"[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, May 10, 2010

2010: A Gagadyssey

by Meghan Blalock

It's been a few months since Lady Gaga's video for Bad Romance premiered and I first wrote a blog post comparing the video's aesthetics to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, I want to take the comparison a bit further and talk about the two main themes that consistently present themselves in Gaga's work since the Bad Romance video premiered, and which also show themselves in Kubrick's work: ultraviolence and technological evolution.

First of all, the opening shot of Bad Romance is strongly reminiscent of a famous shot from A Clockwork Orange.
True, Gaga's shot is black on a white background, while Kubrick's is obviously white on black, but the composition is still essentially the same, and they serve as foils of one another. In the bottom photo, Alex (the main character of Clockwork) and his gang are holding glasses of milk or have glasses of milk on the lady tables in front of them. Gaga and her entourage have similarly shaped gold glasses on the floor surrounding them. The two girls sprawled on the floor in front of Gaga are strikingly similar to the lady tables in the Clockwork milk bar. Worth noting: in the film, Kubrick starts this shot wide and slowly zooms in, as if we the viewers are walking toward Alex and his gang; the shot in Bad Romance moves the same way. Also important: the tingy music playing during this part of Bad Romance - and again at the end of the video - is eerily reminiscent of the theme from Clockwork, called Ultraviolence, which you can listen to here, and which Gaga famously used during her time in New York, post-Stefani and pre-fame, as the intro to her performances in dive bars on the Lower East Side.

After the camera zooms in slowly for a few seconds, it cuts to a close-up of Gaga and her razorblade glasses. In an interview with MTV, she said that she wanted these to represent female strength, as an homage to the women she knew in New York who carried razorblades in their mouths - but when I saw them, I immediately thought of this scene from Clockwork, clipped below, during which Alex undergoes a Pavlov's Dogs-reminiscent procedure to make him physically ill when he witnesses or feels the urge to commit acts of violence.
The significance of Gaga's nod to Clockwork and its pervasive theme of Ultraviolence has become more and more clear as she continues to produce work that focuses on the aestheticization of violence. Clockwork is arguably the best example of contemporary art - at least pre-Gaga - that thoroughly aestheticizes violence; the film depicts heinously random acts of violence performed by a beautiful person, wearing beautifully clean clothing, illuminated by beautiful light, in meticulously beautiful settings, and backed by the beautiful orchestrations of Beethoven. The influence of the film on the Bad Romance video is significant because the first video off The Fame Monster preceded a slew of work she produced that also aestheticized violence, the most prominent of which is her video for Telephone, which includes a scene of Gaga and Beyoncé doing a choreographed dance routine in a diner filled with the dead bodies of the people they just poisoned - not unlike how Alex and his gang dance around their victims before beating and/or raping them.

Even more abundant than the imagery of Clockwork in the Bad Romance video is the various imagery from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. First, it should be noted that the entire futuristic look of the Bad Romance video is incredibly similar to 2001: the white lights, the glowing floors and walls, the monster pods, the clothing. During the first part of the video, the camera zooms in to reveal Gaga's finger on some sort of black speaker/MP3 player. It reminded me of the monolith, the big black rectangle in 2001 that, depending on who you ask, might represent a number of different aspects of human existence. Here, in relation to both Kubrick's film and Gaga's video, I'm going to argue that it represents human technological evolution as it relates to the self.
The monolith theme - some sort of rectangular black object against a white background - keeps reappearing in Gaga's video, just like it keeps showing up in different places in 2001. First of all, the semblance below is undeniable. The first is a shot from Bad Romance, when the sun is coming up right before we see her little monsters emerging from their pods. The second is from 2001, a shot of the sun rising over the edge of the monolith, flipped on its side.
The monolith keeps appearing. First, Gaga herself as monolith.
We see Gaga crawling between two monoliths (her suitor's legs).
The computers that show the winning bid for Gaga are sideways monoliths.

Later, the suitor becomes a monolith.

