by Victor P. Corona
On July 6th, as the temperature gradually crept past 100 degrees, New York City welcomed both Queen Elizabeth II and Lady Gaga, two women who have played central roles in an ongoing cultural reckoning with the power of tradition and fame. The city’s political leadership ceremoniously received Her Majesty, who addressed the United Nations, visited Ground Zero, and opened a memorial garden in honor of Britons killed on 9/11. The Queen—for whom Gaga performed in December 2009—was reminded by New York’s mayor that the city was named after a very distant cousin of hers (Kleinfield). Later that evening, Gaga fans assembled to welcome their “Mother Monster” to Madison Square Garden for the first of three sold-out shows, while fan websites worked to make “Madison Square Gaga” a trending topic on Twitter. Gaga’s arrival in Gotham for a week of performances coincided with other career milestones that cemented her place as the world’s first hypermodern pop star (Corona). Having displaced President Obama as the most popular living person on Facebook, Gaga also became the third most followed person on Twitter, just behind yesteryear’s pop princess, Britney Spears, and Ashton Kutcher,[i] while her album The Fame sold the highest number of digital copies in music history (Grein).
In explaining the meaning of her Monster Ball concert tour, she told CNN’s Larry King a month earlier that the show was a “celebration of shame,” “a rejection of insecurity,” and “an exorcism for my fans and for myself.” At the beginning of the Garden show, Gaga proclaimed to her audience that the show “will set you free” from insecurities. Male and female fans—her “little monsters”—seemed to harbor few insecurities as they adorned themselves with glasses made out of cigarettes, hats composed of telephone parts, vestments made from crime scene tape, and other outfits inspired by Gaga’s music videos and appearances. The next morning, an apparently bewildered New York Post writer concluded that the show was “Broadway for the deranged” (Aquilante). A New York Daily News critic discussed the show’s allusions to The Wizard of Oz via its story of a band of friends that is transported to a faraway land (Farber). Yet in Gaga’s world, an innocent trek down the Yellow Brick Road is replaced with a journey along the “Glitter Way,” one that brazenly eschews the primacy of verity. As Gaga told concert-goers, “I hate the truth. See how far you can go with bullshit.”
During the Monster Ball’s set changes, eerie footage showed Gaga biting into a heart and wearing masks and hoods that recalled the frightening looks of Leigh Bowery. In a video interlude accompanied by her “Dance in the Dark” song, Gaga stands dressed in a frilly white gown, assuming a statuesque pose. The performance artist Millie Brown, dressed in black, vomits a bright blue liquid on Gaga, who simply stares straight ahead.[ii] This segment seemed to enact the lyrics of Gaga’s wildly popular “Bad Romance” single, “I want your ugly, I want your disease,” a kind of visual promise to her audience of what her ongoing artistic venture will entail. The visually and sonically overwhelming spectacle of the Monster Ball was therefore a clear demonstration of the ability of the pop singer and her Haus of Gaga creative team to interweave diverse aesthetic elements. Gaga’s successful execution of this project contributed to her being named 2010’s “Most Creative Person in Business” by Fast Company magazine. Placing her alongside executives from Apple and Nissan, the magazine lauded her ability to combine “au courant dance pop and Web savvy to build a business empire notable for both the speed of its creation and the diversity of its platforms” (Macsai).
But Gaga, her fellow performers, and excited fans were not the only actors in the Monster Ball spectacle. Parents in attendance also tried to reckon with the gender-bending theatricality that has come to feature so strongly in Gaga’s aesthetic. At the merchandise counter, an anxious-looking mother approached a vendor and asked to see a white t-shirt bearing the clawed hand that has become the “little monster” salute. Brow furrowed, she eyed it carefully until she finally asked the vendor, “Is this t-shirt ok for boys?” Later, during the show, two grim-faced parents seated near me remained motionless even as the rest of the audience bounced and swayed. The father stood silently with arms folded at the sight of Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons asking the audience if they liked his glistening high heels. The man did not seem amused when Gaga introduced one of her male dancers and said that he liked both girls and boys. But after Gaga vanquished a giant angler fish with sparks emitting from her chest and crotch, the reluctant father succumbed and quickly took out his camera.
