"[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, November 29, 2010

From "Dance in the Dark, Little Monsters: On Gaga's Post-Goth Posthumanism"

By Robin James

The following is an excerpt from a longer article to be published in Gaga Stigmata’s forthcoming book. In that piece, Professor Robin James argues that Lady Gaga’s main aesthetic ancestor is goth. Gaga’s work not only has direct musical debts to goth bands, but also takes indirect visual and thematic inspiration from the goth genre. In the following excerpt, James examines how one of Gaga’s songs takes musical cues from the goth tradition, and then demonstrates how Gaga’s work goes beyond that tradition: that is, how Gaga performs post-goth posthumanism.

The most obvious similarity between any one Gaga track and any one goth-y track is between “Dance in the Dark” and Depeche Mode’s “Strangelove.”[i] Both songs are composed around essentially the same treble synth hook. Gaga’s track pulls an “Ice Ice Baby” on Depeche Mode’s original, altering the hook’s melody by turning a quarter note into two eights on the same pitch (basically, making the antecedent phrase a more exact mirror of the consequent phrase).[ii] Overall, Gaga’s sound shares a lot with Depeche Mode – and, to an extent, Yaz (which splintered off from Depeche Mode in the early 1980s). Early Depeche Mode was very synthy and proto-industrial, particularly their 1983-1984 releases Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward.[iii] The videos for “People are People” portrays band members playing parts of the manufacturing process, e.g. corrugated metal, as instruments.[iv]

Screenshot from the video for “People are People”

This use of factory machines and raw materials as musical instruments is more or less what defines industrial music as such. So, while Depeche Mode might not be the most “hardcore” industrial act, the band clearly writes some properly industrial music. In fact, Depeche Mode’s combination of industrial and mainstream synthpop is actually quite similar to Gaga’s own music. “Strangelove” appears on the 1987 album Music for the Masses, which takes the earlier albums’ industrial and synthpop sounds in a more mainstream, poppy direction. “Dance in the Dark” uses guitars in combination with synths and drum machines, as does Depeche Mode’s work on Music for the Masses and Violator. Yaz was even more distinctly synthy and electronic, but, like Gaga’s work, was and still is received and treated as belonging to the post-Moroder electro-dance-pop tradition. Gaga’s powerful and soulful alto vocals are quite obviously reminiscent of Yaz’s lead singer, Alison Moyet. Although her voice may sound like Moyet, Gaga’s songwriting, especially her approach to vocal melodies, is closer to Dave Gahan’s (Depeche Mode’s lead singer). Unlike many industrial bands, which rely on either more aggressive, closed-throated metal-influenced vocals (like KMFDM), or more minimal, often effected, vocals (like Kraftwerk), both craft long, very melodic vocal lines that require some serious singing. Although Moyet was a very strong and expressive singer, her phrases were relatively short and distinct.

So, while Gaga’s image might lead some to think of her as a postmillennial Material Girl, her sound demonstrates that she’s more like a twenty-first century update of Depeche Mode and Yaz: strong female vocals and synthy industrial darkness combined with a pop melodic sensibility. She acknowledges this influence in a press release for The Fame Monster: “this album is a pop experimentation with industrial/Goth beats, 90's dance melodies, an obsession with the lyrical genius of 80's melancholic pop.”[v] Depeche Mode encapsulates all these influences, and is perhaps the clearest and closest of Gaga’s musical influences.

In this section, I’ve discussed Gaga’s music as such, and put her compositional and performance choices in the context of both specific goth/industrial songs and the goth/industrial aesthetic more generally. Above and beyond anything her visual or textual presentation does, Gaga’s music is grounded in a goth dance tradition that stretches from Joy Division to Nitzer Ebb to Wax Trax to Attari Teenage Riot. Like Depeche Mode and Yaz – and, more recently, Nine Inch Nails – Gaga combines industrial instrumentals with long, sung melodic phrases with a classic pop or even musical theater sensibility. Both because Gaga’s own work combines specifically goth references and aesthetic choices with influences from a wide variety of other genres (thus “watering down” the goth references), and because mainstream pop itself bears the influences of industrial and EBM (thus making mainstream pop more “properly goth”), Gaga’s latter-day Wax Trax pop diva sound is stylistically “post-goth.” In Gaga, goth is no longer an indie subgenre, but chart-topping and download/page-view-record-breaking music for the masses.

In the next section, I turn to Gaga’s visual and textual production. Not only is her post-goth status more evident in these contexts, but this is also where her post-goth sexual politics are most evident. Gaga’s sexual politics are more properly “goth” than, say, Depeche Mode’s because the latter artists’ songs often positively represent (and even incite) sexual desire as such, Gaga calls into question the very desirability of sex and sexuality (as an act, as desire, as an identity).

For example, “Dance in the Dark” emphasizes the grotesque and debilitating effects that the performance of heteropatriarchial constructions of femaleness and femininity has on women’s bodies and psyches. The first lines of the song describe the normatively desirable and “sexy” female body as the “monster” created by a Frankenstein-esque beauty industrial complex: “Silicone, saline, poison, inject me.” Moreover, the refrain offers a fairly traditional white feminist critique of the male gaze: “baby loves to dance in the dark/cuz when he’s looking she falls apart.” “She” does not experience pleasure in men’s scopophilic objectification of her body; she cannot bear its weight, and can experience a coherent (rather than shattered) corporeal schema only when she is certain “he” (i.e., patriarchy) can’t see her. A later verse presents non-patriarchal constructions of female desire as monstrous: “Run run her kiss is a vampire grin/The moon lights away while she’s howling at him.” Under the light of the moon – which is traditionally identified with women and their menstrual cycles – rather than under the Apollonian light of patriarchal truth and reason, female sexuality appears inhuman (and, notably, as a classic goth icon, the vampire).

Both Gaga’s and goth’s sexual politics turn on the figure of the monster. Like goth, Gaga uses images and figures of posthuman monsters to critique heteropatriachial norms governing gender and sexuality.

[i] Lady Gaga, “Dance in the Dark” on The Fame Monster New York: Interscope 2009. Depeche Mode, “Strangelove” on Music for the Masses, London: Mute, 1987.

[ii] Vanilla Ice’s early 1990s track “Ice Ice Baby” samples the bassline from Queen and David Bowie’s single “Under Pressure.” However, Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) has claimed in several instances that the bass loop in his track is in fact not the bassline from “Under Pressure” because his bassline has an extra note. See Stillman, Kevin (February 27, 2006). "Word to your mother". Iowa State Daily. http://www.iowastatedaily.com/articles/2006/02/27/news/20060227-archive5.txt.

[iii] Depeche Mode, Construction Time Again, London: Mute, 1983. Depeche Mode, Some Great Reward, London: Mute, 1984.

[iv] Video available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzGnX-MbYE4, accessed 27 November 2010.

[v] See “Lady Gaga Returns with 8 New Songs on ‘The Fame Monster’ from the website “PR Newswire”: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/lady-gaga-returns-with-8-new-songs-on-the-fame-monster-63780227.html. Accessed 28 November 2010.

