by Davide Panagia
[This is a revised version of a piece that appeared in The Contemporary Condition (March 20, 2010)].
The issue is one of coming to terms with one’s relation to one’s culture. Nothing less is what the intensity of Lady Gaga’s feats of the spectacular make available.
Her songs and videos – and her artistic life in general – relentlessly pursue the limits of Pop, not as a representational genre but as a medium. It is in this sense that she is an inheritor of the Warhol legacy; but, I would say without reservation (though with an awareness of the unpopular claim I am about to make), she surpasses Warhol through her discovery of the medium of Pop. For where Warhol transformed art into Pop and thereby created a new representational genre, Lady Gaga has transformed Pop into an art with a set of aesthetic convictions, possibilities, and ambitions all its own.
As absurd as this might sound to those lackluster critics who will (and do) insist that Lady Gaga is all style and no substance, the simultaneous release of two major concept albums – The Fame and The Fame Monster – prove the extent to which in our contemporary condition style and substance are incompossibilities of one another. And before readers think that I am claiming that the incompossibility of style and substance means a kind of postmodern irony at the heart of Lady Gaga’s performances, please allow me to correct any misapprehensions of the sort: the claim about the irony of performativity wants to grant purpose to multivalent objects of aesthetic worth and thus betroth to them an intelligibility that makes them accessible and available to our interpretive expectations. My point, instead, is that what defines an aesthetic object is its ability to place the listener or viewer (in this case, both) in an uncertain situation where one’s capacity to give priority to either style or substance as the ground of judgment is disoriented. This, because our modes of sensorial apprehension are discomposed by the experience of the object. Aesthetic experience, in other words, occurs at the dark precursor, somewhere between sensation and reference. And the incompossibilities of sensation and reference are the tools of Lady Gaga’s art.
But I digress.
As we are incessantly reminded, Lady Gaga’s music follows a line of descent with some of the more relevant music and videos coming out of 1980s MTV pop culture, most notably the rhythmic flows of Madonna, the dance hooks of Michael Jackson, and the lyrical voicings of Cindy Lauper (though, as a note of personal insight, I would also add the profound influence of Cameo’s “Word Up” song and video). “Dance in the Dark,” from her recently released The Fame Monster, is most explicitly indebted to Madonna’s lyrical montage with its free-flow rambling in the middle of the song that revisits Vogue’s “Rita Hayworth gave good face” moment:
Tellem' 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
But her successful partnership with the Swedish director and video artist, Jonas Åkerlund, betrays another line of descent in her aesthetic stylings found in some of the more progressive of the current Swedish synth-pop disco bands; including (I would say) Fever Ray and The Knife, but also Abba (listen to “Alejandro” and you will hear “Fernando”) and Roxette. Like her collaborations with the recently deceased Alexander McQueen (who premiered Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in his Spring 2009 show) and the Italian installation artist Francesco Vezzoli (at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles), the videos that Åkerlund has produced and directed for Lady Gaga screen her insistence that what is crucial to our contemporary condition is our capacity for interface: that is, that our handling and beholdings of the objects of our culture speaks to our willingness to handle and behold one another. The simultaneous release of the song and video “Telephone” (on March 11, 2010) is a case in point.
Telephone’s lyrics are about a young woman at a dance club who does not want to be bothered by people calling her on her cell phone because she is too busy having a good time. “Stop callin’; Stop callin’; I don’t want to talk any more! I left my head and my heart on the dance floor,” proclaims the ritornello. Simple enough.
The song, however, announces something different than the lyrics. Upon first listening to it, I was disappointed by Gaga’s use of Auto-tune, something I didn’t think she needed given that she has an excellent voice. Auto-tune is the controversial audio processor (used by many in the music industry) that allows anyone to sing at perfect pitch by adjusting off-key performances through the use of a phase vocoder – it is the device that made Cher’s altered vocal effect in “Believe” possible and catchy. Upon second listening, however, I realized that the placing of the Auto-tune alteration in “Telephone” is not intended for pitch correction, but is an attempt to mimic through voice the sound of a ringer and to give emphasis to the artificiality of everyday life. The prominence of Auto-tune and the fact that “Telephone” lyrically and melodically swings to the beat of a busy dial-tone makes available our integration with multimedia technological culture so that the “Stop callin’” of the ritornello isn’t merely a request but is also a marker of our cultural interface: there is no naturalness to voice, especially in the digital age.
