"[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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rah, Rah, Ah-Ah-Ah (Ro-Ma, Ro-Ma-Ma): Lady Gaga, Hysteria, Commodity Feminism

by Derritt Mason

As “Bad Romance” terminates, a bored-looking and semi-nude Lady Gaga lies, post-coital cigarette in-mouth, next to the charred remains of the man destroyed by the fire omitted from her still-sparking bra.  Minutes earlier, the dead man purchases a diamond-festooned Gaga via auction, a writhing Gaga with grotesquely large and child-like eyes, a Gaga with a lizard’s spine who was birthed, crawling, from a sleek white pod labelled “Monster.”  In this video, Gaga’s body signifies with provocative and confounding multiplicity, resists easy understanding, suddenly transformed with each rapid cut of the camera: she is a doe-eyed innocent, abducted and sold to the highest bidder, for whom she encases herself in jewels and dances seductively; she is faceless, monstrous, and wrapped in rubber; she is naked save for the dead bat she wears on her head; she is a bridal femme fatale at once alluring and repulsive, seductive and terrifying, adorned by the white skins of a polar bear whose head trails on the floor behind her.  Gaga’s body fights us as we struggle to read it, and it fights and ultimately kills the man who purchases her, who tries to fully know and possess her.  And Gaga’s breasts themselves do the dirty work, symbols of a femininity both lethal and erotic, desirable but resistant – even hostile – to desire.  “Bad Romance,” indeed.

"There is a voice crying in the wilderness,” writes Sandra M. Gilbert in her introduction to Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément’s The Newly Born Woman, “the voice of a body dancing, laughing, shrieking, crying.  Whose is it?” (ix).  The voice is Lady Gaga’s and her unintelligible cry – “Rah Rah Ah-Ah-Ah!  Ro-Ma, Ro-Ma-Ma!” – is one of war and protest, but also a rallying call to all who would hear it, a brash challenge to listen and dare to understand.  Lady Gaga – singer, songwriter, performance artist, superstar, subject of widespread fascination/worship/loathing/critique – has achieved a level of celebrity that grants her the power to incite a response frequently described as hysterical in her fans.  An “increasing hysteria – bordering on ‘Gagamania’ – … was beginning to surround Gaga at the time of The Fame Monster’s issue,” writes David Hall.  What about Gaga invites – no, demands – so much attention from so many of us, aside from her ability to write catchy pop tunes?  Gaga makes us hysterical, I think, because Gaga performs hysterically.  At least, I am interested in reading her performances as such.  And here, I mean hysteria with all of its heavy historical, pathological and theoretical baggage: its spectacularization by Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière; its (re)feminization and sexualizing via Sigmund Freud; its reclamation by Cixous, Clément and second-wave feminists; and its contested contemporary manifestations as a diagnostic trope for cultural anxieties, and/or a potentially resistant performative mode.  For Gaga, hysteria is theatre, marketing, critique.  Gaga takes up and performs a version of hysteria embodied in her videos for “Bad Romance” and “Telephone” that I call commodity feminism: her body invites interpretation, desire, purchase, and consumption – inscribing herself in an economy that sees femininity as a purchasable commodity – while simultaneously resisting and destroying those who attempt to consume her.

A caveat: my reading of Gaga as hysterical will not solve the mystery of Gaga, just as Freud’s imposition of oedipal and hysterical narratives onto his patients (like Dora, the one who got away) did not yield tidy and conclusive results.  Instead, I propose hysteria as but one mode of analysis among many for approaching Lady Gaga’s complex work.  Hysteria, itself a deeply ambivalent trope, allows us to see that there is no easy way of reading Gaga – and that, perhaps, is why she fascinates us.  In the spirit of Lady Gaga’s videos, there will be readings and interpretations in excess of this paper, which I hope I will invite. 

“Hysteria has not died,” claims Elaine Showalter in Hystories; “it has simply been relabelled for a new era” (4).  But where was it born?  Appropriately, in the womb: as Mark Micale teaches us, the word “hysteria” itself “derives from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, which derives in turn from the Sanskrit word for stomach or belly” (19).  From its roots in the female body, hysteria grew into a physical illness – or was invented as such, according to Georges Didi-Huberman – by Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in late nineteenth-century France (Didi-Huberman 19).  Charcot thought that hysteria was caused by heredity and/or physical trauma, and he believed that both men and women could be hysterical.  Hysteria, for Charcot, manifested itself as “epileptiform attacks”: acrobatic contortions of the body (la grande hystérie), minor twitches, colour-blindness, paralysis (Showalter 30).  Charcot also believed that, sometimes, patients were faking it.  “We all know that the desire to deceive, even without interest, by a kind of disinterested worship of art for its own sake, though sometimes with the idea of making a sensation, to excite pity, &c., is a common enough occurrence, particularly in hysteria,” he writes (14).  Hysteria as artistic practice, as calculated deception.  “What is the biggest misconception people have about you?” John Esther asks Gaga in The Lesbian News.  “They think Lady Gaga is a character, and they prod me endlessly,” she replies.  “It’s kind of like someone you’ve never met asking you if you are full of shit.  I usually say, ‘What you are really asking me, is whether or not I’m full of shit and no, I’m not.  Are you?’” (31).

Performance or malady?  Illusion or truth?  These questions continue to haunt hysteria and contribute to our fascination with Lady Gaga.  In their performances, hysterical bodies tell stories (genre: mystery) that require decoding (or solving).  “Throughout history,” writes Elaine Showalter, “hysteria has served as a form of expression, a body language for people who might not be able to speak or even to admit what they feel … hysteria is a ‘protolanguage’” (7).  After studying under Charcot, Freud began reading and interpreting this bodily protolanguage.  He initially concluded that “hysterical patients suffer from incompletely abreacted physical traumas,” and hysterical symptoms (tics, coughs, paralysis…) were bodily expressions of excess affect (“Mechanism” 38).  Later, however, Freud linked hysteria explicitly with the formation of female sexuality.  “It was the symptom, to put it crudely, of being a woman,” explains Didi-Huberman (68).  Hysterical women were failing to adequately progress through the oedipal phase of sexual development: their very femininity was the trauma that rendered them hysterical.  Under Freud, hysteria became a language that established a connection between gender and the unconscious.  Writes Freud in Dora, his most famous case study of hysteria: “In a whole series of cases the hysterical neurosis is nothing but an excessive overaccentuation of the typical wave of repression through which the masculine type of sexuality is removed and the woman emerges” (124).  The body acts in excess of itself, an excess that the analyst must interpret to the patient to produce a cure, which follows this familiar, familial narrative: a relinquishing of the mother as primary love object, a recognition that the castrated female body is inferior to that of a man’s, a transference of desire for the father (prompted by penis envy) onto another man, and a happy, healthy transition into a reproductive heterosexual adulthood unhindered by the hysterical symptoms of a dangerous, pre-oedipal, bisexual identity (Freud, “Psychical”).