Author Bio:
Robin James is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte. She specializes in contemporary continental philosophy, feminist theory, critical race/postcolonial theory, and the philosophy of music (particularly popular music). She has published articles in journals ranging from Hypatia to The Journal of Popular Music Studies, on topics ranging from Rihanna's Afrofuturist critique of traditional philosophical aesthetics to a comparison between Judith Butler's use of "autonomy" and Peaches' use of the electric guitar.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gaga Stigmata Updates

Gaga Stigmata was recently featured in an article by Victor P. Corona on Pop Matters. The piece, entitled "Gaga Studies," examines the ever-growing phenomenon of Lady Gaga as an academic subject. Corona also offers a defense against some of the most common criticisms of Gaga and her project. We wish to thank Davide Panagia for letting us know about this piece, and Victor P. Corona for crediting Gaga Stigmata. You can check out the article here.

Also, you can now officially "like" Gaga Stigmata on Facebook. We'll be using our Facebook page to keep our readers updated, and also to garner your opinions regarding various projects we're undertaking. There is also a discussion board available there for our readers to engage with one another, and ask the editors of Gaga Stigmata questions. Click here to "like" us on Facebook.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


"mad props" invitation #6

When visual artist Caspian Carter submitted his first invitation to Gaga Stigmata back in September, politely asking Ms. Gaga to please piss on him, I was amused and intrigued. While we’d been garnering great creative work for the site, much of the artwork—poetic and visual—that had been submitted at that point operated either as creative “defense” of Gaga’s project, or as holographic, near-homage. Carter was doing something different, riskier—he was playing with the high art/pop border in a most Gaga fashion, but his project wasn’t ultimately about explaining Gaga. It was about performing what Carter calls an “aesthetics of vulnerability.” This echoes Gaga’s aesthetics of life-on-display, certainly, but in an open-wide fashion that courts the sort of embarrassment, failure, and categorical confusion that many of the very best works of art invite; the kind of embarrassment, failure, and categorical confusion that Gaga herself invited when she first strutted onto the scene, totally pants-less.

I asked Carter if he would be interested in continuing his project mad props on our site in weekly installments, either until Gaga answered his plea to be pissed on—in which case he must spill the pee for us—or until he felt he had no choice but to issue a statement explaining himself. As Gaga has yet to respond to Carter’s request, you will find below a conversation between Carter and myself about mad props. Carter and I began our discussion by re-hashing the impetus of the series. I also asked him to frame some of his artistic influences for Gaga Stigmata’s readers.

Caspian Carter: If I remember correctly, I sent you [Kate Durbin] the first image/invite and then you asked me if I would want to do a series, which I thought was a great idea.  This project was something that I was kicking around in my head for a while before submitting it to Gaga Stigmata.  It began with the goal to invite a bunch of famous female artists/theorists/pop icons to piss on my tattoo.  There were several contextual problems that kept popping up with the thought of such invitations.  When I saw Armitage Shanks I felt like Gaga handed me the context needed to pursue the project.  I had been a fan of G.S. for about a year and decided that your commitment to criticality would help feed the project’s goals. 

Gaga's "Armitage Shanks" project

In terms of the photos, I was specifically thinking about Mapplethorpe (invitation #2), Rrose Selavy/Duchamp (invitation #3), Chris Burden (invitation #4), Trixter Discourse (invitation #5) and Joseph Beuys (invitation #6) and Tracey Emin (invitation #7).  In terms of the invitation/performance request I continue to think about Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and a lot of Miranda July’s work.  Vito Acconci is always circling in my head.  I am also really interested in the work of Shilpa Gupta, Chu Yun and Liz Glynn—not sure if there are really any explicit threads to these artists but they certainly inspire and shape the way I think.  

Miranda July's "One Pose Per Second" video

Kate Durbin: It's interesting that you want(ed) Gaga to piss on your tattoo--one of the things I noted as the project unfolded was that your tattoo was always visible. Being as it’s on the underside of your arm, this meant that you were often raising your hands up in an prostrate way, or like you were at a concert rocking out. 

I'm curious to know what were some of the contextual problems of inviting other female artists to piss on you, that you felt were alleviated when Gaga created Armitage Shanks? Was it primarily the direct Duchamp reference and Gaga's own irreverent toilet humor (Gaga wrote on the urinal: I'm no fucking Duchamp but I love pissing with you), or something more, perhaps something related to what you perceived the reception of the project to be? 

Caspian Carter: Most of the problems in the beginning were located within the tension between sincere critical engagement and complete dismissiveness through a process of reduction, seemingly violent and sexual in nature.  I was finding it difficult to balance that tension. There are all sorts of structural dynamics at play between a white male aspiring ‘artist’ requesting that established/famous/successful female artists piss on him.  However, power is still intimately linked to sex/gender and authorship and I was finding that my imagined propositions were collapsing into privileged solicitations or exploitations.  This risk of collapse is important to me and I equate it to an ethics of vulnerability but it is important to me that the viewer and propositioned be given enough traces or clues to recognize and participate in that struggle. 

Duchamp's "fountain"

Gaga’s Armitage Shanks provided me with at least two really important pieces of context.  The first, which is obvious, was an explicit link to Duchamp’s fountain, and therefore to my body.  This however would also be present in an invitation to Sherrie Levine or Elaine Sturtevant, and although I hope to someday invite these woman to piss on me (a save the date of sorts?) it is important to me that my work strive to extend beyond aesthetic discourse and insert itself into the realm of popular culture.  So the second contextual offering by Gaga was her monopoly on pop, as well as her constant shifting between discourses (political, aesthetic, social, etc.).  Her extraordinary fame forces the sexual tension implicit in my invitations to be understood not only in terms of the male gaze but also in relation to complex notions of celebrity worship.  Your Free Bitch Feminism: The Post-Gender of Lady Gaga piece has since got me thinking even more about Gaga’s ability to piss the gender right out of me. 

As for the location of my tattoo, Meghan [Vicks] brought up that it is in the same spot on my arm as Gaga’s Rilke tattoo. I did realize that before the invitations went out and I enjoyed that connection, however, the placement for me was more about the perception of the tattoo which is contingent upon the student raising and lowering his hand/arm. The perspective shift that occurs is also similar to how Duchamp flipped the urinal.  I’m also a fan of constraints.   

Jon's tattoo and Gaga's Rilke tattoo

Kate Durbin: I, too, am a fan of constraints. I'm also highly interested in how projects evolve over time, when artists open themselves up to audience response and interface variables, such as the Internet. What you said so beautifully about the tension between dismissiveness and critical response seems particularly apt here. I remember when we first started talking about your project, and I posed to you that you might continue it indefinitely on our blog, we both were excited and unsure as to how Gaga Stigmata's audience would interact with the work (though I think we both knew that some people would be, ahem, pissed!). This of course is particularly interesting as we have a wide audience made up of scholars as well as everyday Gaga enthusiasts. There's even a good chance Gaga herself has seen it, since I am fairly certain her Haus reads our blog. So, like Gaga's pop/art, your work was read by a much more varied group than, say, by an art crowd in a gallery who would instantly be applying a framework to it and therefore not truly become vulnerable themselves as viewers. And so what I'm wondering is if your aesthetics of vulnerability applies to the audience/viewer as well? And if so, how so? 