Soon after, he becomes incinerated. However, he is replaced by a scantily-clad Gaga, all in black, on a charred black bed. Yep, huge monolith.
Oh, and speaking of that bed/bedroom - look at this famous shot from 2001.
True, the bedroom in Bad Romance is simpler - from what we see, there are no chairs or armoirs or Greco-Roman statues - but the similarities are still striking.

Now that it's clear that Gaga incorporates the imagery of the monolith from 2001 in her video for Bad Romance, it's crucial to understand why she does this. We first see the monolith in 2001 in the middle of a desert, during prehistoric times, when humans are still technically apes, covered in hair and not yet walking erect. We see a group of them huddling together, squawking and milling about while they, presumably, forage for food (grass) and water. We then see a sequence of events separated by black screens - the band of apemen fighting with another group, one of the apemen getting attacked by a leopard - before we see the apemen go to sleep, only to wake in the morning to the presence of the monolith, large, black and humming. They gather around and the group's leader hesitantly reaches out and touches the monolith; this is when the sun begins to rise over the edge of the object, producing the shot I mentioned earlier. Later that day, the group's leader is foraging for food when he picks up a bone and realizes he can use it as a weapon. He starts beating a skeleton with it, as an image of the monolith flashes before us again.
The next day, we see the apeman use his newly discovered tool to actually kill one of his fellow apemen. I would argue, in this case, that Kubrick intended the monolith to be the object that inspired the first step in human evolution. Had it not been for the contact with the alien monolith, the apemen may have never been inspired to think outside the box of their current forage-and-gather way of life. This is further supported by the various stages at which we see the monolith appear in the film. We next see the monolith in the year 2000, buried under the surface of the moon. It has been discovered by a group of spacemen, who treat it as evidence of alien life and make efforts to hide its existence from the general public. They go to the moon to see it, and we see Dr. Floyd, the leader of the spacemen, approach the monolith and reach out a gloved hand to touch it. They all gather around the monolith to take a photo as the sun rises and sunlight hits the object. Suddenly a deafening, high-pitched note emits from the monolith and they all crouch to protect their ears.
The third monolith is seen later in the film, during the main character Dave Bowman's voyage to Jupiter, orbiting the planet. The fourth and last appearance of the monolith in the film is when Dave, now a balding old man lying in bed in some sort of parallel universe, reaches out for it in the bedroom pictured above. As he reaches for it, he is transformed into a fetus in utero, which we then see floating in space. All three of the significant human interactions with the monolith immediately precede an important technologicaly evolutionary step: the discovery of tools, the discovery of alien life, and the discovery of the self, which is, Kubrick seems to be arguing, the ultimate point of all technological advancements. The films depicts a sort of direct lineage of evolution: apeman, apeman with tools, human, human with (bigger, better, badder) tools, aliens, and a return to the ultimately vulnerable state of the human ego.

All of this is significant because Gaga, as an artist and as a businessperson, continues to prove that she is ahead of the curve when it comes to technological advancement. She was named creative director of Polaroid earlier this year, and just recently tweeted about the work she is doing to advance their brand. When it comes to branding herself and utilizing the Internet to do so, she is at the forefront. She tweets regularly, and her Bad Romance video has been viewed more than 360 million times since it was released last fall, pushing her total number of Vevo video views past 1 billion - making her the artist with the most online music video views ever. This is quite impressive when you consider that she has only been making music as Lady Gaga for a few years, and she has only been super-popular for just more than one.

The Lady also doesn't shy away from product placement, regularly placing her Heartbeats by Lady Gaga headphones in her videos, in addition to ads for Virgin Mobile, who supports her concert tour The Monster Ball - both next to what one can assume are paid ads for PlentyofFish.com and her own Polaroid, among others. Everything she touches seems to turn to evolutionary gold, starting trends at the same time she taps into existing ones. She utilizes the technology of her (and our) generation better than perhaps any artist in the history of music, or perhaps American culture. At the beginning of May, she will release a USB version of The Fame Monster that contains 800 MB of content, including the album and all her music videos to date. And, of course, it's cleverly designed.

