"[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

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Can't Read My Poker Face": The Postmodern Aesthetic & Mimesis of Lady Gaga

By Ella Bedard

According to Gagapedia, the online encyclopedia dedicated to pop phenomenon Lady Gaga, the 24 year-old singer-performer’s real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. She was born in New York, New York, is of Italian heritage, and has classical piano and vocal training. The ‘wiki’ biography goes on to explain that Gaga started performing in 2005, after dropping out of university to pursue her musical career. In 2007 she was signed to Streamline/Interscope Records, which produced her debut album The Fame in 2008. By the time her second album The Fame Monster was released the following year, Lady Gaga had become a multi-platinum international star.[1] It is typically considered appallingly bad form to cite a fan-run website in an academic analysis. In this case, however, there are two reasons why this practice is permissible: first, Lady Gaga is so recent a phenomenon that little critical scholarship exists on the artist’s life or work at this time. Secondly, (and this is the argument I will further elaborate in this piece), the performer’s actual biography is not only inconsequential for the purpose of this analysis, it is unimportant to the point of being inconvenient for the success of Lady Gaga’s career. It is not simply that Stefani Germanotta’s normal American upbringing clashes with the ultra-glamorous persona of Gaga. What potentially tarnishes her image is the fact that Lady Gaga has any history at all prior to her rise to fame.

What is most notable about Gaga, and what I will analyze here, is her visual aesthetic. Gaga has a highly allusive, almost grotesque, haute-couture style. Sometimes she resembles other pop stars, sometimes a character from Japanese animation, or a Roy Lichtenstein print. What one might call her ‘actual’ or ‘natural’ visage is virtually unknown to the public, since she always appears in costume, mimicking a plurality of feminine archetypes, but also performing more androgynous roles. Because she is seemingly without origin and constantly shifting her aesthetic self-presentation, Lady Gaga is quintessentially post-modern. From a feminist perspective, the fact that Gaga’s celebrity persona amounts to little more than a collage of gender citations is potentially subversive, while from a more traditionally Marxist perspective, it is the lack of grounding contexts that makes Gaga into a pure commodity fetish without inherent use-value beyond her aesthetic appeal and wide-scale marketability. In any case, that Gaga has adopted non-essentiality and pastiche as her persona is evidence of a bourgeoning trend in popular music culture: fragmentation, self-reflexivity, and the surface play of signification – the criteria used to periodize post-modern culture – have been overtly adopted as the dominant aesthetic in what is (over-simplistically) referred to as ‘mainstream’ culture. The paradox, of course, is that to adopt post-modernity as an aesthetic is to avow the loss of any grounding principle as a meta-narrative and as a practice that can be imitated and reproduced. Thus, what we see with Gaga is a redoubling of the post-modern. Through her aestheticization of post-modernity, Lady Gaga is able to capitalize on its marketability, while simultaneously holding up the practices of late-capitalism for critical analysis.

It is hard to say exactly what about Lady Gaga warrants so much attention. Musically, she is not particularly distinctive. Heavy beats, repetitive melodic hooks, and catchy lyrics are what make every pop song infectious and Gaga hardly deviates from this form. But it is not the music so much as Gaga herself that is being marketed. Not insignificantly, Gaga identifies herself as a performance artist as opposed to a musician. What she seems to acknowledge with her spectacles and self-presentation is that the essence of the Gaga persona and the engine behind her celebrity is fame itself. Much of Gaga’s allure is derived from her immediate ascent to superstardom. As dance music icon Kylie Minogue explains, “[Gaga] is like a meteor that just came from outer space and landed on the pop landscape or pop/dance landscape. And just… there was dust in everyone’s face.”[2] Gaga has barely released a second album and already she is being hailed as the new Queen of Pop. The titles of her albums are somewhat prolific (or one might say performative), since they refer to her extreme popularity, which occurred simultaneously to the release of those albums. In other words, there was no Gaga before her fame, and no fame before The Fame.