Caspian Carter: I am interested in developing relationships that hinge on a level of vulnerability. Therefore, yes, I hope that the viewer thinks about her or his vulnerability in relation to both my work and its reception.  Travis’ comment articulates this very well, “I agree that there is a level of awkwardness here that is hard to stomach. Embarrassing beyond words. An abject transmission, returned from the toilet of the blogosphere.”  Certainly here the awkwardness is directed at me, the pathetic, half-naked, hand raising ‘artist’ trying to be seen: i.e ‘look what I can do.’ However, the viewer is implicated on all sorts of levels. To be cognizant of being asked to look requires that one see oneself (not) looking. And thus, the awkwardness or vulnerability becomes one way in which the viewer may accept or reject this piece. Side note: For the most part, I rejected Lady Gaga until seeing the Bad Romance video.

Kate Durbin: You mentioned to me that you didn't want to frame the piece too soon, as you wanted it to remain dismissible and therefore sincere. This ties in again, I believe, to your aesthetics of vulnerability. Once one has framed the work it no longer seems sincere because the vulnerability has been removed from it. However, invitation number 5 featured a bag of Trix cereal. I thought this was an interesting move--it made me think immediately of Meghan Vicks' work on Gaga as Trickster of American Pop Culture, and I wondered if you could expound upon your trickiness as it relates to your vulnerability, as obviously the two things appear to be in some conflict. Or perhaps you won't want to, as that might reveal too much of your magic bag!

Invitation #5

Caspian Carter: Typically, people go to galleries explicitly to look at (and judge…and sometimes to even purchase) art.  Because the internet does not have such a clearly defined purpose—in relation to the viewing, judging and or purchasing of art—questions concerning the telos of these images may begin to surface for the viewer.  Is it sheer self-promotion?  Is he some pervert looking to get off on the idea of Lady Gaga pissing on him? Is this a joke? etc. And although, I think these questions are present regardless of where these images are seen, they certainly risk more immediate and anonymous dismissal on the web.  This anonymity is something else that I link with vulnerability. The viewer may or may not care about the images, yet s/he finds her/himself (not) caring in relation to a direct address to someone else (unless you are reading this Miss Gaga). It is a message in a bottle to Gaga, intercepted by the viewer. And it is a love letter of sorts or something else entirely. And we are embarrassed for reading it. And we are embarrassed that anyone thought it worthwhile to put something into a bottle and throw it in the ocean. And yet the moment we read the message, we are immediately faced with the desire to make it about ourselves. As noted in Vanessa Place’s WAT IS GAGA (Sept. 20th 2010): “No guises but reality, no reality but the imaginary, no imaginary but the symbol, and the Symbol is of the Imaginary. Because, the truth is, I don’t exist either. Not really.”

For me, doing a series of images was important.  Repetition helps to validate the project in some ways.  As the images accumulate, they request more and more attention and therefore the call to be seen/heard is intensified. Regardless of the telos, pathos begins to play a factor and various other relationships may emerge.  Patterns occur, or at least the desire to locate patterns, from week to week. This accretion over time is somewhat different than say walking into a gallery and seeing a bunch of ‘finished work’.  I am not opposed to gallery shows at all; however I imagine if these images were to appear in a gallery, their pleas for piss would be fixed (possibly explained on a placard). It was really important for me present ideas as ‘openly’ as possible before framing them.  And if it is not entirely obvious, I am still hesitant to map out a singular reading.  Placing them on the web afforded the potential/threat for viral expansion.  At least in theory, any one of the viewers could have reposted/reblogged the images. And in reposting/reblogging the viewer tacitly agrees that s/he cares and therefore assumes the power to reframe them however s/he wishes.  

Again with the tension… who the hell cares? 

I have been thinking about notions of the Trickster for about two years now and much of my work engages with parody and play.  It would be weird for me to say I wanted to be a trickster but tricksters have historically functioned in really powerful and ethical ways—not so much by answering, but rather posing or revealing (reveling in?) questions.  I agree with Vicks’ analysis of Gaga as a trickster.  My explicit use of the Trix box in number five was an attempt to pay homage to this placeholder in our society.  It also functioned as a means to give some theoretical traction to any viewer concerned about my lack of critical commitment.  An armnote perhaps, another part to the (w)hole.

Kate Durbin: I like what you say about the potential for/threat of viral expansion that exists when this work is placed on the web.  The reactions to the piece in Gaga Stigmata's comment boxes have in effect spread much like a virus. With the first few invitations, there were occasional expressions of confusion along the lines of "you call this crap art?" punctuated by mostly silence, as if the virus were spreading silently beneath the surface. But then with your sixth invitation, an eruption of anger was directed your way. On the one hand, viewers felt the project was too hip art-elitist for them, yet on the flip, entirely too base and childish. Meghan Vicks pointed out that this anger, oddly enough, sounded a lot like Gaga's critics. "It's childish!" "It's derivate!" "It's not real art!" One woman even called the series chauvinist, though other commentators were quick to point out that it's really much more in line with male abjection than chauvinism--the male abjection of, say, an American Apparel ad. The commentator retracted her statement after that, but I am certain she was not the only viewer who saw a guy in his trendy underwear asking Gaga to piss on him and thought: "asshole." 

However, it also seemed that the fiercest anger came from people's frustration that the piece had continued on for so long, that it just wouldn't fucking go away, like a kid who keeps begging and crying for candy in a grocery store, saying please over and over, embarrassing and yet somehow implicating all the other patrons. What did you feel when you experienced all the loathing directed your way, some of which even became bizarrely personal? When were first talking about you writing a critical piece to go with the invitations after the fact, you called it an "apology." If you were to write an apology for your piece, what would you say? 

Caspian Carter: Yes, the sixth invitation did get people talking which ultimately made me really happy. When the first negative comments were posted, I was a bit bummed, especially at the ones that were attacking me instead of just the work.  But these reactions were anticipated and like you said they might have been that which encouraged the silence to break and an interesting level of ‘critique’ to emerge.  When Vicks pointed out the correlations between Gaga’s critics and the angry comments things definitely shifted.  The value of words being exchanged became simultaneously more and less arbitrary. I had hoped that the title mad props would encourage this shift as well; that is, by locating anger and insanity and (colloquially) extreme support all within the propositions/invitations.

I love your analogy of the child in a grocery store.  I imagine the situation even further in my head. The parent of this annoying child, face turning red, turns and shouts, “Johnny, you are really pissing me off!” All of the implicated viewers forced to face their new reactions, different levels of implication and different forms of embarrassment.  Then, picture this, little Johnny responds, folding his arms calmly and forgetting about the candy; “Well, mother/father, it is certainly better to be pissed off than pissed on.”  The conceptual is childish in its rejection of the material.

