it seems within the context of Telephone. However this isn’t even the first instance in the track of such an occurrence, as the distorting elongation of the word ‘what’ in the third line already points to a corruption of form and meaning in Telephone. On the face of it, the effect is of a phone line breaking up; a deeper reading suggests a sliding of meaning in the song. Rhyme patterns shift tectonically throughout Telephone, tying themselves up in complexities; words which could be mistaken for rhymes in fact are not:

A    Hello, hello, baby/you called, I can't hear a thing
B    I have got no service/in the club, you see, see
B    Wha-Wha-What did you say/oh, you're breaking up on me
B    Sorry I cannot hear you/I'm kinda busy
[A simplified rhyme scheme, as separating all lines would result in a confusing ABCDBDED structure]

‘Thing’ and ‘see’ are meant as rhymes in the opening AB couplet, and yet when written down they clearly fail to rhyme at all. Therefore, the resulting ABBB rhyme structure changes in the second verse to:

A    Just a second/it's my favourite song they're gonna play
A    And I cannot text you with/a drink in my hand, eh
B    You shoulda made some plans with me/you knew that I was free
B    And now you won't stop calling me/I'm kinda busy

This progression features internal rhymes (‘me/free’ and ‘me’ rhyming with the masculine syllable connected with the on-beat in ‘busy’) and a fracturing of meter, with the third line in this verse featuring fourteen syllables as opposed to the thirteen in all other lines. This breaks from the regular thirteen-followed-by-twelve beat lines in the opening verse. The effect is heightened by the ‘breaking up’ of the words; without repetition of ‘hello’ and ‘see,’ and the stuttering of ‘what’ the meter would be fractured entirely. Iambic rhythm in lines such as these is displaced completely, for example the third line of the first verse essentially begins with three consecutive stressed syllables, “Wha-wha-what”. This is opposed to the regular, almost metronomic meter used in the chorus – and particularly in the skipping post-chorus – and throughout Just Dance.

‘Grand Central Station’: An Anomalous Image
Following on from this, the word “Sometimes” in Beyoncé’s Grand Central Station line is masked as a feminine-beginning word, when the more natural pronunciation forces a masculine – stressed ‘sometimes rather than unstressed ‘sometimes’ – beginning to the word. As previously mentioned, the Grand Central Station reference (a line sung by Beyoncé) is Telephone’s only deviation from what is a fairly narrow range of semantic fields, particularly when compared to Just Dance. Throughout most of the song, the themes used can be broadly categorized into technology (for instance, “I have got no service”), social life (“Out in the club and I’m sippin’ that bub’”) and relationships (“Boy, the way you blowin' up my phone won't make me leave no faster”). But the line in the final verse “Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station” fits into none of these categories, and remains ambiguous in the context of Telephone. Indeed, it’s probably Telephone’s most obliquely interesting line, one that from a purely connotative point of view Just Dance cannot match.

On a literal level, the image can be linked to Gaga’s hometown and Beyoncé’s adopted city. But in a more figurative sense, the use of the word ‘telephone’ in itself is interesting and only begins to make sense when considered alongside this reference. Telephone is quickly becoming an obsolete term, being replaced with its shortened version of ‘phone’. Indeed it takes Beyoncé to finally use the abridged title (“the way you blowin’ up my phone”, “I shoulda left my phone at home”) for the first time in the song, from which Gaga quickly follows suit, “I am sick and tired of my phone ringing.” But Grand Central Station is an image bound up in the mythology of telephones more than most places, due to the sheer number of public payphones within the building. It could be argued that until recently, this is one of the last places where it was possible to see telephones en mass, which find visual representation in the payphone Gaga uses in the Telephone video’s prison scene as the track itself begins. Similarly, a public transport hub such as this is imaginably a place embodying our increasingly wireless culture in the west, with almost every person possessing a mobile telephone, many of them in operation, ringing, dialing and texting. More abstractly, it could also be viewed as an image linked to the transitory nature of modern life. Grand Central Terminal is a building intended for traveling through and passing by, nearly every person inside is an interloper, barely stopping inbetween stages of a longer journey. A parallel can then be made to both Beyoncé’s public profile and the increasing hysteria – bordering on ‘Gagamania’ – that was beginning to surround Gaga at the time of The Fame Monster’s issue. Grand Central Station characterized as above seems from the outside in to fit the life, relationships and industry that surrounds these two performers. Lady Gaga until recently was probably viewed as a figure of equal transience, making disposable popular music and liable to disappear at any moment. It is only with the release of The Fame Monster that she has become a truly influential force in 21st Century pop. 

