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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Devil Wears Gaga: A Critical Exploration of Lady Gaga as an Editrix

By Alexander Cavaluzzo

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
–Pablo Picasso

“Art gives birth to new art. There is no chicken or egg. It’s molecular.”
–Lady Gaga

It can be said that Lady Gaga wears many hats, but for all the different disciplines she embodies – pop singer, pianist, performance artist, runway model, creative director – it can be argued that she wears many different heads. In her recent cover shoot for V Magazine, this idea is literally expressed with a tri-headed Gaga. The growth of her two new heads possibly represents her two new roles that were instituted this spring: that of cultural critic and editrix. With a 90-minute stint as Metro’s worldwide editor-in-chief and her new monthly column for V, she’s extended her reach to additional outlets of pop culture critique and creativity. But the truth is, prior to this official designation, Lady Gaga has always been an “editrix,” directing every aspect of her performance, appropriating past pop culture imagery, and analyzing the fame culture of the twenty-first century.

“Editrix” is a term used since 1950 to describe a female editor, utilizing the feminine suffix “-trix” commonly applied to loan words from Latin. Currently, the term has been associated with the stereotype of a very strong, decisive female editor particularly in the field fashion journalism, perhaps partially because of the sonic association with the word “dominatrix.” An editrix connotes a strong sense of control and power that defies gender stereotypes and imbues power to those who embody the term, which makes it an excellent signifier for Lady Gaga.

Not only has Gaga fulfilled this role as the editrix of her art project, she has also been its canvas: she is herself the outlet for her creative identity, treating her physical body as a malleable performance space that transforms her into a living, breathing storehouse of popular culture. Typically the role an editor plays is concealed and secluded from the public; aside from anomalies like Anna Wintour, editors do not usually have a recognizable or distinct guise, remaining behind the curtain of the magazines they spearhead. With the performative aspects of her work, Lady Gaga has exposed the editorial figure to the world, giving the position more bearing and, thus, more approaches to critique. Furthermore, as she has employed critical and editorial functions in her artwork, she presents another dichotomy of roles. In general, the role of editor (and critic) is typically diametrically opposed to that of an artist; in our society, they are positions embodied by separate entities that rely on one another for existence – an editor or critic cannot exist without content, and an artist (particularly in contemporary Western society) cannot create without an audience that provides press and feedback. This melding of two distinct positions in society provides the launching point for an analysis of Gaga’s unique role in media, art, and culture.

Before we proceed, it is important to point out that magazines, much like Lady Gaga, are often criticized as arms of consumer capitalism that blatantly exploit and manipulate the public while offering no “artistic sustenance.” However, magazines were originally conceived as, and in most ways continue to function as, storehouses of art and culture. In the English language, the word “magazine” stems from the Arabic مخزن (makhazin), translated as “storehouse,” in many ways drawing correlations to the museum, another type of cultural storehouse. In fact, it was common practice for early magazine titles to include the word “museum,” such as Louisa May Alcott’s late nineteenth-century publication Merry’s Museum.[i]

Of course, the crossover between magazines and museums does not stop there: art and publications have long had an incestuous relationship. For example, Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview was subsequently included in exhibitions devoted to his work, and Salvador Dali once illustrated the cover of Vogue. The comparison of the magazine to the museum imbues it with more legitimacy than it is usually afforded. For all the negativity magazines are criticized for (and usually guilty of) – promoting negative body issues, uncannily photoshopped Frankensteinian models, glossy advertisements that make us spend money we do not have – they still exist as a receptacle for cultural ideas, opinions, and images that later serve as historical record for the time in which we live.

Lady Gaga makes use of the same model, spreading artistic imagery and ideas by touring, tweeting, and maintaining an acutely cultivated public image. Even Gaga’s influence from, and manipulation of, the images and standards many magazines project has been utilized to great effect in her performance art. To pierce the public consciousness she molded herself into a cookie-cutter image of what a pop singer in the pages of a typical editorial spread would look like: blonde, half-naked, and constantly shielding her eyes with sunglasses. Gaga’s reliance on these cultural cues helped her to establish herself as an artist whose work and image is dependent on the fact that she is fully engendered from a public understanding of what an idol should be, an understanding promulgated in part by the magazine industry. Now, the combination of the two cultural storehouses is already making an intensely interesting, symbiotic relationship of pop culture promoters.