During interludes at her “Monster Ball” concerts, Gaga reads the “Little Monster Manifesto” which articulates this point:

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 to become rather, in the future. When you're lonely, I'll be lonely too. And this is The Fame.[3]

Like pop-artist Andy Warhol whom Gaga cites as an artistic influence, Gaga acknowledges that fame is at once an obsession and the constitutive feature of her identity. The relationship between Gaga, the “Mother Monster,”[4] and her “Little Monster” following resembles the dialectical relationship between Master and Slave. She is only insofar as she exists before the eyes of the public: as much as her audience is captivated by her performances, she is not only captivated but produced as a result of the devotion and constant attention of her fans. The actual facts of Germanotta’s life, including where she was born, where she was trained, and what her artistic intentions are, are no more real than the information that circulates about her on the Internet. Gaga is, as Jean Baudrillard would have it, pure simulacrum, “a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”[5] Put differently, Lady Gaga does not exist. Those potentially inaccurate shards of signification found in the media and on the Internet are what constitute “the history of the kingdom” and amount to the “spiritual hologram” that is the Lady Gaga phenomenon[6]. As Gaga seems to acknowledge in the “Little Monster Manifesto,” she ‘is’ only insofar as she exists as performance and image.

One might argue that every celebrity that we become familiar with via the mediation of Internet and magazine exposés is a simulated construction in this same way. The difference with Gaga, however, is that her performance highlights and plays with the illusory nature of reality. In this age of spectacle, as Baudrillard would have it, the difference between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘artificial’ is almost arbitrarily determined by way of convention. For example, celebrities are presented as having a public persona that is revealed during designated instances of performance, but they are also ‘caught’ by the paparazzi in private leading their ‘real’ lives with friends, family, and sweatpants. The constancy of Gaga’s staged persona works to problematize the false dichotomy between the performers’ ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ identity. At her younger sister’s high school graduation, for example, Gaga turns out in a white lace body suit and an enormous black hat with a veil and a lace train.[7] There is little difference between this costume and what she wears when performing on stage or in music videos. She is never ‘caught’ by the camera off-stage since there is no ‘real’ Lady Gaga behind her performed identity.


In her essay “Grab Your Old Tricks: Lady Gaga and Reflective Performance,” Kathryn Leedom notes how Gaga does not project an image for her audience’s consumption so much as she reflects the (consumer) habits of her audiences back to them. Perhaps the best example of this is the way in which Gaga has imitated her interlocutors in certain high profile interviews. During a Larry King interview aired June 1, 2010, Gaga is shown with her hair cut short and slicked back, wearing a white collared shirt, black suspenders and a black tie, mirroring King’s own characteristic style and gestures.[8] This is what Leedom calls the “reflective performance” of Gaga. Though she is incredibly cooperative in this and other interviews, there is never anything genuinely revealing about these encounters. With Barbara Walters (whom Gaga is also dressed to resemble) Gaga humbly admits that she never takes off her glasses but will do so in this interview. Though it may seem that she is here exposing her ‘true’ self, she is simply playing into Walter’s publicly established disarming style. Later, she confesses to being a family-loving Italian girl, echoing countless other stars that have made the same appeal to authenticity when sitting with Walters.[9] In this performance, Gaga succeeds in imitating the form of the Barbara Walters interview, even tearing up when discussing her family -the way celebrities invariably do in a Walters exposé. In the reflective performance, Gaga mirrors the context in which she is situated rather than revealing some ‘inner truth.’ When sitting with King, she reflects King; when sitting with Walters she is any and every celebrity who has been interviewed by Walters.


In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson defines this ever-shifting mimetic practice as pastiche:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask […] but without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic.[10]

Parody can only occur if the unique style being imitated is perceived as having deviated from some norm. In this regard, Jameson explains, it is a distinctly modern practice, since it implies belief in the existence of an essential, stable reality. The postmodern equivalent of pastiche is a form of dumb or blank parody; it plays and mimes various styles without calling these styles back to any whole or constant reality.

Thrashing dance choreography, video sunglasses, and the characteristic hair bow (literally a bow made out of hair) have become part of Gaga’s distinct aesthetic. However, she is equally known for the slipperiness of her appearance. In the music video for “Bad Romance,” which inaugurates the current high-art/fashion phase of Gaga’s career, she looks radically different in almost every shot. In one scene, her eyes have been digitally enhanced to give them the glossy, doe-like quality of a Japanese anime character. In the video for “Alejandro” she wears conical guns as a brassiere and has bleached blonde hair, mimicking the iconic style of 1980s Madonna. For post-modern theorist of gender and identity, Judith Butler, there is great political potential in such parodic practices. For Butler, the gendered ‘I’ that is identified as either ‘woman’ or ‘man’ does not possess innate sexuality: “gender is a performance that produces the illusion of an inner sex or essence or psychic gender core; it produces on the skin, through the gesture, the move, the gait […] the illusion of an inner depth.”[11] A ‘woman’ is not female in essence. Rather, the female ‘I’ is reconstituted again and again when that individual participates in a performance of feminine identity. Thus, one’s identity as ‘woman’ is in no way homogenous, for at every moment the female ‘I’ is constituted anew and with difference through the performer’s sequential citation of gender norms.