In The Newly Born Woman, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément interpret the hysteric’s story differently than Freud.  For these theorists, hysteria is an index of female oppression under patriarchy: its bodily symptoms are manifestations of women’s exclusion from language, from the Symbolic realm.  Words aren’t available so the body speaks, protesting against its own oppression.  “To escape the misfortune of their economic and familial exploitation,” writes Clément, hysterics “chose to suffer spectacularly before an audience of men: it is an attack of spectacle, a crisis of suffering.  And the attack is also a festival, a celebration of their guilt used as a weapon, a story of seduction” (10).  But Cixous and Clément are divided about the overall effectiveness of this corporeal spectacle.  Clément believes that the hysteric’s performance only succeeds in reinscribing her as a victim in a patriarchal family structure that maintains her oppression.  She argues that the role of the hysteric is “antiestablishment and conservative at the same time.  Antiestablishment because the symptoms – the attacks – revolt and shake up [those] to whom they are exhibited. ... [And] conservative because ... every hysteric ends up inuring others to her symptoms, and the family closes around her again, whether she is curable or incurable” (5).  Cixous, conversely, believes that the hysteric is more disruptive, revolutionary even.  Hysteria is “the nuclear example of women’s power to protest,” she writes:

Yes, the hysteric, with her way of questioning others (because if she succeeds in bringing down the men who surround her, it is by questioning them, by ceaselessly reflecting to them the image that truly castrates them, to the extent that the power they have wished to impose is an illegitimate power of rape and violence.) – The hysteric is, to my eyes, the typical woman in all her force (154).

The conclusion, if we can muster one, is that we cannot conclude much.  Hysteria remains an ambiguous condition, located somewhere in-between a series of dichotomies: is hysteria physiological or psychical, genuine pathology or conscious performance, subversive protest or a reinforcement of the status quo?  Jane Gallop argues that Cixous and Clément become “polarized as advocates of either the hysteric as contesting or the hysteric as conserving,” and that a more “reasonable, forceful, [and] clever position” would be “to assume the inevitability of ambiguity” (202).  It is with a profound and unavoidable ambiguity in mind that I approach Lady Gaga, hysteria, and her “Bad Romance” and “Telephone” music videos.

If we believe Showalter’s claim that hysteria is alive and currently represents “a universal human response to emotional conflict,” then we must also ask if it can still function as an index of specifically female oppression, as Cixous and Clément argue (17).  And if we ask the question: “Is Lady Gaga hysterical?” or perhaps: “Does Lady Gaga perform hysterically?” then we can begin to ask another series of questions: If Lady Gaga is hysterical/performing hysterically, then what is the cultural stress or emotional conflict against which she is reacting?  And in her reaction, can we locate an ambiguous resistance to/reinscription in the system against which she protests?  I understand Lady Gaga’s hysteria as a performed reaction to the commodification of femininity; in other words, Lady Gaga performs a type of hysterical commodity feminism.  In claiming that Gaga’s hysteria is a performance, I am not attempting to render superficial the serious mental illnesses with which women struggled in the Salpêtrière and under Freud’s care, many of which persist in different forms today.  Instead, following Christina Wald, I understand hysteria as a “performative malady,” a useful critical trope that represents “the performative quality of gender identity” (5).  In these Butlerian terms, we can see Gaga’s hysterical (embodied, excessive) performance of commodified femininity as constitutive of her identity (Lady Gaga is not a character!) and as a gesture to how femininity (and its incarnations as commodity) are socially constructed through repeated iteration.

Fourteen-year-old Dora found herself treated as an object of exchange, a sexualized commodity traded by her father to his friend, Herr K., in return for K’s complicit silence in Dora’s father’s affair with K’s wife.  Freud protests: “The two men had of course never made a formal agreement in which she was treated as an object for barter; her father in particular would have been horrified at any such suggestion” (Dora 27).  According to Freud, Dora was in love with Herr K., but she didn’t know it: her repressed affection and fantasies about oral sex were the source of her petite hystérie, her nervous cough.  For Cixous and Clément, however, Dora’s commodification is what leads her body to act out.  We hear contemporary echoes of Dora’s case in Mady Schutzman’s The Real Thing: Performance, Hysteria, and Advertising, wherein Schutzman argues that in the commercial mass media, “the female body is represented as the dream image that disguises her own exclusion” (3).  Through constant exposure to and consumption of advertising, she continues, “consumers, particularly women, become hysterical: reality and representation blur, subject and object merge, the symptoms we act out masquerade for the social disease that causes them” (3).  Femininity itself is commodified, and its images are worn “as if they were only clothes, and [lived] as if they were real” (Schutzman 5).  For Schutzman, hysteria manifests itself as a performance of femininity that mimics the representations of femininity we regularly and habitually consume.

It is this commodification of femininity that I argue Lady Gaga embodies and reacts against, hysterically.  Gaga is one among many female stars who circulate in an economy of celebrity accustomed to sexualizing bodies and marketing them to mass audiences: Lady Gaga is a product, her body and voice available for purchase and consumption through a range of media.  On the one hand, and to a certain degree, Gaga controls her performances and self-representations.  On the other, Gaga must perform and represent herself in a manner that will invite purchase.  “Induction into public visibility for women requires that they capture the attitude of ownership while simultaneously conveying their status as sexual and economic property,” writes Schutzman, and it is against precisely this that Gaga’s body seems to struggle (15).  In “Bad Romance,” as I have already described, we see Gaga as a commodity who strikes back at the one who purchases her, and who resists interpretation as the subject of the viewer’s gaze.  As her body presents and re-presents itself as a grotesque spectacle that exceeds simple understanding, Gaga is “coded for strong visual and erotic impact,” connoting what Laura Mulvey describes as “to-be-looked-at-ness,” but she is not readily de-coded (137).  Detailing the strategy that underwrites the hysteric’s “spectacle of symptoms,” Didi-Huberman writes: “she defies the spectator’s desires, she consecrates and defies his mastery.  As if she were aiming a spotlight (projector) on this spectator who, until then, thought he was safe in the velvety darkness of his seat in the orchestra; yet she is only explaining to him, through unwonted gestures, that the quality of her own pain will bend to the pleasure of his own figurative desire” (167).  In other words, the spectacle of hysteria is in excess and defiance of the spectator’s desire, yet ultimately in service of these same desires.  Gaga, through her metamorphoses and killer resistance to commodification, must nonetheless always become the commodity against which she lashes out: like the hysteric contained within a patriarchal family structure, Gaga operates in a system where her femininity is ultimately designed, marketed, and sold as a product.