In addition to the correlation of Gaga's push for technological evolution with the evolutionary symbolism of the monolith in 2001, the overarching theme of evolution is prevalent in not only the Bad Romance video, but the Monster Ball Tour as well. In Bad Romance, the video begins with Gaga and her crew emerging from pods labeled "monster," then we see her slowly evolve from a creature with a hunched back and a protruding spine to a creature with a monster-inspired hair piece (barely visible, it's the dragon-like creature made of hair tied into her own hair), to a beautiful creature being auctioned off to the highest bidder, to an even more beautiful creature conflagrating her bidder. Similarly, the Monster Ball Tour begins with a dimmed Gaga, donning flashing LED lights behind a screen, walking around aimlessly, like she's looking for some sort of direction, and we see her slowly grow through different stages of her musical life. Gaga on the development of a concept for the tour: "We started talking about evolution and the evolution of humanity and how we begin as one thing, and we become another. I begin as a cell and I grow and change throughout the show." She evolves through different stages of battling her personal demons - love, sex, money, alcohol, fame - concluding by emerging from her now infamous orb to perform, of course, Bad Romance, the song that inspired the music video that most directly relates to Kubrick's emphasis on evolution.

More important than her ability to evolve the technology of pop culture before our eyes, I would argue, is Gaga's ability to do what Kubrick seems to be illustrating in 2001 - and this is also a prevalent theme in the Monster Ball Tour - to bring us all, ultimately, back to ourselves. Gaga has been quoted as saying things like, "When they ask my fans why they love Lady Gaga, I want them to say, 'I don't love Lady Gaga. I love myself.'" Just like Kubrick used the monolith in 2001 to trace the technological evolution of man away from and then back to himself, Gaga uses this same imagery in the Bad Romance video as a symbol for what she ultimately stands for as an artist: a celebration of the self. No matter what she reflects back at us, she consistently emits the message that it doesn't matter: we are perfect just the way we are.

The reason the Kubrick references in the Bad Romance video are significant is that they pinpoint two reasons why Gaga is important to current-day American culture: like no one else in mainstream media, she comments on the ultraviolence that we have all grown so accustomed to, and she pushes pop culture and music into the future technologically while serving to simultaneously illustrate various aspects of human evolution and bring us back in touch with ourselves. As Gaga wraps up working on the music video for Alejandro, one can only hope to see a Gomer Pyle or Dr. Strangelove type on the screen, talking to us about violence and technology, but really saying so much more.


Author Bio:
Meghan Blalock is a writer and editor based in East Harlem, New York. She is a research editor for Gotham magazine, and she writes for Gotham's website. She also maintains a blog that won Blogger's Blog of Note award in December and was linked to by The Washington Post in February. She also writes poetry, some of which she posts to her blog, and reads aloud at Cornelia Street Cafe and the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan. Her next reading is at the Bowery Poetry Club this Sunday, May 16, at 4 p.m. She also just celebrated the one-month birthday of her first tattoo, an inked homage to Lady Gaga's hair bow. Little monsters forever. She can be reached at mcblaloc@gmail.com.

10 comments:

  1. I think you found Gaga's Kubrick

    "Find your freedom in the music
    Find your Jesus
    Find your Kubrick"