The narrator of Telephone also treats her relationships as equally provisional, namechecking “baby”, “boy” and the slightly less frigid “my girls,” but uses no actual monikers. Grand Central Station is the only proper noun present in the track, whereas the outset of Just Dance is comparatively clogged with names; Just Dance also seems concerned with the concept of identity (“what’s the name of this club?” the narrator twice asks) whereas Telephone shares no such curiosity. Grand Central Station also seems to symbolize the notion of Derridian Différance in the context of Telephone and the concept of the telephone, although this probably warrants a separate, more expansive, debate. Grand Central Station – possibly the use of this term as opposed to the correct title Grand Central Terminal is as significant as the use of telephone and not phone – itself connotes many figures already discussed, such as transience, travel, communication and so on. Similarly, ‘telephone’ is entangled with many tropes itself; technology, modernity, again communication and so on. But the concept of the telephone cannot be realized without a dialogue, another person on another telephone with whom to speak. And yet the narrator of Telephone seems unconcerned about the conceptual opposition they are part of and to a certain extent causing in not granting the other telephone user a voice. Assuming the other user is male (which seems a reasonable inference given the use of the word “boy”), this is a further example of Telephone’s female voice successfully sublimating the male, in contradiction to Just Dance.

The Coin Lands: Heads Telephone, Tails Just Dance
The title of this article posits that Just Dance and Telephone are two sides of the same coin, and in conclusion it is worth restating the reasons for this. As previously discussed, both songs address the same subject matter from a similar perspective, though they differ thematically, both reach analogous conclusions. Just Dance arrives at a solution to all problems in its title, whilst Telephone’s payoff is exemplified in the line “Tonight I'm not takin' no calls, 'cause I'll be dancing.” In terms of thematic analysis, the two songs adopt differing attitudes towards hedonism, technology and crucially to gender dynamics. Although aspects of Just Dance appear manipulated by the male gaze, Telephone redresses the balance with a defiantly and definitively feminist stance. The female sex is much more powerful – physically, intellectually and ideologically – in Telephone’s world than in Just Dance’s, but it has also learned that there are consequences to knowledge, and that Just Dance’s naive egoism is false, or at best only workable in exceptional circumstances. Despite the benefit of such hindsight, Just Dance appears more optimistic, both from the perspective of music theory and with regard to its outlook. The sentiments of Telephone come at a high intellectual price, with its narrator unable to ‘live in the moment’ in the same manner as Just Dance’s. Interruptions to the narrator’s favorite song in Telephone for example play on their mind in a way that fails to occur to the narrator of Just Dance. Broadly, Telephone is the much more evolved composition, and close linguistic analysis reveals a tight controlling of meaning, whereas Just Dance’s unravels like the intoxicated mind. Finally, it speaks volumes about each track simply that ‘just dance’ is a blank statement, whilst ‘telephone’ is a much more ambiguous term bound up in Différance. Concluding the metaphor, Telephone occupies the ‘heads’ side of a coin; this is due to its considered, empirical perspective and awareness of its own sociological and philosophical implications. Just Dance represents ‘tails’ as it operates on a purely intuitive level, appealing to the expressive body rather than an ineffective and inebriated mind.

