"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

GAGAPOLYPSE: Criticism

By Devin O’Neill

I have become Lady Gaga, and she has become me. Long live the new flesh.

I’m having an increasing amount of difficulty, because of her, telling what’s good and what isn’t anymore. This is because, to me, she represents a personal evolution in aesthetics. Not a wide cultural one. I’m not comfortable generalizing this outside of my subjectivity.


But a personal one. I could visit the lush landscapes of her videos over and over. Not because they contain intrinsic value, but because I’ve allowed her to become slotted into places in my neurology usually reserved for religious worship. Though the images appeal to me, they appeal to me via her dimensions as a mythological creature. I want her to be the ultimate symbol of human potential, so she is. The transmutation of the Eucharist takes place.

This is not a difficult leap to make. She’s openly discussed her own self-conscious deification, and the role of faith in her becoming. She has said that her work is a lie so beautiful that her fans make it true. This is the very model of faith, a model to be transcended only when I become a god myself.

Yes, the dream of Fame has infected even me. She told me that we’re all superstars, and I believed her.

This is the new aesthetics: the transfiguration of personal object and experience by baptism in the hyperreal. We have the perfect machinery to make our own gods, and we’re each afraid to use it. You’re afraid to use it.

There is no media of personal power, despite what we’ve been told about the internet’s potential vis a vis the collective voice of the populace. We still don’t understand our power. We’re still afraid of it.

This lack of comprehension manifests as judgement. There are products of culture, and these products of culture are deemed to be either products of culture with merit or products without. Cultural products worthy of critical attention or products unworthy. Cultural products that fascinate and rivet us or bore and disgust us. We decide this, and we write our critical and evaluative thoughts, either in the form of catty YouTube comments or published academic papers, yet we have very little firsthand understanding of how these products get made. If we weren’t so afraid, we’d be producing our own cultural products. When discussing an entity like Gaga, published articles and Facebook updates are basically of equivalent value.

Into the midst of this frantic taxonomy, she stepped. She is irritatingly evasive, because she pretends to just enough violation of pop formula to be deemed interesting by those conscientious excavators of counterculture, academics. Also, academics want an excuse to enjoy pop music. She provides them that excuse.

But why do we need an excuse to enjoy pop music?

Here is where, for me, the situation begins to break down. I used to understand why Katie Perry was “bad”, why Ke$ha was “bad”, why Britney Spears was “bad”. I have unlearned that understanding. Have I been programmed, or deprogrammed? Have the marketers of mass culture gotten to my brain at last? Or has something far more sinister happened?


I vote the second thing. I have stopped seeing it as creatively productive to judge things the way I used to. I’ve become what they call a “fan”.

The above commercial reveals the missing link in people’s evaluation of Mother Monster: the experience of fandom. We want a superstar, so we’ve made one. Even she realizes that’s what’s going on; she talks about it all the time. But it doesn’t matter, because we still need it. We still need to believe this vision of a superwoman that she’s created, a person who gives everything she’s got to inspire the fans she cherishes. A person who exemplifies our best desires about ourselves. A person who cares. About me.

This is where the cynicism is supposed to come in, of course. She’s not doing this for you. she’s doing it for the money.

No. I’ve arrived at the point where I believe her mission. I believe her when she says she actually cares about her fans. Just doing it for the money? We’re all in it for the money. We would all like to be in her shoes, doing what we love for a paycheck. There are far more difficult jobs, but there are far, far easier ones, too. She’s breaking her back. What she does takes an enormous amount of ambition and puts her under an enormous amount of pressure. People act like she’s pretending not to be an entertainer. She’s an extraordinarily hardworking entertainer. And she knows it.

But let’s assume you think she’s lying. You’ll find it doesn’t matter: what’s important is that she projects the image that she’s a hardworking every-girl who’s managed to make herself into this extraordinary creature. In this context, even her flaws become signs of her humanity, evidence that we can relate to her, signals that she’s just like us.

Of course she wants fame and success and acceptance. She says she does. And so do you. And she knows you do. And what she’s telling you is, that’s okay.

I don’t feel I have the luxury of criticism. I’ve just graduated college, and I have no idea what’s going to become of me. I doubt everything from the security of my future to the authenticity of the human relationships I’ve formed over the past four years to the validity of my artistic efforts. I have nothing left to hold on to, and I’m apparently a much weaker person than I though I was. I’ll take whatever ray of hope I can get. I don’t listen to her ideas about hope and perseverance and loving yourself so much as I cling desperately to them.