Gaga’s Glitter Way reached Gotham in the middle of a year that has already stirred the imaginations of the city’s creative community through exhibits like the Metropolitan Museum’s “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity,” the Brooklyn Museum’s display of late-career works by Andy Warhol, and the Tim Burton and Marina Abramovic retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In May 2010, Gaga visited Abramovic’s unprecedented durational performance, one that seemed to severely test the artist’s emotional, mental, and physical stamina. Staring directly at any museum visitor who wished to sit across from her during a three-month period, Abramovic’s dramatic commentary on the intimacy and intrusion of the human gaze also attracted the musicians Björk, Lou Reed, and Rufus Wainwright. A few weeks later, during a conversation with Gaga broadcast live on the fashion site SHOWstudio.com, an interviewer read a question submitted by Abramovic, who simply asked Gaga, “Who creates limits?” Gaga’s unhesitant response was consistent with her concert’s gospel of individual liberation and also recognized just how far Abramovic had pushed her own consciousness. Gaga replied, “We do. We create our own limits. [Abramovic] is a limitless human being!”
Late last year, MoMA had launched another major retrospective, one that celebrated Tim Burton’s dark Pop Surrealist vision and his unique ability to incorporate ghoulish distortions of human bodies into his drawings, animations, films, and sculptures. The ambition of his oeuvre in some ways resonated with Gaga’s own devotion to the monstrous. A related MoMA film series, “Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters,” featured films that inspired his vision, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a prime example of the German Expressionist influence that the Daily News detected in Gaga’s Monster Ball. It is perhaps not surprising to observe the renewed vigor of a monstrous motif in pop culture, given the endless string of embarrassments suffered by celebrities and politicians. Imagery and narratives built around “misfits” and “freaks”—perhaps best exemplified in contemporary cinema by the Twilight films—somehow capture an alternative sense of authenticity and heroism. More scholars are paying attention to this motif, as seen in the planned University of London conference called “Hybrids, Monsters, Aliens and Other Creatures in 20th and 21st Century Writing,” to be held in September 2010.[iii]
Since many others have described Andy Warhol’s influence on Gaga, I was not surprised to catch glimpses of artistic resonances at the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade.” Indeed, a profile of Gaga in New York traced her artistic transformation back to the Pop artist, stating, “Before Warhol, however unusual, she’d been in the general category of rock chick. He freed her to invent herself, like so many before her, expand herself, make herself a spectacle” (Grigoriadis). The Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit highlighted Warhol’s experimentation with different techniques in his later works, some in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat.[iv] Yet Warhol conserves his early interest in core symbols of American pop culture and the influence of his own aesthetic initiation through commercial art. A massive painting features motorcycles, Jesus, a 6.99 price tag, the Wise potato chips logo, and an eagle, while smaller canvasses based on print advertisements read, “Steaks 99¢,” “Self-Defense Secrets Revealed!” and “Are You ‘Different?’”
Warhol’s fascination with the commercial logos and messages that pervade urban life was echoed in the bright neon signs that serve as a backdrop to the first part of Gaga’s Monster Ball: “BBQ,” “Implants Sedation Dentistry,” and “Death Cases Car Accidents Whiplash Injured Children.” Alongside these, a red neon arrow that reads “Death” points offstage.
