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Monday, March 28, 2011

“[Mary Magdalene is] still in love with Judas, baby”: Nicola Formichetti's Gothic and Lady Gaga’s Weimar Hooker

By Roland Betancourt

“Government Hooker”: An Introduction to “Judas”

Fragment A:
I’m just a Holy Fool, oh baby he’s so cruel, but I’m still in love with Judas, Baby.

Fragment B:
[...] When he comes to me, I am ready/ I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs/ Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain/ Even after three times, he betrays me/ I’ll bring him down, a king with no crown [...]

The fragments above come down to us as the only extant lyrics of Lady Gaga’s as of yet unreleased single, “Judas,” with a reputable provenance – Twittered and pronounced by Gaga herself.

At the “Google goes Gaga” interview, Gaga was seen in the same garb as that worn during the announcement of the Google collaboration. During the interview, Gaga stated that she wore the same clothing because of “branding,” later reiterating that she wanted fans to think of her in a certain way and connect the two visuals – likewise stressing that her project is a gesammtkunstwerk. From this same interview, Fragment B comes down to us with additional confirmation of Biblical and “symbolic” qualities of the song and its music video (to be directed by Gaga and Laurie Ann Gibson [possibly] next week). Following the interview, Gaga was seen at Twitter headquarters, again with a similar hairstyle and the same glasses, but now with large hoop earrings and a gaudy, gem-encrusted gold crucifix.

The large hoop earrings are very similar to those featured in her earlier appearances as a chola, a term cited in “Born This Way” that stereotypically refers to a Hispanic girl who wears tight pants, tank top, large gold-hoop earrings (usually with a name in them), tightly tweezed eyebrows, and long, gelled hair in a pony tail (a comparable term is chonga in the Hispanic community of South Florida, particularly Miami-Dade County).

As a style stereotypically linked with Hispanics whose families have recently migrated to the United States, the image of the gold-hoop earrings is one that signifies a type of conspicuous consumption through the materiality of gold and the added excess of customization, implicit in the inscribed name. While the term chola may be used in a derogatory sense, it also serves as a source of pride and self-identification – a very specific style that unifies self-identified members of such a demographic. Given the clear message of “Born This Way,” Gaga applies the term in the latter sense. Therefore, the upward mobility and marginalized community identity that exists in the valences of the chola is reified in Gaga’s use of the image.

One of the earliest appearances of the chola imagery in Gaga’s work, and by far its first broadcast image via Twitter, was in relation to Gaga’s effort to legalize gay marriage in New York by urging fans to email Senator Grisanti on 5 March 2011.

This image and tweet appeared three days after the debut of “Government Hooker” at the Mugler fashion show in Paris. Right before the fashion show, Gaga tweeted: “Show starting soon fashionmonsters! #parisisburning X Mother Monster.” Gaga used the hashtag #parisisburning as an oblique reference to “vogueing” in the New York drag community, a term made popular by the 1990 documentary of the same title. Paris is Burning, filmed throughout the late-1980s, features the underground drag club culture (referred to as “ball culture,” a name that has strong resonances with Gaga’s own [Fame/Monster] ball culture). The film still carries a strong relevance in contemporary drag culture through the ideas of “reading” and “vogueing” that have recently been widely distributed to the gay community through Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, which often incorporates these routines into its competitions and directly cites the documentary as a source for these crucial drag-tasks. More importantly, the documentary explores the dynamics of class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity (primarily black and Hispanic) in these balls and in the wider LGBT community. Thus, the documentary speaks to similar issues that are explored visually in Gaga’s chola fashion.

While these various connections are tangentially relevant to the overall issues of LGBT and multi-racial communities for which Born This Way serves as anthem, chola Gaga was utilized in her tweet (3/5/2011) in connection with a call-to-action. Keeping the debut of “Government Hooker” in mind, the chola-inspired costuming in this context presents an image for the Government Hooker. Gaga’s chola, with all its connotations of conspicuous consumption, marginality, and community identity, becomes the image of the Government Hooker. Here, Gaga depicts her master thesis on her role as a social activist. Gaga prostitutes herself, her fame, and her power for sociopolitical emancipation. In a sense, what the chola does through her fashion identity, Gaga enacts through viral social activism – and most certainly through fashion as well.

Gaga’s costume and appearance in the Mugler fashion show evoked the same nexus of marginality, prostitution, and club-culture identity. However, Nicola Formichetti and Gaga were not citing the usual 1980s club-culture to which Gaga and her inner circle of friends belong. Instead, they visually quoted Weimar Germany cabaret culture, something that Gaga has riffed with in the Cabaret-esque imagery of the “Alejandro” film. During the Mugler show, Gaga is seen on stage in a tight, bondage-like outfit, with striking eye makeup, smoking a cigarette in a grotesque manner. Her body is illuminated in a red glow as she leans against a composite column. The arcade becomes a vaguely turn-of-the-century European street, a characteristic of modern life as depicted in the work of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, but in the red glow it becomes (quite literally) a red-light district.

The particular German quality of the scene is heightened by the inclusion of the Mugler “Scheiße” remix at the beginning of the fashion show, which is heard right before the premier of “Government Hooker.” For her second catwalk, Gaga wears a white dress and hat. Here, the white dress presents the ideal manifestation of the celebrity’s body: a white canvas. It is onto this white body that images are cast; the canvas upon which visual reproduction occurs and images make themselves physically manifest. In the Mugler catwalk, the white costume becomes blood red in the crimson spotlight, and in this moment, Gaga bears a striking resemblance to Otto Dix’s Portrait of Anita Berber (1925), a Weimar cabaret performer, writer, and prostitute.

As a nightlife superstar, Berber was notorious in Weimar Berlin for her cocaine use and bisexuality, often flaunting her female lovers, as well as what some would call her Avant-Garde, sexually charged performances – images of which draw further parallels with Gaga’s Mugler catwalk.