Åkerlund’s music videos are known for their mock movie-trailer stylings. And though at times humorous, their real effect is not one of parody but of intensity. The colors, contrasts, and close-ups throughout the “Telephone” video, for instance, are exaggerated to the point of the monstrous. It’s almost as if Åkerlund is trying to show the viewer what a video can do, and not simply what it can represent. And, indeed, with “Telephone” this disconnect is especially palpable given the fact that the video has nothing to do with the lyric’s themes of being in a dance club and not wanting to answer one’s phone.
Correction: Lady Gaga is in a club of sorts – a rough trade women’s prison in the middle of a desert – and we can surmise why she ended up there if we think of “Telephone” as a sequel to the other Gaga/Åkerlund collaboration, “Paparazzi,” wherein Lady Gaga kills a boyfriend who, in turn, had tried to kill her by throwing her off a balcony. A further disconnect: Gaga’s collaboration with Beyoncé in the song “Telephone” is turned into a “Thelma and Louise” partnership when the two ladies – in full dis/fashion regalia (including makeup whose colors recall the pastels of their automobile) – board their “Pussy Wagon” (the pick up truck that Uma Thurman had used to escape the hospital in Kill Bill, Vol. 1) and go on a highway diner killing spree. Once again, a monstrous disconnect that is perfectly in-line with the theme of The Fame Monster – the ugly side of fame where makeup is transubstantiated into black tears, or even spilled blood.
That Lady Gaga has made a concept album with both The Fame and The Fame Monster worthy of a Patrick Bateman monologue is a notable achievement; even more remarkable is that this conceptual artifice ties into some of the best instances of American popular culture, especially the pulp crime genre that Robert Warshow had written so elegantly about in the 1940s. In “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Warshow claims that “What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans” (The Immediate Experience). It is universal to Americans, he goes on to explain, because Americans react to it immediately, at once sympathizing and dissociating themselves from it: the gangster, Warshow says, “is what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become.”
The persona of the gangster is transubstantiated, for Lady Gaga, into the persona of the Fame Monster (notably, a trope Michael Mann has also explored in his recent film, Public Enemies): the fashion icon/victim, the doer and the sufferer, the one who projects an image and is defeated by that same projection. And isn’t this what we all do? Do we not all project images and bear the weight of others’ projections? Facebook, the iPhone, wi-fi, and 3-G (soon to be 4-G) wireless networks are not merely the ornamental contexture of contemporary culture, they are the instruments of interface with it; they are the mediums through which events of relata emerge in our contemporary condition, they are the objects we handle and behold when we handle and behold one another.
It’s precisely this aspect of Gaga that the lackluster critics overlook with vertiginous accuracy. Most stunningly, Camille Paglia’s recent iconoclastic rant in the pages of The Sunday Times (“Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex.” September 12, 2010) mumbles such incomprehensions by accusing Gaga of being a “ruthless recycler of other people’s work,” citing the recent “Alejandro” video as an instance of Madonna-theft and then asking “at what point does homage become theft?” Despite Paglia’s clichéd vitriol, the question is the right one to ask. And, in fact, Paglia gives us the answer to her question in declaring that “Lady Gaga is the first major star of the digital age.” What might I mean by this?
Simply put, the song (and video) “Alejandro” are Gaga’s attempt not so much at homage but at putting into view what the digital age affords. Let’s think here about some of the major events that might be associated with our digital age. Other than the monumental advent of personal computing and the Internet, one major digital age phenomenon that comes to mind is the rise of Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing. A second major event: cut and paste interface technology like that available in software programs such as Adobe Acrobat & Photoshop, Quicktime, Vuze, and Hardware. And a third: the proliferation of virtual venues for the projection and transmission of the products that emerge from our use of digital manipulation software – virtual venues like You Tube, Facebook, Pirate Bay, and so forth. Such conventions, software, and venues make the adoption, extraction, manipulation, appropriation and transmission of audio and video, song and image, immediately available elements of popular culture. The idea here is a complex, though not complicated, one: to live in the digital age means that we no longer submit to the position of passive spectatorship. That is, we are no longer merely consumers: we are also handlers. And by “handlers” I mean people who engage popular culture through transmission as much as through reception. This, it seems, is one of the key ontological shifts that comes with new media digitality. The song and video “Alejandro” places that ontological shift into full view.
