"[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 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.  


  1. This is amazing. I noticed her mimicing Larry King, which was of course brilliant. But this essay does such a good job of analyzing all the previous instances she's done something similar.

    I'm also really excited for all the press Gaga Stigmata has been getting recently! And honored to be among those published on the site.


  2. Lady Gaga's mimicry throughout her career is rather remarkable, and you did a wonderful job highlighting these moments. However, I think your argument regarding her mimicry would have been stronger if you had tied in what Gaga has said about her latest collaborations: that she collaborates with who she wants to rather than who she feels obligated to. That the outfit is not a only reflection of Beyoncé, but rather that Lady Gaga being deferential to her and the other subjects. Her appearances with Barbara Walters, Larry King, etc. are all out of her own desires, not obligation. She is "something of a devoted jester."

    That being said, this is a wonderful piece and I hope to see more of your work on Gaga Stigmata.

    Also... I'm graduating in comp lit from UCSB in a few days--we're System Sisters!

  3. Megan,
    First and foremost I relish reading your pieces on Gaga and the pieces on GagaStigmata.
    Thankyou for your various contributions.
    Although, this is not particularly in your style of analysis. However, I thought it may be interesting to ponder upon Gaga’s obsession with death both as a realistic occurrence and an unrealistic symbol (metamorphosis).
    I came across some information the other day talking about ‘The monsters Ball’, not Gagas monster ball but a custom in medieval England where prisoners awaiting execution were called monsters. The night before their execution, their jailers would hold a feast known as a monster's ball as their final farewell. To some extent Gaga emulates this in her ‘Monster Ball’ where death is echoed. The symbols and analysis that could be taken is almost infinite. However, one part I focus on is the symbol of this frightening woman whos fear ultimately consumed her sanity. This is arguably pivotal to Gagas vision of the monster ball… the liberation and ‘death’ of her fans.
    Just some ponderings.

  4. Her quote "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." reminds me of DeLillo's White Noise. The characters always being concerned with how they are perceived and experiences not being "real" unless the media is there to capture it-produce an image for everyone to see. I think the mirroring/mimicking definitely ties into the relationship she has with her fans. Very interesting article.

  5. The "Alejandro" video is just further validation of this article.

  6. I adore Lady Gaga. I think she's artistic, innovative and icnic on hte level of David Bowie.

  7. I've noticed that Gaga has made several homages to people including Larry King, Madonna, etc. In my opinion they are intentional but she doesn't do it for publicity/attention. For example, whenever she did the interview with Barbara Walters, I noticed her outfit that she wore was somewhat un-Gaga of her. Normally in interviews she goes full blown Gaga with her Haus outfits, or whatever she feels like wearing (which I completely admire her for). So when she wore the (mostly) plain black dress, to me it was an homage to Barbara. The fabric and cut of the dress looks 60's-esque, which (if I'm correct) was when Barbara started out. Another thing I noticed about the dress was that the sleeves were long and so was the dress itself, which is reminiscent of the 60's where women were constrained by the restrictiveness of what they wore. Her dress wasn't revealing at all, it covered all of her upper body and most of her legs which is different from Gaga's normally outlandish outfits. Women weren't really allowed to dress provocatively unless they were pin-ups etc. Also, I noticed she was wearing gloves, which most women don't wear unless the weather calls for it, yet she was wearing gloves. The gloves were just another indication to me how she was covering herself completely, even though they're just hands. But that's how people were before feminist movements and such. One more thing was her hair and makeup: they were much simpler than her norm, and her hair was styled similarly to Barbara's in the way it was up and tousled. These are just my opinions and thought I'd throw them out to give some insight. To the writers of this site: I found this site a few days ago and have fallen madly in love with it. Your analyzes are spot-on and just keep doing what you're doing.

  8. from Garry Leonard, University of Toronto

    A student directed me to your site and mentioned quotes from my book on Advertising and commodity culture were here. And I think Lady Gaga does bring out even more explicitly something Madonna hinted at: the absence of ritual and sacrifice in modernity, and its corresponding prevalence in gaga's iconography. The biggest myth of modernity is that it is an era that has "moved beyond" myths. The myth of progress, the myth of efficiency, the myth of satisfaction, these are all myths we use to organize our experiences and direct our choices--and what is that angry oil well boiling away in the gulf of Mexico but a message from an angry god that destruction is sure to follow if we continue to worship false idols?

  9. 10 years have passed and we're still seeing reflections of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s on music, art, fashion, and multimedia imagery; whether it's amy winehouse's beehive hair, all the “new rave” and indie bands with their silly approach on 80s and psychedelic music, or even karl lagerfeld's beautiful designs for channel's latest cruise collection.

    the way lady gaga mirrors pop culture's significant elements is proof of how she the best artist of this first decade of the 21st century, in which we've been reflecting about, or just boringly and idiotically copying, the century that just ended.

    the futuristic [for lack of a better term] punch in gaga’s persona and performance is that she is the piece she's producing. it's not just her music, photoshoots or videos - it's her everything! reinvention divas of pop pantheon, such as madonna or kylie minogue, have been assuming new personas and alter-egos every time they set up for a new work: madonna has been dita [erotica], veronica electronica [ray of light], has embedded patty hearst [american life] and guetto fashionable with m-dollah [hard candy]; kylie minogue has been "indie kylie", "smiley kylie", "dancey kylie" etc. lady gaga, however, is everything all the time and still is indefinable!

    art seeks for iconicity by always appearing and suggesting instead of simple or obviously stating. the jean braudillard's quote about "the fact that they do not take place though they appear to do so" is perfect to note lady gaga as an icon of art in the current pop culture, because like you said it's not only her music or on-stage personas that reflect her design of work. so far there isn't anyone that has come to claim the “stefani joanne angelina germanotta”, not even her parents. that's why it's not only lady gaga's work that is an icon, but the woman herself.

    i'm from brazil, study journalism and if pop culture is my life fascination, lady gaga is my current obsession. i loved this post and i'm craving to read everything on this blog. i wish google translator was more efficient, because everyone i know NEEDS to read your thoughts on this century pop culture phenomenon.

  10. "When you are lonely
    I'll be lonely too
    And this is
    The Fame."
    She intends to tell us who we are, by being who we are. I think it's this childish instinct in Stefani when she tries to blend in with the other kids in school. By 'Gaga-ing' the same sentiment, today she is in fact the "Famous" kid.

  11. we are the little monster!!!
    Luv U Monster GaGa

  12. She is such a cool artist, her videos and outfits are just awesome.


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