The first time I saw that television commercial, I started crying. Even though it’s a television commercial. Even though it’s supposed to be a cynical, manipulative appeal to my wallet, it made me cry. I actually teared up. Because at the end of the day, we’re all engaged in the commercial enterprise. We buy things at stores, we try to sell ourselves to employers. She’s on the same sinking ship that everyone else is on, but she’s managed to inject a little humanity into that world, and she’s trying to get us to do that same thing. You can call it crass commercialism, but I can wander around my neighborhood and go days without experiencing the kind of humanity she communicated through that television commercial.

I’ve read article after article and Facebook update after update concerning irritation over Gaga’s: “edgyness” (“she’s trying too hard”). Her “politics” (“she’s trying too hard”). Her “crazy videos” (again, “she’s trying too hard”). What nobody can tell me is exactly what it is she’s trying.

Fame, right. That’s what it is. She’s trying to be famous. Even she admits it. She’s such an attention whore. It’s so predictable. It’s so passe. So cliche.

And it’s working.

This is the kink in all that criticism: WHY IS IT WORKING?

If she has nothing new to say, then WHY IS THE ENTIRE WORLD OBSESSED WITH HER?

WHY ARE WE EVEN HAVING THIS CONVERSATION?

She’s a good pop musician. That’s one reason. Because at the end of the day, we like to watch her, we like to hear her, we like to experience her. Even if we’re just experiencing our hatred of her.

But beyond that: it’s because she cares.

This is really all just speculation. I’m just trying to justify the fact that I’ve watched the Judas video ten times, at least, since it’s been out. But I have, see. Watched it ten times, I mean. At least. It’s so stimulating, and the images in it are captivating. Sure, it’s the whole Mary madonna/whore thing all over again. Sure, dicking with biblical tropes courts cheap controversy. Every predictable, boring criticism we all knew was going to be leveled at this video has been leveled at it. Now that everyone’s shut up, I can finally watch the damn thing. Because the video is gorgeous. Because it’s her, my hero, kicking ass, again.

The fact that she’s only my hero because I made her that way is the most important part of the equation. Because in that world, I could be a hero to millions of people too. You could be.


See, all that cataloging of the itsy bitsy tropes and minutia in her videos pales in comparison to the reality of the fan’s experience. Because she doesn’t just represent the apparent symbols she uses, to us. She represents our own potential, and she’s said over and over that that’s exactly what she’s trying to represent. She’s crafted music and visuals and performances, but more important than that is the fact that she’s crafted a fan experience: something people can imitate, participate in, and project their own value onto. People that characterize her discourse as limiting aren’t listening to her, and they aren’t looking at her in the right way. It’s just like drugs: you have no business evaluating an experience you haven’t had. The only proper way to experience her is as a fan, because that is part of the work.

It’s all about faith. As the great George Michael put it, you’ve got to have faith.

To wake up in the morning, to create a life for yourself and your loved ones out of nothing, and to face a cold and uncaring universe with nothing but your tools in your hands and determination in your eyes. And then to go jogging with your headphones on. And then to dance.

You’ve just got to have faith.

Thank you, Lady Gaga, for giving me my faith back.

(Originally published on www.popocalypse.com)

Author Bio:
Devin O’Neill is a writer, performance artist, PR practitioner, and compulsive liar (what’s the difference?) based in Long Beach, CA. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Some of his projects can be found at http://www.popocalypse.com/ and at http://devinoneill.blogspot.com/.

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14 comments:

  1. We did a full hour podcast about the new Gaga at Criticalmasscast.com - hope you'll check it out!

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  2. This: "You can call it crass commercialism, but I can wander around my neighborhood and go days without experiencing the kind of humanity she communicated through that television commercial."

    yes. great piece.

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  3. Also, I hate the "she tries too hard" line. WHAT'S WRONG WITH TRYING? How can one try "too hard"? Sorry y'all hate trying and achieving. Some of us like to try and like to achieve. You can write us a check when we're making some shit you wanna buy.

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  4. This is perfect in every way. Thank you so much, one of the most beautiful pieces ever posted on Gaga Stigmata. Please send more.

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  5. Thank you for this piece. I also cry when I see the Chrome commercial, and I'm mesmerised by Gaga's eyeliner in the Judas video.

    I thoughts this sentence was brilliant: She is irritatingly evasive, because she pretends to just enough violation of pop formula to be deemed interesting by those conscientious excavators of counterculture, academics.