Gaga is possibly well acquainted with Berber’s image, or at least with the similar imagery of Weimar artist Otto Dix. Dix’s paintings and drawings are in most major museums around the world, and his work has recently received much attention in New York. In the past five years, two major exhibitions have taken place in the City: the blockbuster Glitter and Doom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (14 November 2006–19 February 2007), and most recently at the Neue Galerie, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in North America (11 March–30 August 2010). The Anita Berber image was displayed at both exhibitions, and was featured as one of the poster images for the recent Neue Galerie show, as evidenced by the museum’s use of the image on the show’s website.

Therefore, the image of Anita Berber is that of an Avant-Garde club-performer and writer, an activist in her brave and bold sexuality – the very image that Gaga is attempting to convey and develop through the unfolding central thesis of the Born This Way album, but particularly through “Government Hooker.” The image of Gaga as the “Hooker” is given full effect in the Mugler fashion show performance, a performance that translates Gaga’s ontology as that of a hooker. The deeper underpinnings of the Anita Berber character and the overall Weimar aesthetic are later refined and nuanced by the inclusion of chola imagery, which adds to the governmental hooker/activist element. We are seeing two visual vocabularies here to develop the activist/hooker idea: one belonging to interwar Germany, the other belonging to contemporary visual culture.

There is also something anachronistic about the composite columns and ogival, pointed arches of the Gothic arcade in the Mugler fashion show. A strange choice for a fashion show, in fact, some sources criticized the design for concealing the models. Nevertheless, any Medieval art or architectural historian would point out just how perfect Formichetti’s creative design for this catwalk was. In an event that was laden with social media on stage and behind the scenes, the arcade functioned much like a choir screen in a Gothic church by playing with the poetics of concealment and revelation.

Throughout the liturgical performance, the space of the Gothic church constructs a hermeneutics of concealment and revelation that emphasizes the pathos of seeing the sacred mysteries of the religious ceremony.[i] The consecration of the Eucharist, the blood and body of Christ, occur behind the screen of the Gothic church. Throughout this key event in the liturgy, the doors and curtains of the sanctuary and the inner sanctum are carefully open and closed to stress both the manifestation of Christ in the church as well as his heavenly distance. During the Mugler fashion show, as the models proceeded through the space, the primary visual contact and contemplation of their clothing was fragmented and constantly deferred. The arcade played with the phenomenology of the runway, challenging its habitual use by the spectator – they had to make an effort to contemplate, stitching the fragments together in their minds. The viewers were teased, the full ecstasy of the model having been constantly deferred.[ii]

Fashion in this space takes on a religious dimension, a divine process of self-production and communion with a fashion icon. It is the weekly ritual in society, like church, by which the body prepares itself for spiritual emancipation. Fashion and the celebrity icon become the religion of popular culture, by which humanity becomes a better race – free of prejudice. When considering the religious valences of these images, the salvation and emancipation proclaimed by the birthing of Gaga’s new race in the “Born This Way” film suggest a deeply rooted Christian model – especially in light of the upcoming single, “Judas.”

“Judas”: Analysis

Who is Judas? Judas Iscariot is one of the Twelve Disciples of Christ who betrays Christ by turning him over to the High Priest Caiaphas (who then turns him over to Pontius Pilate and his soldiers) in exchange for thirty pieces of silver [Cf. Matthew 26:14-16; Luke 22:3-6; John 13:27]. The betrayal occurs via a kiss, the infamous Kiss of Judas (depicted below in a Byzantine Gospel Lectionary at Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos, Codex 587, c. 1100). While the Biblical narratives vary, it is generally agreed that after the crucifixion, Judas kills himself due to his guilt and anguish.

For Christianity, Judas plays an important theological/Christological role, as he puts into question the divine will of God and Christ. The Incarnation in the Virgin Mary occurs for the salvation of mankind, to cleanse humanity from the sins of Adam and Eve. This is a process that is referred to as the “economy” (or the divine dispensation). In order for man to be liberated of sin, Christ must be crucified; Judas therefore plays a central role, since without him and his betrayal, the Crucifixion could not occur. The Gospels of John and Matthew both understand Jesus as foreseeing and allowing for the betrayal to take place [Cf. Matthew 26:25 and John 13:27-28]. In the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, these issues are made clear in the development of Judas’s character, and through his confrontation with Jesus in the scene of “The Last Supper.”

This brief history of Judas sketches important issues for the consideration of Gaga’s own Judas. In the “Born This Way” video, as well as in her BTW prosthetics, there is an emphasis on incarnation. Her fashion undergoes a process of incarnation, the literal making flesh of items, such as shoulder pads and high cheekbones. Her birth of a new race presents a myth in which a “birth of magnificent proportions” takes place as a way of liberating humanity from the sins of prejudice. The incarnation of the new race functions similar to that of Christ in the divine dispensation, as a way of cleansing humanity of the sin. One of the Archbishops of Constantinople, Nestorius (c. 386-451), considered Adam to exist as a fallen statue after his succumbing to the devil; and like a king whose statue has been torn down, God re-erected a statue in his image through Christ. Thus, Christ becomes man as the replacement of a degenerate image. Just as evil is the hidden, concealed, and static-infused image of Gaga via a sonogram in the video for “Born This Way,” Adam was a fallen, corrupted image. The new race of humanity in “Born This Way” can be understood as a replacement for the fallen image of humanity, thus playing a role similar to Christ. Therefore, the impending suffering and crucifixion of this wholly pure image always lies in the shadows as a threat, which perhaps is inescapable. Gaga concludes the Manifesto by precisely expressing her concern for the preservation of this new image, as if a threat lurked somewhere – perhaps another Judas?

The dress worn by Mother Monster in the “BTW” video, interestingly enough, is called the “Stained Glass” dress, designed by the London-based artist Petra Storrs. Upon close examination of the dress, one finds a series of images taken from important works of art (such as Raphael’s Galatea [1512] and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne [1523-24]).

The dress features a slit over her womb across which the images on the “stained glass” are mirrored. Right beside this slit, on either side, is a scene of the crucifixion. The video, as I have discussed previously, features an important use of mirroring as a metaphor for birth and self-creation. Thus, the mirroring here demonstrates that the self-creation and production of this race is somehow tied to the crucifixion. Just as Gaga’s image is mirrored and her identity constituted by the unifying slit of the mirror, the birth here is unified through the flower-like slit over her vagina that is tied to the crucifixion imagery. The scene of Christ features prominently in the dress over her life-giving vagina. It reifies the economy of incarnation, reiterating the thesis that the incarnation of Christ, the reinstated icon, occurs so that his crucifixion may occur – so that he may suffer wholly as man and divine, and by doing so cleanse humanity of their sins through his death and resurrection.

Gaga has used similar arguments of sacrifice, death, and resurrection in her previous works. Most prominently, the narrative of “Paparazzi” stages the boyfriend figure as a Judas figure, who with a kiss turns her into those men (the paparazzi) responsible for her demise, but ultimately her resurrection.

Essentially, “Judas” is the “Paper Gangster” of Born This Way. During her 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, Gaga stated that people want to see her fail, they want to see her fall, and they want to know what she will look like when she has died. The incarnation of Lady Gaga that is evident in Born This Way also entails an element of the grotesque, of decay, and sacrifice. Not surprisingly Gaga recently said that her hair was falling out from all the bleaching – the bodily processes of the Fame deteriorating her flesh.

However, it is necessary to ask if Gaga’s “Judas” partakes in such a Christomimesis. This cannot be ascertained from our available fragments. Instead, “Judas” is about misdirected attention. The Fame and The Fame Monster took care of the Christomimetic character of the superstar; what Born This Way partakes of is the flesh itself, the bodily incarnation – lust.

Let us turn to Fragment B.1: “When he comes to me, I am ready/ I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs.” This line identifies the speaker, Gaga, as Mary of Bethany (collapsed into the identity of Mary the Magdalene in the Catholic tradition, but not in the East). Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus (who Christ resurrects), is the woman who poured perfume on Christ and wiped his feet with her hair. Then, Fragment B.2: “Forgive him when his tongue lies through his brain/ Even after three times, he betrays me.” This suggests a reference to Judas, but it is in fact a reference to Peter, who betrays Christ thrice before the cock crows. The Passion story seems to be collapsed in Gaga’s narrative, wherein the “he” is both Judas and Peter, and the “me” is both Mary of Bethany (or the Magdalene, more than likely) and Christ, since Christ is the betrayed figure.[iii]

The final portion of this fragment is perhaps most perplexing: “I’ll bring him down, a king with no crown.” Is this a reference to Christ, a king without a crown – except the crown of thorns that is mockingly placed upon him? This would make the speaker now Judas, suggesting the presence of various “I”s in the song. This is a technique that Gaga previously utilized in “Paparazzi” to stress the mutual self-creation of the fan and the superstar. Here, we may be seeing the same process – the mutual self-creation of the betrayed and the betrayer. However, perhaps Mary Magdalene is still speaking about Judas.

Fragment A suggests that the speaker is still Mary Magdalene: “I’m just a Holy Fool, oh baby he’s so cruel, but I’m still in love with Judas, Baby.” Gaga’s lyrics suggest that Mary Magdalene – the sexualized creature of Western legend who recently figured in the popular imagination via the DaVinci Code (2003) as the bride of Christ – is in love with Judas. This is the crux of the reading. “Judas” is about Mary Magdalene loving the wrong person: she is not in love with Jesus, the king of all kings, but has fallen in love with the wrong man – who will inherently bring her down.

In the collapsing of Biblical stories there are three Marys that are merged into a single figure: Mary of Bethany, Mary the Magdalene, and Mary the Prostitute. In Western Christianity (i.e. Catholicism), Mary is the redeemed prostitute who meets Christ, abandons her ways, and goes on to preach the Gospel to the idol-worshippers in Marseilles. Eventually, following the Golden Legend, she becomes a hermit. She resides in the desert, and every day is lifted by angels to receive nourishment from God. While she originally wears a hair shirt (or simply covers herself with her long flowing hair), in artistic representations her hair shirt is sometimes depicted as actual body hair. This is evidenced by Tilman Riemenschneider’s 1490-92 carving of Mary Magdalene being lifted by the angels. Her image also partakes of a similar incarnation of dress into the flesh. Like Gaga’s shoulder-pads that turn into fleshy protrusions, the hair shirt of the Magdalene becomes beastly body hair.

Back in October 2010, possibly right around the time Gaga was writing and recording the songs for the Born This Way, she wore a “Hair Dress” at a performance. The hair shirt of Mary Magdalene is one of the most widely reproduced images in Christian art, and in Western art history as a whole. Therefore, it is unwise to overlook a connection between the two.

Now let us recall Gaga’s crucifix-wearing outfit at her Twitter visit. The gaudy gold Crucifix on Gaga’s hairstyle is a fitting accessory for her to wear the day after she reveals an excerpt from “Judas.” Naturally, the revelation of a portion of one of her upcoming songs was expected to become major headline news. Nevertheless, she has maintained many of the same elements as the chola-inspired “Government Hooker.” After considering the fragments of the song, however, it seems that Gaga is stringing together these various identities to produce a composite image of the Government Hooker and the Judas persona – although not necessarily Judas himself.

“Government Hooker” previewed at the Mugler show amidst a Gothic arcade with what has been called an “electro-pop Gregorian chant,” which added a definite religious resonance to the scenery and the song itself. I do not mean to argue that Gaga has been pushing any religious agenda, but rather structuring an inter-textuality between “Government Hooker” and “Judas.” The citation to Marilyn Monroe in “Government Hooker” via JFK puts her in line with the litany of sacrificial women in “Dance in the Dark,” which I believe structures an added parallel between The Fame and Born This Way. We are struck by a series of strong women throughout history who have in some way or another been close to key political and religious figures, and who have used their sexuality and fame as a way of evangelizing their own gospels: Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, Marilyn Monroe and JFK, Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Gaga and the Government. What the song “Judas” questions is complex, but essentially: what happens when the hooker/activist falls for the wrong man? Perhaps for the wrong Gospel? But, perhaps, even more menacing, what if they all somehow fell for the wrong guy? Nicola Formichetti was quite clear in various interviews that the women’s wear show was meant to empower women; these issues, therefore, cannot be overlooked and deserve more attention when the song finally comes out.

The Mugler fashion show was a brilliantly orchestrated media blitz utilizing social technologies to introduce “Government Hooker” through the very mediums that Gaga employs for her social activism. Therefore, it only makes sense that Gaga would visit Twitter with an opulent crucifix that takes on the chola-inspired language of excessive constructions of self-identity. Both Google and Twitter are the nexuses of Gaga/Government Hooker’s potentiality in the social sphere, yet they also present the dangerous proleptic implements of her own passion. Gaga’s Mary Magdalene has assumed the identity of Jesus and fallen for Judas in Formichetti’s Neo-Gothic panopticon, through which a careful process of concealment and revelation is performed. Her fate is uncertain now that the whole process of the divine economy has gone astray.

One may interpolate that the video for “Judas” features similar themes: a gaudy, over-the-top opulence, and aesthetic structures that draw from a Mugler-inspired, Neo-Gothic, medievalizing imagery and fashion. One can suspect that the gold background of the Byzantine icon and of Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn (1962) figures into this image making: an aesthetic that captures both the enlivened spirituality and power of images in the medieval world, yet is combined with the iconicity and typologies of the Warhol superstar in the Late-Capitalist Twitter-sphere. Nevertheless, given the existing precedents, it is only to be expected that the results are much darker – more Zombie Boy, more Gothic arcades, perhaps (The) Cloisters.

A Preface at the Place of an Epilogue

As an art historian of past visual worlds, my documents and sources are often fragmentary, revealing only a portion of the story or the image that must then be extrapolated, interpolated, or restored. As an art historian of present visual worlds, my documents and sources are also fragmentary, particularly when working on matters of popular culture. Access to a figure, such as Lady Gaga, is essentially and by all means impossible. Therefore, standard research practices – interviewing, seeing the creative process in detail, getting a sense of their workshops, etc. – are largely inaccessible. Thus, the scholar must resort to other means of investigation, sometimes merely compiling what seems like an endless list of facts from all available interviews and news reports to reconstruct a mere semblance of research. Additionally, for both the scholar and the fan, the diachronous trickling down of information through the processes of fame and media politics leads us to constantly (pre-)construct narratives and understandings that are later (at least partially) unveiled/fulfilled. Gaga herself provides us with a methodology for understanding the long durée of the hermeneutics of pop culture: “But the birth was not finite but it was infinite.”

Thus, this is an investigation into this proleptic process, whereby the glimmers and flashes of information produce an understanding of a body of work that is teasingly displayed before our eyes. Here I preference the current possible analysis of Lady Gaga’s unreleased “Government Hooker” and her upcoming single “Judas,” not as a prediction of what it may be, but as an analysis of what it is as it exists today. Analyzing it as a completed work, yet one fractionally presented. In other words, my intention is not to predict what may happen, but rather what has proleptically happened. Therefore, this is an interpolation, using an existing data set to produce new information within those points.

[i] This is a subject discussed in depth by art historian Jacqueline Jung in her forthcoming book, The Gothic Screen: Sacred Sculpture and Social Space in the Medieval Cathedral.

[ii] Formichetti’s design plays well with the Neo-Gothic elements of punk and “goth” culture, as exemplified by his use of model Rick Genest (“Zombie Boy”), both Genest and the Gothic arcade. The design and the utilization of Genest additionally speak to a medieval fascination with death and the apocalypse – the impending resurrection of humanity at the Last Judgment.

[iii] What this demonstrates is a development of the popular imagination of the Biblical passion story. The medieval Golden Legend, for example, already confused the various Marys in the Bible and collapsed them into one, despite the rigorous religious scholarship that pervaded medieval society. The Judas theme unifies the Biblical men into an abstracted manifestation of betrayal; after all, this is not a faithful Biblical rendition, but a utilization of this cultural heritage.

Writer’s Bio
Roland Betancourt is a PhD student at Yale University in the History of Art department focusing on Byzantine art and image theory, with an outside concentration in contemporary art and popular culture.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Agents Of Pop: “Of What Is Past, Or Passing, Or To Come”

By Laurence Ross

Britney’s first single, “Hold It Against Me,” off of her upcoming album Femme Fatale, initially seems to be yet another song about Britney trying to seduce yet another insipid guy. “If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?” The lyric is so tired, so banal, that Britney is actually being sued for copyright infringement over its use (the “original” song in question produced over thirty years ago). But place those lyrics of Britney lusting on the dance floor within the context of Åkerlund’s video, and suddenly a song that I originally appreciated solely for its expected danceablity transforms under a much more complex concept.

Jonas Åkerlund, who directed the video for Britney’s “Hold It Against Me,” also directed Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” and, more recently, “Telephone.” While there are certainly similarities in Åkerlund’s latest representations of the two women, ultimately the videos for “Hold It Against Me” and “Telephone” take two prominent pop stars – and their respective songs about being in the club – and produce two widely divergent personal statements.

In the “Hold It Against Me” video, the perspective of the camera is pulled back so that the viewer can see the many spotlights Britney stands beneath. While Lady Gaga relishes in the spotlight of the camera regardless of the holder (see her indulgent performance as she poses and reposes for her mug shot at the end of the “Paparazzi” video, Åkerlund’s first Gaga production), Britney has felt trapped by this very same paparazzi. For a long time. A very long time. I’ve lost count of the songs she has sung about being tracked down and sought after (“Piece of Me”), the constant presence of the media’s circus (“Circus”), and putting on a face for the camera (“If U Seek Amy Tonight”) – all sung by Britney in anger at the constant media charade, which Lady Gaga, conversely, utilizes as a medium to construct her (many) identity(ies).

The opening scenes of “Hold It Against Me” focus on the body, as Britney and her menagerie of half-naked backup dancers clad in colorful briefs prepare for a photo shoot. The product to be advertised? Britney herself – her scent, bottled for all (which she sprays on herself, raising the question: Is Ahab, Ahab? Is Britney, Britney?). Think of this bottled scent as a type of DNA preservation, similar to a deposit at a sperm bank or freezing one’s eggs when the end of one’s youth is near; for Britney, the end certainly seems near (see the video’s opening sequence: the apocalyptic meteor that crash-lands on Earth).