Lady Gaga and the commodity coalesce most visibly in her recent video, “Telephone,” which also stars successful pop icon Beyoncé, Virgin Mobile, Heartbeats headphones, Diet Coke, Plentyoffish.com, Polaroid, Miracle Whip, Wonder Bread, and the Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.  In this ten-minute mini-feature, described accurately by Judith Halberstam as “Thelma and Louise meets Marcel DuChamp meets Set It Off,” Lady Gaga is bailed out of a “prison for bitches” by her honey-bee, Beyoncé, after which they proceed to dress with carnivalesque extravagance to poison an entire diner filled with people, dance fiercely amongst their corpses, and drive off into the sunset.  Halberstam argues that, in “Telephone,” “Gaga and Beyoncé chart new territory for femme liberation, female aggression, feminine techno embodiment and instant gratification,” yet Gaga’s particular version of liberation is one that is perpetually and inevitably bound up with commodification.  Beyoncé and Gaga’s bodies are self-consciously positioned as consumable products alongside the impressive array of name-brands that appear in the video as they perform with hysterical excess to simultaneously reinforce and subvert the viewer’s desire to see them as purchasable objects.  Brands and female bodies come to signify according to the ideology of consumerism – as marketed, desirable, consumable products – and subversively – as undesirable, grotesque, and even lethal.

Upon arrival at the prison for bitches, two female prison guards unceremoniously strip and dump a strikingly Madonna-esque Gaga onto the bed in her cell.  Climbing the bars that confine her, Gaga gives us a full-frontal view of her body, putting to rest the rumours that she has male genitals (a Google search for “lady gaga hermaphrodite” yields 260,000 results).[1] “I told you she didn’t have a dick,” one prison guard says to the other, who replies: “Too bad.”  “Is this film about castration?” asks Halberstam; “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!” (N.p).  Immediately, Gaga’s visibly female (castrated, ostensibly inferior) body is positioned as the central force in this video: the castrated body will castrate others, and interfere with its own interpellation in popular discourses that attempt to imbue it with meaning.  Gaga then emerges in the prison courtyard in full S&M drag, bound by thick chains and sporting a pair of smoking-cigarette glasses (cigarettes, notably, being widely recognized as a valuable commodity and object of exchange in prisons), and she proceeds to swap saliva for a Virgin Mobile phone with an androgynous fellow inmate, played by body artist Heather Cassils.  Gaga’s body is marked as commodity by the cigarette glasses (as it is by diamonds in “Bad Romance”), and the use of her sexuality is what allows her to surreptitiously pluck the phone from Cassils’ pants.  Her body is of exchange value, desirable yet also repellent to the viewer: the thought of the cigarette glasses’ odour is revolting, the kiss is both sexy and repulsive (thick strands of saliva form between Gaga's and Cassils’ lips), and the entire scene feels troubling. 

The Virgin Mobile phone’s appearance sets the tone for the ample product placement that follows.  We can easily read the presence of brands in this video as straightforward marketing designed to promote consumer interest and product awareness.  Yet, each item appears in an unusual context that causes the brand to signify in excess of its traditional connotations: products generally understood as desirable commodities are somehow rendered unusual, even undesirable.  The Virgin phone is exchanged for a slightly off-putting kiss with an ambiguously gendered prisoner (not the kind of sex typically used to sell this product).[2]

Diet Coke is not useful as a thirst-quenching carbonated beverage, but the cans are quite handy for curling Lady Gaga’s hair as she witnesses a violent brawl in her prison cell.  Plentyoffish.com, a dating website, is used by a butch, leather-wearing, female bodybuilder-cum-prison guard (again, a far cry from the young, Abercrombie-type singles we’ve grown accustomed to seeing).[3] A  Polaroid camera is used to capture images of Beyoncé before she begins a murderous rampage (not your typical family portrait).  And finally, Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread are used to make the poisonous sandwiches that turn an all-American diner into a mass grave. 

We can read Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s bodies as we do the commodities: the video invites us to do so.  On the one hand, we are presented with sexualized female bodies performing as we’ve come to expect in music videos: dancing, scantily clad, behaving in an economy of desire that displays them “for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look,” as Mulvey argues (139).[4] On the other, you have female bodies signifying excessively, acting in unexpected ways and in unusual contexts; as Cixous suggests the hysteric does to the men who would study and interpret her, Gaga and Beyoncé figuratively castrate their victims in the diner (via poison) and their viewers by defying our interpretive agency.  At one point, Gaga is depicted in her cell, assuming a variety of poses (many of which are reminiscent of Charcot’s attitudes passionnelles – see Didi-Huberman), wrapped in yellow crime scene tape.  The scene is edited with calculated surrealism: Gaga’s head moves rapidly in time with the song’s syncopated rhythm while her body remains static (this same technique is later repeated on Beyoncé in the hotel room scene).  Described appropriately by David Hall as “vocal tics,” and like the hysterical tics of Charcot and Freud’s patients, the song’s various vocal stutters and delays augment this sense of postponed and confused meaning, mirroring the movement of Gaga and Beyoncé’s bodies (here too, we can think of the incoherent chant that opens “Bad Romance”) (N.p).  “Like the clipped conversations that lovers have on phones with reception and messages fading in and out,” writes Halberstam, “the divas strut and twist their bodies into jerking machines” (N.p).  Not only is Gaga’s body rendered strange and illegible through its bizarre and inhuman movements, but it is appropriately marked as a crime scene: a site where an injustice has taken place and a mystery must be solved.  Gaga’s body has been packaged and sold as a commodity (a type of violent crime), but it also invites a decoding and interpretation that it persistently resists.