Author Bio:

David Hall graduated from the University of Central Lancashire with a First Class Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy in 2009. Specialising in contemporary literature, he completed his dissertation ‘The Philosophy of the Post Apocalypse Novel’, analysing the philosophical inclinations of works including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He contributes music reviews and features to various online publications and runs a music blog No School Like Old School. A determinist with a penchant for postmodernist and deconstructionist thought, David reads, writes and plays guitar in his spare time.

I enjoy philosophising about the everyday, and not in a ‘there is no spoon’ manner. Analysing books, film and music may seem to layer them with unwarranted meaning, making them appear even more impenetrable. But I believe this not be the case. Philosophising about creative products of our culture both enlightens us and demystifies them. It proves that that very little is completely hollow and devoid of import; there is meaning all around us.

On the specific subject of Lady Gaga, whatever one’s musical opinion of her, she is obviously an aesthetically and conceptually fascinating figure. The overwhelming majority of her ‘Little Monsters’ are no doubt attracted by her addictive and shrewdly commercial brand of dance-pop. Yet she operates on a level of symbolism all-too-rarely seen in the modern mainstream, a realm that having artistically matured unerringly quickly, she now comfortably occupies. Ever since The Beatles, pop music has been subject to a postmodern free interpretation of meaning. The mere fact that what at first seem shallow pop songs can be analysed as such should be reassuring; the sheer proliferation of critical interpretations – particularly presented by Telephone – suggests that intelligent pop music is still flourishing, if only we scratch the slick production veneer.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lady Gaga: In Search of a New Thriller

by Franklin Winslow

Lady Gaga, artist, trickster, fame hound, infamous, in all cases as large and involved as an epic. Her sexual ambiguity is often noted[1] as are the remnants of pop and fame culture she destabilizes and rearranges to create her aesthetic.[2]  One of the important aspects of her work is its mutability, its capacity to become even more over the top at any moment. Michael Jackson, too, built a career of outdoing himself. The Michael of “Bad” usurped the Michael of “Thriller” usurped the Michael of “Beat It.” But at the heart of both careers is not the capacity or willingness or ability to change. At the heart of both careers is narrative. Michael did not understand the nature of this narrative until much later in life, after his career in music had long faded. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, learned from Michael’s biggest success, his creation of a quintessential, pop narrative. Then she perfected it. Instead of a narrative of reinvention, Gaga gives her audience a narrative of transformation but not just any transformation, a particular “brand” of transformation, one I will from here refer to as “transformation-caught-in-media-res.” The Michael Jackson of the “Thriller” video comes closest to catching transformation-in-media-res. Lady Gaga has perfected the narrative technique Michael presents in this video.

Gaga’s career creates the appearance of constant evolution, one that appears to be a progression of many transformations, and this, as we know from her predecessors, is the foundation of a sustained career in pop. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Justin Timberlake, Brittney Spears, Christina Aguilera, among others, have struggled to “reinvent” their pop image(s) to extend the reign of their stardoms. Evolution is typically considered a one-way progression. The old is cast aside, and the new comes forward. The Justin who sang with N-Sync is a completely different Justin from the one who sings “Cry Me a River.”

Gaga’s narrative is quite different. She comes out piecemeal and passes as whole. As Meghan Vicks points out in her article “The Icon and the Monster: Lady Gaga as a Trickster of American Pop Culture,” Gaga’s costumes are a key example of how Gaga-as-icon is constructed and simultaneously deconstructed: cigarettes on sunglasses, stilettos instead of shoulder pads, chains in place of tops, veils used to drape her body as if dress, her body partially mummified in police warning tape. Gaga sells herself to us rearranged but apparently complete. Pieces on pieces pass as unified. But they are not. They are incomplete narratives. Gaga stalls narratives and forces them to co-exist where they normally would not have. She transplants them, collecting them together and giving them a new name, her own. Pieces stay pieces but become Gaga. This tension between incomplete and complete pushes her image to the verge of mythos without fully becoming myth, which is a key point of her narrative. She is always becoming Gaga.

