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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Trajectory of the Monster: Some Musings on the Ascendance of a Myth and the Decay of the Female Celebrity

By Ella Bedard

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

To periodize Lady Gaga’s work up to this point, I would rather consider the evolution of her music videos than her music. I say this not to dismiss Gaga’s music, but to suggest that we look elsewhere for the artistic intrigue in her work. If, like the editors of this journal, one gives credence to the view that Gaga is not simply a musician but a performance artist, then it is the juxtaposition between her seemingly formulaic music and the bizarre spectacle of the performer that warrants our critical attention. I have suggested elsewhere that Gaga’s remarkably typical pop sound is part of a greater performative statement about identity, cultural conformity, and celebrity. In this short piece, I consider how these themes are taken up in Gaga’s latest music video. In my psychoanalytic reading, “Born This Way” is a comment on the fragmented selfhood of the celebrity. The video reveals how fame creates a disparity between the Ego of “Mother Monster” and the female body upon which that myth is written. However, in order to glean this meaning from “Born This Way,” we must pay attention to the carefully constructed aesthetic of her performance, and how it has changed since the beginning of her career. For this, we turn to the videos.

If we consider the spectrum of Gaga from early videos like “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” to later epics like “Telephone,” the trajectory goes something like the following. In 2008 and early 2009, when Gaga emerged with hits like “Just Dance” and “Eh, Eh,” she was fairly typical of the pop star type. There was something vaguely grotesque about her bow-hair, but nothing all that off-putting. At the very least, we could identify her by familiar cultural symbols: she had Italian heritage, she was young, she was confident, and liked to party. She was American – irreverently so. Also at that stage, Gaga was pretty unambiguous about her sexuality and gender. Her hips and heels identify her as female; the way she rubs them against her male interlocutors indicates her heterosexuality.

“Poker Face” delivered the first signs of gender ambiguity, which emerged more strongly in subsequent videos. Lyrics like “bluffin’ with my muffin’’ had Barbara Walter’s raising her eyebrows and asking questions about Gaga’s sexual history. Around this same time, a video circulated on the Internet that supposedly exposed Gaga as a man. The video shows her mounting a motorcycle during one of her performances. Apparently we see her penis slip out of her red booty shorts. Of course, the footage is hazy and confirms nothing. In later videos like “Telephone,” Gaga makes allusion to this hype, without setting the record straight.

Also at this time, we saw the emergence of cyborg feminist and post-humanist themes in Gaga’s videos. In “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face,” Gaga’s exudes a grotesque technological sexuality: hers is the smashed-up body where feminine flesh is inseparably twisted with cold hard robotic metal. In “Telephone,” Gaga appears in a skeletal cat suit with deathly white make up: she is woman, she is feline; she is alive, and she is dead. It is not only her status as woman, but also her status as human, that have been thrown into question.

To my mind, what is most interesting about Gaga is how she performs herself as a contingent site of citation. This is best encapsulated in the heavily collaged video for “Telephone,” where Gaga alludes to a plurality of possible identities without settling in any one. She has cultivated an elaborate aesthetic of pastiche, citing the style and sound of Madonna, Cher, and others. She is subversive and commercial, gendered and not, original and derivative. By continuously switching roles, she complicates these dualities and reveals how her identity, like any identity, is a contingency and a performance. She succeeds in her failing to play every part; she is unique only insofar as she acknowledges that her celebrity identity is a mimetic performance that draws on the gendered performances of her predecessors.

As a self-styled Fame Monster, Gaga’s acknowledges the extent to which her identity is constituted through the recognition of her followers. The ambiguities that surround Gaga reflect the myriad of contradicting sources that inform her identity. As her career progresses and Gaga becomes better known, we become increasingly less certain about what Gaga is. This is because Gaga is only the collage of photos and Internet rumors that constitute her celebrity. She is a reflection of the pluralized and fragmented field of information through which she appears for our consumption.

Though Gaga’s aesthetic has changed significantly over time, the theme of celebrity is ever-present throughout the disparate phases of her career. In my reading of Gaga’s work, fame is synonymous with Ego, and is used to illustrate the performative and socially constructed nature of the Self. In his psychoanalytic writing, Jacques Lacan famously describes the paranoid-narcissistic structure of the “I”. He argues that the Ego is specifically not the reality-mediating faculty of the individual, but a form of alienating misidentification. The person whom “I” recognize in the mirror – the self that is reflected for me in the other – has homogeneity and wholeness that “I” find at odds with my own disjointed experience of selfhood. One always feels the gap between herself and the seemingly totalized other that stands before her. As opposed to competing with the wholeness of her reflection, the subject alienates her sense of self to it. It is this alienation of self to our spectral other that allows us to look in the mirror and proclaim “that is me!” Yet that projected and imagined self will always be a lie – an ideal – that one strives for but continuously fails to embody. In an attempt to banish the feeling of lack at the core of our being, we seek affirmation, love, and recognition from the other.

As Gaga acknowledges in the “Manifesto of Little Monster,” she exists by way of the mutually constitutive relationship between herself and her fans.