    I have no idea what to do with my life either - only I quit university so I don't even have the piece of paper to reference in my resume. I love writing and am told I'm good at it, so I'm trying my best not to be terrified by the publishing industry. Mostly I write blog posts. Best of luck to us! :)

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  6. This article is brilliant. It voices all of the angst I've harbored recently toward Gaga's critics, her "haters," and generally any non-Little Monsters who just don't care or simply don't understand. You posit not so much a defense, as a bringing-to-light of what she represents and why. You've detailed Gaga in such a way that hadn't been adequately expressed until now. I especially liked: "It’s just like drugs: you have no business evaluating an experience you haven’t had. The only proper way to experience her is as a fan, because that is part of the work."
    I've got one semester left of college, so I'm facing similar fears to those of EpiphanieBloom and yourself. I'm also a writer, I'm looking into the world of publishing, I should probably have my own personal blog at this point, and I'm generally on the same wayward boat as I'm sure many Little Monsters our age…What are we left with? Where will all of this discourse lead us? All I can say is that there's something to be said for looking deeply into all of the glitter, the latex, the prosthetics. The mechanisms of her profundity. At least, I certainly want there to be something there. I think I hope that I'll have found that after all my efforts, bits of that glitter/prosthetic/whatever will have stuck onto me. And maybe, just maybe, a bit of that significance as well.

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  7. Thank you. You've made me happier today.

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  8. Hey Devin,
    I graduated Uni nearly 4 years ago now and I STILL feel like this;

    "I have no idea what’s going to become of me. I doubt everything from the security of my future to the authenticity of the human relationships I’ve formed over the past four years to the validity of my artistic efforts. I have nothing left to hold on to, and I’m apparently a much weaker person than I thought I was."

    I’ve had a REALLY tough time dealing with these feelings and not feeling good enough but like you said Gaga "represents our own potential and she’s said over and over that that’s exactly what she’s trying to represent."

    Add that to support of loved ones (if you’re lucky enough to have that) and it’s a message that has NEVER so sincerely come from an icon of pop culture.

    Thanks for your wonderful article and keep pushing on, see and be who you want to be and you WILL achieve it!

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  9. I also thought this piece was great. By performing the parts of pop stardom that are usually left out of or hidden in such performances - the nuts and bolts, the commercialism, the desire for fame - Gaga removes the critical distance between consumers of her work and that work. They stop being consumers and become performers. In a Marxist sense, by attempting to de-commodify herself as a pop star, Gaga restores the use-value of her performance at the expense of its exchange value. It's harder to tell what we're supposed to do - as critical consumers - with her commodity, and therefor EASIER to actually USE it for something: self-expression, inspiration, etc.

    Just some very rough thoughts provoked by your insightful and wonderfully-written essay.

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  10. This was beautiful. I loved every single word and sentence in this essay. I'm just at a loss for words at how astounded I am, really. All I can say is that my favorite parts were when you said, "Because it’s her, my hero, kicking ass, again" and in your conclusion where you say she has given you your faith back. That's the whole purpose of life I believe, to have faith in something. Because without it, what do you have to live for? What is the actual PURPOSE of living? Without faith we're all just here for no reason. And that's not true because we're all here for a reason, none of us are accidents, and it all goes back to being "born this way" because God makes no mistakes.

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  11. This was so fantastic! Such a unique yet universal sentiment.

    I don't need to justify myself, and yet I can write papers for my college Writing classes on Gaga. It's an excuse to watch Born This Way time after time after time, but then I write a paper on it and it has meaning.

    Didn't everyone tear up at the Chrome commercial? It's so much more than that. Gaga would have made the video anyway, she just happened to have a sponsor.

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  12. Great article! Everything you said and explained is very much true, however, there is one thing in particular that really is controversial in my eyes. I've watched interviews of her, and her videos over and over again, and if there's one thing that's for sure is that She does not do this for the money, in fact she doesn't barely get any money back because it all goes into her shows and 'fame' things. Another thing: She really does care about her fans, tremendously. I have heard over and over how much she loves her fans, and even cries because of it, how they brought inspiration to herself to become more powerful and humble. how they created her in a way. she has no reason to fake it. she is not obsessed with fame itself but with "the fame" there's a difference. she portrays an image thats very inspirational but also it's true of what she does. "I am not manufactured" she said in an interview early back in her career, and a true gaga fan knows that she doesn't lie. again, theres no reason too, with the fame and succes she has.

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