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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Edge: Finding Glory in the Transience of Creativity

By Chris Hershey-Van Horn

This is the third piece in our series on the video for “The Edge of Glory.” Click here for the first piece, and here for the second.

“… art gives birth to new art. There is no chicken or egg. It’s molecular. Cells give birth to cells…The past undergoes mitosis, becoming the originality of the future.” –Lady Gaga, V Magazine

The year is 1992. The setting: a Renaissance-style piazza in the Seventh Regiment Armory at East 67th Street and Park Avenue, New York. Inside are three stages, each featuring male and female supermodels dressed in gold-studded black leather, bell-bottoms, and neo-classical prints (NY Times).

People Magazine

The halls are filled with three hundred dinner guests, including the likes of Calvin Klein, Anna Wintour, Ken Natori, Liza Minnelli, and Spike Lee. In only a few hours, the stages will feature a very different kind of entertainment: Puff Johnson, Trilogy, Soul System, and Lenny Kravitz. After diner, an additional four hundred people arrive to watch the show, dance, and eat pasta at midnight. Their host? None other than Gianni Versace.

Gianni Versace. Photo by Irving Penn for Vogue, September 1990.

It was the first time a rock n’ roll concert and a fashion show had ever appeared together in the same venue (Interview). The event was called Rock ‘n Rule, and was planned as a benefit to raise money for AIDS research. That same year, Gianni designed Elton John’s album art as well as the costumes for his tour world tour, the “Versace Signatures” exhibit was featured at the Fashion Institute of New York, and Gianni released his final collection (Versace.com).

The year is 2011. Lady Gaga styles black and blonde hair, gold-studded black leather and heels as she dances feverishly along the fire-escape and sidewalk of a New York City apartment in her “Edge of Glory” video. It is almost a decade since the sounds of Gianni’s visionary extravaganza blazed through the walls of a gigantic fox-Renaissance piazza of that iconic city. But his work and his legacy, as well as the legacy of other influencing factors in Gaga’s life, are re-imagined and reborn through “The Edge of Glory.” This essay seeks to explore the circularity of creativity, its particular transience, and how this affects our understanding of and what it means to be “on the edge.”

Any Little Monster will tell you that Gaga wrote this song as homage to her grandfather after he passed. As she told Ryan Seacrest on Kiis FM, “My grandma said Joey [her grandpa] just go. And we left the room and he died. And I remember he just gave this look to her that said ‘I won.’ Like I’m a champion. So the ‘Edge of Glory’ is not just about falling in love or about dying, but it’s about being on the glorious edge of that glorious championship of your life.” By featuring such icons as Gianni Versace, Clarence Clemons, and New York City, Gaga champions the “glory” of these icons of creativity, showcasing their work, the inspiration she draws from them, and proving one maintains creative or influential immortality even after death.

In Lady Gaga’s first column in V Magazine’s special Asian Issue, Gaga writes, “Glam culture is ultimately rooted in obsession, and those of us who are devoted and loyal to the lifestyle of glamour are masters of its history. Or, to put it more elegantly, we are librarians.” This act of vestimentary devotion is one grounded in a kind of drudging of history, in a constant pulling-up of the old, like a librarian pores over old books. In this way, the glam identity, according to Gaga, is rooted in a supreme awareness and constant calling forth of the historic register. It is interesting to point out that Gaga’s idea of a revolutionary glam identity that deliberately regresses fashion’s timeline seemingly stands in sharp contrast to Donatella Versace’s notions of the same topic. In an interview between Donatella Versace and Lenny Kravitz, Donatella says:

I have so many pieces in the archives that I could put right out on the runway and they’d be perfect…But for me, it doesn’t make sense today. You can play with it for one season, but it’s not going to be revolutionary. I think we should move forward, not back. To define the era we live in is very difficult. How do we define it? We define it by music.

Donatella’s quote betrays an interesting contradiction: archival pieces can function both “perfectly,” while still inappropriate in the context of today’s world; as “we should move forward” in design, we relinquish the pieces of old, even as, perhaps many years later, those pieces begin to function easily amongst styles of today.

With this in mind, I would like to suggest that the music of “The Edge of Glory” becomes that very mechanism that bridges time – that facilitates the inclusion of such old fashion in a new context and allows us to “move forward.” By deliberately merging fashion and music not only in “The Edge of Glory” video, but also in all of her performances, Lady Gaga is able to avoid the problem that Donatella poses, and create a cohesive creative space for her glamour. Lady Gaga’s work, then, functions much in the same way as Gianni Versace’s Rock ‘n Rule: defining fashion through music.