I was excited when abjection entered the conversation.  Certainly the piss element of the project is congruent with what has been called abject art.  However, I struggle with the concept of the abject being attributed to any specific identity category.  Identities are symbolic, whether they are marginalized or not.  In which case, abjection—as a space between the subject and object—seems to be necessarily defined by a paradoxical dis/belief in the subject/symbolic, a reaction to the traumatic realization of our object-ness.  As expressed in one of the comments. “This picture is a lot like someone walking up to you and just looking you in the eye blankly. You wait, you say something, you wonder what's going on. You get frustrated because this behavior implies or requires explanation, and you don't know how to provide or acquire it. You're clearly being addressed but you don't know the code.”  And as Barthes reminds us, photographs are without code, (mad or tame). Thus, to take a self-portrait is to un-know oneself, to become ‘object’. And to become object is to become celebrity, which is to say, to become the highest form of a symbol (American Apparel model or Lady Gaga, the difference is in the degree of success). This is, I think, what the Gimme Some of That Bad Girl Meat Dress! discussion (Sept. 22) is about.   

I am interested in interrogating the ‘codes’ of masculinity, the ‘codes’ of advertising, the ‘codes’ of marginalization, the ‘codes’ of art and the ‘codes’ of celebrity.  I am also interested in interrogating the ‘codes’ of interrogation.  In such cases, failure is always inevitable, yet the inevitability of failure is never incasing, only incased.   

In terms of my apology, I was thinking more of a defense or justification of my actions rather than saying I’m sorry.  But I think that there is something in this relationship that highlights the level of responsibility that I hope to assume.  I am certainly not sorry for doing this project; however, I am sincerely sorry if it caused anyone any real trauma.  

Serrano's "Piss Christ"--a trauma-inducing work of art that did indeed get pissed on.


Kate Durbin is a writer and performance artist. She is the author of the poetry collections The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009) and, with Amaranth Borsuk, Excess Exhibit, forthcoming from ZG Press. She has written several chapbooks including Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator's Boot (Dancing Girl Press, 2009), FASHIONWHORE (Legacy Pictures, 2010), and Kept Women, forthcoming from Insert Press. She is founding editor of the journal Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga. She writes about celebrity style at Hollywood.com

Caspian Carter (b. 1982) is an artist, writer and educator living in Los Angeles.  He recently received an MFA in Writing and Integrated Media from California Institute of the Arts. His work engages with notions of ethical subjectivity within a world of collapsed metaphor, linguistic slippage, and self-exploitation.  His blog is www.hystericallyreal.com.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gaga in Oz: Hearing The Woman Behind the Camera in Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"

By Ayah Rifai [i]

Whenever I watch a Lady Gaga music video, I cannot help but recall Richard Wagner. But what could a twenty-first-century shock-and-awe pop icon possibly have in common with a nineteenth-century German operatic composer? I believe that what distinguishes Lady Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) from all other artists on the pop music scene today are her aspirations for a modern day Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, a term that Wagner coined to describe a work in which drama, music, poetry, and material art would be synthesized and united to create a new and complete art form. In a 2008 interview with DJ Ron Slomowicz from The New York Times Company, Gaga describes how she conceives her artwork as a “whole package”:

I don’t write records and then decide what the video will look like. I instantaneously write things at the same time so it’s a complete vision, the song, and the visual, the way that I would perform it on the stage. It’s something that all comes to me at once. So when I say I make the music for the dress, the dress is a bit of a metaphor for “I make the music for everything,” for the entire performance vision.  (Slomowicz 2008) 

As a brazenly outspoken woman with outrageous costumes and gender-bending performances, Gaga has recently become the subject of much scholarly attention – and rightfully so. Her songs, such as “Telephone,” “Bad Romance,” and “Alejandro,” have been eagerly analyzed under the umbrellas of cultural studies, film studies, and queer studies, to name a few. Indeed, numerous writers have discussed to a fascinating and highly-illuminating degree the imprint her spectacles and persona are leaving on our zeitgeist. Yet, writers’ critical reflections seem to venture only into half of Gaga’s artistic vision or “package,” leaving out what I consider to be the root of what that she does: the music.

In this essay, I seek to bridge the lacuna by shedding some light on the oft-neglected musical aspects of her “total artwork.” My analysis will consider various dimensions of “Paparazzi,” a 2009 hit from the 2008 album The Fame, which is usually relegated to the periphery of writers’ critical lenses when compared to Gaga’s more recent songs. Applying Michel Foucault’s theories of surveillance and power, I will demonstrate how “Paparazzi” contributes to Gaga’s strategy of legitimizing her fame before it has actually occurred. In the second half of my essay, I will examine how Gaga projects her feelings about the problematic yet symbiotic relationship that celebrities maintain with the unrelenting paparazzi through the video’s music and visuals, and how this ties in with her ultimate mission to garner fame.

The (Balcony) Fall from Grace       
Before delving into the music, it behooves us to recount the video of “Paparazzi” in order to contextualize the musical analysis. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, the full-length version of the video is an approximately eight-minute mini-movie starring Gaga the celebrity and her boyfriend, played by the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. The scene opens in Gaga’s seaside mansion with someone playing melodic fragments and minor chords on a piano.[ii] This detail lends the scenic atmosphere a sense of intimacy, as the piano often recalls bourgeois homes. But within seconds, the viewer discerns that this feeling of comfort and privacy is to be shattered. As Gaga and her boyfriend move to the balcony while kissing and embracing, a stealthy photographer begins taking pictures of the couple. In the background, the piano chords become louder, more unstable, and more tumultuous, reflecting Gaga’s unease and foreshadowing her impending downfall. When Gaga realizes that her boyfriend has set her up to the tabloids, she struggles to escape his embrace only to be thrown over the balcony, falling in slow motion.[iii]

Gaga is next shown lying on the pavement in a pool of her own heavily stylized blood, with the paparazzi swarming around her. The image of our poor starlet’s accident is carefully arranged and aestheticized – an artistic detail that will shape how we view all subsequent female victims in the video. As the paparazzi, exclaiming “Beautiful! Beautiful!,” shamelessly snap pictures of her seemingly lifeless body tabloid headlines flash on the screen that read, “Lady Gaga Hits Rock Bottom,” and “Lady No More Gaga.” Their actions in this segment reveal the paparazzi’s eagerness to photograph tragedy – where a star’s death represents the ultimate shot – while their words reflect the media’s general tendency to abandon a star when she no longer conforms to society’s standards of able-bodied beauty.

The following scene reveals a disabled Gaga getting out of a limousine with the aid of her hired help. Gaga dances in a wheelchair and then on crutches with her troupe of butlers and maids, while donning a metallic garment and helmet that vividly recall the cyborg-like outfit seen in George Michael’s 1992 “Too Funky” music video.

Gaga in “Paparazzi,” dancing on crutches in a cyborg-like outfit.

A runway model’s outfit in George Michael’s “Too Funky” music video, indubitably the source of inspiration for Gaga’s costume.

This video features Michael videotaping models as they strut down a runway to the beat of his tune by the same name. As we will see, “Too Funky” offers more than a mere visual quotation for Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” for it reveals the ways in which an ostensibly behind-the-scenes George Michael is really in control of the women’s images, mediating them to us, the viewers.  Gaga’s dance is at once graceful and awkward, with her abrupt, robotic moves, lending her an inhuman aura. Here, Gaga shows that her relationship with haute couture runs deep, even to the extent that the implements designed to aid her disfigured body are high fashion.

As various scenes in the mansion flash before us, we see dead models in full makeup lying on the ground, including a maid who bleeds gold, another who has hanged herself, and yet another woman in the garden with her body eerily contorted and wrapped in plastic.