To put this slightly differently, and in the hope of comforting some of Camille Paglia’s acerbic distress: What Lady Gaga is up to with “Alejandro” is neither simply homage nor theft but indexing: through such performances she indexes the handlings that our digital age makes available. One need only take a closer look and listen at “Alejandro” to note how forceful her commitment to and aesthetics of handling is. The song (as already mentioned) betrays its indebtedness to Abba. But one can’t help also hear resonances of Roxette and, in the opening hook, a stunning recall of Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants.” “Alejandro” (the song) is neither homage nor theft but a mash-up; and “Alejandro” (the video) is also neither homage nor theft but a photo-shopped assemblage. This is what the nature of Pop in the digital age is; and Lady Gaga is, in this regard, not simply a media Pop star but a New Media Pop artist.
In his book on film, one of the first books in the study of film ever written by an American philosopher, Stanley Cavell declares (in 1971) that “it has become the immediate task of the artist to achieve in his art the muse of the art itself – to declare, from itself, the art as a whole for which it speaks” (The World Viewed, 103). For Cavell the task of the artist is to make available in his or her art the conditions of possibility (and therefore also the limits of possibility) of that art. Anything less amounts to formulaic reproduction and artistic failure. The task of the artist in the modern period, in other words, is that of making available the immediate experience of an art-form by making present the constitutive elements that make that art-form possible.
The elements that make New Media Pop art at once possible and convincing are not qualities that belong to the object, they are effects that arise from one’s interface with it; specifically, I’m talking about the sense of conviction that comes with an immediate grasp of a work. New Media Pop art is New Media Pop art because it affords an immediate grasp. Hence the importance of the shortness of the pop song, for instance, and its hook. In a two-to-three minute period the artist must convey a sense of absolute precision and certitude that will resonate or hold beyond the moment of impact, thereby creating the sensation that nothing else matters to the art-form at that moment other than that work, as if that work is the only thing that can count as Pop. Through this experience of absolute – almost theological – conviction we discover that the task of New Media Pop art – the “muse of the art itself” – is to declare immediacy for itself. Nothing less amounts to artistic (and not just commercial) failure.
Therein lies the mendaciousness of the aesthetic object: a work’s prestige, or its conjuring trick, is its conveyance of a conviction without authority or ground to validate that conviction. It’s in this sense that Lady Gaga is absolutely right to declare, in the Summer 2010 double-issue of Rolling Stone, that “Music is a lie. Art is a lie. It is a lie. You have to tell a lie that is so wonderful that your fans make it true” (Rolling Stone, July 8-22, 2010, p. 71). Art can only afford sensations; but sensations (as David Hume showed long ago) do not belong to the province of verification, or to that kind of knowledge that would give veracity to one’s judgments. The mendaciousness of which I speak, marked by the “as if” of my previous paragraph, thus returns us to the condition of incompossibility discussed in my introductory remarks. The wonderful lie made true through receptivity is another way of suggesting that the incompossible ground of aesthetic experience is sourced and sustained only through our expressions of conviction in the face of the vivaciousness of our sensations.
This is the aesthetic ambition that Lady Gaga claims for New Media Pop art in and through her music, her videos, and her performances. The task now is to come to terms with it; that is, to conjure the terms of its possibility and to think through what the new criteria of judgment, appraisal, and (indeed) disapproval might be in the face of Gaga’s projection of this New Media Pop aesthetic.
Through The Fame and The Fame Monster Lady Gaga has made the claim that Pop commands an immediate attention that no other medium of art can pretend to or duplicate, and it is precisely the immediacy of her stardom, and Pop’s availability through it, that marks for Lady Gaga one of the cornerstones of our contemporary condition: our interface with and handling of culture as opposed to our subjection to it.
Davide Panagia is a political and cultural theorist who holds the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at Trent University. He is the Co-Editor of the cultural and political theory journal, Theory & Event, and is a contributor to The Contemporary Condition.