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 as are the remnants of pop and fame culture she destabilizes and rearranges to create her aesthetic. 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. I say “apparently” because this was a stunt of appearance, not a stunt of dramatic catharsis or an actual meltdown. 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.
 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.
 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.’”
 Vineyard, Jennifer. “Michael Jackson Calls Baby-Dangling Incident A ‘Terrible Mistake’.” www.mtv.com. 20 November 2002. News. On-line.
 See Margo Jefferson’s book On Michael Jackson p. 11-12.
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.