These scenes are sinister, yet aesthetically pleasing and surreal, for the women’s images are captured in a way that beautifies their deaths and makes them disturbingly delightful sights to behold, thereby elevating their deaths to the status of high fashion or art. Gaga is perhaps critiquing the glorification of female deaths in pop culture and the violence perpetrated against women in general, whose depictions have become increasingly fashionable in the media. The erotic portrayal of these murdered women brings to mind, for example, an ad that I stumbled across several years ago for the video game Hitman: Blood Money. The ad depicts a lingerie-clad, presumably dead woman who has been shot in the head and placed amid crimson, fluid-like silk. This commercial resonates with the visuals employed in “Paparazzi,” where post-mortem females are made to look visually appealing.

An advertisement for the video game Hitman: Blood Money.
Note the ad’s caption: “Beautifully Executed.”

The climax of this mini-movie occurs in the scene where Gaga and her boyfriend are sitting in a tea room. The Swede accessorizes his ensemble with an eye patch, which brings to mind the ancient Hammurabian law of “an eye for an eye,” as Gaga plans on punishing him for the nearly homicidal act he committed against her. Gaga, meanwhile, is dressed in a yellow, Minnie Mouse-like unitard with circular glasses. A close-up of this outfit reveals that the pattern is comprised of repeated pictures of Gaga wearing a World War II helmet with mouse ears appended to the top. This image, with its repetitive pattern, recalls the Holocaust survivors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus suggesting that Gaga is, by analogy, a survivor of larger scale female victimization.

This detail recasts the light in which we might interpret the deceased women as victims of a larger female genocide, in turn rendering Gaga’s murder of her Swede a sort of revenge for the many women who have been wronged. This interpretation also establishes a thematic connection with the “Telephone” murders in Gaga’s subsequent video. In any case, the surface image of innocence and twee that Gaga’s Mini Mouse costume evokes contrasts dramatically with a more detailed examination of that outfit.

Gaga discretely slips poison into her boyfriend’s drink. Two seconds later, he collapses dead on the sofa, and Gaga has thus been avenged. She calls 9-1-1 and says, “I just killed my boyfriend” with an anime-like smirk on her face. Then the plot comes full circle: as the authorities snap away at Gaga’s deceased boyfriend, she makes her way to a car and gazes lovingly at the paparazzi surrounding her. The images of the previous female victims – beautifully captured in all of their aesthetic gore in the daylight – now juxtaposed with that of the unglamorous and un-gory death of the boyfriend during the night lend the video quite a haunting sensationalism.[iv] Next, images of newspapers flash by reading the following headlines: “She’s Back!!!,” “She’s Innocent,” and “We Love Her Again,” this time highlighting the fickleness and strange devotion (and bad journalism, since she clearly confessed to the crime) of the paparazzi. The final scene shows Gaga posing raunchily for mug shots in jail in another cyborg-inspired outfit, thus concluding where the video for “Telephone” begins.

Through the Looking Glass – But Whose?
What intrigues me about “Paparazzi” the song is how Gaga the star and the vocal persona she portrays are two separate characters. Upon closer examination of the lyrics, the listener discerns that Gaga is not singing from her point of view, but rather from the perspective of a paparazza.  What is particularly striking about the perspective from which Gaga sings in “Paparazzi” is that it seems polarized with her artistic persona presented in the video, yielding a paradoxically empathetic portrayal of paparazzi at first blush. Here, Gaga vividly places herself in the shoes of an ostensibly real person, albeit a person with no individual identity because this nameless paparazza is generally bunched together with a group of many other paparazzi. In other words, Gaga claims to be speaking from an “emic” (insider, paparazzi) standpoint rather than from the more predictable “etic” (outsider, star) perspective, which brings me to my next query: What could possibly compel Gaga to write a song that seemingly empathizes with the very people who presumably torture and stalk her 24-7, waiting for the chance to slander her or to get that lucrative picture?

Michel Foucault might help us clarify why Gaga would devote a song to the merciless paparazzi. Foucault theorizes that the exercise of disciplinary power relies on a mechanism of coercion by means of observation, where those in power are the observers and those upon whom power is exercised are the observed. This form of disciplinary power works to create a knowable people, making them the object of surveillance and control. As such, he posits that oppression depends on supervision (here, oppression might be the surveillance enacted by paparazzi), where increased visibility leads to more control of the person under observation. Furthermore, he argues that through this system of coerced observation, the observed begin to view themselves paranoiacally through their observers’ eyes.  According to Foucault, this mechanism of coercion also contributes to the creation of  “docile bodies”:

What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that acted upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A “political anatomy,” which was also a “mechanics of power,” was also being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies […]Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, “docile” bodies.

Applying these insights to “Paparazzi,” then, Gaga would have us believe that the reason she is able to present such an empathetic song about the paparazzi from an “emic” perspective is because she has been watched and hounded by them so closely and persistently since her rise to fame that she has begun to see herself through their eyes. In this interpretation, the paparazzi unwittingly function as disciplinarians who cleverly keep stars in line – and perhaps even transform them into seemingly “docile bodies” – because they document them from the moment they step outdoors to the moment they return home. The structures of power and domination certainly include A-listers and high-profile celebrities, and those who follow stars around qualify as one of society’s many disciplinarians in the twenty-first century version of Foucault’s concept of “disciplinary punishment.” To be sure, paparazzi often possess the power to elevate or ruin a star’s career.

In the lyrics to “Paparazzi,” Gaga gives the impression that she has begun to identify closely with her so-called torturers, as if she understands what it is like to be one of them. Gaga appears to be trapped in a metaphorical prison whose captors are her admiring observers, recalling Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison wherein a single guard with a privileged central perspective is able to view all prisoners, but each prisoner is only able to view the central guard. What could be a closer contemporary version of this Panopticon than the paparazzi, who document every moment of a star’s life but are themselves largely invisible, not subject to the same probing observation? In short, the paparazzi enact Foucault’s “disciplinary gaze”: the stealthy surveillance (Foucault’s “eyes that must see without being seen”), the creation and preservation of a visible and knowable people, and even the photographer, our modern day Panopticon guard.


Yet something is amiss here, as Gaga’s perspective of an “authentic” paparazza remains unconvincing – Gaga is hardly a “docile body” without agency, nor is she as victimized as she makes herself out to be. Her portrayal of the paparazza character is not that empathetic. Although the persona Gaga lyrically develops may seem realistic in some respects, she is also a fairly empty character devoid of individuality and agency. In fact, Gaga’s is a rather unfortunate depiction of a woman standing on the outside, longingly looking in on a celebrity’s extravagant life. Furthermore, the lyrical perspective is undermined by the video’s lack of any singular or memorable depictions of a paparazzo or paparazza. Indeed, in the video, Gaga performs her traditional role of the glamorous celebrity and not the paparazza, from whose perspective she sings.