Archetypes are usually stable, with known qualities. Gaga-as-archetype, on the other hand, becomes an ongoing act of trying to know, like the moment just before a first kiss, a moment of pre-knowledge that excites knowledge to the point of understanding. Gaga uses her narrative of stalled transformation to create an identity of non-identity, one that can so readily transform into any identity that it is recognized as the artist-as-person Gaga. To say that Gaga performs Gaga to audiences, that there is no line between performer and performance, that Gaga is “X”, is half-accurate at best. These stabilities are secondary to Gaga’s modus operandi. It’s because of her narrative of transformation, her change caught in its middle, that her audience is willing to accept her ongoing transformation, the dialogue she creates, between the identities of performer and performed, rehearser of phantom roles and victim of them, bigger than life and smaller than it at the same time. This is Gaga’s greatest trick. But she’s not tricking, nor is she simply transforming, she is performing a narrative, one of transformation passed as completed change, one of flux passed as non-flux.

Gaga isn’t operating by her own rules. She’s perfecting a system. In fact, Gaga is perfecting Michael Jackson’s narrative control. Michael Jackson, child, man, nurturer, spiritually malnourished, tormented, tormentor, changeling. If not the originator of the transformation narrative in pop, then certainly one of its largest contributors. But Jackson was no trickster, to borrow Vicks’ term. He morphed roles but was painfully sincere. When he took on a role, he wanted his audience to feel it with him, to experience the roles pathos. In the “Beat It” video, Michael is the street-level peacemaker, the grand negotiator of the criminal element but is also possibly a criminal. In the “Bad” video, Michael is capable of becoming the worst of the criminal element but remains apart from transformation.

But in the “Thriller” video, he is much more than a high school hunk who takes his date out to a scary movie. He is also more than the movie’s scariest character. He is more than the combination of the two. He is a boy, a werewolf, a zombie, a high school sweet heart, a demon, and a dancer all at once. No single narrative is complete. All of the narratives co-exist at one time, or perhaps in no time, outside of it, in a space inhabited by transformation-in-media-res.

Michael Jackson’s image, identity, and music—the framework of his narrative—changed so often that, long after his career’s end, he resorted to mockery of this narrative flux in attempts to recapture what he had in the “Thriller” video, attempts to use his transformation narrative to hound up media attention. One example is the stunt in which he apparently dangled his newborn Prince Michael II over a banister for adoring fans in Berlin.[3]  I say “apparently” because this was a stunt of appearance, not a stunt of dramatic catharsis or an actual meltdown.[4]  This was not a scandal. It was the appearance of a scandal.

Michael knew the rules: pop does not award its highest honors to narratives of completion. Completion narratives, and stability in general, may win a Grammy or two, but will not sustain the public’s interest. Pop wants transformation. Pop wants the young Michael in direct opposition to the old Michael in opposition to many Michaels. Pop wants the Michael of the “Thriller” video. The Michael of 2002 could no longer provide this more pop viable Michael. So he provided an appearance that captured a similar moment of transformation, a moment of regression, one in which he put on that he doesn’t know how to care for a child.

In return, Michael the performer got the benefits of looking crazed and fatally flawed and psychologically damaged and more. It appears to be drama, but it isn’t drama. Michael manipulates the drama. Here Michael used the narrative of ongoing transformation, transformation-in-media-res, to gain the attention he was after, a similar attention to what he caught in his “Thriller” video. It’s a similar aesthetic principle to the one Gaga more consistently exploits, much more base, but no less artful. After his music career had long faded, Michael understood that the true power of the transformation narrative is incomplete transformation. This is the power pop adores most because an ongoing transformation is as scandalous as transgressing the worst taboo. In other words, an ongoing transformation is a scandalous transgression. It is an untouchable amalgamation, a nexus, an aleph, a childhood without end.