    Being both a Gaga fan and a Kubrick fan I must say you hit the nail on the head comparing both works of art. (Side note: both are my favorite pieces from each of the artists.) I'd like to say the monolith in the film represents a new era (hence the dawn if you will)in which evolution progresses noticeably. Looking at the sunrise and hearing thee intro of Bad romance I cant help but think it is also the dawn of a new era: The rise of the Haus of Gaga. (Long live Gaga) Notice how she looks completely different than her other videos, as if she has evolved and now begins a new stage of evolution. Looking at her other videos and her staging for the the Monster Ball. Comparing from videos of the original show with videos of the current version you can see her show has also evolved.
    As further comparison observing the shear symmetry (for example in the bedroom of both) in the scenes, the mise en scene of both works is clean cut and sleek (the clockwork scene in the club and Gaga with her gang.)
    As for the introduction music Kubrick uses Purcell's Funeral March of Queen Mary II and Gaga uses Bach's Fugue in B minor from the Well Tempered Clavier Book I. Comparing the segments the Purcell piece is a smooth melody in contrast to the jerkiness of the segment used by Gaga. (wonder if she recorded the segment herself)Both melancholic and dramatic works of art. These beautiful pieces end up used upon works that show off or rather evoke very violent acts. In all it ties up with the beautiful villain. Also a sense of who's the villain and who's the victim arises. Alex starts out as the bad guy and ends up as a victim. This is in reverse for the Bad Romance video, she is the victim and sort of ends up as the bad guy killing the unsuspecting mafia leader and celebrating the kill (sparks included.)
    In the end what Gaga does she invites the fans, the little monsters to grow, to evolve within themselves. Her goal is for the little monsters to know its ok to be individuals, to march to the beat of their own drum. The little monsters love Gaga for that, she helps them believe in and love themselves as individuals and to love each other as a whole. As she celebrates herself hopefully the monsters will learn from mother monster to celebrate themselves. She IS the Monolith and we progress, we feel better, we are better and that / those around us are better too. Isn't that the purpose of the monolith to bring a better way of being?

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Blue_Tetra:

    I had NO idea those were the lyrics in Dance in the Dark. Swear to God this whole time I thought she was saying "find your cupid."

    So now I sort of look like an idiot, but at least I was right?

    ReplyDelete
  3. i thought the same!

    a very interesting piece that gives me a lot of new stuff to consider.

    one angle you might consider working on is the very, very pessimistic view of humanity and technological "progress" both kubrick and gaga envision. kubrick was infamously bleak in his views on human nature, as expressed in interviews and in his films. clockwork orange shows a future rife with problems, both in the form of hooligans and the total breakdown of legal order and in the despotic, nefarious agents of government and science who are engaged in designing a more-governable subject. 2001 is no better - the apes invent weapons and murder and the humans invent a psychotic, paranoid, homicidal computer. even the mysterious creators of the obelisks are pretty nasty; the advancement brought by their monoliths is clearly problematic, and they ultimately kidnap bowman and transport him, very traumatically, it seems, into some kind of creepy unexplained twiligh-zone-hell-mansion. gaga's future isn't much better: beautiful women are either imprisoned or manufactured in creepy coffin-pods and then sold as sex slaves.

    technology might offer new possibilities for both artists, but these almost always take the form of murder, exploitation, and mental torture.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Seeing 2001 for the first time recently also made the product placement in Telephone make a lot more sense to me—like the Hilton and the Howard Johnson and the IBMs, et al, in the space station. Oh Gaga, you clever beast.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Zachary Good point, good point.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am overjoyed with feeling that all the product placement in "Bad Romance" finally makes sense. It is something I, to be honest, struggled HUGELY with, as I felt it was cheapening artistically. Right now, the strongest thought in my head is "I should have known". Gaga...is a genious.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is a fascinating article, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is where Lady Gaga's ideas sprung from. I would like to suggest there is more Kubrick in her newest video Alejandro. The way the woman is thrown around in Clockwork Orange by the other gang at the start (not getting raped, but escaping at the arrival of Alex's gang) reminded me of the video Alejandro where Gaga is being thrown in almost the exact same way, by army dudes. And the gang in Clockwork Orange were dressed in camouflage suits, like the army. And I was always under the impression Gaga was being 'raped' in that scene of the video, even before I saw Clockwork Orange.

    - Rhiannon

    ReplyDelete
  9. I am aware this was written before the music video for Alejandro was released, but I just wanted to mention it in case nobody else thought of it - or if you did, know that you're not the only one.

    - Rhiannon

    ReplyDelete