Gaga has provided some food for thought with regards to the ways we might interpret  “Paparazzi.” In one interview, she asserts that the song’s video “explores ideas about the sort of hyperbolic situations that people will go to in order to be famous. Most specifically, pornography and murder” (Lamb 2009). Ironically enough, one could apply this idea to Gaga as well, since she projects herself into this hyperbolic and surreal world in the video specifically so that she can acquire further fame. In another interview, Gaga describes the meaning behind “Paparazzi” as follows:

[It] is about a few different things – it’s about my struggles, do I want fame or do I want love? It’s also about wooing the paparazzi to fall in love with me. It’s about the media whoring, if you will, watching ersatzes make fools of themselves to their station. It’s a love song for the cameras, but it’s also a love song about fame or love – can you have both, or can you only have one? (Slomowicz)

Gaga’s use of “love” in this quotation works on two levels. In the first sentence, she counterbalances fame and love, where love might mean the possibility of a private romantic relationship unmediated and untarnished by the paparazzi, and fame would presumably preclude such a relationship. In the second sentence, however, she describes the love and adoration of the paparazzi, who help perpetuate and maintain her fame. This double definition of love underscores the dramatic tension in “Paparazzi”: What kind of love does Gaga want, fame (and paparazzi/fan love) or romantic love?

This quote also gives us something from which to work with regard to the music. If we focus strictly on the ideas presented to us at the surface level of the song and video, then Gaga’s message is thus twofold. On the one hand, she is acknowledging the symbiotic relationship that exists between stars and their devoted paparazzi: while the paparazzi hound a star and possess the ability to bring her down with one incriminating picture, they are also responsible for elevating that celebrity’s star status. This symbiosis is evidenced in the way Gaga initially reacts to the paparazzi at the onset of her video versus the manner in which she embraces them towards the end. It is also overtly reflected in the tabloids’ opposing headlines of Gaga at the beginning and at the end of the video.

On the other hand, Gaga relays a separate story about having to choose between fame and love. Whereas this emotional tug-of-war is enacted in the video through Gaga’s own actions – having to choose between a relationship (love) and her career (fame) – the music portrays these vacillating sentiments from the perspective of the vocal persona, a paparazza. A closer look at the music will illuminate how Gaga reflects her problematic relationship with the paparazzi, as well as how she sonically negotiates her indecisiveness.

Snap, Snap to That Shit on the Radio
One subtle way in which Gaga reflects both the relationship between celebrities and their paparazzi, and the artifice involved in fame, is through her choice of timbres that characterize the music. At the start of the video, as Gaga is shown plummeting from the balcony to the ground in slow motion, a synthesizer sonority enters emulating Gaga’s heartbeat; moments later, the listener is inundated with the sound of paparazzi anxiously snapping away at their cameras. The snaps and clicks combined with the pulsating heartbeat create their own distinct rhythmic pattern, and persist until they meld seamlessly into the song’s ostinato bass line – a slightly simpler version of the initial rhythm. Thus, we can say that the beat propelling the entire song grew out of both Gaga's heartbeat and the snapping and clicking of the paparazzi, a resonance that is at once organic and fabricated – an important dichotomy in this video.

Example 1: Introductory pattern becoming the song’s ostinato rhythm

After Gaga steps out of her limousine, another timbre is introduced to the musical texture upon Gaga’s utterance of “We are the crowd. We’re c-comin’ out…” – that of a synthesized robotic- metallic sound that brings to mind the noise of machinery. This metallic timbre is visually enforced by Gaga’s cyborg-like costume.

It is also interesting to note that Gaga perpetuates the sound of cameras clicking through her deliberate and machine-like vocal iteration of “c-comin’ out” (much like the calculated repetition of “Wha-wha-what did you say” and “T-t-t-telephone” in her next song “Telephone”), where she could have easily substituted “we’re c-comin’ out” with “and we’re comin’ out” and still have preserved the verse’s meter. Seconds later, a final timbre is introduced to the multi-layer electronic texture beginning with the words, “It so magical. We’d be so fantastico.” This final timbre vividly recalls the eerie, ethereal sound of a theremin – an electronic instrument used in many old science fiction movies to signify the bizarre and alien. The resulting overall electronic texture engulfs the listener’s sonic space so fully that it practically eclipses the chords underlying the music.[v]

Furthermore, with Gaga’s mechanical, abrupt, and contortionistic movements, the choreography in this segment reinforces the artificial soundscape. Her use of overpowering machine-like/robotic timbres highlights the unnaturalness and plasticity of stars’ relationships with the tabloids, as well as the often-spurious nature of fame. Had she opted for an acoustic accompaniment in the song (e.g., a piano and a drum kit), the resulting timbres and overall texture would have significantly undermined the nexus between the music and the lyrics’ message.

We can thus thematically link Gaga’s evocations of non-humanity (e.g. the cyborg, the robot, the artificial) to her overarching agenda. In order to attain ultimate fame, Gaga must eschew her privacy, humanity, and realness as Stefani. This sacrifice is vividly realized in both the visuals and the music, as Gaga is transformed into a robot-like being in the video with the rhythmic pulsing of the camera shutter opening and closing, metaphorically becoming her life’s blood, propelling the music forward from beginning to end.

Gaga also capitalizes on the form of the music to project her vocal persona’s vacillating sentiments. “Paparazzi” follows the standard form of a pop song:

(Brief introduction)
Verse 1
Verse 2
Chorus (repeated twice)
Codetta/fade out

As it turns out, Gaga sings Verses 1 and 2 from the viewpoint of “fame,” as interpreted by her paparazza, and the chorus from the perspective of “love,” the paparazza’s meditation on her adoration for Gaga. As a paparazza, she is focused and ready to do her job in Verse 1: “Got my flash on it’s true. Need that picture of you.” She follows the rich and famous and perhaps aspires to emulate them: “Leather and jeans, garage glamorous / Not sure what it means, / but this photo of us, it don’t have a price. / Ready for those flashin’ lights.” The melody in both verses, however, is characterized by leaps of open fifths, which evoke, at least in my mind, the familiar sound that many cameras make as they are turned on – an interesting sonic detail.[vi] And the perfect fifth intervals are heard each time above octave leaps in both the metallic timbre and the unrelenting ostinato bass without substantial harmonic support, lending the music a static and almost lifeless quality, much like a machine’s.

When the chorus arrives, the sentiment shifts to one of adoration, devotion, and firm insistence: “I’m your biggest fan. I’ll follow you until you love me /…Baby, there’s no other superstar. You know that I’ll be your papa-paparazzi.” The repetitious iteration of the same pitches in the chorus melody and the more lyrical, step-wise motion (as opposed to the verse music, which features more leaps), underscore the paparazza’s insistence. The rhythm of the melody, meanwhile, is mostly characterized by repetitive eighth notes except for the highly syncopated rhythmic motif on the phrase “papa-paparazzi.”

This pattern is also cleverly physicalized during Gaga’s dance segment in Baroque navy blue and white costumes (approximately 4:41 in the video) with her syncopated arm gestures and thrashes.

In tandem with the nearly twofold iteration of the word “paparazzi,” this abrupt rhythmic pattern draws the listener’s ear to the song’s namesake while simultaneously evoking the repetitive shouts of paparazzi when they vie for stars’ attention.[vii] Lastly, the combination of unrelenting eighth notes and the mostly monotone harmonization beneath the melody evokes robotic speech, further underscoring Gaga’s inhumanity.