Lady Gaga gets it. Gaga inverts Jackson’s narrative framing: her image, identity, and music, her aesthetic, is housed within an incomplete transformation narrative, thus her scandal. And she needs to scandalize to remain relevant to the pop vernacular. Another way in which Gaga separates herself from Michael Jackson is the fact that Gaga does not load her narrative identity with her own pathos. Michael did. We saw Michael Jackson as he saw himself. When we look at the werewolf in his “Thriller” video, we are looking at Michael’s acceptance of a universe in which he is a werewolf. He stepped into that role and became a werewolf for a moment. He wasn’t the werewolf all of the time.

On the other hand, Gaga’s transformation myth, the Gaga vernacular, takes the everyday stuff of our material existence, cigarettes and sunglasses, and rearranges it into a scandal, thus presenting a vision of the stuff as more viable, charged with the Gaga transformation, the Gaga scandal, and more desirable for it. Gaga doesn’t need to become scandalous. Scandal becomes Gaga, both in the sense of transformation and in the way it suits her. But not Michael. We often see his limitations, his role-to-role existence. We would never see our Lady in the role of werewolf. We will always believe that she is the werewolf and that she can pass as human if needed, but why would she need to look human? That’s the stuff of Michael Jackson.

So it’s not just that Lady Gaga’s persona is mutable, or that she is particularly skilled at turning ideas inside out and flipping iconographies on their heads. It’s not even that Gaga privileges the monstrous over the personal. Although, Gaga’s art achieves all of these affects with aplomb. Gaga’s particular gift, at this moment in art and at this decadent point in pop’s history, is to appear stable and unstable simultaneously, to appear thrilling but removed from the thrill. And to say that Gaga taps into an archetype and then deploys her aesthetic, is only half of the story. Foremost, she creates an ongoing conversation between archetypes, a narrative, from which she delivers her aesthetics; whereas, Michael dabbled in unconnected narratives and aesthetics and struggled to make them appear connected.

Gaga is the trickster to Michael Jackson’s self-styled hero or hero gone mad, but that isn’t what makes her pop genius. Her pop is genius because she understands it as an expanding narrative universe, a universe of many images and stories that continue from one into another; whereas, Michael’s pop sensibility, in comparison, is one of a bunch of individual pieces, singles and LP’s, handled much like individual short stories. As long as our Lady continues to mix and match her narrative universe on a broad scale, she’ll remain pop’s darling. And conceivably, any performer willing to continue rearranging those narratives could become our next Lady.

[1] A few examples:

Als, Hilton. “Girls Will Be Boys; JoAnne Akalaitis brings ‘The Bacchae’ to Central Park.” The New Yorker. 7 September 2009: 82. The Critics. The Theatre. Print.

Hampson, Sarah. “Lady Gaga: Is she or isn't she?” The Globe and Mail (Canada). 27 February 2010: L1. Globe Style. Print.

Maher, Kevin. “In Her Prime.” Weekend Australian. 13 March 2010: 14. All-round Review Edition. Print.

Sage, Adam. “Twitter in trouble after setting Sarkozy rumour mill whirring; France.” The Times (London). 20 March 2010: 47. Edition 2. National Edition. Print.

And a particularly good one in which the writer tells of her child's take on Gaga's "Pokerface."

Sassy, Dawn Collinson. “Let’s not talk about sex, baby. It makes me blush.” Liverpool Daily Echo. 28 April 2009: 18. Edition 1. Print.

