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Friday, June 17, 2011

Into the Groove of Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” a Phenomenological Inquiry

By Danielle Pafunda

This is the first in a series of pieces that analyze the video for “Edge of Glory.” Each day for the next week, we’ll be posting an essay that explores a specific aspect of the video.

Live out your fantasy here with me

I know it’s gauche and boring to compare Lady Gaga to Madonna at this point in Gaga’s career, but relax. I won’t tell you Gaga’s work is like Madonna’s. I’m going to tell you Gaga updates and completes those pop projects Madonna began over two decades ago. She’s not conducting homage, ripping off, or riffing off. She’s finishing the job. “Born This Way” takes “Express Yourself” to its logical extreme, its extreme (un)natural conclusion, “Judas” cracks open the dark Kinder egg “Like a Prayer” left in our garden, and “The Edge of Glory,” our current concern, gives fans what “Into the Groove” ultimately squirms away from.

The video for “Get Into the Groove” uses footage from the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan wherein Madonna plays a troubled party girl and Rosanna Arquette plays the repressed, temporarily amnesiac (read: zero interiority) suburban housewife. While the film and video invite fans to imagine themselves as Arquette, trying on the elusive star’s magical jacket, brushing against sex and danger they’d never experience as themselves, the project refuses to dissolve its fourth wall, to allow the fan to become the fantasy. It keeps a squeamish distance, insisting instead that the fan remain a lower Other, a voyeuristic nonentity.

Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free
At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see.

Here’s what Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” video hasn’t got: mutations, aliens, monsters, surgically enhanced cheekbones, twitching, Frankenstein body stutters, mucoid goo, doctors, headpieces, prison guards, fey lovers, poison, intergalactic birth machines, Dante-esque tectonic underground hellscapes, guns, machineguns, boobguns, clones, costume changes, motorized apostles, metallic crustaceans, pink hair, blow-up orcas for faking making-out, sexy men in cartoon wolf heads passed out on toilets, Beyonce, back-up dancers, a narrative.

Here’s what it has: a fire escape, a front stoop, a window, a high-octane smoke-machine, St. Elmo’s style saxophone hair tossing.[i]

So why even watch it? Gaga’s dance moves reference ballet, new wave, fly girl, Cher-strut, and Singing in the Rain. This is the kind of dancing one does by herself in front of the mirror when she, in Butler’s terms, “identifies not with an empirical person but with a fantasy…with the posture of some imagined relation whom one also imagines to be the recipient of love.” This is the dance you do by yourself with the imaginary body of your hopeless crush. This is the dance you do when no one’s home and you hold the doorframe and thrust your torso through it like into your lover’s arms. This is the kind of dance you do that feels big in your body, but would look small, ridiculous, would shame you if anyone caught it on film. You strip off articles of clothing, accessories, you shake out your hair which isn’t actually the long porno hair let down from the sultry librarian’s bun, but just your hair. You don’t want to open your bedroom window and leap right out so everyone can see the big thrill pounding through you because the thrill simply won’t manifest on your body, and, for another thing, Butler again, “the soul is precisely what the body lacks; hence that lack produces the body as its other and its means of expression…a figure of interior psychic space inscribed on the body as a social signification that perpetually renounces itself as such.” To lay bare your soul on your ugly body is to admit or accept that your soul is ugly, is plain, is small and disappointing. The edge of glory is in fact not an edge at all. You’re just a little person having a big feeling. The abyss you intuit is actually just a ten-foot drop. At worst, at best, you’ll get a goose egg on your forehead.

I’m tired of dancing here all by myself,
Tonight I wanna dance with someone else

But that doesn’t mean I have to go out. Better: open that interior window. Go deeper in, bring the Other with you. Take the body into the soul, take the fantasy inward. Through Gaga’s window, we see the brightly lit stage. We see the world in which her body is augmented by hyperbolic costumes and exquisite dancer-bodies, by buckets of blood and massive machines, her soul staged on her body, not revealed there. To go out the window is to go in. To leave the stage, enter the sentimental daydream of Gaga at home, face scrubbed of foreign objects (if not make-up), in her undies (if metal studded leather undies). Where the narrative would normally insist that the singer must break away from her fans to be alone with her man, like Tiffany tries and fails to do in the 1987 “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Gaga breaks away from the stage to be alone with us.

Gonna get to know you in a special way
This doesn't happen to me every day
Don't try to hide it love wears no disguise
I see the fire burning in your eyes

It’s not entirely accurate to say that “The Edge of Glory” has no narrative, but it does lack Gaga’s customary enhanced narrative. This video runs on the song’s narrative, stripped down. We’re alone tonight. The edge is metaphorical, the risk won’t kill us. It’s almost cheerful. I might mangle Butler to my own ends, observing that it’s not a fantasy Gaga has, nor a fantasy her fans have, nor do any of us live this fantasy. Instead, the fantasy exists between us. It conditions and constructs the specificity of the fan’s relation to Lady Gaga.