So, the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the kings. They are the queens. They write the history of the kingdom, and I am something of a devoted Jester. It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond. Or, the lie, I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or to become rather, in the future. When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too. And this is The Fame.

This manifesto reads very differently from the “Manifesto of Mother Monster,” which Gaga recites at the beginning of the “Born This Way” video:

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.

Whereas the “Manifesto of Little Monster” acknowledges Gaga fans as the source of Gaga herself, the “Manifesto of Mother Monster” inverts the relationship, positing Mother Monster as first mover. In this creation myth, Gaga is the cause of the “new race” of little monsters. While the first manifesto explicitly acknowledges Gaga as a projection of her fans, the second manifesto denies this mutually. This is because the second manifesto is a performance of the projection. She is enacting the lie that she alludes to in the first manifesto – the lie “for which we kill.” And in fact, as we see in “Born This Way,” the negative side of this myth is destroying the physical body of Gaga, the site upon which the “spiritual hologram” is projected.

The moment the ego is constituted, a false dichotomy is created between the idealized ego and the failing self. This bifurcated “I” is the lens through which one perceives herself and the world: it is the constitutive distortion that will forever inform her perception of reality. The mythology that initiates the symbolic order of “Born This Way” introduces us to two Gagas: the good and the bad. However, when visually represented, the dichotomy is perhaps more accurate described as a division between Immortal Gaga and finite gaga.

“Born This Way” dramatizes the paranoiac-narcissistic symptoms of the fractured ego. As her celebrity grows, Captial-G Gaga becomes a more powerful, more intimidating Ego-ideal, which gaga can never live up to. The idealized Gaga sits bathed in light, surrounded by religious imagery. She is the “Spiritual Hologram,” the Gaga we constitute through our adoration. The anemic gaga who appears naked and in skeletal make-up is the negative image of that Goddess. As her Celebrity grows and the mythologized Gaga becomes a more powerful and convincing mirage, the disparity likewise increases between the idealized Ego and her finite counterparts, whom we see in varying states of decay.

The gaga who dances naked reveals the aggressivity buried in the narcissistic structure of the ego. There is something menacing about the way she moves. Whereas the added boniness on the face and shoulders of the eternal Gaga contributes to her regal expression, this same makeup on the dancing gaga gives us a different impression. We see how the desire to live up to her own image has taken its toll on the physical body of the celebrity. This gaga is what threatens the beloved Ego with disintegration. Likewise, in skeletal makeup, gaga dances freely, sometimes touching herself. She rejoices in the death of the Ego – that is, in her own death, which is the death of an impossible myth. She begs us to believe that she was born this way, while the visual juxtaposition between the two Gagas serves to undercut the song’s lyrics and fill them with irony. She is both Gaga and gaga, both Mother-Monster and the excess that disrupts the phantasm of the Ego-ideal. Simultaneously one and many, she exists somewhere in between, in that indiscernible zone between herself and her fans: and this is the Fame.

Author Bio:
Ella Bedard is a student of contemporary history, culture, and criticism in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This year she will be moving to Toronto where she hopes to pursue her interests in performance, gender ambiguity, and Gaga.

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  1. Some may scoff at using a psychoanalytic lens, but I absolutely loved this article! This provided one the most spot-on interpretations of the Manifesto(s) I have read thus far.
    One spot you have noted I don't lie well with (pun intended) is that zombieGaga is symbolic of death. Her monstrously grotesque facade is meant as a reflection, not just of suave zombiePal Rico, but one that cuts looks inwardly. Rico's anatomy is forever changed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQb4bMIG2IY) by his tattoos, but what the tux doesn't show is that beyond a skeletal image, his body is inked with images that ooze his identity. That postulated ‘ideal’ which always fails to appear in the reflections of ourselves, does so because it itself is not tangible. In etching a permanent art installation between himself and the man in the mirror he has brought their union ever closer to consummation. The inclination to alienate our own image—to lie about who we perceive ourselves to be is dampened whenever we succeed in projecting our spectral selves outward for the world (and for ourselves to see).
    As mentioned in the first Manifesto, Little Monsters are eternally striving to unite the people we hope to be in the future with the self they see today, but I believe the Manifesto of Mother Monster, is meant not just to reflect this struggle you have highlighted so well, but to perform it. This is why I believe zombieGaga, Rico’s X-to-his-Y clone, was terrifyingly born this way—she is the expression of identity, but more importantly an identity that has been (societally, and quite possibly internally) rejected, marked as ‘EVIL’ (as Rico’s left hand reads), forced to conceal itself, closet itself, deny itself. Born this way as a song and as a video is meant to be the reversal of all those impositions, serve as utter liberation, and as zombieGaga boogies and sings freely, her appearance reflects the freedom it affords her. The skeletons literally come dancing out of a very stylish closet (last pun I swear) and an identity that was as concealed as the very bones and tissues that we are made is suddenly written all over her face (so I lied).

  2. Thank you: You have allowed me to see the postmodern play in the video I was looking for!


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