With her constant imitation of popular gendered tropes, Lady Gaga’s performances work to disrupt the myth of an essential femininity. Consider the music video for “Telephone,” in which Gaga dances in a jaguar suit in front of her truck in the desert, imitating country-pop star Shania Twain in her 1997 video “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Here, Gaga has contorted the conventional sexuality of Twain into something much more grotesque. Her one-piece cat suit includes boning around the ribs and pelvis that give Gaga the appearance of having a feline skeletal structure. In this way, the outfit blurs the line between the sexual appeal of animal print and the taboo of inter-species relations. Similarly, Gaga’s ghostly white make-up and dark eyes make her look like a corpse, producing a thanato-erotic anxiety in her spectators. Thus, in her imitation of Twain, Gaga has succeeded in making a familiar feminine image into an altogether uncomfortable one. Though Gaga’s body conforms to conventional standards of feminine beauty, it is used as a blank canvas on which a plurality of different identities – not all of them feminine – can be projected. Because Gaga moves so rapidly (but not seamlessly) between uncanny parodies, her appearance draws attention to the fact that gender is always imitatively constituted. The unending media gossip about the real status of Gaga’s gender and sexuality is a testament to the anxiety that her performances of drag have created. Though Gaga appears practically naked in almost all her music videos, her sexual identity remains ambiguous and creates uneasiness in her spectators. Insofar as Gaga continuously parodies the recognizable styles of other artists, she has made an identity of pastiche. She cites iconic, often gendered identities without indicating the existence of a ‘neutral’ or ‘normal’ self that these performances can be said to mask.


In defining pastiche, Jameson refers to the work of Andy Warhol, whose Campbell’s Soup Can prints index the hyper-commodified culture of Late Capitalism without ever “completing the hermeneutic gesture.”[12] By transposing the commodity into the realm of art, removing them from any larger system or historical context, Warhol’s work highlights the already fetishistic nature of the commodity. In doing so, Warhol brings consumer culture into critical light, as the spectator sees the division between the aesthetic and economic realms disappear. Leedom makes a similar argument about Gaga’s reflective performances, arguing that Gaga’s self-commodification and the blatant product placement in her videos “functions as a mirror for consumer culture and her audience.”[13] However, there is a crucial difference between Warhol’s prints and Gaga’s product placement: Warhol was selling himself and his art, not Campbell’s soup. Gaga on the other hand, is marketing both herself and the products in her video. In “Telephone” there are two different types of product placement. Purchasable goods, such as a Virgin Mobile cell phone, a Polaroid camera, and Gaga’s own Heartbeat Headphones, appear in the video. There are also fake product placements, such as the Double Breasted Drive-Thru soda and sandwich wrappers shown in Beyonce’s truck, the iconic Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill films. Here, Gaga makes a Warhol-esque gesture by mocking blatant consumerism and American excess. However, Gaga simultaneously promotes and benefits from these same practices. If Warhol’s art gestured towards the inherent consumerism in art, Gaga’s videos completely obliterate the difference between art and the economic market: she is selling, she is being sold, she is unapologetically sold out.


The question remains as to whether Gaga’s postmodernism only gestures towards a more radical feminist or capitalism critique before settling into a less subversive position. For both Jameson and Butler, what practices of aesthetic or identity pastiche imply is “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness” that corresponds to the post-modern distrust of the discreet modern subject.[14] For Butler, the practice of gender citation serves to “dispute the psyche as inner depth,[15] contesting the notion that “I” am autonomous and whole before my encounter with (gendered) others. The paradox of Gaga’s performance, as Leedom points out, is that she is “extremely unique and yet reminiscent of many various people.”[16] We see the simulacra of Gaga working in full effect, producing such a high volume of convincing images that we find ourselves buying the reality of her intentionally artificial performances. Ironically, it is because of her overt mimicry and allusive style that Gaga is being presented and celebrated as a highly individualized artist-genius who has changed the face of popular culture.

