"[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

Monday, October 4, 2010

Do Ask Do Tell: Lady Gaga and the Politics of Mimesis

by Willow Sharkey

On Saturday Night Live’s September 25th, 2010 episode, in the sketch of Weekend Update, the writers submitted, in their de rigueur amalgam of wryness and serious political commentary (a tone that is both to be taken seriously and just kidding), that Lady Gaga’s efforts on behalf of repealing the policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” while commendable, could not be taken seriously because she had only days before worn her dress made of meat to the MTV Video Music Awards.


The incongruity of one day seeing her in a costume so adamantly grotesque and hideously funny, a costume that made its aspirations to the carnivalesque so obvious, and the next day in suit jacket and tie, in a black and white home-made digital video, purposely low-tech and under-produced, pleading with fans to make a concerted effort to engage their representatives and congress-people to repeal DADT, were too much; the nature of one would discredit the polarity of the other. She could not wish to be taken seriously, so suddenly. One does not segue from jester to lobbyist. It is an odd submission for SNL to make, given that the formatting and tone of the show itself seems predicated on the belief that parody and provocations to effect political change are mutually supportive modalities (an idea keenly reflected in the output of Lady Gaga).

Lady Gaga’s project is not quite as binary as this characterization. As has been argued elsewhere, Gaga repeatedly employs a mirroring technique in her work to reflect the spectacle of late-capitalism and pop-culture back to itself.[1] Her overtly political video is more than a ploy to be suddenly taken as something beyond a pop-culture provocateur, a serious voice for reason. The cultural landscape, for one thing, is just too populated with an ironic vernacular of the parodical for that, and Gaga has consistently shown a savvy awareness of how the varying channels of media create and respond to images of her.

Gaga’s work, if reducibly about anything, is about life in spectacular culture, and what riposte may be made. In Guy Debord’s pioneering thesis establishing the codes and characteristics of spectacular culture, he asserts that within spectacular culture, the image is privileged, and the populace submits to the monolithic power of those in control of the image.[2] Gaga’s video may have made her project more explicit and less obliquely political, but it was not a departure from her previous aims and modes of expression – those that seek to create pervasive images that may be democratically engaged with by a public.

Lady Gaga’s constant appropriation of cultural tropes is not only post-modern pastiche methodology, but is also an object lesson for her massive audience in the use of appropriation. In her “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” video she made explicit what had already been implicit: we live in an age when the seduction of the image can isolate and make one apathetic, but it can also be quite easily appropriated, responded to, and virally spread. It was not by accident that the video was so lo-fi. It was telegraphing the notion – anyone can make this, anyone can participate in civil life, and you can even do it in the modes that feel comfortably like your own.

In the digital age, it is true more than ever that the image, and increasingly, the Internet meme, is a most powerful disseminator of what information the culture at large deems important and captivating. Lady Gaga’s output is a cipher that privileges and empowers reinterpretations of her projects, just as she has used the force of outstanding cultural tropes and excavated, mashed-up, and fed them to the public in her own work. This transposition of agency and responsibility, from pop star to anyone, is itself a kind of emancipatory political stance. Gaga has stated in interviews that her work is about trying to make it “a bit easier to swallow this kind of horrific media world we live in.”[3] This may be accomplished by problematizing the glorification of fame, but also through minimizing perceptions of distance between designated cultural producers and consumers.

The intent to minimize this distance is apparent, for example, in the way Gaga and her choreographer intentionally create dances for her music videos that are stylistically “D.I.Y,” Do-It-Yourself. Of course, one motivation for including dance moves simple enough to be mimicked by an audience and used in their own mimetic viral videos is a marketing savvy that recognizes the popularity of dance in video. And yet with Gaga, there is something else going on: a juxtaposition of the hyper-saturated, hyper-stylized vocabulary of the music video alongside the problematized, strange, anti-pop-star nature of Gaga. Her choreographer stated in an interview that in the process she “created the movement with someone who wasn’t so perfect.” She went on to say “I think that’s what a lot of people identify with. You don’t have to be perfect when you do the ‘Bad Romance’ dance or ‘Poker Face.’ The rhythmic emphasis falls on unexpected beats: They’re based out of an emotion, so when you hear the record, it’s choreographed as an emotional dance, and it’s kind of like people are experiencing her when you do the movements.”[4] Gaga intentionally creates a simple dance vocabulary that can be quickly absorbed and reiterated, a vocabulary that is simultaneously Gaga’s movements and one’s own.