[2] Artforum’s Diary entry “Star Turn” from November 20, 2009, is a good example. Here Gaga inverts her over-the-top aesthetic to provide an “art crowd” something it may not have expected. Gaga destabilizes audience expectations simultaneously creating a self-critique:

“Enter the formally dressed Lady Gaga and Vezzoli in carnival masks contributed by Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. Seating herself at the keyboard of a pink Steinway adorned with blue butterflies by Damien Hirst, Gaga accompanied herself for a new ballad, “Speechless,” while Vezzoli pantomimed the sewing of Gaga’s face on an embroidery disc. They should always be so understated. In fact, the whole performance, which ran all of eight minutes, had an elegance that belied the baroque surreality of the night. Star fucking is really not Vezzoli’s strong suit. It’s irony, something the Hollywood bunch, which watched in respectful silence, seemed to miss.
Most noticeable was Gaga’s squashed tower of a top hat, designed by Gehry, fabricated by Prada in leather and silk and strongly resembling nearby Disney Music Hall—with a difference. ‘She changed it!’ the architect exclaimed afterward, explaining that it was supposed to be taller but that Gaga had adjusted it to suit herself. Since when had he turned to millinery? ‘I stepped through the looking glass twenty years ago,’ Gehry said. ‘And I’ve been a mad hatter ever since.’”

[3] Vineyard, Jennifer. “Michael Jackson Calls Baby-Dangling Incident A ‘Terrible Mistake’.” www.mtv.com. 20 November 2002. News. On-line.

[4] See Margo Jefferson’s book On Michael Jackson p. 11-12.  

Author Bio:
Franklin Winslow’s writing has recently appeared in The L Magazine, Coldfront, and Gigantic and is forthcoming at The Rumpus. He teaches at CUNY Baruch and has led writing workshops elsewhere. He’s finishing a collection of stories, which is about how we struggle to love where we live and who we live with. He’s also at work on a novel.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

You Cannot Gaga Gaga

by Jack Halberstam

Can you hear me? Listen up: I am gaga for Gaga. I know we all are now, and I was already gaga for Beyoncé except now Gaga is gaga for Beyoncé too so…so I am gonna have to call them both up on the t-t-telephone and find out how to get a piece of the action. And the action, by the way, has little to do with the phallus, real, imagined, lesbian or bionic. Thanks to Tavia (see below) for his brilliant and on point reading of the disappointing and disappearing phallus but from here on out, it is about phones, headsets, hearing, receivers and objects that become subjects, glasses that smoke, food that bites. If the sappy, eco-friendly message of James Cameron’s bloated 3-D off-world was “I see you,” the cooky, cocky, whacky voice-mail left by Gaga/Beyoncé is “I hear you.” The ear and the phone are neither vagina and penis nor speaker and listener, in this agenda-bending extravaganza the telephone is an Avital Ronell wet dream – electric speech served with a twist of live wire. And, by the way, what is up with divas and phones? Remember that Blondie was hanging on one, Madonna was hanging one up, even Beyoncé in “If I was a boy,” was turning one off and telling “everyone it’s broken/so that they would think I was sleeping alone.”

“It is a question of answerability,” says Ronell in The Telephone Book, “you picking it up means the call has come through.”

But what is it saying? When you get the call, who speaks and who listens? And what happens when she tells you to STOP CALLING MOTHERF#*KER!

Telephone, for the two people who missed it, is the breakout online Gaga/Beyoncé extravaganza set in a women’s prison in LA. In this ten minute mini film,  Lady Gaga wears her diet coke in her hair, her heart on her sleeve and models a series of hats made out of telephones while she and Beyoncé perform in “Thelma and Louise” meets Marcel DuChamp meets Set It Off. They dip and bob, stutter and wink across a landscape of diners and deserts leaving a trail of bodies in their wake – the crime they are punishing? Honey theft. Yes, like queen bees deciding to kick the drones to the curb while keeping their honey for themselves, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé buzz around dangerously looking for the next sucker to sting.

In their “pussy wagon” Gaga and Beyoncé chart new territory for femme liberation, female aggression, feminine techno embodiment and instant gratification – using a Polaroid camera, Gaga captures her “Honey Bee,” (that’s Beyoncé to you) leaving the scene of the crime and promises that they are leaving and never coming back. Throwing the picture to the ground, the gesture suggests that images are cheap but check out the sound system. The telephone line goes dead, the connection is lost, the heroines are far from the law, lost to the boyfriends calling on their phones, far from home, and far from dead. Their honey is safe and their desire is as shiny and new as the glittering heels they used to walk over the corpses. Featuring cameos by female body-builders, female body artist Heather Cassils and Gaga’s sister, the video gives sisterhood a brand new name: NOISE . The prison yard kiss with Cassils, in particular, reminds the viewer that this is a queer sisterhood, a strange sisterhood and one which is not afraid to flirt with some heavy-duty butch-femme, S/M dynamics. Cassils has talked in an interview about what the video has done for her visibility.