A preoccupation with mortality is another interest shared between the two icons. Visitors to the Warhol exhibit are greeted with ten images of the Pop artist being strangled from behind. Gaga herself has stirred controversy through the murders that occur in three of her videos and her bloody performances during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and the Monster Ball shows. In another set of images, Warhol sits calmly with a skull on top of his head, just as casually as Gaga lies next to a charred skeleton at the end of her “Bad Romance” video. Other works reflect Warhol’s curiosity about Abstract Expressionism. Yet rather that imitate the movement that his Pop art initially challenged, Warhol seemed to defy and dilute the intent of the Expressionists’ gestural paintings by creating works that appear to be drips but are actually prints. Also, the shimmering smears and splotches in the Oxidation series are made not with thick oil paint but with urine. Just as Warhol’s stylistic versatility signals his openness to crossing boundaries separating artistic movements, other observers have noticed similarly fluid and ambiguous characteristics of the aesthetic edifice that Gaga has constructed around her vocal ability and songwriting. As Vicks correctly notes in this blog, “Her performance continually transgresses and functions by transgressing, which allows Lady Gaga to be both whimsical and serious, sexy and monstrous, and meaningless and meaningful at the same time” (Vicks).
Although it was inevitable that Gaga’s Monster Ball troupe would follow the Glitter Way back to Gotham, the three sold-out Garden concerts were particularly significant for the pop star, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Several years earlier, Gaga’s high school yearbook entry had declared that her dream was to headline at the Garden, where she had once seen Madonna, Cher, and the Rolling Stones perform. She would have probably been amused by the fact that the commotion she triggered at baseball games a month before had prompted the popular Gothamist blog to declare that the city was “unofficially on Gaga Watch” during her week of performances (Carlson). But before leaving New York to continue her Monster Ball in Canada, Gaga performed for a national audience during NBC’s The Today Show on July 9th. Like the Monster Ball audience, fans flooded Rockefeller Center wearing intricately built hats or with lightning bolts painted on their faces. Standing just in front of me, a mother carefully adjusted her teenage daughter’s bright pink wig. A boy behind me, speaking in Spanish, excitedly told someone over the phone to watch Gaga’s performance and look for him in the crowd. After a rehearsal, Gaga appeared on the telecast dressed in custom-made Emporio Armani suits. As the show wound down, Gaga continued to sing and dance even as heavy rain started falling upon the 20,000 amassed fans, finishing her performance by screaming, “Let it rain!” As the show went to commercial, an anchor murmured, “Wow…incredible,” reacting as many Gothamites did during their sweltering yet spectacle-filled week of Gaga.
Aquilante, Dan. “Madison Sq. Ga-Garden.” New York Post. 7 Jul. 2010.
Carlson, Jen. “The City’s Unofficially On Gaga Watch.” Gothamist. 7 Jul. 2010.
Corona, Victor P. “Memory, Monsters, and Lady Gaga.” Journal of Popular Culture, forthcoming.
Grein, Paul. “Chart Watch.” Yahoo! Music. 7 Jul. 2010.
Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “Growing Up Gaga.” New York. 28 Mar. 2010.
Farber, Jim. “Lady Gaga’s Concert at Madison Square Garden is a Nod to Expressionism, ‘Oz.’” New York Daily News. 7 Jul. 2010.
Kleinfield, N.R. “The Queen Breezes In for an Afternoon.” New York Times. 6 Jul. 2010.
Macsai, Dan. “100 Most Creative People in Business 2010.” Fast Company. Jul. 2010.
Vicks, Meghan. “The Icon and the Monster: Lady Gaga is a Trickster of American Pop Culture.” Gaga Stigmata. 19 Mar. 2010.
[iii] Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London. http://igrs.sas.ac.uk/index.php?id=373
[iv] In the film Basquiat (1996), directed by Julian Schnabel, Warhol is played by another key Gaga influence, David Bowie.
Victor P. Corona is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. He received a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia and a B.A. in sociology from Yale. He is currently conducting research for a book manuscript on careers, creativity, and organizational change in cultural industries. His work has been published in Magazine Americana, Theory, Culture and Society, Public Organization Review, Organization, Journal of Civil Society, and elsewhere.