Let’s consider Gianni Versace’s role in the video. All of the clothing Gaga wears in “Edge of Glory” originates from Versace’s final line (Gaga Fashionland, Formichetti). It is no coincidence that the collection Gaga chose to wear was Gianni’s last; in a way, this collection marked the final expression of Gianni’s creative livelihood. If we consider the song’s thematic “edge” as the last moment of life before death, and the fact that the song is featured last on the album, it seems that “The Edge of Glory” is distinctly concerned with the final display of one’s creativity. By re-contextualizing Gianni’s work through the video, Lady Gaga/Lady Librarian dusts an old book off its shelf and proudly reads from it. Thus, the life of Fashion, of “Glam,” as Gaga calls it, is circular. Fashion is ever-evolving. A line is replaced by another, season replaces season; the fleeting nature of fashion embodies the transient nature of existence. But the “edge” of Gianni’s creative genius becomes simply the “edge” from which it will transform into another iteration of creativity. The “Edge of Glory” is not a death at all, but a rebirth.

I’m on the edge of something final we call life…
But the birth was not finite, it was in-finite…

Clarence Clemons’ role in the video is similar to that of Gianni’s. With regards to Clemons’ saxophone-playing in the album, Gaga says, “I didn’t just use the saxophone in [the album] and ‘The Edge of Glory’ for the sake of using the saxophone – it’s an instrument that means something to me and my childhood” (8, Popjustice). In a similar vein, when explaining the Born This Way album to Stephen Fry, Lady Gaga says, “I wanted it to be…like how I experienced music when I was young.” Clarence Clemons functions both as a symbol and as a real figure from Gaga’s personal history, her childhood, as well as an icon situated in the fabric of music history. Like the archival Versace clothing in the video, Gaga reintroduces Clemons into the fray of the current, presenting his identity in a way that pays homage to his and music’s past, and simultaneously re-imagining him for today. Gaga tells Popjustice, “You will be saying, ‘I love the saxophone, the saxophone in ‘The Edge of Glory’ is so genius.’ You will compare every saxophone you ever hear to the one you hear in ‘The Edge of Glory’” (14, Popjustice).

I’m gonna run right to the edge with you…

When I first heard the saxophone in “The Edge of Glory,” I must admit I compared it to every sax-solo I had heard previously. It was a regressive experience. Here, Gaga implies that the sax-solo in her song has a distinctly progressive quality, such that every sax-solo we hear after “TEOG” will be compared to the one in her song. Gaga explicitly states, the song “redefines the saxophone in modern, digital-era Top 40 music” (14, Popjustice). Thus the circle completes itself: one that is as simultaneously self-referentially reductive as it is progressive, as Gaga seeks to inculcate this old-as-new quality of pop in the realm of music at large.

Finally, let’s consider Gaga’s love affair with New York City. The video’s setting is a New York City apartment, not unlike the one in which she lived when she was still a struggling artist on the Lower East Side. Gaga dances about its fire-escape, sweeps her hands across its brick, lays against it, humps its railing, and even kisses the ground beneath it in the climax of the bridge of the song.

Gaga presents her symbolic “love-affair” with the city literally, personifying New York City by outrageously and deliberately making-love to it. As the city of her birth, literally and creatively, it rightfully serves as the way-point of her evolution.

Anderson Cooper interviewing Lady Gaga on the steps of her apartment.

At the beginning of the video she exits her apartment window, returning to it in the final shot. As Gaga has said in many ways before, she tells Fry, “I…see myself as in an endless transformative state.” The frames are nearly identical, except that by the end of the video, Gaga has removed her sunglasses and her shirt, symbolizing her creative transformation. She exits the world as a new iteration of herself, completing another cycle of creative evolution.

Lady Gaga has crafted “The Edge of Glory” to serve as a sonic prolepsis, heralding the ongoing and future evolution of not only her own image and creative identity, but also that of the creative industries of music and fashion at large. The video rejoices in the transience of these creative mediums, while acknowledging that they never truly die, arriving in a variety of contexts repurposed and redefined. Gaga sings, “I’m on the edge of something final we call ‘life’ tonight. / Alright! Alright!” She celebrates the finality of it because it is the death of one form of life, and the death of one form marks the advent of another. Such is the nature of rebirth, creative or otherwise: we’re on the edge of a threshold, not a sheer drop.

Author Bio:
Chris Hershey-Van Horn (@RCHVH) is a senior English and American Literature Major at Middlebury College. This is his second article for Gaga Stigmata. Comments of his are also featured in “Critical Discourse & Facebook: Analyzing Lady Gaga on Germany's Next Top Model.” He is one of the co-founders of the literary journal of video game aesthetics and narrative, The Journal of Interactive Narratives (@InteractiveNarr) and currently works as a PR intern at Les Figues Press in Los Angeles. The little free time that isn’t spent writing about Gaga is spent writing his memoir.

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  1. Great article. I also think Gaga's choice to perform The Edge Of Glory first and Born This Way last supports this analysis.

  2. (Edit) I was talking about her performances on the MMVA's.

  3. Thank you! And yes, I think in a lot of ways, "This Way" and "The Edge of Glory" are direct inverses of each other. They both approach the subject of infinite creative rebirth from opposite avenues, but potentially arrive at the same place.


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