In poetry, the confessional works like this: it draws the reader close with its breathy promise of a secret. The reader, though wholly aware that she holds in her hands a book that anyone can purchase, enters the space of fantasy wherein the poet (often dead many years!) looks into her eyes and spills secrets for her alone. Somehow, it convinces. Phenomenologically speaking, who am I to say this intimacy isn’t real? Though the poem is widely available, perhaps the aura that buzzes between reader and poem is where the real fantasy work takes place. Perhaps the artificiality makes the stage door clearer, shows the reader right where to enter. Perhaps when the reader puts in, she fantasizes the poet just as the poet fantasized her, and these fantasies converge, actual coitus.

Live out your fantasy here with me
Just let the music set you free
Touch my body, and move in time
Now I know you're mine

For those of us who prefer building an identity through monster-vision, who watch Gaga videos for entertainment and blueprints, this video disappoints, but we’re not her entire audience. We’re probably not even the bulk of her audience. Lady Gaga’s fans asked for “The Edge of Glory” video, and she right quick made it for them – a modular fantasy. An open door symbiotic fantasy, one that doesn’t exclude, but includes the fan. It’s not fancy, and it’s not for each fan, but perhaps for those who are at sea in their affection for the star. She takes each one to this interior space. Staged, kitschy in its production value, referential in its urban sterility, one enters the video with her guard down. But when Gaga leaves the window frame, she walks toward her fans, not away from them. What brims in the aura between fan and video will largely depend on the fan’s ability and willingness to suspend disbelief, and that fan’s investment in the star herself. Here is an opportunity to see Lady Gaga scaled to fit, fit our screens, our imaginations. Maybe anyone could be Lady Gaga in this video, or join Lady Gaga in this video. One could move from fan to fantasy. Further, if an identity is constituted through a fantasy, then Gaga’s issuing a thank you. You fan, have constituted me. It’s just the two of us, here. I think about you when I dance alone.

[i] The actual saxophone playing will remind us of our pure-of-heart Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band days because it’s Clarence Clemons who’s the Bleeding Gums Murphy to Lisa Simpson or Léon to Mathilda in The Professional. He’s an unlikely guardian, but ultimately one who can better protect and guide our young heroine than any institutionally approved daddy. He won’t let her give up or get shot, but he also won’t lock her away to keep her safe or consider her virginal (vaginal) property. When they sit side by side on the front stoop we get a naive sense of well-being; a hint of Sesame Street, a hint of “Jenny from the Block” otherwise foreign to the Gaga oeuvre.

Author Bio:
Danielle Pafunda is author of Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies (Noemi Press), My Zorba (Bloof Books), Pretty Young Thing (Soft Skull Press), and the forthcoming tales of a mommy vampire Manhater (Dusie Press Books). With Alissa Nutting she’s at work on a collaborative short fiction collection about sad animals, dead pearls, and salty carnivals. She’s on the board of directors at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and teaches gender & women’s studies and English at the University of Wyoming.

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  1. What an excellent analysis. Thank you!

  2. This is fantastic. I think the camerawork in the video supports this analysis, as it both observes Gaga's dance and also moves with her. The camera (and viewer) becomes a not-quite-present partner.

    After reading this, I find myself suddenly thinking about Kevin Klein's dance scene in the movie In & Out. Also, I hadn't noticed it before, but "The Edge of Glory" video does whiff of Sesame Street, which has me longing to see Gaga appear on the show! (She could sing about the letters "U" and "I," perhaps...)

    Wonderful essay—and a great jumping-off point for the analyses to come! Looking forward to more, Haus of Stigmata!

  3. Danielle, this cut straight to the heart of the feeling of 'Edge of Glory' for me: "The edge of glory is in fact not an edge at all. You’re just a little person having a big feeling. The abyss you intuit is actually just a ten-foot drop. At worst, at best, you’ll get a goose egg on your forehead."

    Love. Also love your catalog of everything the video doesn't include -- the sense of something missing or a weird deflation (or too much intimacy, without any cutaway shots or glitt'ry armor to distract) is what I'm finding myself thinking about most!

  4. Love it! i knew i felt something when i watched it. i noticed the simplicity of it. i'm not upset with that.

    but this article exactly explains what i felt. intimacy with Gaga!

  5. Thanks everyone! I'm feeling more tender about my footnote on Clemons these few days later after his passing...

    Maybe I can get my toddler to petition Sesame Street for a Gaga guest spot (not just some viral mashup)!


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