"[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, August 29, 2010

Spectacle of the Other Woman: Lady Gaga and Art as Excess

By Beth Goodney 

Despite all the references to scholarly works and close textual analysis, Jack Halberstam’s essay about Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video boils down to one major point: Don’t you just love her? Halberstam opens the essay “Can you hear me? Listen up: I am gaga for Gaga” and proceeds to unabashedly perform being gaga-ed throughout the rest of the essay. This sentiment, shared by many (as Halberstam readily admits), seems at first way too adoringly fan-ish to be the main argument of a queer theory essay. Further, the question is self-answering. To use a tone even more casual than the one Halberstam adopts, the answer to the question “Don’t you just love Lady Gaga?” is “Duh.” 

This is not to say that Halberstam’s essay is not an interesting, careful examination of Telephone(s). It is. But it is to say that the main taste left in one’s mouth (or echo ringing in one’s ear) is adoration and fascination, which Halberstam admits are their personal reactions to the work; Halberstam also gestures to a larger queer community which shares that reaction. It is almost like Halberstam is sending out a mass text message: “have u seen telephone? DAMN.” 

Other Internet commentators with a queer theory bent have taken a different approach,[i] writing about Lady Gaga’s work in a way largely divorced from their own reaction to it. They take a scholarly distance, carefully deciphering the meaning they see in Lady Gaga’s various music videos; rather than sending a text message, they are reading Gaga’s work like a text, looking for signs and interpreting symbols. I want to suggest that Halberstam’s response, which foregrounds their own reactions to Gaga’s art and engenders further reactions, may be more appropriate than a response which views Gaga’s work from a critical distance.  For Halberstam’s fan letter suggests something about the nature of art and our interactions with it: art engenders bodily reactions, and in the process transforms the bodies doing the reacting and the relations between them. That is art’s – and Gaga’s – political potential.

In her book Chaos, Territory, Art (2008), Elizabeth Grosz argues that art is spectacle that elicits and elaborates configurations of bodies and forces that were never imagined to be possible. For Grosz,  art does not convey meaning through signs, but rather induces and intensifies sensation. Her understanding of art’s workings also suggests the way to interact with it: “artworks are not so much to be read, interpreted, deciphered as responded to, touched, engaged, intensified” (79).  A work of art like “Telephone” need not be analyzed for its significance; rather, we should be seduced by it and proceed from there. 

For Grosz, art is seductive excess, and this definition allows her to see art in places far outside its traditional definition (a welcome framework when discussing pop music, which is often disparaged as a “lower” form of culture). She discusses art in the animal world, and finds architecture in hermit crab shells and choreography in mating displays. She pays special attention to music, writing, “music, like striking coloring or plumage, attracts and allures, it makes one notice, it alerts one to a spectacle, it becomes part of a spectacle” (32).  The appeal of art is in the spectacle, and it is the spectacle that should be engaged with.  

It is not that there is no significance in Gaga’s work, or in pop generally. Nor is reading the work analytically a bad exercise. But there is a problem with an engagement of Lady Gaga that attempts to see her work as a series of signs: an engagement that asks the question “what is the point?” of something like the “Telephone” video seems to miss the point entirely. The point is the spectacle itself, and the chains of reactions it engenders. 

Although art may be without purpose, recognizing it as such does have a purpose for Grosz. Giving in to the allure of the pointless has a point: it is excess, and excessive reactions, which hold the possibility for undermining, deforming, and transforming normative ways of being and relating. Grosz writes that through art “the natural and the lived are themselves transformed, the virtual in them explored, and strange connections – connections that have no clear point or value – elaborated with considerable effort and risk to the normalized narratives of the everyday and the assimilable” (78).  When we strangely, pointlessly connect with “Telephone,” we may be able to pose such a risk to normalized narratives.   

Halberstam’s and our responses to Gaga’s work can queer normative notions of what pop music is and does, and what it means to be a fan (or a scholar); in turn, those transmutations may suggest new ways of relating to ourselves and the world, even new ways of being human (or monster). Rather than trying to understand “Telephone,” we can appreciate the very aspects of it that defy understanding, not because the signs are so cryptic that only the most gifted semiotician could decipher them, but because they are arbitrary, superficial or aesthetic. These last have long been considered the realm of the feminine, the queer, the other, and to celebrate them is to undermine the idea that the only things that matter are those that have a point: things that communicate some deeper truth. We can contribute to a future that rejects objectivity and analysis as privileged modes of understanding, and that sees worth in things often considered worthless and insignificant – glamour, fashion, honeybees.  

In the end, a discussion about whether to focus on sensational responses to Gaga’s art rather than objective analysis of its signification may be superfluous: we simply may not have much of a choice but to be seduced. Halberstam summed it up perfectly in a recent talk at the University of MN: after a brief clip from the “Telephone” video, the audience collectively groaned, wanting to watch more, and Halberstam commented, “the danger is getting overshadowed by the clips.” Any writing about Lady Gaga just gets overshadowed by the clips: the audience wants to watch her, the dancing, the outfits, the glitter, the teeth again and again, the writing only a weak proxy for that fascination.  There is a lot to be said about Gaga but ultimately, the most astute observation of all may be DAMN! Would you look at her outfits?[ii]

[i] See, for example, most posts on this site.
[ii] This observation, as well as much else in this essay, could equally if not more so apply to such artists as Beyonce, Kelis, and Nicki Minaj. That Gaga has been embraced as a site of theorization by the largely white queer theory community in a way these women of color have not is a noteworthy exclusion. Potential reasons and implications are discussed here.
Author Bio:
Beth Goodney is a sexual health educator working in the Twin Cities. She holds a degree in Sexuality from Antioch College. Recently she choreographed a meeting between Lady Gaga and Elvis for the summer edition of Dykes Do Drag in Minneapolis – The jailhouse for bitches was definitely rocking. Her interests include Deleuze, desire, the future, consent, and glitter. 


  1. Thanks for an interesting read. I see Stigmata and my own writing about Gaga as ways to make our reaction to her art, music, and message--and pop culture in general--an even richer experience.

    Re your second footnote, check out Shayne Lee's new book Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture. (Honey B is on the cover!)

  2. I totally welcome the emphasis on the "sensational" a la Grosz, but dont see why, in true post-binary fashion, we cannot have both: both analysis and appreciation of sensations. Would that be like, too French? :) Then again, I wonder if the implication here is not that the best "understanding" of the excess that is Gaga are the gagaisms on youtube, tributes to the sensation that is Gaga enthusiastically re enacted by little monsters, and textual critics should just hang up their keyboards and head for the dance floor. Just the same, i do think crit discourse and dance can tryst along.

  3. lady gag is hot when she is naked


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