Gaga’s performative hysteria also manifests itself in the disjunctive relationship between the song’s lyrics and the video.  Other than the many telephones that appear in the video (including those worn by Gaga as headpieces), the film’s narrative has little to do with the song, wherein the narrator expresses her frustration at a lover who persists in trying to call her while she’s on the dancefloor with her girls.  While Halberstam compares the narrator’s refusal to answer her lover’s calls with the figurative castrations that appear in the video, not taking someone’s call because you’re drinking at a club is hardly as radical a gesture as poisoning his coffee and watching him choke to death.  There seems to be a distinct incompatibility between the song’s lyrics and its visual representation, one that demands further interpretive work.  “Hysterics were unable to tell a complete, ‘smooth and exact’ story about themselves,” writes Showalter in her elucidation of Freud’s analysis; “they left out, distorted, and rearranged information because of sexual repression.  And this incapacity to give an ‘ordered history of their life’ was not simply characteristic of hysterics – it was the meaning of hysteria” (84).  In “Telephone,” we get not only a video that relies on a pastiche of styles and genres to tell its story, but also a film that seems to bear a tenuous relationship to the song it would represent.  In other words, there is no “ordered” narrative of “Telephone,” but rather a multiplicity of incongruous stories.  As Franklin Winslow rightly observes, “Gaga sells herself to us as 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.”  As a strategy for defamiliarizing ideologies of pop music and its female performers and reacting against her place in a system that sees her as a consumable product, Gaga presents us with hysterical narratives that call attention to the relationships between music and film, femininity, commodity, and performance.

Inside and out of her videos, Lady Gaga fascinates us for many of the same reasons that Dora fascinated Freud.  She is dangerously, desirably bisexual: a pre-oedipal, polymorphously perverse mystery begging to be solved.[5]  Gaga is simultaneously a child (in all her “Bad Romance” digitally-enhanced wide-eyed innocent glory), and a woman (sexy, desiring, lethal): her namesake invokes both adulthood (Lady!) and the cooing noise of an infant (Ga-ga!).  Gaga can be regal, classy, distinguished – and always with a satirical touch (see her performance for the Queen at the Royal Variety Concert)[6] – but she’s also Ga-ga-fucking-crazy, even violently so.  She is simultaneously hyperfeminine, body, breasts, and pussy (wagon) on display (j’appelle un chat un chat!) and resistant to the notion of femininity, so resistant that she might even have a dick – at least, that’s what they say.  Her body and her costumes alternate between bizarrely alluring and grotesque/carnivalesque, and are always marked by excess.  As in “Bad Romance,” hidden under rubber, or in “Telephone,” beneath cigarette glasses, sometimes you can’t even see her eyes.  You can gaze upon her, but she refuses to look back.  Maybe she’s staring back at you.  Maybe she doesn’t give a shit.  Either way, your balls are in her court.  And like Dora, she’ll walk out on you before you really get the chance to know her.

Unlike Dora, Gaga is a savvy businesswoman who operates with great efficacy in the music industry – the same industry that requires her commodification.  In Advertising Age, Andrew Hampp hails Gaga as a marketing genius, claiming that “few artists have had quite the zero awareness-to-ubiquity time-warp of Lady Gaga.  And as far as brands go, few marketers of any kind have leveraged social media the way she has to drive sales of their core product – in her case, albums and digital singles” (N.p).  Hampp further writes that “within a year of her out-of-the-box rise to fame in September 2008, Gaga had already lined up Virgin Mobile as a sponsor of her Monster Ball tour; created her own brand of headphones … and landed her own (cherry pink) lipstick as a spokeswoman for Mac Cosmetics’ Viva Glam” (N.p).  Gaga’s lipstick “outsold any launch in Viva Glam’s 16-year history,” and she was recently appointed the creative director of Polaroid “to create new products and inject life into a brand that hasn’t been hip for years” (Hampp N.p).  Gaga is undeniably successful at branding, marketing and selling herself as a commodity. 

Were Cixous and Clément to rewrite The Newly Born Woman for our contemporary time, they could likely insert “Gaga” in the place of “Dora” and maintain the coherence of their discussion.  For example:

C: Listen, you love [Gaga], but to me she never seemed a revolutionary character.
H: I don’t give a damn about [Gaga]; I don’t fetishize her.  She is the name of a certain force, which makes the little circus not work anymore (157).

Gaga’s circus, which works undeniably well, is a multi-million dollar enterprise that continues to flourish.  Hysteria, alive and well in Gaga’s performances, thus manifests itself as a hysteria of commodity feminism: a performative reaction against the inevitability of self-commodifying and embodying a particular brand of femininity in order to succeed in the popular music industry.  In other words, for Gaga, hysteria is less an index of female oppression under patriarchy, and more indexical of the commercialization and commodification of femininity for the purpose of capital gain.  While defying convention through grotesque excess and by directly calling attention to her self-construction as a gendered commodity, Gaga ultimately reinscribes herself in the system that requires her to be marketed as a consumable product.  The ultimate effect of this resistance/reinscription is, as I said at the outset, ambiguous: Gaga is radical and conservative, truth and illusion, unthreatening and lethal.

Schutzman concludes her text with a hopeful statement about how hysteria can function as a conscious, performative strategy for resistance.  She writes: “What I hope is increasingly evident is how visual intelligence, bodily exclamations, and silent spectacles manage to stage a viable critique of the complex and the corrupt – how silence undoes dominant narratives, how image critiques ideology” (191).  Although she may not revolutionize the system in which she works, Gaga undoubtedly invites critique, discussion, and debate about the roles of femininity and performance in popular culture.  After all, as she teaches us in “Bad Romance,” we can try to buy her, but in the end, we’ll only get burned.  Gaga will smoke us for all we’re worth, and then smoke her post-lethal-coitus cigarette, and then take the money we spent buying her album on iTunes and her lipstick and her Heartbeats headphones and her Polaroid camera and her concert tickets, and find new ways of convincing us that we want to buy her all over again.  Because as long as we can’t fully read Gaga, and as long as Gaga keeps begging to be read through her provocative bodily language, we’ll keep on buying what she sells.

Works Cited
“Bad Romance.” Dir. Francis Lawrence. Perf. Lady Gaga.  Youtube.com.  23 Nov. 2009.  Web. 21 Apr. 2010.

Charcot, Jean-Martin.  Clinical lectures on diseases of the nervous system.  Trans. Thomas Savill. London: The New Sydenham Society, 1889.  Archive.org. Web. 18 Jan. 2010.

Cixous, Hélène, and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman.  Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.  Print.

Didi-Huberman, Georges.  Invention of Hysteria.  Trans. Alisa Hartz.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.  Print.

Esther, John.  “The Wild, Beautiful, and Entertaining Life of Lady Gaga.”  Lesbian News 34.8 (2009): 28-31.  Academic Search Complete.  Web.  1 Apr. 2010.

Freud, Sigmund.  Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.  Ed. Philip Rieff.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.  Print.

Freud, Sigmund.  “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomenon.”  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol III. Ed. James Strachey.  London: Hogarth Press, 1953.  27-39.  Print.

Freud, Sigmund.  “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol XIX.  Ed. James Strachey.  London: Hogarth Press, 1961.  248-258. Print.