Online culture critics such as Leedom celebrate Gaga for her deconstructionist approach to pop music.[17] They do so assuming that Gaga intends to subvert the genres and systems in which she is so deeply entrenched. I am not entirely convinced by Gaga’s self-proclaimed dedication to “love and art.”[18] However, this analysis is not concerned with whether or not Lady Gaga has “genuine” artistic merit. What matters for our purposes is that there is no sound way to resolve this debate. The tension between Gaga as commodity fetish and Gaga as deconstructive subject-less art object cannot be resolved. In her work A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Linda Hutcheon explains that postmodern art and theory incarnate such paradoxes, “not by choosing sides, but by living out the contradiction of giving in to both urges.”[19] In Gaga, there are a number of unresolved tensions: between titillation and the grotesque, between the pure pleasure of pop culture and the ideologies being showcased, and between her absolute complicity and subversion of dominant discourses and capitalist forces. What these paradoxes demand is critical attention: through investigation and discussion, we cannot determined who or what Gaga ‘is’. Rather, we are able to trace the various discourses – of gender, of capital, and of popular culture – to create a fluid and temporary sketch of what Lady Gaga presents as a phenomenon of late capitalist post-modernity.


[1] 2009. Web. <http://ladygaga.wikia.com/wiki/Lady_Gaga>.

[2] "Kylie Minogue On Lady Gaga: ‘She’s An Absolute Force To Be Reckoned With’." Access Hollywood 3 June 2010:Web. 9 Jun 2010. <http://www.accesshollywood.com/kylie-minogue-on-lady-gaga-shes-an-absolute-force-to-be-reckoned-with_article_33133>.

[3] 2009. Web. <http://ladygaga.wikia.com/wiki/Gagapedia>.

[4] Gaga, Lady. Web. 9 Jun 2010. <http://twitter.com/ladygaga>.

[5] Baudrillard, Jean. "Simulacra and Simulations." Selected Writings. 2nd ed. Rev. and Expanded ed. Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 2001. Pg169.

[6] 2009. Web. <http://ladygaga.wikia.com/wiki/Gagapedia>.

[7] "Lady Gaga Attends Her Sister's Graduation." Styleite. Web. 11 Jun 2010. <http://www.styleite.com/media/lady-gaga-graduation-photo/>.

[8] "Lady Gaga FULL Interview On Larry King Live." 1 June 2010. Web. 10 Jun 2010. <www.youtube.com>

[9] "20/20 Lady Gaga Interview with Barbara Walters." January 22 2010. Web. 10 Jun 2010. <www.youtube.com>

[10] Frederic, Jameson. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. 3rd Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd., 2008. 542.

[11] Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991. p. 134.

[12] Jameson, Frederic. "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. K.M Newton. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 279.

[13] Leedom, Kathryn. "'Grab Your Old Tricks':Lady Gaga and Reflective Performance." Gaga Stigmata (2010):Web. 10 Jun 2010. <http://gagajournal.blogspot.com >.

[14] Jameson, “Logic of Late Capitalism,” 272.

[15] Butler, “Insubordination”, 1498.

[16] Leedom, Kathryn. "'Grab Your Old Tricks':Lady Gaga and Reflective Performance." Gaga Stigmata (2010):Web. 10 Jun 2010. <http://gagajournal.blogspot.com >.

[17] Gaga Stigmata n. pag. Web. 11 Jun 2010. <http://gagajournal.blogspot.com >.

[18] "20/20 Lady Gaga Interview with Barbara Walters." January 22 2010. Web. 10 Jun 2010. <www.youtube.com>

[19] Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1999. x. 
___
Author Bio:
Ella Bedard is a student of contemporary history, culture, and criticism in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This year she will be moving to Toronto where she hopes to pursue her interests in performance, gender ambiguity, and Gaga.

4 comments:

  1. I am very impressed with this list! Thank you. It's really going to help me out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I absolutely love Gaga's "grotesque couture." It's amazing. That being said, one thing that struck me about Gaga's Monster Ball performance is that, in the end, she reverted to a rather traditional concept of female beauty and the monster. The fame monster she faces during "Paparazzi" is a textbook horror film monster. It would have been much more interesting if her fame monster was beautiful to the point of angelic, while she was dressed in one of her fabulous grotesque costumes.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ella,

    It has taken me forever to respond to your essay. I felt I couldn't articulate what I wanted to say in a comment box. I am, however, responding to it in the revision of my essay. I really wish we could have in-person discussions. I suppose this will have to do for now. Your insights have been immensely helpful. Thank you.

    <3 Katy Leedom

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete