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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

From The Fame to Born This Way: Lady Gaga and the Monstrous Evolution of Identity

By Kate Durbin and Meghan Vicks

This is the first in a series of pieces that analyzes the video for "Born This Way." Each day for the next week, we'll be posting an essay that explores a specific aspect of the video.


When Lady Gaga hit the pop culture-scape with “Just Dance” in 2008, her performance was accompanied by the slogan “Pop Music Will Never Be Low Brow,” which was appropriately projected in her video-screen glasses, the first of many props that would celebrate the power of the image in culture. Since then, Lady Gaga has remained steadfast in her declaration that her performance – her lies – are her truths to be taken seriously, even while blatantly marketing, branding, and “selling” herself out. The power of performance was explored in depth throughout the era of her debut album The Fame, during which Gaga literalized and embodied the spectacle, perpetually drew attention to the power of the image in our everyday and humdrum lives, and exhibited how fictions, lies, performances, costumes, and poses make up our existence, personalities, and identities. In short, during The Fame era, Lady Gaga became synonymous with performative and creative identity – an identity that rejects essentialism, determinism, and foundationalism.

These notions are echoed in “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” a video shown during an interlude of the Monster Ball; in this video, Lady Gaga discusses “the lie” as the “real truth.” “It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill,” she says. “We are nothing without our image, without our projection, without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather to become, in the future.” During these two years of The Fame and its dark twin The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga repeatedly illustrated – in her daily outrageous outfits, in her music videos, in her stage performances – how life is art. There was no difference between the street and the stage: Gaga never took off her costumes, in fact, they were not costumes in the classical sense just as “Lady Gaga,” she repeatedly told us, is not a persona or a stage name – there is no fixed identity behind the mask. If art is synonymous with life, then life itself is but a performance – and we are all a part of the (freak) show. This was the idea of The Fame/Monster.

However, with her sophomore album Born This Way, Lady Gaga problematizes the notion of performative identity by moving toward the flesh, the meat(dress), the immanent muck and essential ether of being. Her most recent fashion (especially the prosthetic shoulder and cheek bones), her 2011 Grammy performance, and the video for “Born This Way” further complicate her earlier explorations with performative identity: in the Born This Way era, Lady Gaga explores a new type of identity – both natural (essential) and constructed (performative) simultaneously.


In a recent Billboard interview, Lady Gaga discusses these notions of birth in relation to a constructed identity: “[Birth] is a process of living and it’s also not ultimately a goal. It’s something ever-changing. My bones have changed in my face and in my shoulders because I am now able to reveal to the universe that when I was wearing shoulder pads or when I was wearing jackets that looked like I was wearing shoulder pads, it was really just my bones underneath. My fashion is part of who I am, and though I was not born with these clothes on, I was born this way.” Lady Gaga views fashion and the human body as cut from the same cloth: as we witnessed in “Anatomy of Change,” “fashion is essential – become part of the essence of the human body.” And fashion, like life, is something that takes intentionality and, most importantly, choice. Gaga’s goal is to empower her fans to choose to consciously become, or to choose to become conscious of the seemingly limitless potentials of who they can be. Fashion is one important way to harness this evolving identity. As Gaga also said in that same Billboard interview: “[Fashion] is part of who I am. My creativity is in my blood and in my bones as I said, and it takes time to become myself every morning.” In a very real sense, Gaga has become her clothes, just as her clothes become her. It is in this play that one’s fluctuating identity is birthed and re-born, over and over. But it takes will and consciousness: one cannot be blind and born, at least not into Gaga’s new race.

Lady Gaga’s new looks have influences that are both alien/unnatural (her new bone structure, her sharply whittled fingernails, the latex) and organic (the amniotic hair-coloring at the Grammys). Though Gaga is dealing heavily with the theme of evolution with this new album, there is no survival of the fittest here, but rather the survival of the freak. The freaks, Gaga says, will become “a new race of beings within the race of humanity…one with no prejudice.” The song “Born This Way” proclaims: “I was born to survive.” Gaga (and it may be relevant to note that gaga is often one of the first things that a baby says upon speaking) sees birth – something usually viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience – as something that is an “ever-changing process.”

Lady Gaga is the lie that was “born this way.”

She puts performative identity in the space of essential identity; her creation of her identity becomes how she was born.


All these notions come to a beautiful crescendo in the recently released video for “Born This Way.” The video opens with a new manifesto – “Manifesto of Mother Monster” – which Lady Gaga reads while the theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo plays in the backtrack:

On G.O.A.T, a Government-Owned Alien Territory in space, a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place. But the birth was not finite. It was infinite. As the wombs numbered and the mitosis of the future began, it was perceived that this infamous moment in life is not temporal, it is eternal. And thus began the beginning of the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bares no prejudice, no judgment but boundless freedom. But on that same day, as the eternal mother hovered in the multi-verse, another more terrifying birth took place, the birth of evil. And as she herself split into two, rotating in agony between two ultimate forces, the pendulum of choice began its dance. It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate instantly and unwaveringly towards good. But she wondered, “How can I protect something so perfect without evil?


In this manifesto, Lady Gaga re-envisions and problematizes the notion of birth – as an infinite process of becoming, not as a singular moment of having become. As with the “Manifesto of Little Monsters,” which redefines the lie as truth and the image as reality, “Manifesto of Mother Monster” redefines birth as eternal, infinite, monstrous, and free – that is, one can choose to be born into whatever being one wishes. One is put in control of his or her own birth. 

The video features split-screen images of Lady Gaga giving birth to multiple versions of herself: both good and evil, alive and dead, nearly naked and fully dressed, Michael Jackson and Madonna. This hybridity is monstrous – it defies borders. In typical Gaga fashion, the video pays homage to much from the aesthetic arsenals of high and pop cultures: the expressionist paintings of Francis Bacon, the work of Salvador Dali and other surrealists, James Cameron’s Aliens, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the choreography of Alvin Ailey, and Madonna’s video for “Express Yourself,” to name a few. Given the theme of the video – Born This Way – Gaga’s use of these visual cultural quotations implies that she is unequivocally the offspring of these cultural giants, born in their images, created from their influences. This reflects what she said in a recent interview for Vogue:

It’s not a secret that I have been inspired by tons of people. David Bowie and Prince being the most paramount in terms of live performance. I could go on and on about all of the people I have been compared to – from Madonna to Grace Jones to Debbie Harry to Elton John to Marilyn Manson to Yoko Ono – but at a certain point you have to realize that what they are saying is that I am cut from the cloth of performer, that I am like all of those people in spirit. I was born this way.

Gaga as an artist perpetually messes with our notion of decades, eras, even time itself. For all her talk of “the mitosis of the future,” she is heavily informed by the past. She was born this way – organically fashioned from the cloth of the performer. These are the new identity politics of Born This Way: not just performative identity, but never-ending performative, infinite, and, above all, free births.

The video’s most interesting symbol of this performative birth is Gaga’s vagina, which houses the space where mirrors meet. Considering Gaga’s play with reflective performance and mimesis throughout The Fame era, the placement of the mirror at the vagina quite physically brings performative identity into the space of biological and essential identity. Mother Monster gives birth to little monsters; or, following the two manifestos, Mother Monster infinitely births “the spiritual holograms of who we perceive ourselves to be.”



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14 comments:

  1. The fact that Gaga mentions the concept of the "multiverse" is also quite representational of our views on fame, and the parallels in life. Alongside everything mentioned in this article (which was fantastic!), the idea of free will vs. determinism was present. We are born into a world where our choices are determined by society. Brava Gaga!!!!!

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  2. (I'm french so don't pay any atention to my really bad english)Thank you so much for creating that marvelous blog. I've always been obsessed with pop cultural phenomenons like Lady Gaga, not because I love her, but just because of the social and artistic impact of those artists. I will go to college to study pop cultural phenomenons and I will work on Lady Gaga, and it's really amazing to see people - like me - who analyse her without any judgements. It's not about liking her or Hating her it's about understanding the message (or trying to understand), the references the whole package.

    I love you guys, if you need a french writer I'd be honored!

    Lucas

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  3. Vertigo is one of my favorite films, and the use of the Prelude (from what sounds like the original 1958 soundtrack recording, which was itself remastered in 1996) got me thinking. A key visual theme in Vertigo is the spiral, best seen in the swirling Lissajous patterns used in the opening credits while the Prelude plays. That theme is extended with the notion of falling, which includes the fear of literal falling that comprises the main character's psychiatric affliction to the surrealist nightmare of falling into a tunnel-like bottomless grave.

    Given the themes of necrophilia and obsession that permeate the film, it strikes me that the imagery of spirals, falling, and tunnels are Freudian in nature. Gaga's birth imagery is in many ways the reverse of the sexual act--new life is expelled from the from the birth canal. I find it an interesting "inverse duality," if you will.

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  4. @Tim

    Thanks so much for your comment! Tomorrow (March 3, 2011) we will be posting a piece that specifically analyzes "Born This Way" in relation to Vertigo, so you should check back then for a more thorough analysis. I certainly agree with your feeling that "Born This Way" is well suited to a psychoanalytical reading, and hope to feature a piece that analyzes the video through Freudian notions.

    Gaga has also been playing with the spiral throughout the Monster Ball: Check out the "Twister Interlude." Also, the balcony fall in Paparazzi is notably spiraled.

    @Kat What you say about Freewill vs Determinism reminds me of something Eddie once shouted in a graduate history seminar: "All you people who are criticizing this historical essay for being too deterministic are just afraid to admit that freewill doesn't exist! Because it doesn't!"

    If everything both "born this way" and "created through choice," Gaga seems to have merged determinism and freewill together - they become the same.

    @Lucas Thanks so much for your warm comments! I'm always thrilled to hear that people appreciate this blog. If we ever need somebody to write for us in French, I will keep you in mind.

    @Meghan You're wonderful!

    -Meghan Vicks

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  5. ^ I look forward to your piece comparing "Born This Way" and Vertigo! You work quickly! ;)

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  6. The mirror/vagina analysis needs to be its own essay!

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  7. Wow! Your articles are amazing!! Gaga needs to hire you to write essays on every video she does from now on. The Gaga/Mother Monster interpreter or something. I love your article on Ailey and the Gaga BTW choreography as well. Your insight gives so much more weight and value to the messages that Gaga is sending. Keep up the writing and I'll keep reading!

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  8. Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone!

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  9. http://orientmade.tumblr.com/post/3597612035/gaga-used-her-wigs-public-appearances-to-tell-the

    ^ Thought I should post that here.

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  10. I do so love visiting this site in the aftermath of a new GaGa video. I was driving around today half listening to the radio when "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" came on, and I was instantly reminded of some of the imagery from BTW. First and foremost we have GaGa hovering in the sky on a crystalline throne while literally wearing diamonds; and her birthing of the new race is fractured, mirrored--a kaleidoscope. "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes" anyone?

    Given GaGa's recent befriending of Yoko Ono, I'm curious if these images are coincidental or a nod to John Lennon.

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  11. The essentialized white race?

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  12. Anonymous, don't forget that the very diverse company of dancers are the evolved newborn children, birthing themselves into the song and the dance. They are born as eggs, as heads in a caul, but they become people of all races, genders, and identities. A new species of humanity.

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