Gallop, Jane.  “Keys to Dora.”  In Dora’s Case.  Eds. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.  200-220.  Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M.  “Introduction: A Tarantella of Theory.”  The Newly Born Woman.  Trans. Betsy Wing.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.  Print.

Halberstam, Judith.  “You Cannot Gaga Gaga.”  Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art about Lady Gaga.  6 Apr. 2010.  Web.  18 Apr. 2010.

Hall, David.  “‘Just Dance’ and ‘Telephone’ as Two Sides of the Same Coin.”  Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art about Lady Gaga.  12 Apr. 2010.  Web. 18 Apr. 2010.

Hampp, Andrew.  “Gaga, Oooh La La : Why the Lady is the Ultimate Social Climber.” Advertising Age.  22 Mar. 2010.  Academic Search Complete.  Web. 1 Apr 2010.

Hiatt, Brian.  “New York Doll.”  Rolling Stone.  11 Jun. 2009.  Academic Search Complete. Web.  1 Apr 2010.

Micale, Mark S.  “A Short ‘History’ of Hysteria.”  Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. 19-29. Print.

Mulvey, Laura.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  The Audience Studies Reader. Eds. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn.  London: Routledge, 2003.  133-142.  Print.

Schutzman, Mady.  The Real Thing: Performance, Hysteria, and Advertising.  Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999.  Print.

Showalter, Elaine.  Hystories.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.  Print.

Szymanski, Mike. “Lady GaGa admits her hit song 'Poker Face' is about her bisexuality." Examiner.com Calgary.  17 Apr. 2009.  Web.  21 Apr. 2010.

“Telephone.”  Dir. Jonas Akerlund.  Perf. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.  Ladygaga.com. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.

Wald, Christina.  Hysteria, Trauma, and Melancholia: Performative Maladies in Contemporary Anglophone Drama.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Winslow, Franklin.  “Lady Gaga: In Search of a New Thriller.”  Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art about Lady Gaga.  10 Apr. 2010.  Web.  28 Apr. 2010.

[3] See, for example, models displayed on popular dating website http://www.lavalife.com/.

[4] Mulvey was of course critiqued for positioning men as the sole controllers of the gaze, and she later revised her claim.  While in “Bad Romance” Gaga is performing for a specifically heterosexual male gaze, with which viewers are asked to identify, her relationship to audience spectatorship is much more complicated (and queer) in “Telephone.”  This discussion, however, lies outside the scope of this paper.

[5] In addition to her rumored hermaphroditism, Gaga’s sexuality has been the subject of widespread media interest.  In piece on Gaga for Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt writes that “Gaga considers herself bisexual, but her attraction to women is purely physical.”  Gaga further claims that her song “Poker Face” is about “having an unreadable "poker face" so that she can be with a man, but fantasize with a woman” (Szymanski).

[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF9A2OTZr0o 


Writer Bio:
Derritt Mason is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.  His dissertation explores representations of queer youth identity in fictional and theoretical texts, and he's had a thing for Gaga ever since she bled to death while performing "Paparazzi" at the MTV VMAs.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"Grab Your Old Girl With Her New Tricks": Lady Gaga and Reflective Performance

by Kathryn Leedom
“And then I was my reflection on / the mirror-like surface of the lake”– Joanne Stefani Germanotta, “For a Moment” 
“You know, Gaga, trust is like a mirror. You can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that motherfucker’s reflection.” – Beyonce and Lady Gaga, “Telephone” video
Celebrity worship blossomed in the twentieth century, with the advent of new media such as radio, television, and the internet. The combined force of these technologies has created a twenty-first century society dominated by media and the consumerism that this media promotes. The chaos produced by the society-dominating spectacle begs for directors, and it is this position that Lady Gaga has recently filled. Gaga’s rise to fame has differed from other current female performers in that she has molded herself into a position of authority within the spectacle. Her acquisition of this authority isn’t an accident; it’s the result of a carefully studied and meticulously enacted performance, both on and off stage. Gaga obliterates the line between reality and illusion by suggesting that our current reality is illusion, and vice versa. As Garry Leonard writes, “Reality, in an age of mass media, seems to be a convention that is formed in opposition to whatever polarized point of view we choose to view as ‘artificial’” (Leonard 29). Lady Gaga presents to her audience the illusory nature of reality, while simultaneously enacting narratives of a historical feminism, of commodity culture as religion, and of the self-destructiveness of fame which she represents through an all-encompassing performance consisting of music, fashion, and a figurative mirroring or projection of consumer culture which is referred to here as “reflective performance”; all of this is done in order elicit in the fans both a sense of striking individuality and a realization of their place in the large, like-minded community the allure of this independence attracts.

Let’s look first at a MTV Video Music Awards stage performance of Gaga’s song “Paparazzi,” which aired live on September 13th, 2009. The show opens with a string orchestra and a dancer flitting around stage. Lady Gaga says, “Can’t read my, can’t read my, no, he can’t read my poker face. Amidst all these flashing lights I pray that fame won’t take my life.”  She is lying on the floor, as if she lacked the strength to stand on her own. Dressed in white lace, with two large feathers sticking up from her head, she resembles a bunny rabbit. Her dancers slowly help her to her feet while she begins to sing. Soon, her dancers remove the headpiece. Blood begins to slowly color her chest, seeping into the white fabric. A wheelchair with a masked woman dressed in white inside is rolled onto the stage by a dancer. The woman is insane. She enters from stage right, leaves stage left. Lady Gaga approaches a large white piano. She begins to pound a repetitive tune. As she gets up from the piano and walks towards center stage singing “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” her voice breaks as if she’s crying the lyrics and the blood from her chest runs down her stomach. She notices this and becomes more hysterical, smearing the blood on her hands and singing the lyrics in a desperate, pleading voice. A dancer lifts her in his arms, and she is hoisted onto a rope and pulled up into the air. Hanging from the rope by an arm, she poses for the camera noises with a vacant look and a bloody eye. The dancers bow their heads and the performance ends.

This stage show, while most clearly presenting the narrative of the destructive nature of fame, provides the viewer with images of other texts. The outfit of white lace could represent the old narrative of woman as angel, which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar so aptly describe in The Madwoman in the Attic: “. . . until quite recently the woman writer has had (if only unconsciously) to define herself as a mysterious creature who resides behind the angel or monster or angel/monster image that lives on what Mary Elizabeth Coleridge called ‘the crystal surface’” (Gilbert & Gubar 17). Gaga uses fashion as an aspect of her general performance in order to convey narratives which she doesn’t have to literally state. Rather, the presentation of images on her body lets the viewers draw their own conclusions. Leonard writes,
Fashion, as Walter Benjamin put it, is a tiger leaping out to devour the past. It is not arbitrary, yet it cannot be anticipated. Style is to history what pantomime is to speech – a gesturing that is evocative rather than a statement that is (presumably) definitive. History, Jameson tells us, is what hurts. Style is not the truth, but rather gestures prompted by the truth, gestures that style embodies, thus evoking a sense of something being true. Style, because of its everyday, temporary quintessence, converts the inarticulate pain of history into attitude, performance, and pose (Leonard 5).
Through fashion, Gaga is able to portray this “inarticulate pain of history” in a way that contains commentary but also leaves ends open for interpreters “who render their own translation, who appropriate the story for themselves, and who ultimately make their own story out of it” (Rancière 280). Gilbert and Gubar also note that “whether she is a passive angel or an active monster, in other words, the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her. . .” (Gilbert & Gubar 57). The performance then takes on a feminist message. The categorizing of women by society into either angel or monster images is both archaic and relevant. The image of Lady Gaga bleeding and hanging on stage in her white lace could be read as the result of a consuming fame, but it also could represent the sacrifice of the virgin, or “angel” stereotype.

Another possible reading of these images involves interpreting Gaga’s self-sacrifice as a representation of the connections between Christian religion and commodity culture. The image of Gaga dressed innocently and being sacrificed on high for something ultimately greater than herself – the spectacle of fame -- draws parallels to Jesus’ crucifixion. Recent theorists and academics, such as Garry Leonard, have argued that commodity culture in modernity has become a new religion – a religion in which members pray/pay at “the altar of the marketplace” (Leonard 45). If worship of commodities has replaced worship of religious relics, what does this mean when thinking about the idea of celebrity and fame? The everyman’s desire to claim certain ideas that a celebrity represents and use these ideas (in terms of dress, mannerisms, or actions) to define him or her own self relates to this concept in that the celebrity is viewed as commodity. If seen from this perspective, Gaga has positioned herself as the second-coming. The members of the church devotedly worship her, praise her by singing her music, and will ultimately destroy (or tire of) her performance, and consequently, her person; all of this she represents on stage, in photography (see appendix), and in song lyrics. She hints towards impending demise and resurrection in songs like “Dance in the Dark,” in which she assumedly positions herself alongside the blondes she mentions:
Marilyn / Judy / Sylvia / Tell ‘em how you feel girls / Work your blonde (Jean) Benet Ramsey / We’ll haunt like Liberace / Find your freedom in the music / Find your Jesus / Find your Kubrick / You will never fall apart / Diana, you’re still in our hearts / Never let you fall apart / Together we’ll dance in the dark.
Gaga, as an image of the second-coming, resurrects past images of women she incarnates – like Marilyn Monroe – in order to present a fuller text in which she is the culminating product. In another song, “Teeth,” she addresses religion more directly: “Got no salvation / Got no religion / My religion is you.” Towards the end of the song, the phrase “my religion is you” is repeated. Picturing a scenario where Gaga is singing this phrase to an audience, one can assume that the fan is singing the lyric back to her -- creating an echoing of sentiment. In this way, Gaga has tricked the audience into telling her what she already knows; their religion is her.

After she murdered the angel stereotype and sacrificed herself as a Christ-figure on stage, Gaga took up the image of monster. The second half of her album, The Fame, came out on December 15th 2009, titled The Fame Monster. She started calling her fans her “little monsters,” and a song on her album is titled, “Monster.” Gilbert and Gubar put the term into a historical feminist context: “women who did not apologize for their literary efforts were defined as mad and monstrous: freakish because ‘unsexed’ or freakish because sexually ‘fallen’” (Gilbert & Gubar 63). Lady Gaga takes this dated concept – the woman portrayed as mad and sexually ill due to her ownership of creativity – and claims ownership to the label of monster in a way that is positive and trendy. The idea of the monster is portrayed by Gaga through an image-based narrative. Everything Gaga presents to the public is the fruit of a carefully studied and meditated performance. Even in interviews, she puts on her act:
As we began the conversation, Gaga spoke carefully in a very odd accent—some combination of Madonna as Madge and a robot, an affect enhanced by the fact that she refused to remove her lightly tinted sunglasses over the course of two hours. ‘What I’ve discovered,” said robo-Gaga, with a photo-ready tilt of her head, “is that in art, as in music, there’s a lot of truth—and then there’s a lie. The artist is essentially creating his work to make this lie a truth, but he slides it in amongst all the others. The tiny little lie is the moment I live for, my moment. It’s the moment that the audience falls in love’ (Grigoriadis 1).
This is almost a meta-moment in which Gaga embodies the illusory nature of reality while simultaneously explaining to the media how she presents the lie as the truth. These meta-moments where Gaga presents a lie in order to signify greater truths are where her performance finds its transcendent nature.

In “Manifesto of Little Monster,” a video shown during an interlude of her concert, the “Monster Ball,” Lady Gaga directly addresses what she calls “the lie” and simultaneously describes it as “the real truth”:
This is the manifesto of little monster. There’s something heroic about the way my fans operate their cameras. So precisely, so intricately, and so proudly. Like kings writing the history of their people. It’s their prolific nature that both creates and procures what will later be perceived as ‘the kingdom.’ So, the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the kings. They are the queens. They write the history of the kingdom, and I am something of a devoted jester. It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image, without our projection, without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather to become, in the future.  When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too. And this is ‘the fame.’ Love and art, 12/18/1974, Lady Gaga.
The ideas about perception and projection in this video, in which Gaga reads the text over images of herself dressed in various masks, provide a solid basis for what is referred to in this paper as reflective performance: an aspect of Gaga’s projection in which she functions as a mirror for consumer culture and her audience. She performs this mirroring through her fashion and her music. In terms of fashion, Gaga will occasionally dress in accordance with a specific person for whom she is performing; for example, when she sang for Queen Elizabeth II of England during the 2009 Royal Variety Performance, she wore a dress reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth I. There are several other instances of Gaga using fashion and her body as a mirror, including the outfit she wore to meet Barbara Walters for a televised interview titled “The Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009,” her mirroring of Beyonce’s dress and dance moves in the video for Beyonce’s “Video Phone,” in her mimicking of David Archuleta’s publically-established cuteness, and in taking pictures of the paparazzi as they take pictures of her. Most recently, on June 1st, 2010 Gaga appeared on “Larry King Live” for an interview dressed in attire reminiscent of Larry King himself -- even her posture and hand gestures echoed his.