The blogosphere is already full of readings and revelations about the video – it is a Foucaultian take on prison and “technological entrapment”; here on Bullybloggers, it has been read as the channeling of Butler’s “Lesbian Phallus”; it is obscene, murderous, cruel to animals, misogynist, man-hating, homophobic and heterophobic; and I think you could safely place it as a Deleuzian exploration of flow and affect not to mention an episode in Object Oriented Philosophy. So whether the philosophy in question is drawn from Zizek on speed, Ronell on crack or Meillassoux on ecstasy, this video obviously chains a few good ideas to a few very good bodies and puts thought into motion. So what is the “telephone” in this sonic drama and what is Gaga doing with it?

Notice many of the phones in the film are landlines – the phone in the jail (or “club” as Gaga calls it), the green phone in Beyoncé’s bedroom, the blue phone that Lady Gaga wears as she makes sandwiches – these phones are fixed in place, not mobile, wearable but also restricting – “Tonight I’ll not be taking no calls because I’ll be dancing…Stop calling, stop calling, cause I don’t want to talk anymore/Stop calling, stop calling, I don’t want to think anymore/I got my head and my heart out on the dance floor.” The push and pull of the game of telephone resembles the rhythms of hetero dating – she waits, he calls; she answers, he speaks, she yells, he hangs up. But they also resemble stalking—“stop calling, stop calling”—and they sound like the surveillance calls brilliantly dissected as part of the marriage script in Laura Kipnis’s Against Love – “Hi hon, just called to check in…where are you now?” The mobile phone is a player in the battle of lovers and so Lady Gaga and Beyoncé decide to unleash themselves from the tyranny of the phone – instead of hanging on the telephone, they become the telephone. The music pulses like a ring tone (like the ring tone it is about to anyway become), it burbles and beeps, hiccups and repeats, insistently, calling and ringing, ringing and calling and chaining us all to the charisma of the pop beat.

Like the ringing music, the choreography is also phony, phonic, supersonic – like the clipped conversations that lovers have on phones with reception and messages fading in and out, the divas strut and twist their bodies into jerking machines – in one remarkable sequence, a break in the dinette dance scene, Beyoncé, dressed in her Michael Jackson uniform complete with epaulets stands with her eyes wide open and her mouth opening and closing to the stuttering “eh…eh…eh…eh” of the music. Beyoncé is channeling phone here, she is the receiver, the answering machine and the dial tone all in one and all are saying the same thing – no one is home! In another sequence when Gaga is leaving the prison, she stutter steps in another homage to Jackson but also to convey the shift in time-scapes from doing time in prison to taking a dropped call from Beyoncé out in the real world. Time, in “Telephone,” ripples with queerness, stops, starts, repeats: and while time stops for the losers in their way, Beyoncé and Gaga are tripping off to a utopia of milk and honey. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga repeatedly lift their hands to their mouths to make the telephone sign and they sing into handsets and hold the phone like a dick they are about to rip off. Is this film about castration? Oh yeah baby. Your phone is going to be off the hook, your land line is now cordless, your cordless lost reception, your mobile is turned off, your girlfriend is turned on and she is escaping in a pussy wagon with another woman!