Beginning with the Summer 2011 issue (Volume 71) of V Magazine, Lady Gaga became the “punk piss-off Carrie Bradshaw” when she was hired as a monthly contributor to the glossy, high fashion and culture magazine to share her thoughts on art, music and, most importantly, herself. With her debut “memorandum” she cites another kind of storehouse (in this case, the library) as a metaphor for researchers and obsessors of popular culture. Addressing her first column to the likes of Stephen Gan, Andy Warhol, Little Monsters, Fashion-Sexuals, and, of course, The World, she situates herself in the position of an expert (head librarian, perhaps?) of “glam” culture, fashion history in particular, asserting that she has the ability to trace the entire history of something as minor as a hemline. While she bestows this title onto herself a bit pompously, it is difficult to discount Gaga’s pronouncement given the nature of her artistic output.

Her work, like the work of magazines, museums, and, to a certain extent, libraries, is based upon appropriation: the collecting and curating of several different cultural artifacts, works, ideas, and concepts to create something new. In the more structured environments of magazines and museums, these often take the forms of editorials or exhibitions, which typically project more transparency in their appropriations than Lady Gaga does. The cultural storehouse is as much of a work of art as it is a repository for art. Exhibitions of an artist’s work and editorials featuring designer’s clothes are almost always viewed as a means to display another’s intellectual property. However, they both construct meaning and situate work within an historical narrative, thus becoming works of art themselves despite never typically being viewed as such.

Gaga, on the other hand, appropriates content and, under the intense scrutiny of the media, is commonly accused of “ripping off” other artist’s work. From the David Bowie lightning bolt to the Grace Jones-esque hoods to the religious iconography associated before with Madonna, she is commonly dismissed as an ersatz of previous legends instead of a cultural storehouse. The creation of something new from something old, to realize that “art gives birth to new art,” is a style and practice that exemplifies Lady Gaga’s simultaneous roles as artist and editrix.

Coupled with the library metaphor, Gaga frames the V column partially around Yves St. Laurent’s appropriation of Piet Mondrian’s “Compositions” into the modern shift dress. She considers Laurent’s action and asks whether he “plagiarized or revolutionized” when he introduced not only the work of another artist into his own creations, but transformed it into a style previously unseen in women’s fashions. This pondering of whether an act of appropriation is plagiarism or revolution is a clear defense of similar criticisms she has faced in her career, particularly the accusations that her new record “Born This Way” is a rip off of Madonna’s 1989 single “Express Yourself.” She defends herself through communicating a similar incident in the history of art, situating herself in the vast narrative through more than just her expression (the music), but how she expresses herself (partially through appropriation). She encompasses the outward projection of reworking cultural precedents into her artwork in the same fashion as Yves St. Laurent. Naturally to protect herself from unwarranted criticisms of plagiarism she denies that she would blatantly copy another song, though she did acknowledge in an interview with NME that “Born This Way” reflects similar chord progressions of Madonna’s song, (chord progressions that, she adds, have been utilized since the Disco era), which not only illustrates how she uses established themes to create her own work, but also illustrates that she’s not the first to do it.[ii] In all aspects, good or bad, Gaga continues to formulate herself and the work she produces into a cultural storehouse.[iii]

In a more powerful, albeit shorter-lived, position as Metro’s Editor-in-Chief, Lady Gaga was given full editorial control of the May 26th issue of the daily, worldwide newspaper. In her editor’s letter, she says that she constructed the issue with the help of her fans situated throughout the world, “…includ[ing] graphs, charts, commentary, global surveys and articles inspired and generated by Little Monsters.” The primary focus was on anti-bullying, coupled with articles about the earthquake in Japan and her personal heroes. Reflecting on the experience, she said, “If you have revolutionary potential you have a moral obligation to make the world a better place.” Certainly it’s dubious how much influence she could have had by editing one issue of a free newspaper, but the real impact arises when we’re faced with the concept of Gaga as an editor-in-chief in a position that imbues her with a power typically not wielded by an artist.

Content aside, this particular issue of Metro exists differently within their archives simply by virtue of the reality that Lady Gaga served as its editrix. The very fact that her appointment as their editor-in-chief became a news story (not just within Metro itself, but was reported by several other news sources) opens up the dialogue of how content is controlled and dispensed by individuals. The incredibly meta-nature of the event removes the trappings of dominant-hegemonic readings that incline us to passively accept the news as it comes, and to be more skeptical about the information we receive. Lady Gaga puts her critical abilities to work in a manner no other artist does; her art project has the undercurrents of not only celebrating, but also subverting pop culture. In her role at Metro she nearly expels her own artistry in favor of completely embodying the editrix side of her, alerting us to how publications aid in the creation of knowledge and, in effect, turning the notion on its head by “Gaga-izing” the newspaper.