The sound and content of her music also plays a role in reflective performance. Scott Plagenhoef writes in a review of The Fame Monster, “Elsewhere on The Fame Monster, she morphs into other stars-- Freddie Mercury on ‘Speechless’, ABBA on ‘Alejandro’, Madonna on ‘Dance in the Dark’, Britney Spears on ‘Telephone’, Kylie Minogue on ‘Monster’, and Christina Aguilera on ‘Teeth’” (Plagenhoef 1). Considering the reflective aspects of her fashion and music combined, a certain paradox begins to emerge in which Lady Gaga is extremely unique and yet reminiscent of many various people. 

Lady Gaga also mirrors the love her fans give to her back to them, and the community that they form is something she is set on cultivating. Powers, in her interview, writes of Lady Gaga, “She is growing ‘more compassionate,’ she says, and focusing more on ideas of community, especially the one formed by her core fan base . . . ”(Powers 1). Lady Gaga also said in an interview with Jonathan Ross, “In the show, I look out into the audience and at the end of the night I say, ‘If the show was successful, they don’t leave connected to me, they leave connected to each other.’” The message this sends is similar to the one Lady Gaga embodies herself: everyone is unique, yet similar enough to form a giant community. Getting past obsessions with individual uniqueness allows the fan base to unify and recognize their power in numbers. In creating a congregation, Gaga makes something larger than herself. The feeling of power and almost transcendence that accompanies the harmony of the community tightens the bond this population has to its subject: Gaga. Mirroring her fan’s love has the benefit of securing her position in fame, while also playing into her larger performance theme of reflection.

After cataloguing numerous instances in which Gaga uses reflective performance, one begins to think that there must be significance behind this move.  This mirror isn’t one that presents things exactly as is – it presents an image which invites contemplation and denies answers in favor of questions. Instead of saying “look at me,” Gaga has been telling her audience “look at you while you’re looking at me.” The Fame Monster seems to send the message that Gaga doesn’t want to be looked at or talked to, yet her position in the public spotlight tells society otherwise. In “Monster,” she says “don’t call me Gaga,” and “don’t look at me like that.” In “Alejandro,” she says “don’t call my name.” In “Telephone,” she says “stop calling, stop calling, I don’t want to think anymore.” Lady Gaga telling the world she doesn’t want to be looked at, while simultaneously living in the public spotlight, presents another interesting contradiction to her audience. She is unique and but also representative, seeking fame and also desirous of anonymity, claiming that “the real truth” is fiction.  Jean Baudrillard writes in The Perfect Crime, “The absence of things from themselves, the fact that they do not take place though they appear to do so, the fact that everything withdraws behind its own appearance and is, therefore, never identical with itself, is the material illusion of the world” (Baudrillard 2). Perhaps this concept is most easily grasped in a recent claim that Lady Gaga made: that she’s celibate – despite many of her songs depicting drunken debauchery and casual sex (Donaldson-Evans 1). As Baudrillard states, these things “do not take place though they appear to do so.” All of these paradoxes are presented by Gaga as co-existing. She can sing “don’t call me Gaga,” and afterwards ask to be referred to as Gaga. The appearance of contradiction does not negate either established information; it only suggests that the truth is not our perception of truth at all. As she says, “we are nothing without our image” (“Manifesto of Little Monster”). Without image, there is nothing – it is “the absence of things from themselves” (Baudrillard 2). Illusion is the truth, and Gaga embodies illusion. 

The way in which Lady Gaga presents herself to her audience is through a single, all-encompassing performance which she enacts both on and off stage through music, fashion, and reflective performance. In the credits of the booklet for her album The Fame, Gaga writes, “But before I begin, I need to say that each and every chemical moment of my life, every person I have spoken with, every street I have traveled, every museum, country, city, space or home that I have visited has been a profound instance and is mirrored, whether obviously or in some refracted way, in the work you see today.” Gaga’s performance mirrors society “whether obviously or in some refracted way” in order to allude to the illusory nature of reality. Her stage shows provide the audience with images of multiple, layered narratives which are open for interpretation. Her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 VMA’s is an example of a text which is exposed for commentary on the destructiveness of fame, historical feminism, and commodity culture in relation to Christian religion. The unity she encourages her fans to create through mutual realizations of individuality encourages an acceptance of the co-habitation of contradictions present in her performance. “‘It’s kind of like a crusade in its own way,’ she said. ‘Me embodying the position that I'm analyzing is the very thing that makes it so powerful’” (Powers 1). Indeed. The secret about Lady Gaga is there is no secret.

Works Cited and Consulted
Baudrillard, Jean.  The Perfect Crime.  New York: Verso, 2002.

Debord, Guy.  The Society of the Spectacle.  New York: Zone Books, 2008.

Dery, Mark.  “Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightening Bolt Back: On Lady Gaga.” TRUE/SLANT. 20 April 2010.  23 April 2010  http://trueslant.com/markdery/2010/04/20/aladdin-sane-called-he-wants-his-lightning-bolt-back-on-lady-gaga/

Donaldson-Evans, Catherine.  “Lady Gaga Tells Fans: ‘Don’t Have Sex.’”  People.  12 April 2010. 15 May 2010 http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20360204,00.html

Freud, Sigmund.  “On Narcissism: An Introduction.”  The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar.  The Madwoman in the Attic.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Grigoriadis, Vanessa.  “Growing Up Gaga.”  New York 5 April 2010.

Jameson, Frederic.  Postmodernism, or, The Culture of Late Capitalism.  Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Lacan, Jacques.  “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, as Revealed in Pyschoanalytic Experience.” Ecrits.  New York: Norton, 2002.

“Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance – The Occult Meaning.” The Vigilant Citizen. 15 Nov. 2009. 25 March 2010 http://vigilantcitizen.com/?p=2737

---.  “Lady Gaga, The Illuminati Puppet.”  The Vigilant Citizen.  4 Aug. 2009.  25 April 2010

“Lady Gaga and Social Death: a Genealogy.” Dystopolitik. 25 March 2010. 1 April 2010 http://dystopolitik.blogspot.com/2010/03/lady-gaga-and-social-death-genealogy.html

Leonard, Garry.  Advertising and Commodity Culture in Joyce.  Gainsville: UP of Florida, 1998.

Plagenhoef, Scott.  Rev. of The Fame Monster, by Lady Gaga.  Pitchfork.  13 Jan. 2010. 1 April 2010 http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/13823-the-fame-monster/

Powers, Ann.  “Frank Talk with Lady Gaga.”  Los Angeles Times 13 Dec. 2009.

Rancière, Jacques.  “The Emancipated Spectator.” Artforum March 2007: 271-280.

Writer Bio:
Kathryn Leedom is currently a student in the English literature master's program at CSU Sacramento. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in literature from UC Santa Cruz last year. She enjoys any old cup of jasmine green tea, the smell of ancient books, and pretending to be cool. When thoughts of Lady Gaga aren't getting her out of bed to scribble on 3x5 cards, they're infiltrating her dreams.  