This is a Britney more than a decade older than the Britney of Baby, One More Time. In short, Britney is aging. She has had two children, and look, Britney’s waist is wrapped in bullets, waging metaphoric warfare against her own body. Internet comments abound about how Britney’s dancing in this video is nothing compared to “the old Britney,” the Britney of Oops!… I Did It Again. But Åkerlund seems to emphasize not Britney’s lack of skill, but Britney’s lack of agency in the video’s initial dance sequences. Her arms are manipulated into motion by her own “backup” dancers as she applies her Make Up For Ever – a commodified representation of her desire for eternity.

Pop stars do not sing about their aging selves, their fading fame, their bodies as paltry – we do not want to see our pop stars in this light. How could we dance to such songs? How could we grope and grind with strangers in a crowded bar or make out with the strobe-lit person to our left if songs about growing old and talentless and decrepit were blaring through the sound system? We can handle songs about rejection and breakups and being lonely, because hey, we have been rejected and broken up with and we are lonely. These misfortunes may be the very reasons we are listening to pop songs in the first place, and (cue bubblegum optimism) these misfortunes of the pop star do not preclude – might even predict – a come back, a revival, a new lover, a new life. 

Writers, on the other hand, write about the end of their lives all the time and have been doing so for centuries. Some writers, like pop stars, are also concerned about their fame, their existence in the public’s consciousness even after they have died, but very few writers are prized for their bodies or bound by the expectation of pop stars to make us happy or, at the very least, hopeful. When it became apparent to me that Britney, in the video for “Hold it Against Me,” was singing about just these taboo concerns, concerns of the aging self, concerns that seem inherently anti-pop, I could not help but place the video and the song in a literary framework.

Think of “Hold It Against Me” in a Yeatsian context. Think of Sailing to Byzantium (1928), a poem written by an aging Yeats about his desire to not only leave his country where youth and sex are most valued, but also to travel back in time to a place where intellect trumped all. Britney feels that she is in “no country for old [wo]men” (Yeats 1.1.1). She does not have the youth or the body that she once had, though she is expected to live and perform to those youthful standards. Indeed, the world of pop seems eternally “caught in that sensual sound of music” (1.1.7) though each individual singer is “begotten, born, and dies” (1.1.6). Britney has become – or at least fears that she has become – a member of “Those dying generations” (1.1.3).

In contrast to Yeats, Britney does not praise “Monuments of unaging intellect” (1.1.8); she praises the body. It is, in fact, the object of desire, and the object of the song. To become bodiless does not interest Britney, though she may certainly feel “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal” (3.1.21-22). Britney wants to be eternal, though Britney is not concerned (as Yeats is) with the perpetuation of the soul. She is concerned with the perpetuation of the body. Both Yeats and Britney want to be freed from their bodies, but while Yeats wants to abandon his corporeal form forever, Britney looks backwards from her age, longing to be her younger self again.

Placed in Åkerlund’s video, the lyrics for “Hold It Against Me” take on new meaning. When Britney sings, “Wanna know just how you feel … If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?” we are forced to ask the question: who is the you Britney is speaking about? Where is the scruffy-faced, gym-membered, tanning-bed enthusiast we are so accustomed to seeing as the object of her desire? Britney briefly searches the online dating site Plenty of Fish, momentarily hovers over a profile picture, and then forgets about him – gone with the click of a manicured fingernail. This man is irrelevant, hardly of interest to her, and never makes a physical appearance in the video. The you Britney desires, the you whose body she wants, is her former, physical self. The aged, post-apocalyptic Britney doesn’t want another guy to dance with for a three-minute song and then toss away; Britney wants Britney.

Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is not trapped by her own body. In the “Telephone” video, the opposite is true: she is jailed, her body is detained against her will, but she is not held back by her own body. Lady Gaga is not ashamed of this body, a fact made explicit as she presses her exposed crotch against the bars of her cell for her captors and cellmates to see. While Lady Gaga strives for autonomy through escape from obstacles that outside forces have exerted on her (the fall from fame she takes in “Paparazzi,” and the jail cell of “Telephone”), Britney struggles for autonomy by trying to free herself from herself. Britney is not content in her contemporary skin.

As “Hold It Against Me” progresses, we see a Britney that is composed of both flesh and metal – in effect, a cyborg. But Britney is not proudly relishing in Donna Haraway theory. Britney is not seeking to tear down society’s constricting and reductive notions of gender; in fact, she is grasping for that antiquated image. She is no postmodern feminist looking toward the future. Much in the same way Yeats was a Modern poet who frequently looked backward to a more Victorian aesthetic, Britney, in 2011, looks backward to her self in 1999. She is dressed as a groomless bride. She wears a wedding dress, housed in a digital tower of memory she seems wedded to, accessorized and stabilized with IVs of rainbow fluids and diamond-encrusted surgical tape. The Britneys of the Baby, One More Time album dance on the many monitors that surround and encase her. She pines for what has been lost.

This pining ultimately leads to the battle Britney has with her former self, which represents Britney’s attempt to reclaim her former body. Aged Britney (outfitted with the blue train) fights Young Britney (outfitted with the red train); she upper cuts, gut kicks, and finally strangles Young Britney to the point of collapse.

During the fight scene, Britney sings “Gimme something good. Don’t wanna wait, I want it now. Pop it like a hood and show me how you work it out.” Aged Britney wants her younger self; Aged Britney wants that body now; Aged Britney wants to pop the hood of Young Britney and see just how she ticks. Perhaps swap out a part or two. There is, in fact, a mutual collapse at the end of the fight scene, and for a moment it appears the Britneys have killed each other despite the fact that Aged Britney should clearly be the fight’s victor (she delivers many more blows than she receives). When the fight’s aftermath reveals a Red (Young) Britney standing in a pose of victory with her arms spread and a Blue (Aged) Britney grabbing her skull as if she has undergone some serious head trauma, we must reconcile these images with the fight itself, a fight in which Blue (Aged) Britney seemed indisputably the winner.