Example 2: The rhythmic motif of “papa-paparazzi”

In the second half of the chorus, where the melodic zenith occurs, our paparazza’s voice becomes more urgent while she begins to plead to her celebrity: “Promise I’ll be kind, but I won’t stop until that boy is mine /…chase you down until you love me.” The sense of loving urgency is intensified by the occurrence of the highest note in the song, an Eflat5, on “promise,” and then by the octave leap down to the eighth note iterations of Eflat4 immediately afterward on the phrase “but I won’t stop.” The narrator’s insistence is perhaps mirrored most strongly in my favorite moment of the song, the unsuspecting harmony that occurs below the melodic line of “Baby, you’ll be famous, chase you down until you love me.” The harmony sits on a mostly monotone Eflat4, but then it ascends by step until it brushes up against the melody’s G and Aflat on “’til you,” thus creating a brief, yet delicious moment of back-to-back dissonance. This fleeting moment of dissonance ever so subtly and poignantly drives the paparazza’s emotional message home through its harmonic tension.

Example 3: Harmonization of part of the chorus

Our paparazza’s feelings swing back once again to support fame and success in Verse 2, whose words begin to border on a stalker mentality: “I’ll be your girl, backstage at your show. Velvet ropes and guitar, yeah, cause you’re my rock star. / In between the sets, eyeliner and cigarettes.” And when the narrator sings, “My lashes are dry, purple teardrops I cry. / It don’t have a price,” Gaga is encouraging us to imagine a stalker paparazza who hangs creepily on to every moment of Gaga’s life. In so doing, Gaga paints the picture of an emotionally-unstable paparazza who is not particularly flattering. 

After the chorus is repeated, we arrive at the bridge with its strange lyrics. In the corresponding film segment, Gaga is dancing in a costume made mostly out of roles of brown camera film, emphasizing the idea that Gaga the star is an image made by photographs and film.

Indeed, Gaga seems to penetrate the vocal persona for a brief instant when she sings, “Snap, snap to that shit on the radio,” followed by the imperative “Don’t stop for anyone.” It is as if she is coaxing her fellow paparazzi to be unrelenting with their duties, for Gaga unambiguously craves and courts this attention in real life. The melody is also characterized by the familiar leaps of fifths that defined the two verses, inviting us back into the world of stardom again. She concludes the bridge with the phrase, “We're plastic but we’ll still have fun.” The words send a poignant message, for Gaga is acknowledging the cyborg-like qualities of synthetic stardom counterposed against the lived reality of an individual who covets fame. In addition, the seemingly happy-go-lucky shouts on “still have fun” sound fake and mechanical, and Gaga’s overall nonchalant demeanor and choppy hand gestures in this segment mirror her detached tone of voice in the bridge.

The final way in which Gaga projects her ambiguous feelings is through the underlying harmonic structure of the music. More specifically, her irresolution is realized through the oscillation between the tonic key and its super-mediant key. The tonality of the song remains unclear in the video until Gaga steps out of her limousine, but at that moment, a C minor pedal chord is intoned on a synthesizer to establish the key of the song for the first time. Gaga draws on the stereotype that minor tonalities evoke sadness and major ones evoke joy in order to reflect her tumultuous thoughts. The entire first verse is grounded firmly in the C minor tonic key, with a brief occurrence of vi and iv. But when the chorus enters, we suddenly hear that we have arrived at the super-mediant key, Aflat Major, with no traditional preparation. Instead of giving us a conventional progression in the measures leading up to the chorus using III as an immediate secondary dominant chord (for example i, vi, iv, III [V/ vi], vi [the new key]), Gaga unexpectedly stops at the iv chord, F minor, and then travels directly from it to our new key in the chorus, Aflat major, via movement by thirds (coincidentally, a harmonic movement of which Wagner was fond). The key change even occurs in the middle of a sentence (“ ‘Cause you know that baby I...”), bisecting the contraction “I’m.” Alternatively, the iv chord in tonic would have worked beautifully as a pivot chord into the new key (i.e., using F minor, vi of Aflat Major), had it been followed by a few more chords and then a cadence to establish the new key, but that does not happen. Gaga thus undermines any feeling of a modulation by preceding the chorus only with a jazzy F minor11 chord. Without a secondary dominant or a proper modulating sequence, we expect to stay in C minor, so what we hear during the chorus suddenly comes as a surprise to our ears. It is as if Gaga is deliberately trying to confuse us.

Example 4: Harmonic structure from end of verse to beginning of chorus

While this turn to the super-mediant could be labeled as a passing tonicization, Aflat Major solidly grounds itself in our hearing because it is then followed by V, vi, and then iv in that key from “I’m your biggest fan” to “papa-paparazzi” before the cycle repeats again from “Baby, there’s no other” to “papa-paparazzi.” And during the second half of the chorus (“Promise I’ll be kind… papa-paparazzi”), the same chord progression recurs. When Verse 2 begins, we find ourselves abruptly brought back to C minor, again with no prior preparation (Dflat Major is the last chord intoned in the chorus), only to venture back in to Aflat Major when the bittersweet chorus occurs again. As for the bridge, it is firmly set in C minor, but only for a brief moment before the chorus is iterated twice. The song ends differently depending on the format in which it is experienced: whereas the version of the song recorded for the album ends with four measures of a C minor pedal chord accompanied by the percussive rhythmic motif, the video of “Paparazzi” ends with a fade out of the chorus (in Aflat Major) before Gaga is taken to jail. Perhaps this “alternate ending” provided by the video is Gaga’s way of saying that she can have it both ways, fame and love.

Table 1: Chart of form, tonality, and corresponding emotions in “Paparazzi”

Introduction & Verse I
Verse 2
Chorus (x2)
Video Codetta
Song Codetta

C minor
Aflat Major
C minor
Aflat Major
C minor
Aflat Major
Aflat Major

C minor

The key of each section corresponds to the two things weighing on the paparazza’s (and Gaga’s) mind in the narrative of each section: the concept of fame in the verses and the bridge (tonic C minor), and the thought of love in the choruses (Aflat Major). The oscillation between the two keys thus musically replicates the irresolution that Gaga’s persona describes. Furthermore, the choice to venture into the major mode – generally associated with hope and joy – is conveniently aligned with the paparazza’s proclamations of love and devotion, whereas the melancholic minor mode is chosen to underscore the problematic aspects of fame. Lingering on the super-mediant chord creates a great tension: both keys need each other to attain tonal closure. In an oddly similar way, celebrities and paparazzi also rely on each other to maintain their respective careers.

Gaga capitalizes on tonality’s tendencies and semiotic associations in order to sync our sonic experience of the music with her ambiguous feelings. The initial unexpected turn from C minor to Aflat Major without preparation or modulation, as well as the subsequent dizzying oscillations between the two keys that result from the song’s form, function to elicit specific responses from her listeners, enabling them to reproduce the relationship between Gaga and her ultimate fan, the devoted paparazza.