Large swathes of fans have already responded to the absorb-able information by, indeed, creating their own videos that represent Gaga’s source material (and dance moves) along with their individualized expressions. This framework is again witnessed, when on September 17th, 2010, Gaga appealed to her Twitter followers to make their own anti-DADT videos addressed to their governmental representatives. Gaga created source material that could be mimicked and re-iterated by anyone; hundreds of response videos flooded back to her, which she in turn made into a video feed linked from her official media channels and accessible on YouTube. Gaga translated the back-and-forth, call-and-response trait of Internet memes into a direct appeal to political change.

This brings us back to the meat dress. Gaga operates fluidly, demonstrated by her elegant combination of the meat dress and the central metaphor of her anti-DADT speech (“The Prime Rib of America”) delivered in Portland, Maine. Gaga wants to make a case not only for the repeal of an unjust policy, but also to celebrate and instigate any instinct that would counteract the cultural entropy Debord saw as endemic to life in spectacle culture. The Prime Rib of America is composed of, in Gaga’s vision, the individuals who resist that entropy, who counteract it and the life it would create. The Meat Dress was a major publicity moment, one that was endlessly tweeted about, immediately parodied, and recapitulated everywhere, sometimes nervously, sometimes abhorrently, sometimes ecstatically, because it was imaginative.

The major cultural spectacles Gaga produces that are reiterated and generated as memes capture the imagination of a public that craves to gaze, but then feels inspired to respond, to co-own, to absorb, to participate. The inspiration of insistent, idiosyncratic production and guerilla creativity, builds a kind of momentum that generates the force of hope necessary to commit to an activist action.

[1] Vicks, Meghan. “The Icon and The Monster: Lady Gaga is a Trickster of American Pop Culture.” Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art about Lady Gaga. 19 Mar. 2010. Web. 30 Sept. 2010. 

[2] Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 2008.

[3] “Getting to Know Lady Gaga.’” The Oprah Winfrey Show. 15 Jan. 2010. 30 Sept. 2010 http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Lady-Gagas-First-Oprah-Show-Appearance.

[4] Bloom, Julie “D.I.Y. Music Videos Inspired by the Pros.” New York Times 30 April, 2010. 2 Oct., 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/arts/dance/02videos.html

Author Bio:
Willow Sharkey is a first semester Art History graduate student at California State University, Chico. She’s interested in performance/time based art, and all things pop culture. When not staying up all night reading critical theory, she’s usually riding her bike in Bidwell Park listening to dancey things on her headphones. You can view more of her writings at http://willowbunny.blogspot.com.


  1. This is fantastic.

    I would have loved to have seen the author tie in the ending of Gaga's political video--when Gaga demonstrates that, although her image is ubiquitous and viral and filled with positive potential for change, the "old guards" modes of technology (i.e. the telephone) are clogged and difficult and anti-communicative. This was so apparent when Gaga attempted to call over and over and finally got cut off from even being able to leave a message.

  2. And of course this all ties back brilliantly to "Telephone" (the video/song lyrics/etc.)

  3. always enjoy your analysis of 'THE' GAGA

  4. "The Meat Dress was a major publicity moment, one that was endlessly tweeted about, immediately parodied, and recapitulated everywhere, sometimes nervously, sometimes abhorrently, sometimes ecstatically, because it was imaginative."

    And then two and a half weeks later, she did the same thing with a ...a... an overgarment of human hair when she sat in with the Jazz Trio at the Oak Bar. Again, something her fans can make themselves because thanks to Gaga, long hair wigs are readily available and fairly cheap. That was instantly tweeted into the cultural bloodstream and circulated for days.

    The human hair garb didn't have quite the shock value of the meat dress, but I think it wasn't intended to shock (well, not much, anyway). I wonder how soon they'll start showing up at the concerts?


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