Well, so is the phone the phallus after all? Is the mobile phone a dildo? Is the old landline a kind of metaphor for male penis and the new “virgin” cell phone a metaphor for the lesbian phallus? I still think that phallic as phones may be and phunny as the connection between phone and phallus becomes throughout the video, the real sex organ in this piece is the ear, and while the phallus may well circulate, this is pussy power all the way. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé demonstrate a femininity done right and over done to the point of parody. But here is where it gets interesting – while Lady Gaga always seemed like a drag queen in her outrageous costumes, in this incarnation she reminds us that no one does femininity like a fierce femme and while you can already see the drag shows going on in a bad gay bar near you with super tall drag queens lipsyncing to Gaga and Beyoncé and cat-fighting their way across the stage, remember you heard it here first – you cannot Gaga Gaga, honey so don’t even try! She is camping camp, she is dragging drag, she is ironing irony (ok…ok), she  has done it, been it, worn it. And be warned, don’t call her, she’ll call you!

Author Bio:  Judith "Jack" Halberstam is Professor of English and Director of The Center for Feminist Research at USC. Halberstam teaches courses in queer studies, gender theory, art, literature and film.

Halberstam is the author of Female Masculinity, The Drag King Book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters and a new book from NYU Press titled In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Gaga Files

by Daniela Olszewska

A Note on the Text: The following files were recovered from the government archives of the former United States of America. They are believed to be the preliminary status reports on the alien-she super-hybrid known as Lady Gaga. Due to the poor condition of the documents, it is impossible to say for certain which filings belong to which government agency (Though the Drs. Hailey and Haberton insist that files 1 and 3 are the work of the same agency and that file 3 most likely predates file 1. Not surprisingly, Dr. Heathrowe disagrees with both of these assertions.). Suffice to say that Lady Gaga represented enough of a threat to the administrations responsible for monitoring fashion, gender, movement, and media norms to warrant extensive and covert investigation. While non-expert readers will surely find the terminology of these reports laughably outdated, we believe that this is a vital text as it exemplifies the assertion of ancient philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno that there is nothing left for the consumer to classify.

– Dr. J. Havinshaw, University of Interscope


Age: 3.1.4.

Gender: crotch

Phrenological type: chain bang

Eye color: reptilian

Hair kind: carnage-rolled

Mode of transportation: inflammable

Dialogue: snuff-film

Accessory: fuzzy dice

Color Coordinates: glitter

Fitness Level: barbedwire-core

Education Level: shimmy pop (class 1)

Fashion Rating: prisonista

Combat Rating: bitchfought; on-the-line tops

Community Involvement: blackbox


Age: ides of march

Gender: fluorescent

Clan: royale

Languages Spoken: face love, studded kiss (reading knowledge only), mediterranean

Astrological Sign: $$$

Alternate Astrological Sign: XXX

Talisman: disco stick

Position: go-to girl

Design: N/A

Virtue: cherry cherry boom boom

Vice: refresh button

Extra Features: trimmings and tipoffs

Sister-Self: rah-rah

Power Animal: fur-less, triple-limbed


Age: platinum

Gender: classical

Rank: jolt (level 2)

Thermal Image: little monster

Diet: dirty cream

Medication: horsepower

Preferred Bedding: burlesque-style

Incubation: name brand

Dystrophic Fantasy: mutants tap dancing to the best of broadway

Pre-Existing Conditions: retrograde

Manifestation: ugly disease

Progression: sequined gurneys

Hidden Talent: throwing her firearm

Complications: unpeeling


Age: aries

Gender: nipple parts

Height: metrical

Weight: atomic

Residence: haus of card games

Organ Donation: super throb

B-side: strobe light

Longitude: galactic

Latitude: mammalian

Time Zone: po-mo

Religious Affiliation: lower east side

Philosophical Affiliation: robotics

Moves: tore up like what

Fix: glam

Author Bio: Daniela Olszewska is the author of four chapbooks, including The Partial Autobiography of Jane Doe (Dancing Girl Press) and The Twelve Wives of Citizen Jane (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Her poems have appeared in recent issues of Conduit, No Tell Motel, and Absent Magazine. She is the current Poetry Editor of Black Warrior Review.