Friday, June 4, 2010

From Symbol to Style: Lady Gaga's Secret Religion

by Jeremy Biles

Is Lady Gaga—the self-proclaimed “fame monster” so well known for her enticing pop music, outrageous fashion, and elaborately staged spectacles—involved in a pseudo-religious conspiracy of global moment? The answer is “yes”—but not for the reasons that the conspiracy theorists believe.

One main source for theories concerning the prevalence of occult symbols in Lady Gaga’s oeuvre is the intriguing (and highly speculative) set of analyses penned by the anonymous author of the Vigilant Citizen, an enjoyably paranoid e-zine devoted to exposing secret forces at work in mass media and popular culture.

Taking seriously its motto (attributed to Confucius) that “Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws,” the Vigilant Citizen (henceforth VC) seeks “to understand the world we live in,” by “[going] beyond the face value of symbols in pop culture to reveal their esoteric meaning.”

In revealing the esoteric meanings of Lady Gaga’s prodigious and fascinatingly outré productions, VC highlights images and gestures suggesting the artist’s connection with the Illuminati, a term used today to designate a secret group believed by some to shape world affairs through governments and front organizations. Pop stars like Jay-Z and political behemoths, including Barack Obama and members of the Bush family, have been cited in connection with the cult. But it is perhaps Lady Gaga who draws the most attention for her regular and conspicuous displays of symbolism associated with the Illuminati.

For instance, in “Lady Gaga, the Illuminati Puppet,” VC finds in Lady Gaga’s name and wardrobe allusions to MKULTRA, a “covert CIA mind-control and chemical interrogation research program,” that pioneered a “mind-control technique which exposes the subject to a trauma so violent that his/her mind creates a dissociation.” “Gaga” evokes the absentmindedness resulting from the dissociative trauma, a name that says, according to VC: “I’m a lady and I’m empty-headed. This empty head can filled with any crap you want. Imitate me, young people. This state of mind is achieved after successful mind control.” The eventual transformation of the traumatically emptied personality is likened to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly—hence the use of butterfly patterns in Lady Gaga’s wardrobe.

VC goes on to analyze Lady Gaga’s logo, a headless—and thus mindless—female figure riven by a jagged bolt of lightning. He also notes Lady Gaga’s penchant for hiding one of her eyes, evoking one of the most salient Illuminati symbols, the single “All-Seeing Eye.” Another sinister image portrays Lady Gaga as a mannequin, with arms positioned in a manner clearly resembling that of Baphomet in the form of the Sabbatic Goat (a quintessential Satanic symbol). A protective eye is embedded in Lady Gaga’s palm—the Hand of Fatima?
A conspiratorial reading of such “occult” signs is tempting and, frankly, fun. In the face of so much “evidence,” it is easy to see why so many people find this interpretation engrossing, even if not always convincing.

But I want to propose a different interpretation. Lady Gaga is no puppet for the Illuminati. She is a highly charismatic and multitalented figure whose symbol-laden presentations are evidence not of occult involvements, but of a strategic, effective, and very canny self-display centering obsessively on one concern: fame and the mechanisms that produce and support it.

Sociologist of religion Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’ from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” These qualities, Weber writes, “are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”

One may argue about whether the charismatic Lady Gaga’s exceptional talent for devising compelling spectacles is divine in origin. What cannot be disputed is the fact that she has captivated the attention of the masses in a most astounding way, setting her on a fame trajectory that may eclipse even that of Michael Jackson. She has done this by fashioning a simultaneously protean and distinctive image of herself.

And in a very real sense, Lada Gaga just is image—she is all persona, all spectacle, all surface. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might have said that Lady Gaga exemplifies the defining feature of our postmodern era, in which signs and images have taken the place of reality—“hyperreality” is what he calls this phenomenon. “In postmodern hyperreal culture, the simulated image no longer covers over some hidden reality or truth beneath the representation. Rather, it conceals the real secret, which is that there no longer is any reality or truth beneath the simulated image.”

Lady Gaga self-consciously applies an analogous logic to the various facets of her public personae, including her use of occult symbols. Notwithstanding the worries of the conspiracy theorists, Lady Gaga’s symbols do not hide some deeper truth. They are part of the total simulation called “Lady Gaga.” In fact, the occluded eyes, sinister postures and such are no longer symbols at all. They are elements of surface style.

The secret that these “symbols” conceal is that there is no truth behind them. They are strategic components within Lady Gaga’s experiments in fame. They do not evidence involvement with the Illuminati; rather, they betoken an artful and shrewd evacuation of meaning, a conversion of evocative symbols into provocative but empty components of style. This strategic move has been highly effective; “everyone” is talking about Lady Gaga, on television, in blogs, and in articles like this one. Charismatic and ingenious, Lady Gaga is not the puppet of a secret religious order, but the figurehead of her own cult of fame—a fame monster.

Lady Gaga’s (non)religion can thus be summed up in Baudrillard’s words: today, we have moved “from a theology of truth and secrecy… [into] an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate true from false, the real from its artificial resurrection.”

Lady Gaga is nothing other than an artificial resurrection. Like the ostensibly esoteric symbols that are so prevalent in her spectacles, she is a sign devoid of deeper meaning. A self-created simulation, Lady Gaga is no puppet, mindlessly executing a secret agendum; she is a self-styled, self-aware, and charismatic mannequin—an artificial person—who knows how to exploit, extend, and exacerbate the contemporary zeitgeist in her exploration and cultivation of fame.

This is all to say that there is no shadowy conspiracy at work here. The conspiracy is already fully exposed; it’s all right there, on the surface, and we are all complicit in it. Within Lady Gaga’s simulated reality, there are no shadows; she exists solely in the spotlight of fame, amidst stylized signs evacuated of hidden content.

Lady Gaga’s secret is hidden in plain sight. She reveals that today it is not signs or symbols that rule the world and control our minds. It is style.


VigilantCitizen, “Lady Gaga, the Illuminati Puppet”:
“The Hidden Meaning of Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’”:

Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 1947.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1995.

Writer Bio:
Jeremy Biles teaches courses on religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture at various institutions in Chicago. He is the author of the book Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).  

A slightly condensed version of this article appeared in the online publication Religion Dispatches on May 21, 2010.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Donate to Gaga Stigmata

Gaga Stigmata is now accepting donations--please consider contributing if you find the material on the site valuable, and would like to see it continue to improve in quality and scope.

The donations tab is on the sidebar of this blog.