The conclusion? Indeed, the body of Blue Britney has undergone serious head trauma, and Aged Britney did win the fight. Aged Britney’s fight-prize? Her mind in Red (Young) Britney’s body. And vise versa.

Lady Gaga exhibits no such body issues in “Telephone.” Gaga, in the prison, prepares for a fight as she gives her hair a slick swipe with the comb. But she is preparing for self-defense – to protect her body, not to discard it. In fact, standing right next to Gaga in the jail cell is Gaga’s little sister. They stand with no animosity between them. There is no desire from Gaga for a younger self, nor a desire for self-inflicted harm. Gaga, along with Beyoncé, acquire self-actualization through the manipulation and elimination of those who stand in their way. “Stop telephoning me,” they sing. Stop trying to hold us down. We are not yours to own. We are free to be ourselves. It is only after both men (Gaga’s lover in “Paparazzi” and Beyoncé’s lover in “Telephone”) are out of the way (granted, poisoned and killed) that Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are finally able to dance together, to dance together clad in stars and stripes, to dance together in the Land of the Free, a land of their making.

Even in prison, Lady Gaga maintains her agency. Even in prison, the prison itself is, in a way, not a prison. Lady Gaga walks into the courtyard draped in chains, but the key is right there on her chest. The chains, both physically enacting and symbolizing her imprisonment, are also rendered impotent by her access to their antidote. Lady Gaga uses her agency to obtain a cell phone, mobility behind bars, the means of her bailout/escape. The aesthetic here is one of mutability, where meaning is in constant flux.

Sometimes a telephone is a means of escape (Gaga’s text to Beyoncé) and sometimes a telephone is a jail cell (“Callin’ like a collector”). Sometimes a pussy is a cat (Gaga’s cabdriver cat suit) and sometimes a pussy is a vagina (Venus’s symbol zeroing in on the Pussy Wagon in the final shot of “Telephone”). Sometimes a sandwich is lunch and sometimes a sandwich is a bit of dance choreography and sometimes a sandwich is poison – that’s the Wonder (Bread), the Miracle (Whip) of it all. And Lady Gaga exerts this freedom, this agency, over and over again. “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (187), Stein tells us in her poem Sacred Emily (1922), a poem that creates a world where words and phrases are repeated to diminish meaning’s stability and to emphasize meaning’s permeability. And this world is the one Lady Gaga inhabits, a world where the meaning and identity of a person/place/thing are never stagnant, always changing. If Britney’s “Hold It Against Me” possesses Yeatsian echoes of a modernist looking backward in time, Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” possesses Steinian echoes of a Modernist looking forward to the Post-Modern, the dissolving of boundaries, binaries, and steel bars.

In contrast, it is only after Britney has defeated the younger version of herself and taken her body that she regains some of the agency she had lost. The choreography no longer enacts a manipulated Britney, but a Britney manipulating. She raises her arms and her dancers follow, rising like puppets on strings. She is the conductor, the maestro, the master once again.

No more wreath of microphones framing Britney’s disembodied bust – an image distant from any physicality that seems human. No pair of red lips that exist alone in the otherwise dark void (a nod to Rocky Horror Picture Show, the humanoid, the trope of taking another’s bodily form). The double iris, with the eyelids literally pried open to exhibit the mutation, becomes single again as Britney settles into her repossessed youth.

To the left: Britney’s eye at the beginning of the video. To the right: her eye at the video’s end.

What follows is a type of celebratory funereal pyre in honor of her aged body’s consumption. Golden, glittering confetti is abundant. Britney’s dancers (and our attentions to them) have receded into the background where they presumably belong, now appearing fully clothed in black garb and covered with facemasks. Here, Britney is the one who bears new skin, her segmented dress fastened with giant golden staples, a new life and body she has triumphantly pieced together in the face of her personal apocalypse.

Lady Gaga and Beyoncé don their own funereal garb as they drive away into the sunset, though theirs is a mock-mourning, a stilted eulogy, the face of grief with no real sadness beneath the mask. They are a grotesque vision of two women veiled in sorrow, their hats overly large, and Lady Gaga’s a pastel, almost the shade of baby blue, a shade much more akin to birth than death.

Britney wants to be rebirthed, yes. But not as something to come, as something past. Not an advancement, but a regression, a return to a lost identity. Britney does not want change. Britney wants to be Britney. She is the femme fatale and she is her own enemy. She wants her name and identity gathered into eternity, even at the expense of some slight artifice – a few staples here and there, and a little mind/body swap. She wants to forever sing to the world, “It’s Britney, bitch.”

Gaga has sung a similar statement, though one that portrays her identity as far less concrete. “I’m a free bitch, baby.” Gaga is not defined or limited by her name, just as Stein’s words do not hold stable definitions. Gaga embraces the mutations of identity, which include the mutations of others and the mutations of herself. Britney longs to be forever young while Gaga (and anyone who identifies as an offspring of Mother Monster) knows she is always and continually being reborn.


Hold It Against Me. Dir. Jonas Åkerlund. Perf. Britney Spears. 2011. Film.

Lady Gaga. “Bad Romance.” The Fame Monster. Interscope Records, 2009. CD.

Michelson, Noah. “Britney E-Mails Her Heart.” Out Magazine. 7 March 2011. Web. 15 March 2011.

Spears, Britney. “Gimme More.” Blackout. Jive Records, 2007. CD.

Stein, Gertrude. Geography and Plays. Boston: Four Seas, 1922. Print.

Telephone. Dir. Jonas Åkerlund. Perf. Lady Gaga. 2010. Film.

Yeats, William Butler. “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. F. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006. 2040. Print.

Writer Bio:
Laurence Ross holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. He lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. He has recently completed a novel, Also, I’m Dying, in which characters deliver performances of crisis, education, anarchy, vanity, husband, wife, child, and alcoholism – among other things. 

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Like Madonna

By Connie A. Lopez-Hood

          for Lady Gaga

She wears horns
She is hatched

She is (not) like Madonna
She is (not) like Beyonce
She is (not) like Christina
She is not like Brittany

She was hanging from a cross
She was dripping lots of blood
She was dripping, draping meat

She is Dada
She is daddy
She is (not) mommy
She is Gaga
She is gagging
She is super(ficial)

She is assemblage
She is (dis)assembled
She is abject
She is eject
She is reject(ed)

She is gendered
She engenders
She is androgyne
She is a(borted) fetus
She is probably chromosome

She is covered with costume
She is covered with custom
She is covered in carnal
She is (not) herself

She wore horns
She was hatched

She hangs (from) a cross
She is (not) like Madonna
She drips blood
She drapes meat
She is (not) (her)(self)

Author Bio:
Connie A. Lopez-Hood is currently working on her MFA in Poetry at Cal State University San Bernardino. She serves as a Poetry editor for Ghost Town literary magazine. Her work appeared in Our Stories Literary Journal as a runner-up for the Gordon Flash Fiction Contest and is forthcoming in Polari Journal's April issue. She is currently working on a chapbook collaboration entitled Operation: Lifted Flowers, with two other Inland Empire poets.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Apotheoses of the Queen Mother: The Virginal Monster

By Chris Hershey-Van Horn

The following piece is the tenth in our series on Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way.” Click here for our previous analyses of the video.

Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way” presents a wealth of meaning-laden imagery, the majority of which arguably resides within a symbology fundamentally correlated with the iconography of Queen Elizabeth I – the so-called “cult of Elizabeth.” Yet, I would argue that Gaga turns the apparatus of Elizabethan iconography on its head: she functions as a “nega” or “anti” Queen Elizabeth, insofar as Gaga’s mechanism of gendered expression inversely parallels that of the Queen’s. She does so on multiple symbolic fronts. In this piece, I first examine how Gaga initially establishes herself referentially (if not reverentially) to the Queen in the opening seconds of the video. I then explore the concept of the “grotesque” female in sixteenth century England, the many ways in which the Queen sought to actively distance herself from such negatively-gendered associations, and how Gaga conversely embraces and refigures the concept of the “grotesque” female for the twenty-first century.

The opening images of Lady Gaga in the video for “Born This Way” contextualize her within the distinct aesthetic of Queen Elizabeth I. Following the brief frame of the silhouetted unicorn, the camera pans downward and zooms in on the celestial embodiment of Gaga. She sits poised atop a crystalline throne, her upper body draped in a seemingly endless display of opulent jewelry, cuffing her neck in a tall collar of diamonds. Our gaze is drawn immediately toward the top-middle of the frame, where a large black cross – its horizontal axis encrusted in diamonds – perfectly intersects her large, beehive hair, and joins with a diamond tiara about her bangs. Behind her, an exaggerated, butterfly-shaped headdress merges with the ray-like spokes of blue and purple crystal prisms. The headdress, the tiara, the hair, and, of course, the throne, evoke a regal aesthetic, which, although futuristic, distinctly draws upon the imagery of Elizabeth I.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Elizabeth I (the “Ditchley” portrait), (ca. 1592)

Artist Unknown, Elizabeth I (the “Rainbow” portrait), (ca. 1600-1603)

The butterfly-shaped crystalline headdress evokes the Queen’s iconic elaborate headdress as seen in the “Ditchley” portrait and, most famously, the “Rainbow” portrait. The cross on Gaga’s hair links her well-known employment of religious symbols with the underlying religious symbology of the Queen as “the Virgin Queen,” and emphasizes the Christian references in the song’s lyrics (“captial H-i-m…God makes no mistakes,” and the quietly spoken “church” that can be heard in the background). Furthermore, Gaga, or rather, “Mother Monster” as she refers to herself in the opening line of the video, connects herself linguistically to the Queen “Mother,” and again, the Marian “Virgin Queen.” Yet, as we will see, this connection is fundamentally paradoxical.

Before we can delve into comparative analysis, I must concede a point. It would be a fallacy to posit an overall view on the cult of Elizabeth and her varied and extensive iconography. As the ever-expanding mass of scholarly work attests, it is no simple task to do discursive justice to the religious and (to use Susan Frye’s term) “engendered” imagistic framework with which the Queen presented herself over her prolonged rule. As Louis Montrose argues in The Subject of Elizabeth (2006), “the iconography of the Elizabeth cult was not a unified and coherent system but rather was hybrid and improvisatory – therefore unstable and potentially contradictory,” as it “drew upon various sources in varying combinations at different moments in the reign, to suit the tactical circumstances of particular occasions” (104). The task of unpacking Elizabeth’s iconography and the extensive symbology associated with “the Virgin Queen” teems with a sheer enormity of accounts and artifacts, of contradictory and even unsubstantiated material. In short, her image cannot be wholly or manifestly delineated; it is amorphous insofar as it exists and existed during her reign as ever-changing in her eyes, as well as in the eyes of her countrymen. Arguably, the examination of Lady Gaga’s extensive iconography presents an equal challenge for similar reasons. Heeding all of this, I believe it is still intellectually advantageous to consider at least a smattering of images within the context of the pervasive sixteenth-century concept of the “grotesque” female, as it pertains to the Queen and Lady Gaga’s music video.

In Peter Stallybrass’s article “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed” (1986), he explains the concept of the “grotesque” female, and how this notion influenced ideas and ideals of gender in Renaissance England. Drawing upon Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque body, Stallybrass explains, “the grotesque body is ‘unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits…[and] emphasizes those parts of the body ‘that are open to the outside world,’ ‘the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose’” (124). He goes on to argue that it was a commonly held societal belief, as purported by several Renaissance writers of the time (such as William Whately and Norbert Elias), “that the woman’s body…is naturally ‘grotesque’” (126). Unlike men, women, by physiological default, were cursed with a kind of reprehensible permeability, a leakiness of the body, if you will. The only solution to this “natural” problem was containment, to make the woman into an “enclosed body, [a] closed mouth, [a] locked house” (127).

Not surprisingly, virginity was inextricably linked with the concept of the “grotesque” – as a way of alleviating the grotesque, of containing this “reprehensive permeability.” This is why, at least on one level, Queen Elizabeth I strove to carefully craft and painstakingly maintain her image as the “Virgin Queen.” As a woman of great power and publicity, there was simply too much at stake; in the eyes of the public at large, the Queen would debase herself and be unfit to rule were she to be perceived as a “leaky vessel.” Susan Frye, in her book, Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation (1996), puts it eloquently.

Elizabeth could never rely on others to provide her with an iconography that would be palatable, much less powerful…She also needed a category that would be familiar to her society but that would place her beyond the restrictions usually imposed on women…she needed a category of virtue that she herself would define, that would assign God, rather than her subjects, to be her judge and thus assert her legitimacy. (15)

Elizabeth found this “legitimacy” in “the long tradition of anomalous female figures, including Diana, Astraea, the vestal virgins, and the Virgin Mary” (15). Since virginity – especially one symbolically tied to divine or mythologized female figures – was considered a “hortus conclusus” that could negate feminine permeability, it could also repudiate subsequent ridicule that the Queen would face as a part of her “naturally grotesque” gender. Her famous statement, made a mere month after her coronation, that by the end of her reign she will have “lyved and dyed a virgin,” is testament to her personal agency, and to the importance with which she regarded the establishment of her ideal virginal image. Stallybrass explains that as a female, “she could be the idealized beloved, to whom was ascribed the devotion of amatory discourse. But, on the other hand, she belonged to an anomalous category, being both mother of her people and virgin” (133). The Queen was playing something of an elaborate balancing act of engendered signification to appease her people and assert her legitimacy, despite and paradoxically in conjunction with her womanhood.

Examples of her idealized image can be seen in much of her portraiture. The Siena, or “sieve” portrait (ca. 1580-83), makes use of a literal sieve held in the Queen’s left hand. It evokes her “grotesque” permeability, as fundamental to her womanhood, while putting it in direct contrast with her conservative attire. In this way, according to Montrose, the sieve, a “contradictory icon, one that must represent the properties of impermeability and (selective) permeability simultaneously” serves to potentially “[displace]…the Queen’s sexuality” insofar as it highlights the Queen’s conservative and constrictive manner of dress (124-5).

Artist Unknown, the Siena “sieve” portrait, (ca. 1580-83)

In her “Born This Way” video, Lady Gaga also asserts her legitimacy as the symbolic progenitor – the divine mother and overseer of her people, who constitute a “new race within the race of humanity” through the fundamentality of her womanhood. Yet, to the extent that Queen Elizabeth I symbolically “contains” her “grotesque” body, Lady Gaga embraces it, makes it profoundly blatant, even exaggerates her “grotesque-ness” in a vivid display of orifices, bodily fluids, and excessive vaginal drippings. Gaga is relentless in her show of leaky bodily goop – the essence of herself, her vagina, her womanhood.

Gaga’s nude zippered bodysuit furthers the iconographic model of the cult of Elizabeth. Much like the aforementioned Siena portrait pictured above, Gaga’s tightly-zippered body conflates restriction with access. As the camera slowly pans up and down her body, it quickly jumps between short frames of Gaga slowly and mechanically moving as she gyrates her hips, robotically raising her arms up and down, and groping herself. Notice how she is by-and-large rendered immobile, unable to move from her position by the stock-like contraption bracing her neck. The contraption horizontally spans the entire width of the frame. Furthermore, the zippers on her body literally underline her breasts and vagina, emphasizing her womanhood and sexuality. However, the fact that these zippers are closed reinforces the containment of the body, specifically her biologically-stereotypical “female” components. Similarly, the last frames of zippered-Gaga involve an elaborate effect in which the camera rapidly pans from a centrifugal and repetitious frame of her face to a similar frame centering on the vaginal crotch zipper. All of this – the methodical and constrained choreography, the constrictive suit, the camerawork – can be viewed as a caricatured Elizabethan-cult model of virginal and womanly paradox, which mocks the “solution” to the “grotesque” woman. Gaga reiterates her sexual purity through her closed-up-ness, while artfully calling attention to her body as a stark canvas lined with, and perhaps, defined by, its sexuality.

Yet, her status as a deity does not diminish. Perhaps it is because of the elaborateness and the sheer extent of her “grotesqueness” that fix her in a godly realm beyond. Indeed, her psychedelic vagina resembles more of a colorful venus flytrap than anything even remotely human. It is comic and alien, an orifice seemingly unique to the divine Mother Monster. It is also miraculous, functioning as a kind of infinitely-birthing tract. In fact, Gaga forgoes the traditional notion of conception, as there is no evidence of any inseminating force. She is not the Virgin Mother, but Mother Monster. Certainly, associations with the Virgin Mary still underlie the image of celestial Gaga in this video. The abundance of religious references in the song and video suggest that Gaga’s progeny are not the result of Gaga alone. Like the Queen, she is not God, but rather godly, positioning herself over her people through divine and bodily legitimacy.

Therefore, “Born This Way” serves as a celebration of the “grotesque” through apotheosis. No longer is the body a point of shame; rather, it is a unique, divinely powerful, and humorous creative force. Lady Gaga’s display of exaggeratedly messy biological processes renders her divine; her abject serves as one of the defining characteristics of her transcendent power. In these ways, Gaga’s musical manifesto defines her own conception of motherhood and self-identity within a visual matrix of symbolic paradoxes in the vein of the Queen’s iconography. As the cult of Elizabeth blends together sexuality, gender, and physiology with the purity of the regal and ethereal, so Mother Monster is both the ultimate virgin and the ultimate mother. She is a symbolically defined “Queen Mother” figure who asserts power and influence through the infinite celebration, the infinite birth, and the infinite display of the body, and whose offspring subsequently assert their own legitimacy and power through the rejoicing of their own acceptance and self-identity. Unlike the Queen who withholds her identity within her iconography, Mother Monster’s “grotesque” identity is embraced as a means of empowerment.

Writer Bio:
Chris Hershey-Van Horn is Senior English and American Literature major at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. He is currently in the midst of writing his thesis, which, ironically or not, is a memoir. He is also an intern at Les Figues Press in his hometown, Los Angeles, and plans to move there after graduation.

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