Beyond a Total Artwork
So which does Gaga end up choosing: fame or love? The music concludes in the home key of C minor, which is associated with fame, and the video ends with the death of Gaga’s boyfriend and the media’s renewed obsession with her. As much as Gaga attempts to sell herself in “Paparazzi” as a victim who begins to identify with her torturers as a result of coerced observation, the fact of the matter is Gaga is in control. Like The Man Behind the Curtain in The Wizard of Oz, Gaga smartly crafts our responses to and interpretations of her as famous by controlling the images and sonic messages of her, all while singing from an “out-of-control,” crazed paparazza perspective. In so doing, Gaga feeds her fans lyrics of an alleged outsider’s adoration. Fame was and remains the constitutive feature of Gaga’s identity, and she unapologetically seeks it, courts it, and requires it in order to persist. As Ella Bedard, a recent contributor to Gaga Stigmata, aptly notes, Gaga “is only insofar as she exists before the eyes of the public: as much as her audience is captivated by her performance, she is not only captivated but produced as a result of the devotion and constant attention from her fans.” (Bedard 2010)

Indeed, Gaga (or perhaps Stefani) seems to have always viewed herself through others’ eyes, and has sought to be observed – for she sold herself as a celebrity before actually having attained success in the pop arena. Her debut album, The Fame, was released in August of 2008 when Gaga was still a no-name artist, yet her songs center on the theme of what it is like to be rich and famous (e.g., “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “The Fame,” “Money Honey,” and “Starstruck”). “Paparazzi” should therefore be viewed within this context, for Stefani, the woman behind the curtain, created Lady Gaga to be more glamorous than she could have reasonably been at the time in which this song was written. And, in playing the role of a super famous woman prior to becoming super famous, Gaga legitimized her fame before the fact. In light of this idea, it seems as though Gaga’s paparazza persona is merely a vehicle for her larger agenda: to construct Gaga as someone who is always already famous enough to be hounded by adoring paparazzi and devoted fans. Stefani’s famous alter ego, in many ways, has eclipsed the possibility of a more human identity; her art literally has become her life (ergo the choice of fame). In order to garner fame as Gaga, a larger-than-life fictitious persona, Stefani Germanotta sacrificed her realness and her humanity. In effect, she can have no private life, no love beyond the public’s probing eyes. As such, Gaga favors the love of the paparazzi, who help her attain fame, over the individual love interest, who would want to keep a relationship outside of the public’s eye. As Gaga herself said, “I put all my love into my music. It’s never going to wake up and tell me it doesn’t love me anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather sell records than have a boyfriend” (Hutchinson 2009).  Now that Gaga has a man in her life, though, it will be interesting to see if she maintains this mindset.

In “Paparazzi,” Gaga seems to question who maintains her image, but she is at the center of her own Panopticon. In true postmodern fashion, she reflexively imagines herself through the lenses of her adoring fans and preempts the fantastic images of herself that she would like them to reproduce, attempting to manipulate her “little monsters” into “docile bodies.” Through it all, she is in control at any given moment. As Gaga unabashedly demonstrates, she is like the prison guard, watching us watching her. Fame is the alpha and the omega for her, and when we fail to give her our attention, her persona will cease to exist. Therein lies the key to the meta-pop star Lady Gaga, whose Foucauldian reflexivity is part and parcel of her “whole package.” In this respect, she has managed to surpass Wagner’s wildest aspirations for a viable Gesamtkunstwerk: an examination of “Paparazzi” reveals clever details in the melody, form, tonality, lyrics, narrative, and timbre that ultimately work together to unite the music, the message, and the visual dimensions of the video into one fascinating artwork. And yet, this product synthesizes not just her music and visuals, but Gaga’s very existence, ultimately blurring the line between consumer and producer, observer and observed, and art and life, paving the way for an altogether new level of total artwork.

Gaga photographing her photographers.
Gaga in an outfit featuring a camera perched over her right shoulder, and black visors that recall 1990s virtual reality goggles.

[i]           I would like to thank my good friend and fellow (ethno)musicologist Elizabeth de Martelly, who suggested this title to me, and whose insights and keen editorial skills played a significant role in shaping this essay.

[ii]           Incidentally, this “classical” opening is the first of Gaga’s four consecutive videos that feature an introductory melodic idea on a classical instrument. “Bad Romance” begins with a Baroque-like melody played on a synthesized harpsichord, “Telephone” opens with an F minor melody on the harp, and the music to “Alejandro” is prefaced by a plaintive B minor melody of Hungarian folk origin played on the violin, taken from the piece Csárdás for Violin and Piano by Italian composer Vittorio Monti. Why Gaga decided to open her songs in this classical manner--in the context of both her music and within the plot of each of the videos--is an intriguing detail worth further examination.

[iii]          I ascertain that her boyfriend was working with the tabloids because the first few shots of the couple are taken from an angle that is facing them (i.e., from within the mansion), leading the viewer to believe that the Swede may have let a photographer into the mansion previously (he even seems to make eye contact with the photographer at one point). Also notice beforehand how he strategically moves Gaga from the bed to the balcony and then promptly asks her if she trusts him, so as to not throw suspicion onto himself. Subsequent shots are taken from below the couple, just as Gaga is plummeting to the ground, therefore revealing that a swarm of paparazzi had already been stationed there in anticipation.
[iv]          This theme of unglamorous male deaths is perpetuated further in the sequel video “Telephone,” in which Beyoncé poisons her boyfriend’s food with the help of Gaga, the short-order cook, before poisoning the remainder of the diner’s customers.
[v]           From a phenomenological approach of perceiving “the sounds themselves,” my experience listening to the overall sonority produced by these timbres with headphones differs greatly from my experience of watching the video. With headphones on, I am bombarded by the multiplicity of electronic layers from different sonic spaces; this directional phenomenon is a consequence of the strategic distribution of various timbres to each side of the headphone in the recording process. The resulting experience evokes the sound of machinery even more vividly, while the uneven sonic distribution makes Gaga’s voice sound even less human to my ear, further heightening her message.

[vi]          I checked this detail just to be sure; a perfect fifth is, for the very least, the interval that my Canon Powershot™ A630 makes.
[vii]          It is interesting to note that Gaga uses the same rhythmic motif in the choruses of both “The Fame” and “Money Honey.” Perhaps it has become her “rich and famous” rhythmic pattern?


Bedard, Ella. “‘Can’t Read My Poker Face’: The Postmodern Aesthetic & Mimesis of Lady Gaga”. Gaga Stigmata. http://gagajournal.blogspot.com/2010/08/cant-read-my-poker-face-postmodern.html. August 17, 2010.

Bellmann, Jonathan. “Csárdás.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online,

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books: New York, 1977.

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Lamb, Bill. “Lady GaGa – ‘Paparazzi.’” About.com. http://top40.about.com/od/singles/gr/ladygagapaparazzi.htm. July 6, 2009.

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Author Bio:

Ayah Rifai is a clarinetist and musicologist who graduated from SUNY Stony Brook in 2009 with a Master's degree in Historical Musicology/ Music Theory. This is her first paper venture outside of the realm of Classical music, and writing about someone other than Brahms or Beethoven has been a refreshing and challenging experience for her. She is currently in her first year of music teaching at P.S. 264, The Bay Ridge Elementary School for the Arts, in Brooklyn, NY.