Of course, beyond Gaga’s creative role as a pop star, and beyond her official positions at Metro and V, her relationship with the magazine industry and her role as an editrix have been established in more overt and typical manners. Like anyone in the public spotlight, magazine covers, interviews, and editorial spreads have facilitated Gaga’s rise to fame. While the particular creative and editorial team of a magazine dictates exactly what she’ll look like and what exactly she’ll say within the pages of a particular publication (US Vogue, in particular, seemed to reign her in a bit), Lady Gaga’s carefully cultivated aesthetic is always present one way or another when she appears in those glossy spreads and interviews. This is most exemplified in her recent feature in Harper’s Bazaar, where her creative authority is immediately displayed on the cover: suffice it to say, not every model is allowed to sport facial bones in photographs. When pressured by Derek Blasberg in the accompanying interview about the authenticity of her new osteo-appendages, Lady Gaga infamously deadpanned, “They’re not prosthetics. They’re my bones.”[iv] Using this and numerous other magazines as a channel of communication, Lady Gaga effectively employs the press as an extension of her overall project, so much so that some of her most interesting and reality-twisting work has been fully formed and executed within a magazine.

The Vogue Hommes Japan cover (Vol. 5, A/W 2010-11), where she posed as her male alter ego Jo Calderone, is among one of her most ambitious projects. With the help of her partners in crime, photographer Nick Knight and stylist Nicola Formichetti, Lady Gaga created one of her most fascinating pieces to date in a magazine. The very concept and nature of the Jo Calderone spread does not function as press, as would all other spreads featuring Gaga. She has never publicly admitted that she was in drag, propelling the project to function in different terms, specifically how she used the magazine’s power to create epistemology and ontology in an era that is supersaturated and heavily influenced by media. So far, Jo Calderone only really exists within the context of the magazine (and in other media outlets, such as his Twitter account), and the creation of this persona illustrates the force the platform of the magazine has in constructing personalities that we as readers treat as legitimate. Jo as an image, as a projection, is indexical based on the glossy photographs in the spread; we believe he exists as much as we believe any other model exists within a magazine through a tautological precedent. A specific photograph, as Roland Barthes puts it, is never “…immediately or generally distinguished from its referent.”[v] Though an oppositional reading may prompt us to be skeptical about his authenticity (as we are with airbrushed figures), through the combination of realistic indexical imagery (photographs), primary research (interview), and secondary research (captions), Lady Gaga manipulates and exhibits the abilities of the magazine to inform and shape knowledge and being. And naturally the apple doesn’t fall far from the waking self, as Jo, just like Gaga, exists as an extension of pop culture precedents, notably James Dean. The creation of an archetype within a medium that references the past in order to establish a connection and loyalty to the reader compounds the ease of the reader treating Jo as an authentic figure.

Lady Gaga culls imagery, sounds, and personas that typify popular culture and the human condition with the same skill and panache as any well-trained editor or curator. Through these new ventures at established publications, Gaga nurtures her role as an editrix that has existed since the inception of her artistry. Through the combination and straddling of these two roles, she transforms herself into a storehouse of cultural iconography, a veritable treasure trove of artifacts from the past that will certainly go on to create the future.

[i] Johnson, Sammye. Patricia Prijatel. The Magazine from Cover to Cover. Oxford University Press, 2006.

[ii] http://www.nme.com/news/lady-gaga/56256#2

[iii] Lady Gaga. V Magazine, v. 71, Summer 2011.

[iv] Blasberg, Derek. “Lady Gaga: The Interview” From Harper’s Bazaar, May 2011.

[v] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang, 1980.

Author Bio:
Alexander Cavaluzzo (@AleksandrJohn) is a Fashion-Sexual and unpaid laborer at Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and the art blogazine Hyperallergic.com. He graduated with a BS in Art History from the Fashion Institute of Technology and is an MA candidate in the Arts Politics program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. On the occasional nights when he is drunk on Jameson, he blogs at alexandercavaluzzo.tumblr.com. His lifelong dream is to become the intelligent version of Camille Paglia.  

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  1. Great piece! I like the fact that you highlight the blurred relationship between the role of the cultural producer who seeks out press attention and that of cultural gatekeeper controlling access to publicity. Kelly Cutrone is perhaps a related example: the fashion publicist who becomes a star herself.

  2. Silly boy, Nob Creek is NOT Jameson.

  3. “Wearing a goofy hat doesn't make it performance art.”

  4. Lady Gaga really looks like a man in her cover in a Japanese Magazine. I know Lady Gaga is a hermaphrodite so he also can portray itself as a man.


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